A Joint Conference of The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and
Université Cheikh Anta Diop
What is Sufi performance? Sufism is usually defined broadly as Islamic mysticism, or spirituality; it is frequently viewed as universal in outlook and beyond the confines of narrow religious identities. Yet in practice, Sufi traditions are inescapably local, defined by particular lineages of masters and disciples, and frequently centered on very physical shrines to local Sufi saints. While Qur’anic references are common in Sufi performance, and Arabic texts may be frequently performed in non-Arabic environments, local languages and musical idioms play defining roles in the experience of Sufi rituals, particularly the central practice of zikr, the recollection of the divine. The world music industry and orientalist scholars may be content with the category of “Sufi music,” but much of what is included under this classification from one area of the world would be unfamiliar to listeners from other regions. The performance of the “Whirling Dervishes,” the Mevlevi order that traces its origins to Rumi, was not known outside Ottoman territories before the 20th century, yet in recent times it has become emblematic of Sufi performance in a global context. The qawwali singers who are so popular in India and Pakistan are not familiar to Sufi groups in West or North Africa, for whom the locally situated baye fall, stambeli, and diwan performances hold spiritual and social significance. In this conference, we draw on a variety of local practices of Sufi performance to challenge the global narrative of monolithic Sufism.
Although modern Sufi performances are received in Western venues as music concerts, they were traditionally defined as listening (Arabic samac, Turkish sema), with a focus on recited texts that could be understood on multiple levels; musical accompaniment was optional and of secondary importance. In the face of discourses of Islamic law that frowned upon sensual engagement with music, Sufis formulated listening as an ethical practice for a spiritual elite. But the situation has changed in modern times. With the global dissemination of audio recordings (both for ethnographic and world music audiences), Sufi music has now emerged as a mass cultural event; star performers are taking on cult status, sometimes with New Age overtones. Understanding the texts has taken a back seat in relation to the experience of music in concert format. A variety of questions therefore arise: How has Sufi music been redefined in local contexts? How does it relate to Islamic normative discourses and nationalist definitions of culture? What happens to Sufi rituals when they are enacted on stage, in the museum, in a festival, or under corporate sponsorship? What is the role of texts, whether in local languages or in Arabic?
The conference on ZIKR: Locating Sufi Performance, scheduled to take place in Dakar in the second week of June 2017, proposes to bring together scholars of Sufism to discuss these and similar questions, highlighting five regional cultures associated with Indonesia, Iran, South and East Asia, North and West Africa, and Turkey, but connecting them to larger patterns. The workshop will be jointly sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Carolina Performing Arts, and Université Cheikh Anta Diop, as part of the growing collaboration between the two universities. The official languages of the workshop are English and French. The event will be held in conjunction with the Salam Festival, a major cultural event sponsored by the prominent Senegalese musician, Youssou N’Dour, featuring numerous West African music performances connected to the Sufi tradition.
This event is planned as a workshop with pre-circulated papers submitted one month in advance. Fifteen speakers are expected (ten from the USA and Europe, two from Turkey, and three from Senegal), each being allotted an hour on the program, starting with brief (10-15 minute) presentations followed by a response of the same duration, the remaining time being reserved for discussion. Respondents will be drawn from faculty members of Senegalese universities.