Masguda I. Shamsutdinova's site


Islamic symbols in the modern Tatar music

(on example of cantata “Adam’s children” by M. Shamsutdinova)

In the end of twentieth century, Tatar religious tradition's renaissance becomes obvious. Koran words return into everyday life and art after Soviet period. New madrasahs and seminaries were opened in Tatarstan. Mosques are being built and reconstructed. Fine arts, literature and music arts have increased interest in themes and symbols of traditional Muslim culture.
Masguda Shamsutdinova is one of the first Tatar composers who pays attention to Muslim symbols and plots. Among others is rock-folk suite “Makhdi”, scenic act “Kurban-bairam”, cantata “Adam’s children”, “Suyumbike”, symphony “Dastan”, “Night of Predestination” etc.
This article is dedicated to “Adam’s children” written in 1993. Title page reads: “The Legend of Abraham and his Son” for chamber choir, alt, flute and drum on texts of Koran and Torah. Performed in Tatar and Arabic languages.
The genre of the composition is cantata and does not match European academic canons by performers nor by form. The composition is original interpretation of vocal-instrumental form, where genre characteristics of cantata are interpreted through the prism of traditional Islamic music. Traditional (folk and Islamic) roots of the composition define the specifics of its structure and musical style. “Legend” is permeated by Muslim and Jewish symbols.
Intention of the author is that general idea of the composition is as follows: God is one, all of us are Adam’s children and irrespective of our religion we must feel the “joy of our souls from our faith”.
Main theme of the composition is the story of Abraham. That person is known to us from Bible and Koran matches the idea of “World’s man”, descendent of Adam and Eve, a preacher of the only God. In Koran text Adam is named the first builder of AL-Kaaba in Mecca, where he had settled with Eve after hundred years of wandering. “Transparent stone where Adam was sitting was sent to him by Heavens, It turned black because of sins of Men and became the Black stone, main relic of Mecca.”
Therefore, Abraham is not just “son” of Adam, but the prophet equal to him, who had restored AL-Kaaba. Abraham said: “This stone I set here as a memory of initiation, in the memory of God, seen as the only God, so that this stone would stay here forever as a temple.” Indian composer of beginning of twentieth century, Hazrat Ynayat Khan, the follower of Sufism thought that initiation that Abraham had received in Egypt is a starting point of Sufi rite.
Koran gives many descriptions of actions Abraham. Muhammad calls him “the Prophet, Khanif, Muslim, forefather of true faith in the only God.” “The Image of Abraham had served to give Muhammad respectability of ancient but long forgotten religion.” He also served to explain the cognation between Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Glorifying of Abraham was also cause of separation of Islam from these two related religions.” Main hero is seen as symbol of a man belonging to the whole world and uniting the whole world under one God. The legend about sacrificing own son Ishmael, that Abraham was ready to bring to God lays as a foundation of the composition and gives the example of endless faith. Happy end of this occasion gave birth to one of the holiest holidays of Islam – Kurban-Bairam. That day happens the last day of month of Ramadan, when believers are fasting and praying to clean their bodies and souls from all sinful. Sacrificing the lamb during Kurban-Bairam symbolizes both – devoted faith and gratitude for stopping Abraham last moment when he was about to sacrifice his own son and switching his attention to a lamb (allowing him to replace the sacrifice).
From the musical point of view the composition can be seen uniting traditions of Tatar folklore and professional composition techniques and reviving musical and cultural traditions of Islam. In the context of this composition, musical and cultural tradition inseparably connected to one of the branches of Islam – Sufism.
In orthodox Islam the art of sound (handasah al sawt) doesn’t have “status” of music. The highest form of it was Koran reciting. In Sufism, music holds an honorable place in practical activities of dervishes. Sufism widely uses music in cult practice and dividing it to three types: entertaining, hedonistic and ecstatic. Music of first sort arousing animal instincts was forbidden for Sufis. Entertaining music was associated with Iblis (Devil), who wanted to make a man look bad before God and hence show his superiority.
Second type of music – hedonistic – includes the genres that are connected with traditions (wedding, birth of a baby, returning from the travel etc.) One of the famous scientists of Middle Ages, Sufi Al-Gazali would interpret hedonistic music as a “music in connection with that joy that fills the heart of a man and he wishes to enhance it with music.”
Third type is ecstatic music. It is included into Sufi prayer – Zikr. “Musical sounds, by Sufiis, gives unmatched possibilities to know God because music creates strong influence expressing agility and power of internal state of a man, differentiating from others by its “soul-permeability.”
Positions of Sufiis also attract many researchers because it has an influence on a culture of our region: ”Sufism in Volga region had episodic and moderate character. Gazali's teaching and traditions of Nakshbandia order that is close to Sunni branch of orthodox Islam were spread in the region.”
