We went to a concert earlier this evening – Syrian Sufi music with whirling dervishes. One lead singer, a flute, a zither, a percussionist, two whirlers, and 3 background vocalists. The lead singer was good and had a pleasant voice, and the zither player was very skilled. Some parts of the show were a bit coarse and rough – there was a tendency for the sounds to become indistinct, as the group gravitated towards the “more! louder! faster!” school of music, where a more subtle and nuanced style would have suited better. (They played some taped sufi music after the show, as people were leaving the venue, and the difference in quality was clear: the taped music had a heartbeat-like natural pulse, where this evening’s performers had a harsher feel.) Even so, the concert as a whole was pleasing.

I enjoy many sorts of religious music – gospel, hymns, Russian and Greek orthodox and Gregorian chants, qawwali etc. Music has a different quality when it has a soul, and musicians sound slightly different when they sing/play for their belief and not for money – their commitment and devotion shine through. And I like the calm and weighty feel of chanting.

(The concert venue was, quite fittingly, a converted church: LSO St. Luke’s, in Old Street. It’s a nice space, simple and open. The nave has been opened up completely, and a balcony built along the north and south sides; the stage is towards the East. The walls are bare, and all the large windows with many small panes have been left in place, although they’ve been covered up for some concerts. It should look great from the outside at night.)

I wonder what an Arabic-speaking Muslim would experience in a concert like this. I do not understand any of the content (calling it “lyrics” doesn’t seem entirely appropriate) and I only know purely factually that these are devotional chants. I cannot be part of it the same way as the dervishes are.

And I also wonder what music sounds and feels like in Eric’s head. I know it must be an experience that’s very different from mine. For me, the percussion-backed song / chanting was the best part of the performance – immersive, meditative, passionate. Eric on the other hand enjoyed the zither most, and I could see others in the audience agreeing with him. I found the zither too alien: even though I’ve heard fair amounts of non-Western music, it was too different from what I’m used to hearing, and its music kept slipping out of my grasp. There was nothing that I could recognise as melody or rhythm, and while it made a pleasant sound, I was unable to really appreciate it. Sort of like a babbling brook – pleasant but ultimately not interesting.

Interestingly, about a dozen people left early, at various points during the concert. Did they buy tickets without knowing what Middle Eastern Sufi music sounds like, and find it too strange?