Sheikh Hamza Shakkur: Syrian master of mystical song

by Suleman Taufiq
24 February 2009
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Bonn, Germany - Sheikh Hamza Shakkur, a well-known interpreter of traditional Arab music, died in Damascus on 4 February 2009 at the age of 65.

The way in which Sheikh Hamza Shakkur could lull his listeners into a trance-like state by grace of his singing alone had to be seen to be believed. He possessed not only vocal talent, but also a powerful, sonorous and all-embracing voice capable of playing counterpart to an orchestra and filling an entire room.

His musical intuition was borne of a spiritual power that drew listeners into the mystical tradition of Sufism. His bass voice with its richly rounded timbre made him one of the most famous singers in the Arab world.

Shakkur was born in Damascus in 1944. At an early age he received a thorough training in Qur’anic recitation according to the Syrian tradition. His father was the muezzin at the local mosque who taught Shakkur the basics of spiritual recitation. At the age of ten, Shakkur assumed this role, thereby becoming his father’s successor.

Although he never learned to read music, he built up a repertoire comprising thousands of songs by learning lyrics and melodies by heart.

Among the mystics of the Sufi community he began studying the hymns of mystical love, a form of expression that is still highly respected in Arab society. Having studied the entire spiritual repertoire of Islam he was in much demand as a singer. He also made numerous recordings for the radio.

Later he became choirmaster of the Munshiddin (a group of individuals who recite the Qu’ran) at the Great Mosque of Damascus and performed at official religious ceremonies there, which made him immensely popular in Syria. The Great Mosque in Damascus is one of the most sacred sites in Islam.

Shakkur belonged to the traditional Damascus school of music. He felt a close bond with the Mevlevi Order, the community of “whirling dervishes”, and strove to preserve the continuity of their repertoire. This community is known for its whirling dance ritual, the epitome of Eastern mysticism. Dressed in wide swinging, bell-shaped white skirts and camel-coloured felt hats, they whirl to classical music and chanting.

Sufis believe that life is an eternal circular motion out of which everything arises and in which everything exists and passes. Their ritual dance symbolises the spiritual source of Sufi mysticism. If the dancer goes into a trance, he experiences himself as suspended in God’s love, as part of this eternal divine movement.

This mystical brotherhood met in lodges, and preserved the original songs, which were divided into suites, modes and rhythms.

The Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus has its own specific vocal repertoire in which sacred suites are known as nawbat, a term originally used for secular songs that were written in Arab Andalusia and became known there as muwashahat.

Reciters such as Shakkur, typically accompanied by a choir, took from the repertoire of the mosque the mention of God’s 99 divine names and the birth of the Prophet Muhammad and chanted them in a powerfully expressive manner, rigorously mobilising rhythm to support their songs. In this way, he succeeded in gradually putting gathered listeners into a trance or a state of meditation.

In 1983 Shakkur and French musician Julien Weiss founded the Al Kindi ensemble, through which he succeeded in introducing this music to Europe and America.

The ensemble specialised in music from Arab-Andalusia and its repertoire covered both religious and secular themes. Its interpretations were heavily steeped in tradition. Weiss created an Arab musical ensemble with the Arab lute, oud, ney, kanun and a variety of rhythm instruments.

Shakkur selected songs with very diverse rhythms and melodies that impressively demonstrated his musical phrasing and improvisational talent. Particular emphasis was placed on preserving the unity of the sequence of songs and their musical mode as well as on playing songs in the traditional manner.

Shakkur was a religious man and had a religious title. Nevertheless he sang not only religious but also secular songs. He followed the tradition of the Sufi community for whom music is an integral part of religious ceremonies and the medium through which the human soul comes closer to the divine.

Shakkur preferred the vocal improvisation of Arabic music. He mastered the art of Arab emotional singing like few others and understood how to adjust intuitively to the emotions of each audience in order to captivate and enthral it.

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* Suleman Taufiq is a freelance writer. This abridged article originally appeared in Qantara.de and is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission. The full text can be found at www.qantara.de.

Source: Qantara.de, 17 February 2009, www.qantara.de
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
 
 
 
 
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