Enjoy an afternoon of mystical music at Sufi concert


Above: Irene Markoff, centre, playing a baglama in Turkey

York is hosting a concert and discussion celebrating Sufism – Islamic mysticism – on Saturday, May 15, 3 to 6pm at the Noor Cultural Centre, 123 Wynford Drive in Toronto. The event will bring the esoteric and poetic Sufi tradition to life, as York’s Dostlar and Tarab Ensembles will be performing the music associated with Sufi rituals, along with other musicians from the University and outside the York community.

“We envision the concert as a corollary to the 2003-2004 York-Noor lecture series on the theme of ‘light’ in Islamic and other religious traditions,” said Amila Buturovic (right), who last year was named the inaugural Noor Fellow in Islamic Studies at York (see the Oct. 23 YFile). “The lecture series has run in conjunction with my 4th-year seminar on Islamic Mysticism (Sufism) and it has hosted a number of eminent scholars in the field of Islamic and religious studies.

“While the lectures have focused primarily on the textual/intellectual underpinnings of Sufism, the May 15 concert is intended to highlight cultural dimensions of Sufi tradition, specifically, the role of music in Sufi ritual and practice,” said Buturovic. “The repertoire will include Sufi music from different Islamic cultures – Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Balkan – and it will be performed by several eminent artists from Canada and the US. The concert will start with a general discussion about Sufi music which will enable the audience to appreciate better the pieces they are about to hear.”

One of York’s Sufi artists who will be performing is Irene Markoff, adjunct faculty in the Graduate Program in Music and contract faculty in the Department of Music, Faculty of Fine Arts. Of Bulgarian heritage, she directs York’s Balkan Ensemble. Markoff is well-versed in Sufi music, having written her PhD dissertation on musical theory, performance and the professional baglama (folk lute) specialists of Turkey.

In addition, she has written and published a great deal of other material about Bulgarian and Turkish traditional and popular music and mystical Islam in Turkey, and has taught several courses at York on music, including Music of Balkans and Beyond.

“‘Dostlar’ is an ensemble that I put together for the concert,” said Markoff. The group includes Rob Simms (right), York ethnomusicologist and professor of music, Faculty of Fine Arts, who performs Persian and Turkish Sufi music, in addition to other genres of Middle Eastern music; Hasan Ali Imal, a talented performer who arrived in Canada from Turkey several years ago; and other guest artists. “Rob and Hasan Ali and myself have performed together before,” said Markoff.

There will be other Turkish musicians taking part in the performance – a few members of a local Turkish classical music ensemble who will perform some Sufi hymns, and a group of young people from the Alevi Cultural Centre in Toronto, who will perform a ritual dance (sema) that is part of Sufi ritual.

Sufi concert program

“Music and Ritual in Turkish and Persian Sufism”
Irene Markoff and the Dostlar Ensemble:

  • Irene Markoff (vocals, baglama)
  • Rob Simms (ney, Kurdish tambour, frame drums)
  • Hasan Ali Imal (vocals, baglama)

       Right: An oud

“Turning Point: Tarab as a Doorway to the Sufi Experience of the Divine”
Taoufiq Ben Amor (Columbia University), with the Tarab Ensemble:

  • Taoufiq Ben Amor (vocals, oud, percussion)
  • Ramzi El-Edlibi (dance, vocals, percussion)
  • Johnny Farraj (vocals, percussion)
  • Zafer Taweel (qanun, violin, vocals, percussion)
  • George Ziadeh (oud, vocals)


Right: A ney

More about Irene Markoff and Sufism

Markoff is passionate about Sufism. “My expertise is Alevi/Besktashi music and expressive culture and I have written extensively on the subject.” In an online article she wrote originally for the bulletin of the Middle East Studies Association (Dec. ‘95), Markoff said, “It is difficult to appreciate and understand Sufism fully without an informed exposure to the expressive cultural forms that help define and enhance it. The article also appeared on the Golden Horn Records site.

“It is this dimension of Islamic mysticism that transports the seeker on the path of spiritual attainment into higher states of consciousness that promise spiritual intoxication (wajd) and a unique and intimate union, even annihilation (fanâ‘), in the supreme being. This emotional expression of faith is intensified and externalized in elaborate forms of meditation and esoteric techniques that are part of ritual ceremonies.

Markoff explained further, “Through ritual, many Sufi orders and Sufi-related sects throughout the world of Islam have been able to articulate doctrines and beliefs through artistic traditions such as sung poetry, instrumental music and dance-like movements (samâor spiritual concerts) and have utilized meditation patterns that combine corporeal techniques and controlled breathing to induce or conduct trance and ecstatic states.”

In an article that appeared in journal, The World of Music (vol.28/3.1986, pp 44-56), Markoff described the Muslim Alevi communities of Turkey as “nonconformist”.

“Traditionally, living in self-isolation, these groups behaved according to social and religious rules that differed considerably from mainstream Ottoman society. Their interpretation of Islam was esoteric and mystically tinged, their mystical poetry inseparable from the folk lute called saz or baglama, and minstrels called asik. Communicating their religious ideals and sometimes outspoken social commentary in an idiom that could be understood by the masses, Alevi minstrels appealed to – and still appeal to – a broad base of society.”

However, Markoff added, “the Ottoman Sunni ruling elite” often had a “suspicious and sometimes hostile attitude” toward Alevi communities. Today, she added, Alevis have achieved a large measure of acceptance in the Turkish Republic.

Left: A performance of whirling dervishes

“They continue to maintain an affiliation with the Bektashi order of dervishes, regard the spiritual founder of their order as their patron saint, and pay homage to deceased Bektashi saints, whose mystical poetry in the vernacular often figures in their hymns.”