The first time I heard this piece, you could have picked my jaw off the floor. Here was a CD from a group of classically trained male voices from the American Midwest. And here was a religious song in Urdu, with repeated mentions of Allah, being sung with extraordinary intensity and beauty. Call me narrow minded, but to me the two made no sense together. Because didn’t the CD, just a few tracks earlier, have well-known pillars of choral music from the Western Classical cannon, from composers like Monteverdi and Mendelssohn? What was this Urdu piece doing in the middle of all this? Had we slipped into some alternate universe, where all these colors could easily blend on one CD? And then when I read the listing on the CD cover and saw that the composer was one A. R. Rahman, well, since my jaw was on the floor already, it had nowhere else to go, but you get the idea. To mix metaphors quite thoroughly, it made my head spin.
Because sometimes you leave your motherland, come halfway around the world, join a choir, get familiar with Monteverdi and Mendelssohn, start going to all sorts of choral concerts, impulse-buy a CD after a concert because you just love the sound of this all-male choir from the Midwest, and then when you play it, unknown to you, you are suddenly listening to a composer from your motherland, whose songs you have known and loved for years, but that was a long time ago, in a previous lifetime, and in any case you have never heard this specific song before, and honestly, you are struggling to believe that it is on this particular CD, from this particular choir, along with all those other composers, that you just now happen to have impulse-bought. There is coming full circle and then there are these lines from T. S. Eliot, among my favorite lines ever: “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.” It was a musical homecoming to beat all musical homecomings.
The song was called Zikr, and the choir was called Cantus. Rahman composed it for an Indian movie that came out in 2004, called Bose: The Forgotten Hero, which too I had never heard of. And the path from the original composition to this CD wound through one Ethan Sperry, who had arranged it for male voices, the original having been sung by men too. Know that Rahman is tremendously prolific, very well-loved in India since the 1990s. Millions of Indians up and down the country swear by his music, which has an emotional depth and diversity that gives it universal appeal. So it is not really a surprise that his music has crossed international boundaries in this way, and in the modern world it is also not really a surprise for a Midwestern choir to be singing an Urdu song of religious devotion. In fact this kaleidoscopic mingling of cultures is one of the things I love most about the modern world. So the juxtaposition with Monteverdi and co. was perhaps the most surprising and wonderful part of the whole situation, and for that we have the creativity of Cantus to thank. Their CD called On the Shoulders of Giants, which is worth buying for the artwork alone, is truly eclectic. The word eclectic is vastly overused, but this CD is what the word was originally invented for. I hope Cantus sold a million copies of it.
But let’s turn to the song itself, lest I give you the impression that the context is the most interesting thing about it. Zikr is a song of unbounded spiritual yearning. It starts out as a low but steady flame, with just one voice, and builds gradually but certainly, adding more voices and instruments, increasing in tempo and volume, until it is an all-consuming conflagration. It pulls you into a musical world of religious fervor, and right at the peak, when you expect that there will be a release and a great passage of unwinding, comes the abrupt end. Yes, this leaves the listener with a mild case of whiplash, but more importantly, it also leaves her wanting more, exactly reflecting the feverish aspiration of devotees for complete union with God, which is a goal they can never fully achieve while in this world, and which therefore keeps them permanently on the path of striving. And so this final musical gesture is not only a stroke of genius, it also holds up a mirror to the religious tradition that Zikr represents and is inspired by, Islamic Sufism.
Islamic Sufi tradition is the part of Islam that is concerned with mysticism. A well-known practice of Sufism is whirling dervishes, a form of physical meditation, where the practitioner seeks to forget their bodily existence and desires by spinning fast, going into a deep inward trance. This practice is in fact a form of Zikr, the literal meaning of which is reference, or naming. In the context of the song, it refers to a meditative repetition of the word Allah, which is the holy name of God in Arabic and Urdu. That the lines of the song are filled with praise of Allah is no surprise, but, in a self-referential way, they also contain praise of the act of Zikr itself. Zikr is Peace, Victory, Healing, the Cure. Zikr is better than hatred, ignorance and desires. And thus the song places on par with God the act of Zikr itself, the ecstatic and endless utterance of the name of God. Just as devotees hope to imprint the name of God on their hearts through Zikr, I hope you imprint the soundscape of Zikr on your inner ear.