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All together now
Musical fusion, cultural exchange and modernization

Fouad Kazem
December 28, 2004

A new phenomenon has come about in Persian music. Musical fusion has emerged as a form of music that does not sounds very Persian. In the last two decades, a number of musical innovators have appeared; musicians who have fused Western Rock with various classical Persian poetic and musical traditions.

Arash Mitooii, Sima Bina's son and a great guitar player, produced an album based on Hafez poems in 1997. In the same year, Sussan Deyhim's Majoon CD found world-wide recognition, due to her original, explosive and hard-hitting concepts of fusion. Shahram Nazeri, Kayhan Kalhor, the groups, Kamkar and O-Hum have each in their own way introduced fresh elements to Persian music.

In the last two decades a number of performers have emerged. To some, this may be indicative of a loss of historic identity (gharb-zadegi); to others, an assault on sacred religious beliefs.

Let us put our Musical Fusion in the context of history. In recent Persian (Iranian) memory, music has been reduced to second-class citizenship among cultural activities. Music is not widely respected by the religious fundamentalists who see it as a moral subversion, or by many others, who consider it a cheap and degenerate diversion, as opposed to serious cultural practices such as poetry. This current state of things is a far cry from the views that were held by many of our great philosophers (back when we did have great philosophers).

The Persian philosopher, Muhammad Ghazzali (1058-1111), wrote: "There is no entry into the heart except through the ante-chamber of the ears. Musical tones, measured and pleasant, bring forth what is in the heart and make evident its beauties and defects. Whenever the soul of music and singing reaches the heart, then there stirs in the heart that which preponderates in it."

Gazzali was not an exception. Ibn Sina, Khayyam, and Farabi wrote entire books on music. They considered music a serious topic warranting discussions along with philosophy.

How could Persian philosophers writing in 11th century hold views that were far more advanced than the dominant views in Iran today? How did we get here?

I do not believe there is an inherent conflict between Islam and music. The Islamic call for prayer, azan, is a form of melodious singing. In many Islamic lands, Egypt, Algeria, Turkey, and Pakistan there are rich musical traditions. Sufis who escaped from Persia in the 16th century, fused their chants with Indian Raga to create what later became Qawwali. One of the most important performers in this domain was the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997). He performed songs in many languages including Persian.

Once upon a time there was a golden civilization, rich and proud of its achievements. She sailed on the high seas of history like a proud ship, like the Titanic. This civilization, the Islamic civilization, brought together peoples from the Middle East to North Africa and Spain. It produced major writers, philosophers, astronomers, mathematicians, chemists, medical scientists, architects, poets, musicians, historians, geographic explorers, and linguists: Khwarazmi, Hafez, Ibn-Sin (Avicenna), Ibn-Rushd (Averroes), Razi (Rases), Ibn Arabi, Khayyam, Tabari, Ibn-Sibovaih, Saadi, Rumi, Ghazzali, Ibn-Battuta, Ibn-Tufayl, and Ibn-Khaldun; the list goes on.

These thinkers came from all backgrounds; they were Persians, Arabs, Kurds, Jews, or Spaniards. They built upon the rich histories of Persian, Egyptian, and Greek civilizations. They wrote in one lingua franca, in Arabic. They were thus able to communicate with each other in a spirit of exploration, and create important works in a territory extending from Central Asia to Spain.

The rich cultural exchange that went on in the Islamic Empire was instrumental in creating a fertile environment. Ibn-Sibovaih was a Persian linguist who wrote the first systematic study of Arabic grammar. Mowlavi Rumi (1207-1273) was a Persian poet who studied in Damascus under the Syrian philosopher, Ibn Arabi. These thinkers produced a wealth of intellectual works, at a time when the Europeans were in the dark ages, at a time the European clergy burned people at the sticks for saying that the earth moved around the sun.

The proud ship sailed with elegance from the 8th to the 13th century. The Islamic golden period lasted about five centuries. A large number of historic factors caused that great civilization to decay. It is impossible to point to a single factor in these developments.

