On the Death of Sheikh Hamza Shakkur

The Master of Mystical Song

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

photo: Les Derviches Tourneurs de Damas. Le Chant du Monde
Sheikh Hamza Shakkur, leader of the whirling dervishes in Damascus, is "one of the great interpreters of Sufi song in Syria" (<i>Le Monde</i>)

​​ 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.

The basics of spiritual singing

Hamza Shakkur was born in Damascus in 1944. At an early age he received a thorough training in song and Koran recitation according to the Syrian tradition. His father was muezzin at the local mosque. He himself taught little Shakkur the basics of spiritual song. At the age of ten, Hamza Shakkur assumed this task, thereby becoming his father's successor.

Derwish dancer (photo: al-Kindi Ensemble)
The whirling movement of the dance, which symbolises divine movement, sends the dancer into a trance, allowing him to experience himself suspended in the love of God

​​ 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 (reciters) 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.

The community of "whirling dervishes"

Shakkur belonged to the traditional Damascus school of song. 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 song.

Sufis believe that life is 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.

"When the heart jumps for joy and pure delight, and excitement culminates, usual forms disappear and the dancer finds himself in a state that is neither dance nor physical pleasure, but one where the soul is elevated," wrote the great Sufi Master Ibn Taymiya in the thirteenth century.

Trance and meditation through song

CD Cover of Hamzi Shakkur with the al-Kindi Ensemble (photo: al-Kindi)
Hamzi Shakkur came to international fame with the Al-Kindi Ensemble, founded by Frenchman Julien Weiss in 1983

​​ This mystical brotherhood met in lodges known as zawiya, and preserved the original songs, which were divided into suites (waslats), modes (maqamat) 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.

A singer such as Sheikh Hamza Shakkur, typically accompanied by a choir, took from the repertoire of the mosque the mention of the divine names (dhikr) and the birth of the prophet (mawlid) and chanted them in a powerfully expressive manner, rigorously mobilising rhythm to support his song. In this way, he succeeded in gradually putting the gathered listeners into a trance or a state of meditation.

Bridge to the West

In 1983 Hamza Shakkur and Frenchman Julien Weiss founded the Al Kindi ensemble, with which he succeeded in introducing this music to Europe and America.

Sheikh Hamza Shakkur and the Ensemble Al Kindi (photo: Anmaro)
Sheikh Hamza Shakkur felt committed to the circle of the "rotating Derwishs" and took care of the repertoire's continuity

​​ 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 takht ensemble with the Arab lute, oud, the ney, the kanun, and a variety of rhythm instruments.

He selected songs with very diverse rhythms and melodies that impressively demonstrated Hamza Shakkur's 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.

Bringing the human soul closer to God

Sheikh Hamza 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 can come closer to the divine.

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

Suleman Taufiq

© Qantara.de 2009

Discography (Selection)
- Sufi Songs of Damascus (Audio CD Long Distance - 2000)
- Takasim & Sufi Chants From Damascus (World Network 27) (Audio CD - 2006)
- Le Chant de Les Derviches Tourneurs de Damas Le Chant du Monde/ Harmonia Mundi (CMT 574112324)

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