Main reason why Sufism has an attention to philosophy and aesthetics is because of its common symbolical ground with music in reflecting of global and general humanity ideas. All researchers of Sufism speak of special meaning of hidden symbolical forms. One of the explanations to that is contained in ritual tradition of Sufiis, where no uninitiated person can be present on the ceremony of listening (Sama). Poetry of medieval poets like Sanoi, Rumi, Jami is filled with mysterious meanings. Symbolism is sorted with spiritual world of Sufiis and way of their thinking. Symbol had serious influence not only on idea consisting side of Sufiis compositions but also influenced its art-fabric and structure. Symbol was determinant principle in their creations, it had organically arise from philosophical-religious search of Sufiis and their complex and controversial world.
From all told above about Sufism it is possible to find necessary substantiations of that one of aspects of interpretation of music of M Shamsutdinova becomes allocation of Islamic symbols through parallels with a Sufi aesthetics. Disclosing of these symbols ciphered by musical means will help to understand the cantata “Adams Children” as national on spirit, Muslim on expression and universal under the contents.
It is necessary to allocate two basic moments of forthcoming interpretation of the text and music - objective and subjective. Sufi theorists attached special significance to personal perception from al-Gazali: “Listening should not be based that the poet wanted to express in the words. In fact all words have some values, and everyone understanding has the share of participation in definition of sense.” Further it results three examples of interpretation of one songs, and we see three interpretations - personal, public and religious - divine. Al-Gazali's conclusion: “there are no such songs that it could not be understood in various senses that depends on a degree of an abundance of knowledge and cleanliness of heart of a person who is listening”.
Remembering the author's note in the title of the partita, it is possible to draw the following symbolical parallel with a ceremony Sama:” Singing of soloist (muzamzim) s and echoing (munshid) is accompanied with some musical instruments: nay – flute, tanbur, rebab - chordophone, sandur – cymbals, special cauldron-like drum - baz”. In M. Shamsutdinova’s compositions - an alto, a flute, the big drum and chamber vocal ensemble. In the general structure of the composition solo, choral and tool episodes, improvised episode in the Arab language – Koran reciting are bound. Here we can bring the description: The Sama as a religious - aesthetic ceremony includes in the structure basically four parts of art performance: a) Art reading and emotional - psychological interpretation of the Koran, b) singing, c) musical performance, d) dance”. All these sections are presented in the cantata “Adam’s children”.
Let's pass consistently on all sections, revealing on ways for a uninitiated “European ear” Muslim symbols (acoustical adjustments, innotational associations - important aspect of perception as our music education is adjusted for West-European music.
Composition is opened by Takbir ”Allahu akbar” (“Allah is great”) it is sung by solo man voice, reminding calling singing of muezzin from minaret of a mosque. To this formula having magic value, the place of honor in ritual of sacrifice of cattle that is directly common with a plot of a legend is allocated. Further the phrase is repeated with other man's voices, gradually strengthening brightness of exclamations. First formula immediately turns to second – shahada – “La-illahu-ila-allahu” (“No god other than Allah”). Both formulas are constant symbols of faith. This construction is introductory part, after it the first part that completely constructed on phrase: “La-ilahu-ila-allahu Let’s say it together”. In Sufi understanding – it is proclamation of symbol of faith by all members of brotherhood.
Same way throughout all cantata there will be combinations of Sama and European choir genres and styles of expression (i.e. organum in first part, choir episodes of polyphonic and choral parts). All sections are connected by instrumental tunes.
Second, central part is opened by praising Allah (“Subhan Allah”) and finishing by choir exclaiming “Amen”. Middle section of a part is dedicated to Abraham: Choir on text of 37th Sura of Koran and very emotional episode of sacrifice. Choir section on 37th Sura “gives touching story when Abraham was disappointed in idols and started to look for other gods, how he denied worshiping the stars, the moon and the sun and came to believe in creator - Allah”.
Here is that part in Koran:
And when the night had covered him? He saw the star and said: “This is my Lord!”, when it declined, he said: ”I don’t like declining one”.
When he saw ascending Moon he said: “This is my Lord!” When it descended he said :”if God will not put me to the right path, I will be one of the lost”.
When he saw ascending Sun he said: “This is my Lord, He is the largest!” When it descended too he said: “My people! I am not implicated to that you see him as a friend”.
I turned my face to the one who created the heavens and the earth, bowing to him only, and I am not from polytheists.
The invoice (texture) of this unit develops freakish imitations from were the soloist performance a soprano through a duet and a trio to chorus. Support as falling octave “breaths” of a flute especially emphasizes mysterious character of music.