There are many internal causes for a civilization's decline. Foreign invasions do play a role. In the 13th centuries, as the Mongols led by Chengis Khan (1162-1227) launched their barbaric assaults across the Middle East, the Islamic civilization was already in decline. It was not able to defend itself. The Mongols destroyed all that they could find: libraries, universities, schools, observatories, hospitals, etc. The Mongols assault on the Middle East was similar to the Japanese attack on China (1931-1945), or the German Nazi attack on the Soviet Union (1941-1945), which the Soviet Union never quite recovered from.

The Middle Eastern Titanic sank and took down with it an immense body of intellectual and cultural works. As for the musical works of the Islamic civilization or those of the Persian Empire of two thousand years ago, we may never be able to appreciate them, since they were not recorded or written down, the way many works of poetry were.

Centuries went by and the Middle East remained in dark ages. There were other factors that contributed to this decay. And to enumerate those factors would be the subject of an entire book. According to the Egyptian writer, Samir Amin (The Arab Nation, 1976), an important source of wealth for Middle Eastern economies had been the trade routes connecting Europe and the Far East, through the Silk Road for instance. The discovery of America (in 1492) and growth of a European maritime empire in the 18th century diminished the economic importance of the Middle East. This importance was restored to the Middle East with a vengeance with the discovery of oil in 1890's.

The achievements of the Islamic Empire later became a launching pad for Europe, when the modern age began. Throughout the European Reformation, a large number of works written in Arabic were translated into European languages. Spain became an important center of translation and played a key role in the transmission of Islamic civilization to Europe.

In a period that began with confrontations pitting Kepler and Galileo (both students of Islamic astronomy) against the established Catholic clergy, in the 17th century and culminated in the French Revolution of 1789, in confrontations pitting the modern bourgeoisie against the aristocratic order. Europe was able to shake off the shackles of Feudalism. The European dark ages ended. Europe entered the modern age in the 19th and 20th centuries. Advanced capitalist industrialized empires emerged in Holland, France, England, and Germany. In their quest for world domination, these powers launched brutal attacks upon Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The Middle East stayed where it was. The modern Empire in the 20th century saw and continues to see the Middle East as its main source of oil supply.

However, those who are interested in progress for the Middle East must not solely blame the West for all that went wrong. The most fundamental battles are to be fought internally in the Middle East as elsewhere. The Dark Age that began eight centuries ago and continues today, brought along a whole array of dark cultural practices and relations, that continue today deep in the Middle Eastern psyche.

The examples are numerous: The feeling of envious admiration for all that is European, the view of women as men's property that permeates every level of life and masquerades as our traditional identity, the excessive reverence for the elders, the adulation of the dead, the endless assertions of our past greatness, the endemic tendency to forget the miseries of the present by taking refuge in the greatness of the past, the assertions by some Persians about our supposed kinship with Italians, and the endless boasting by some Persians and Arabs of how great we used to be, because allegedly "we did this and that", the lack of tolerance for opposing views that creeps into all political, religious, artistic, and social debates, not to mention the Taliban banning of music are symptoms of centuries of decay.

Some Islamic Fundamentalists have a solution for our decline. They insist that we should go back and rebuild the same ship all over again. They insist that the old Islamic Empire was culturally rich and socially prosperous because it was based on Islamic teachings. They claim if we just go back to the principles laid out in the 7th century, we will be great again. They are nostalgic about a time we have never seen.

However, the Islamic civilization was not the only successful case of independent growth in our region. Persian, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Phoenician empires were all socially prosperous and culturally rich prior to Islam. Civilizations become great due to the interplay of a whole array factors, not just a single factor. What some Islamic fundamentalists have in mind is a caricature of the old ship. They forget that in the golden age of Islamic civilization, intellectuals such as Khayyam, Ibn-Rushd, Rumi, Saadi, and Hafez fought against religious fanaticism.

Khayyam's numerous poems about the greatness of wine were attempts at introspection, through wine drinking, for a search of inner truths; Classical Persian poets and philosophers were not religious fanatics. Ibn-e Sina and Khayyam belonged to a school of philosophy known as the Skeptics.

Recreating the same ship with the antiquated technologies is not the answer. Limiting our thoughts to blaming the West, and their agents, is not the answer; boasting about past greatness is not the answer. Confusing oppressive institutions such as the veil, with our cultural identity is not the answer.

