On Monday, Feb 8, Dar Al-Athar Al-Islamiyyah introduced their friends and patrons to the fascinating world of ‘Baluchi Music and Trance Healing' at the Al-Maidan Cultural Centre through a lecture, images, beautiful sound bites and a rare and unpublished video footage shot in Karachi, Pakistan. The speaker/ performer for the evening was the celebrated ethnomusicologist Prof Jean During, known for his multifaceted approach which invests his publications and lecture concerts with an originality that combines aesthetics, religious anthropology and mysticism. His presentation at the Dar Al Athar was no exception.
He played beautiful strains of music common to areas of Pakistan, India Afghanistan and Iran, he also offered the audience a look at ritualistic mystical practices adhered to by sections and areas of the Indo -Pak subcontinent. Like the Baluchis, rituals practiced by the ‘sidi sufis' in Gujarat and similar traditions in Hinduism show the cross-cultural influences and homogeneity shared by the Subcontinent.
As Director of Research at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, Prof During spent 11 years in Iran and five years in Uzbekistan. He has written twelve books on the musical traditions and cultures of Inner Asia, more than a hundred articles and has released around 30 CDs. Three of his books have been translated into Persian. His fieldwork covers many traditions of Inner Asia.
He studies not only musical forms, but also Sufi and Shamanic rituals and the cultural traditions related to musical practices.In the 1970's he learned Persian classical music (on the lute târ and setâr) with the best masters of the time. Later, in Karachi, he mastered the playing of the Sufi and trance Baluchi repertoire on the fiddle sorud. He has given many concerts of these traditions in Europe and USA. He is one of the rare Westerners who has devoted himself to composing in the traditional maqâm forms, for which he was awarded from Cultures France in 2007.
"The Baluchi people occupy a vast territory covering the western half of Pakistan and southeastern Iran. They also move throughout the Gulf coastal regions and are found in Turkmen and Afghan Khôrasân," notes Prof During, who spent time in Karachi studying and researching Baluchi music and rituals. " In both Iran and Pakistan Baluchis are viewed as marginal and rebellious."
Long years of migration left them open to various influences. He spoke of the presence of Baluchis, who can trace their origins to Africa. "When I spent sometime there, they called me a ‘White Baluch'," said the Professor whose beautiful performance was resonant with his love not only for his subject, but for the people and culture that he is trying to showcase. "They have preserved a culture of great originality in which archaic Iranian elements are rooted in a more ancient Dravidian substratum. They have also intermingled with the desert peoples of Western India among which the proto-Gypsies (Luli, Langaw, Ostâ) who for centuries were outstanding musicians adapting their know-how to local sedentary traditions."
The Professor recounts the instance of the Persian King Brahma who requested his Indian counterpart for 12,000 Indian musicians who would practice their art in Persia. These Gypsies are believed to be the ancestors of the Persian Gypsies. They propagated Indian music and dancing and may have travelled further into Europe in the next four to five hundred years, where they are regarded as ancestors of the Romany people. Speaking of cross cultural blending, the Professor refers to the musical similarities between India, Pakistan, Iran and Spain, noting the Eastern influence prevalent in the popular flamenco.
The sorud is the principal instrument of the Baluch, some of whom claim a musical lineage that goes back seven generations. It is a highly sophisticated fiddle with four melodic strings and six sympathetic strings that resembles the ‘sarinda' which is popular in India and Nepal. The scholar went on to intersperse his discourse with recorded music that illustrated various genres of baluchi music.
"Professional baluchi music is a soloist art, but they do come together and play at festival and other entertainment." There are various genres depending on the subject matter and occasion such as entertainment, love, epic and sufi. The trance songs of the Baluch draws from both the profane and the sacred types of Baluchi music. Drawing comparison with the Arabic maqam and thereby establishing the high artistic value of this form of music, the Professor notes " In musical hierarchy, the zahirig as a maqam or raga system occupies the most eminent position.
It works as the basis, the substance of music as well as its abstract essence, the knowledge of which defines mastery."
He went on to show through a video recording special healing and devotional rituals using a specific repertoire of pieces called guâti-damali, or qalandari, in which the principal actors are the shaman, the patient and the fiddle player accompanied by a rhythmic lute (tanburag). A sick person unsuccessfully treated by a doctor and a mullah who uses appropriate koranic prayers and chants, as a last recourse consults a shaman who specializes in dealing with a kind of spirit called ‘guat'.
The shaman organizes a trance session in order to neutralize the evil spirit and cure the patient. "These spirits are of a particular species, much more stubborn than ordinary ones, and cannot be dealt with except by organizing a musical session (leb, la'ab) with the obligatory participation of the fiddle sorud. All night long music (mainly instrumental) is performed to the patient in an endeavor to please the guâtand force him into manifesting himself through the patient's trance. This process has to be repeated several nights in succession after which the khalife bargain with the spirit,"notes Prof During.
These sessions require the obligatory performance of the fiddle and tanboura. In this ritual, instrumental and vocal music and a form of dance trance state is the fundamental principle of operation along with a pike, fire, perfume, incense and sacrifice. The trance like state of the khallife is at times punctuated by high drama and theatrics. At the end of his presentation, Professor During was asked if he believed in what seemed a mere superstitious ritual. He refers to this ceremony as a rich, profound and complex phenomenon which cannot be reduced to the ordinary category of possession cults like voodoo, zar or candomble. It has much more in common with shamanism and even Sufi ritual as the officiator (khalife) enters himself into a state of trance and is helped in his diagnosis by a familiar guât.