A celebration of the complexity of love

Four musicians – two Iranian, two Indian – have created an album of music inspired by the poetry of Rumi. Like the poet's works, the album advocates tolerance, inclusivity and love in divisive times. By Richard Marcus

By Richard Marcus

This Pale is one of those wonderful collaborative efforts that have come about because of adversity. Iranian American vocalist Katayoun Goudarzi and Grammy nominated classical Indian composer and sitarist Shujaat Husain Khan have joined forces with Iranian ney player Shaho Andalibi and tabla player Shariq Mustafa in the creation of this album.

However, while these contemporary musicians have created the album, the final and key collaborator was the thirteenth-century Persian poet and mystic Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. English-language translations of his work continue to rank among the best-selling volumes of poetry in the United States. The irony of a Muslim mystic's poetry being on the bestseller list at the time when Donald Trump implemented his travel ban specifically designed to keep Muslims out of the country in 2017 wasn't lost on Goudarzi.

She had seen America's response to Rumi's poems as a sign that the country was becoming more responsive to other cultures. But the harsh realities of Trump's pandering to bigots and the subsequent upswing in white supremest activity caused Goudarzi to wonder how these attitudes could co-exist with an appreciation of poems advocating tolerance, inclusivity and love.

Divine and human love

Shaho Andalibi (photo: Nina Kebriaee)
"Soaring like a gentle breeze": Iranian Shaho Andalibi plays the ney on "This Pale". According to Richard Marcus, the four musicians involved in this project have done their best to honour their source material instead of pushing a specific agenda

Rumi's poetry is multi-faceted with messages of love for the divine couched in phrases that could just as easily be applied to the love between humans. While the poems brought to life on this recording are all sung in Farsi, the feelings imbued in the words by Goudarzi's vocals and the musicians' performances give us an inkling of the sublime meanings behind each of the pieces performed.

While the album does not unfortunately include translations of the works performed, Rumi's work is so popular now that listeners will be able to find translations of the poems behind each song on the Internet. However, even listening to them while holding the ideas of love and inclusivity in mind and heart will guide the listener to an understanding of the artists' intent when they created these adaptations of the poems.

The opening track on the album, "Wild", is an indication of the album's potency. The song opens with Khan's sitar weaving a magical web of sound that almost immediately transports the listener beyond the mundane. Like any overture, his playing sets the stage for what will occur during the piece, which is over 11 minutes long.

One would think that percussion might break the almost ethereal mood Khan has created, but when Mustafa's tabla joins in, it actually draws the listener even deeper into the song. The strong pulse of his playing acts almost as a bridge between our physical reality and the higher planes the sitar is promising. When Goudarzi begins singing to their accompaniment, another human element is added. Her voice is real – she doesn't force any type of mystical experience on us using manipulative tricks. If anything, her voice and expression are earthier than one would expect for this type of material.

Around the five-minute mark of the piece, the final element – Andalibi's ney – joins in. After Goudarzi has finished singing the first stanzas, he joins the tabla and sitar. Soaring like a gentle breeze over the other two instruments, his music weaves a new pattern into the mix, complementing and augmenting all that we've heard thus far and adding new layers of meaning and texture.

Inclusion and diversity

Shariq Mustafa (photo: Inni Singh)
"Musicians and poets have often raised their voices to serve as beacons of hope in divisive times. This Pale is a wondrous and beautiful example of how these efforts make for some of the best art," writes Richard Marcus. Pictured here: Indian tabla player Shariq Mustafa

It is of some significance in terms of the This Pales' stated goals of emphasising inclusion and diversity that this album represents the first time ney and sitar have been recorded together. That these two instruments – one primarily associated with classical Indian music and the other with Persia/Iran – can create harmony, what's to say their two peoples can't? It is a symbol of hope that this type of bridge between the two cultures can still be developed today in spite of the anti-Muslim rhetoric that flourishes in Modi's India.

In fact the album itself is a sign of hope. Two Iranians and two Indians creating music based on the poetry of an Afghanistan-born Persian poet who has been dead some 800 years is a marvel in these days of hate and division. That the poetry inspiring the album is about love makes it all the more poignant.

Rumi's poetry isn't a one-dimensional description of the joys of love, and Goudarzi and Khan have taken pains to select pieces that reflect this complexity. In "Wild", the poet talks about how a connection to the divine helps us appreciate love to its fullest because all love is an extension of the ultimate love we feel for creation.

Delving deeper into the life of Rumi, one realises the appropriateness of this piece's title. For the poet was incredibly influenced by his friendship with the mystic Shams al-Din Tabrizi. Not only is Tabrizi thought of as the person behind dervish – a word we've come to associate with a specific form of worship (whirling around in order to connect with God) – he also preached about a direct connection to God.

Even for those who don't understand Farsi, the music still has the power to transmit these messages of a wild love. The titles of the songs; "One", "Tender", "Sweetest", "Still Here", and "All I've Got", are also signposts for the listener. They point to the emotional content and the sentiment behind each melody. If the opening track, "Wild", signifies the turmoil of emotions love can cause, then the listener can easily extrapolate meanings from the rest.

Love can have different meanings for different people, and while Goudarzi and Khan want us to consider the meaning within a certain context, they don't push us in that direction. This beautiful album is a celebration of all the varying nuances of love as depicted in Rumi's poems, and the musicians involved have done their best to honour their source material instead of pushing a specific agenda.

Musicians and poets have often raised their voices to serve as beacons of hope in divisive times. This Pale is a wondrous and beautiful example of how these efforts make for some of the best art.

Richard Marcus

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