The Middle Eastern Titanic sank centuries ago. It is high time for modern cultural workers interested in progress to go to the dark rooms of the sunken ship and recover the tremendous amounts of hidden treasure, and build new structures of greatness, with modern technologies. Many Persian poets and philosophers were among the greatest on the stage of the world history.

It is not enough to be proud of that. It is not enough to write hagiographies about our great writers so we can feel good. The medical works of Ibn-e Sina (980-1037, aka Avicenna) were used in Europe's main medical universities in the 15th century. However, today in the Middle East they import medical knowledge and equipments from the West. In the 20th century, awed by the achievements of Europe, the general trend in the Middle East has been not to study our great past writers, but to boast about their greatness.

Hafez, Ghazzali, Rumi, and Saadi's main goal in life was to search for truth, not to prove how great they were. Many of our great philosophers even critiqued each other. Ghazzali's third major work, Ruining of the Philosophers (tah'futu l-fal'sifa), is believed to have been written as a critique of the skeptic thoughts of Ibn-e Sina. The only way to continue their tradition is to break new grounds, not to recycle, regurgitate, and adulate them. In our personal lives, we feel sorry for those who insist on reminding us of their past greatness.

When Europe left the dark ages, European thinkers reached greatness by learning from the East. The examples are numerous and have been discussed elsewhere in this article and in many other more important works. They include the Middle Eastern origins of a whole array of fields ranging from modern algebra, to optics, to chemistry, to medicine, and architecture.

An important work of European literature was [The Life and Strange and Surprising Adventures of] Robinson Crusoe. Daniel Defoe's famous work, published in 1719, was considered to be the first English novel, and had a major influence on forming the European imagination in geographic explorations in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in the rise of modern capitalism. It was based on a famous work by the Spanish-Moroccan Arab philosopher (1100-1185), Ibn-Tufayl.

Ibn-Tufayl had presented his philosophy in a novel, "Walk on, you bright boy", where a boy is brought up in isolation on an island. In that novel the boy investigates the universe, and passes through several stages, each lasting seven years. At the highest level the boy comes to understand the ultimate nature of universe: He learns how spirit takes material form, and how it strives to reach up to the One.

The philosophy elaborated by Ibn-Tufayl had also a major influence on the works of Georg W. Hegel (1770-1831), the German philosopher, who became one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century. Hegel developed the modern dialectical philosophy after a close reading of the famous works, 'Al-Muqaddimah' (The Introduction) written by Ibn-Khaldun (Arab philosopher, 1332-1395) and Mathnavi written by Rumi (Persian philosopher and poet). Ibn-Khaldun had developed a first modern study of a philosophy of history. He had provided an analytical study of civilizations, and the factors contributing to their rise and subsequent decline.

Hegel based his book, Introduction to the Philosophy of History, on the works of Ibn-Khaldun. That book had a direct influence on Karl Marx, and the notion of progress in history. Two thousand years prior to Hegel, Greek philosophers had based their research on the findings of the Egyptians and the Phoenicians. See the seminal work by Martin Bernal, The Black Athena (1987). Phoenicia was a region that mainly included today's Lebanon. Phoenicians were traders who established colonies around the Mediterranean basin. They invented modern Latin and Arabic alphabets. The Phoenician Empire was a maritime empire that lasted from 1200 BC until 875 BC, when they were taken over by the Assyrians. In 538 BC Phoenicia was taken over by the armies of Kourosh (Cyrus in Greek) along with Babylon, and became a province of the Persian Empire.

Persians made major contributions to civilization. They also learned a great deal from other peoples. The game of chess and the book of Kalila and Dimnah were introduced to Persia from India, tea and spices from China, the numbers system from Mesopotamia (Iraq), and our alphabet from Phoenicians and Arabs. Persia's pre-Islamic religion, Zaratoastrianism, and Indian Buddhism have a common history. For centuries, Persian philosophers studied the Greeks who in turn learned their philosophy from the Egyptians.

This perpetual multi-layered exchange among civilizations has been the norm since the dawn of human history. Most of what is seen as traditional in any given culture today is the culmination of centuries of cultural and economic exchange among different nations and peoples. A large portion of today's vocabulary in Persian is based on Arabic. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. This only makes Persian a richer language.

