This much anticipated CD arrived on my desk last week. I had sent off the artwork to the USA a few months ago and I was glad to see it at long last. The cover picture aroused my curiosity but I have now figured out that the photo of Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir walking into a room in which Muhammad Bennis is apparently singing (Muhammad Bennis directs the Fes singers on this CD collection) is a way of introducing to a new kind of audience this kind of singing. It is also, I think, intended to introduce it to the Diwan of Muhammad Ibn al Habib, the renowned saint and teacher, who is buried in his zawiyya in Meknes, Morocco, which is pictured on the inside fold of this digipack. Several of his qasidas (poems) are excerpted here on this CD as well as some other famous Moroccan qasidas. Twelve years ago when I first met them, the Fes singers did not know this Diwan and it is interesting for me to hear them lending their talents to singing it as they bring some refreshing new naghmas (tunes) to it. Muhammad Bennis is a fathomless well of these ancient naghmas which all his life he has collected and taught to many others. He also has a gift for arranging them in appropriate sequences which is a science in itself.
Some of the tracks on this album were recorded in 2009 in a recording studio in Toronto but ever since we recorded the Burda in a studio in Fes in 2001 I have been a bit wary of recording studios which in my opinion don’t really lend themselves to this kind of singing as it tends to suck out some of the atmosphere necessary for Andalusian singing to work. I prefer a live acoustic recording as long as a PA system is not employed. To me the ambient noises don’t matter too much, but the spirit of the event does. Nonetheless the Fes singers have still put in a good performance here despite this disadvantage. This CD introduced me to some new unusual naghmas for some qasidas that I know only too well so I have gladly added them to my own armoury of melodies.
With one track on Songs in the Key of Light featuring the imarah or hadra, some eyebrows will doubtless be raised but Sh. Hamza’s liner notes necessarily makes mention of it and explains its purpose. Hadra is a controversial subject but having been familiar with it myself for over 40 years I do think that it is misunderstood and I include in that some of the people who practice it. Muhammad Bennis has told me on several occasions that the hadra is the singing and without the singing it is greatly limited and becomes just a dance. Traditionally there is a gradual sung build-up to the hadra and this can be likened to building a fire. Some qur’an and spiritual discourse always traditionally followed it.
Certainly the singing that accompanies a hadra can make or break it as the human voice is capable of making the heart soar or just distracting it. I am less impressed when hadras degenerate into a kind of folkloric ritual or showing off. It is a science which needs to be taught properly otherwise it becomes something rightly criticised. Whether it is technically some kind of innovation is not within my remit but I do know that many great scholars , shaykhs and ulema, particularly from North Africa, have endorsed it.
• There are no plans to release Songs in the Key of Light outside the USA though it can be purchased direct from http://www.sandala.org or downloaded from Itunes.