Zohreh Jooya & Madjid Derakhshani,
Music of the Persian Mystics
(ARC, 2003)

A little clarification regarding the title of this album is in order, because Music of the Persian Mystics does not -- as the main title might suggest -- give us music by Persian mystics or Sufis, but presents poetry of the great 13th- and 14th-century spiritual masters set to music by the Iranian composer Madjid Derakhshani and performed by female vocalist Zohreh Jooya.

Six poems from Persia's impressive body of mystical literature have been selected for inclusion on this CD. Most of them are by Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273), probably the greatest Sufi poet who ever lived. His shadow still looms large over Persia's literary legacy and the tradition of spiritual poetry in general; Rumi is now one of the best-selling poets in the United States.

Born in Balkh, Afghanistan, he wandered through eastern Iran, made the pilgrimage to Mecca and studied in Syria before settling down in the Turkish city of Konya, a center of Islamic mysticism. Fluent in Arabic, Persian and Turkish, Rumi's writings not only heavily impacted on Persian and Turkish literature, but also inspired the Sufi music traditions of the Indian subcontinent. His figure stands at the cradle of the Mevlevi order better known in the West as the "Whirling Dervishes." The literary production he left behind is enormous; his largest work, the Mathnawi, is sometimes referred to as "the Quran in Pahlavi" (Persian).

Apart from Rumi, we can also hear examples of the poetry of Saadi (1200-1290). This descendant from the house of the Prophet Muhammad lived in the city of Shiraz, one of the main centers of Persian culture. Saadi's book Gulistan, or "The Rose Garden," was already translated into German as early as 1651 and became one of the first sources through which Europe learned about oriental spirituality. Probably the most popular Persian poet after Rumi was Mohamad Shamsuddin Hafiz (1325-1390), who continued the tradition of Fariduddin Attar (d. 1220), Rumi and Saadi. Hafiz too was translated relatively early and left an indelible imprint on the western perceptions of Sufism. The album's producers have also decided to add a poem by a contemporary Iranian writer: Mohamad Reza Shafii Katkani. Katkani, working under the pen name Mohamad "Seresk" ("the tear"), hails from the Nishapur area, the heartland of medieval Islamic learning located in the northeastern Iranian province of Khorasan.

Sufi poetry celebrates the mystic's all-consuming love for God, the Divine, the Transcendent -- whatever term one likes to use. But a key characteristic of this type of Persian poetry is that its enrapture is usually cast in the form of romantic poems that appear to deal with the love between man and woman. It was the choice of this medium that often earned these masters of Islamic spirituality the anger of graver-minded theologians who considered it blasphemy.

The listener cannot only experience the beauty of the Persian language through song, but also catch a glimpse of the poetry's temperament and deep-felt passion, because the CD comes with a booklet containing English translations -- plus original Persian texts -- of the classical poems by Rumi, Saadi and Hafiz, and modern-day Katkani. Comparing the opening lines of Mohamad Seresk's contribution "Bon Voyage" with Rumi's "I am Baffled About You," it becomes clear that Katkani stands firmly in the centuries-old tradition of his illustrious predecessors. Both poets employ an imaginary dialogue to express the mystic's yearning for the beyond:

"Whither are you going?
The desert plant asks the wind.
I can't bear it here any longer
Don't you too want to leave this desert sand?" (Katkani)

"I said, "You are my sorrow."
You said, "This will pass."
I said, "Be my moonlight!"
But You didn't tell me whether it would appear. (Rumi)

In addition to the six tracks featuring established poetry, the album also contains four instrumental numbers and two unidentified vocal interpretations titled "Aziz, for My Beloved" and "Praying, Niyayesh."

The composer Madjid Derakhshani must be congratulated for combining Western and Eastern instrumentation in his current-day interpretations of the timeless tradition of classical Persian music. Zohreh Jooya received her training as a classical vocalist entirely in Amsterdam and Vienna, but her schooled voice is also an excellent medium to bring across that sonorous, yet subtle, quality of the Persian language. Although she now makes furor as a performer of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, she carries with her the inspiration of her hometown Mashad, a holy city on the border with Afghanistan and location of the shrine of the 8th Shi'ite Imam Ali Reza (d. 818).

Music of the Persian Mystics turns out to be a successful project, combining masterpieces of classical Persian poetry with impressions of that nation's equally magnificent musical legacy.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 14 February 2004

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