Music that Transcends Religions and Denominations

The Ensemble Sarband seeks out elements that unite the Middle Eastern and European traditions of spiritual music. Bulgarian-born, Munich-based music scholar and musician Vladimir Ivanoff has been conductor of the group since 1986. Suleman Taufiq spoke with him about his work

Vladimir Ivanoff of Sarband (photo: © Sarband)
"Mysticism is a religion of love that relates to all people who want to connect with God or already feel a connection with God," says Vladimir Ivanoff

​​"Sarband" is a Persian word that occurs in varied forms in nearly all Oriental languages, for instance Turkish and Arabic. It means "link" or "binding element". Was the name chosen to reflect the ensemble's orientation?

Vladimir Ivanoff: We chose the name because we stand in every respect for the elements that bind cultures – not just for "cross-over", where Oriental musicians are called in to spice things up, so to speak, but are not part of the whole. Many of our members have been with us for 24 years. We have Arab, Turkish and Italian musicians, a Swedish singer and an English instrumentalist.

In this constellation and with a historical musical repertoire, we want to show that these cultures can take the stage and make music together, as a symbol of peace and proof that there is successful communication between cultures outside the political arena.

The musical journey of Sarband began in 1990 with the album Cantico, a juxtaposition of the music of the fourteenth-century Laudesi lay brotherhoods in Italy and Islamic Sufi music. What made this album so special?

Ivanoff: Cantico is a compilation of medieval spiritual music from both Orient and Occident, featuring both music from the Turkish Sufis in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and music from the circle of Francis of Assisi, who journeyed twice to the Middle East and was strongly influenced by Sufi thought.

The next release, which came out in the same year, was a CD entitled Music of the Emperors. By comparing the musical traditions of Orient and Occident, you wanted to demonstrate not only common musical elements but also major differences. To what extent have the two cultures interacted and cross-fertilised each other?

Ivanoff: On that album we played music from the court of the famous Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen in Palermo and from the court of Tamerlane, founder of the Timurid dynasty, in Samarkand. These were two princes who wanted to rule the world and who introduced a kind of world music to their courts. Frederick therefore had many Middle Eastern, Arab musicians at his court. We know that he was extremely interested in Arab culture. Tamerlane had an orchestra with musicians from all the lands under his rule. So it's all about world music as a sign of power – that's what it all has in common.

You were born in Bulgaria. Does your background have anything to do with your interest in musical relations between the cultures?

Ivanoff: I came to Germany with my mother when I was four-and-a-half years old and was presumably subconsciously looking for clues, because Bulgaria is part of both Orient and Occident. It was part of the Ottoman Empire for six hundred years, under Turkish rule. The Crusaders also passed through Bulgaria. Everything became mixed together in that country. For me, Bulgaria is a labyrinth of different cultures: a little bit European with a touch of the Orient.

Sarband & Innovatiqua Festival Ensemble in Winterthur (photo: © Sarband)
According to the ensemble itself, Sarband endeavours to show that music was never just mere decoration, but an enlightened means of mutual respect and believes that it can be a model of peace despite the religious, economic, cultural and political differences between Orient and Occident

​​Why do you focus primarily on mystical musical traditions?

Ivanoff: For me, spiritual or mystical music is the way I personally practice religion. Although I am a religious person, I am finding it increasingly difficult to feel like a member of a specific faith. I feel like a Christian, but after delving so long into the various Islamic cultures and types of music, I also feel a bit like a Muslim, so I can no longer really say which religion I actually belong to.

There is one God, and either we believe in him or not. The mystical expression of faith transcends religions and denominations. You can't really say, for instance, that the music of the Sufis is a strictly Islamic music. Mysticism is a religion of love that relates to all people who want to connect with God or already feel a connection with God. I am interested in Christian mysticism and in Early Christian music because back then – we are talking about the third and fourth centuries AD – there weren't any denominational problems such as the ones that later arose between Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox, sometimes being carried to absurd extremes.

You have also focussed on the music of the nineteenth century. Why? What was so special about the music in the Orient and the Occident in that era?

Ivanoff: In the early nineteenth century, the waltz was very fashionable in Europe. And of course it spilled over into the Ottoman Empire, just like Tango fever did later. There were composers there who liked waltzes, but in the Middle Eastern tradition, the rhythms of the waltz are always associated with mysticism. That's why for example the well-known Ottoman composer Dede Efendi included waltz elements in "Sema", a whirling dance of the Mevlevi Dervishes. Dance in fact always has an intrinsic mystical element. So we combined European waltzes with the religious Sema waltzes of Dede Efendi.

Sarband's latest project is called The Arabian Passion According to J.S. Bach. You've translated the lyrics to Bach's Passion melodies into Arabic and perform them with Arab and European musicians. How did you come up with the idea of having Fadia El Haj sing Bach's Passion music in Arabic?

Ivanoff: Normally, Sarband would never play music by Bach. But his Passions in particular represent one of the deepest expressions of faith and of human suffering. We adopted the melodies as they are. Not one note has been changed, but our Arab singer Fadia El Haj sings the alto arias in Arabic translation. We used a mixture of Early Music instrumentalists and Arab classical and jazz musicians. And we set the music in the context of today's catastrophic situation in the Middle East, homeland of Jesus.

Interview: Suleman Taufiq

© 2011

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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