Interesting effect of newly appeared formula of Takbir in the center of composition: symbol of faith sounds here unusually strong and powerful. Bass-solo leads, imitational mix of the voices with the only phrase of Takbir comes to scansion unison of all the chorus: “Allahu, Allahu..”. Everything suddenly cut by dynamic recession. This is a beginning of fabulous and breathtaking to listeners episode of sacrifice. Music and reciting is not bound by meter, and created performers’ improvisation allows to pass tragic and elevation of the moment. Three acting persons here are Abraham, Ishmael and Iblis. Shouts: “Father! My son! Ishmael! Here is a fire, Here is a fire – where are you, the one to be sacrificed?”. And how caustic is the voice of the Devil - Iblis saying: ”Your father has brought you to slaughter you”. Three times repeats the shouts: “Father! My son!” intervened by remarks of Iblis, that increases tension of shared emotions. Last phrase of Abraham to his son is: “O, my dear, I dedicate you to my Lord” – turns into cry of solo soprano, followed by lone singing, symbolizing voice of Ishmael’s mother Xajar. In the background of female’s cry, Koran reciting of an author about soul, under the power of Allah appears. Suddenly, big drum’s tremolo coming in. Symbolism of that sound in Sufism is very obviously matches with the situation. “The sound of a flame is very high, its form is twisted and its color is red. You can hear it when lightning thunderclaps… All these sounds tend to create fear.” On the background of quintet flageolets of alt in high register the choir sing “Allah’s response to Abraham”, that ends with words: “I will continue you kin as endless sand grains, as stars on the sky”.
That is how ends the central part of a composition that includes few episodes: the prayer, the story about renunciation from idols of Abraham, takbir “Allahu akbar”, sacrifice, cry and prayer “Allah’s response to Abraham”.
Third part consists of two sections – instrumental and choir. First section is unusually beautiful “ancient dance”: that is how irregular metrics of big drum and waving melody of an alto. Feeling of archaic time and mystery matches with symbolism of a “dance” – it is Sufi’s Raks, The answer to a question “what is a dance?” is written by Abul Hassan Harkani: “Dance is a business of the one who hits the ground with the foot and sees the hell, flaps in the air and sees the heavens”. The role of Raks in Sufi’s ceremony is so big because in the motions contain graphic symbols of “spiritual commonality of a brotherhood” – circle, zigzag and spiral. Those same signs are symbolizing one of five elements: water is a spiral, air is zigzag.
Final section is choir “holiday is today” – glorifies “long waited Kurban-Bairam” (God’s protection – “Angel’s wings of Gabriel protect the Earth today”). Unbelievably interesting and polysemantic are the symbols of last resonant accord of the choir: 1) light of the world, its radiance and tints of the harmony as a mix of God’s colors. 2) Union of the voices of the world’s nations as a symbol of union of “Adam’s children” under one God, that was preached to all people by Abraham.
Three parts of a legend (introduction, main plot and finale) are organized more complex under musical text. Continuing line of Islam culture tradition, we can say about structure that it is reflecting third aesthetic characteristic of Islam art, exactly level of formation of handasa al sawt: “That is a principle, an organizing consecution of “combinations” of models of sound art”. Logic of revealing of that principle takes all levels: from motives to formation of one improvisation… to formation of suite type of compositions“. Features of that principle easily tracked in composition: consecutive alternation of sections, attached with instrumental tunes, uniting role of the formulas of the Takbir and Koran reciting. To make this composition sound really as Sufi you must follow three rules, as Al-Gazali writes: unity of time, place and friends. In our context it is understand this way: 1) place of act – appropriate for accepting religious, mysterious act. 2) Choice of friends – prepared listener (knowing Islam culture, Arab and Tatar languages); 3) style of performance – academic, manner of intonation is “nontraditional”. If those rules are followed, performance of that composition will be a new form of renaissance of national spiritual culture.
Other important quality, noticed in literature on Islam culture, - indissoluble connection of religious and secular in rituals of Sufis: Koran reciting in conjunction with choral and solo singing, instrumental music. That conjunction did reflect on intonation structure of cantata. First subjective impression: it is a mixture of different nation intonations – Tatar, Arab, Judaist, which responds to an idea of a composition. Quarta and triton motives that are original to many nations are present. In fret there is interesting synthesis of angemiton pentatonics, seven-step diatonic tunes and hemitonic structures in the volume of fifth, sixth and eighth. Analysis of intonation, tune, stops must be a subject for a separate research, because it will be required to have different approaches and methods for music, including in its style Koran reciting, folklore intonations and instrumental music.
Interpreting this composition as the one containing and reflecting Islamic traditional symbols, we find it on next levels:
1) form – ritual Sama
2) Genre – Koran reciting,
3) Language – Arabic,
4) Plot – legend from Koran
5) Timbre – instruments, that are analogous to ones that are used in Sama (Sound of each one is symbolic and reveals a meaning)
Hence, “Adam’s children” – a composition, regenerating almost a torn thread of traditional religious genres and being striking example of incarnation of Islamic symbols in modern Tatar music.

by Lilia Borodovskaya, PHD