Many important rulers that have played important roles in the history of different nations, had foreign roots. One of Russia's most important rulers, Katherine the Great, and at least one important French king, Charlemagne, were Germans. Persia was ruled by a number of Turkic kings throughout its history. The Qaznavi, Saljuqi, and Khwarazmi dynasties were based on Turkic Turkoman or Uzbek tribes.

Under the Safavis who were Azerbaijani Turks, and ruled Persia in the 16th and 17th centuries, the official language of the court in Isfahan was Azeri Turkish. Later on the Qajar kings who ruled Persia from late 18th century into the 20th century were also based on Turkic tribes. The pure classical Persian music that we have inherited today is for the most part problematic. By some accounts it represents centuries of decay.

According to many writers, such as Ahmad Shamlou, it is limited, "closed"; it is not going anywhere. It is high time we dug out the hidden treasures of our rich heritage and develop it in new ways or fuse that with modern music.

Arash Mitooii, Susan Deyhim, Kayhan Kalhor, and the group Kamkar have each in their own way introduced fresh elements to Persian music. They have fused our rich poetry with new approaches to music. They bring out the hidden treasures not to adulate and recreate the past, but to build new treasures. They have done in the musical domain what Kiarostami, Kimiaie, Tahmineh Milani, and many others have done in Persian cinema.

I am referring here to an intelligent fusion of traditional music with modern element. I am opposed to the adoption of the lowest elements of the West, Techno or Rap music, not because they are foreign but because they have been vulgarized to the extreme. They are no longer forms of art. After truly experiencing a work of Rumi or Shakespeare you can say you are a better person. After listening to 99% of Rap or Techno, you can not honestly say you are a better person!

Cultural progress has not been easy in our part of the world. In the 20th century, from Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Iraq, to Egypt, and Morocco, dictatorial regimes suffocated intellectual progress. But the human spirit can never be completely subdued. It keeps coming back for more growth. Progress does not come about by adulating the greatness of the past.

Progress comes about by questioning what some may view as sacred. Progress comes about by taking out what is relevant in the works from our rich heritage and combining that with the wealth of works created by the Europeans in the last three centuries, the works of Mozart, Brahms, Schoenberg, Beethoven, Eisler, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Darwin, Stendhal, Balzac, Shakespeare, and Brecht.

Some have criticized musical fusion as being too westernized. Let us assume as our great thinkers, Ghazzali, Ibn-Sina, Rumi, and Khayyam did, that music deserves a place alongside with other cultural and intellectual activities. It would be an act of monumental stupidity, for anyone to claim that we should not learn from the most advanced achievements of the West, or that we should dismiss Western novels, music, poetry, engineering, dance, arts, sciences, and technologies. The Japanese and the Chinese have understood this fact. As I have mentioned above, when the Europeans entered the age of modernity, they learned what they could from the East.

The idea of keeping foreign elements out of a nation's culture is a romantic but useless fantasy. It is idiotic to go back and criticize Ibn-e Sina for having written many of his books in Arabic. The forerunner of modern Flamenco (one of the jewels of Spanish culture) was the the Andalusian School. The latter has a rich history as the fusion of Moroccan, North Indian Katak dances, Spanish, and Egyptian styles. Persians engaged in the 10th century in slave trade along with the Arabs.

The Bandari music and dance in the South of Iran and Iraq have strong African roots from Zanzebar (today's Tanzania) going back to the period of slave trade. Those who criticize our musicians for adopting foreign elements seem to have no problems with driving modern German cars or flying in American or Russian made planes. Music has no national boundaries. Musical tones are closely linked with musical instruments. The latter have changed throughout human history, due to changes in technology. Western music has been transformed since the Renaissance.

True innovators in music are heralds of worlds in the making. Musical fusion represents a revolutionary breakthrough in Persian music. Its emergence is comparable to the rise of many Rock bands in the 60's in the US and England. Those who are offended by the fusion of Hafez with modern Rock have not truly understood Hafez or modern music.

For many Persian writers Hafez represents a sacred part of our heritage. Yet, the large majority of the people who take pride in Hafez have no clue about what Hafez really said. They have relegated Hafez to the forbidden realm of the sacred, a holy book that should forever remain closed. They have not understood the only true sacred space that there is: our real lives and our eternal search for freedom, dignity, and a better world.

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