The Habibiyya: If Man But Knew

[5 March 2008]

By Deanne Sole

The story goes like this.

In 1971 a group of young British psyche musicians went on holiday to Morocco, as so many people in search of mysticism and hash were doing back then. There in al-Maghrib they became enamoured of Sufism, with its trances, its poetry and music, its shrines and dervishes, its theories of purified psychospiritual universal holy unity. They converted to the religion and returned home. Back in the UK, inspired by their new faith, they put out this album.

The story sounded to me like religion tourism. I imagined them bringing home Wahdat-ul-wujood like a souvenir tea towel. I thought: “Some impressive-looking bearded person in Morocco must have said to them, ‘All things are one, the world is unified, this is Sufi,’ and they got excited and rushed home and grabbed a mish-mash of exotic-sounding foreign instruments and chucked them all together in a big, messy splurge to show that all countries should come together under God and they put it on a record and gave it a hark-ye title and now I have to listen to the thing.” So I listened to the thing.

What I had imagined would be overblown was, in fact, an intelligently serene album with a good, fruitful underlying tautness. Even when the group was at its most openly mystical, singing, “I am a bird of God’s garden, I do not belong to this earthly world,” over tabla-style drums and the hum of an instrument that appears in the credits as a ‘bina organ’ and is possibly a harmonium, there was no sense that the musicians were straining after a poetic effect. Ian Whiteman’s delivery is honest and simple. “What’s his secret?” I wondered, and then I realised that he was singing these lines, which look as if they were borrowed from Sufi poetry, with the direct and plaintive yearning of an English folk singer, more Martin Carthy than Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan. It is this easy reconciliation of his home country and his adopted faith that makes me want to re-evaluate my feelings about the tea towel and agree that they were more than just curio-peekers trying on a new religion.

The Sufism is surprisingly unobtrusive. There are stylistic touches that suggest Morocco, and the percussion at the end of “The Eye-Witness” speeds up and seems to whip around in circles like a Sufi dervish, but if you hadn’t heard the story about their holiday then you’d think they had been inspired by Japan. Two shakuhachi flutes come in at the opening of the album and it’s this short duet that sets us up for the rest. If Man but Knew has an undercurrent of reserve that feels classically Japanese.

It’s when they’re adhering to this undercurrent that they’re at their best. It is the album’s skeleton, the frame that helps it stand. It gives us a reason to forgive If Man its weakest track, “Peregrinations Continued”, a jam that lumps along for seven minutes until the shakuhachi sounds shrill and bored, as if this long stretch of purposeless fiddling around is giving it a stress headache. The spontaneity they must have been trying to find in this track comes across more effectively in “Procession of the God Intoxicated”, which is, interestingly, the more structured song. The plucked strings suggest processional dancers, the flutes are like streamers in the air, and the percussion makes the parade complete. A track like “Fana-Fillah” brings the strings and drums more closely together, layer upon layer, and if you listen carefully you can hear a very faint background drum so soft it’s almost like blood fluttering in the veins, the noise you’d hear in your head in the middle of the night, in the dark, one ear pressed into your pillow, that faraway, muffled percussion of the heart.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/the-habibiyya-if-man-but-knew/