"Aleppian Sufi Trance"

Le Chant du Monde/Harmonia Mundi


"The Whirling Dervishes of Damascus"

Le Chant du Monde/Harmonia Mundi

The Sufi music and dance ensembles that tour the United States usually come from Turkey, one of the principal centers for Mevlevis, known in the West as "whirling dervishes." Ensemble Al-Kindi, however, is based in Aleppo, in northern Syria, and was founded by a Frenchman. Inspired by master lutist Munir Bashir, Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss first became a student of the qanun, a form of zither. The spirituality of the music had its intended effect: Weiss converted to Islam in 1986, three years after forming the ensemble.

These two albums -- each containing a pair of CDs and substantial liner notes -- pair Ensemble Al-Kindi with two different chanters: Sheikh Hamza Shakkur, who's on tour with the troupe, and Sheikh Habboush. Whether it was Shakkur's choice or Weiss's, "The Whirling Dervishes of Damascus" takes a gentle, austere approach. Anyone who assumes that Sufi performers play "trance" music that builds to feverish crescendos will find this set surprisingly sedate. Weiss insists on a small group that uses only traditional instruments, and while the rhythms can be complex, they are never aggressive.

In fact, the Mevlevi ritual bears little relationship to the experience of the throbbing, percussive electronic music sometimes called "trance."

Rather than flinging themselves into ecstatic spirals, the carefully controlled dancers seem almost to float. "Aleppian Sufi Trance," the more recent of these albums, includes a trance ritual suite, whose most emphatic aspect is its call-and-response vocals. Ensemble Al-Kindi's music is designed for contemplation as much as movement, and its intricate designs encourage not oblivion but intense attentiveness.

-- Mark Jenkins

Appearing Monday at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Ensemble Al-Kindi and Sheikh Habboush, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8131; to hear Sheikh Hamzah Shakkur and Ensemble Al-Kindi, press 8132. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)