We were at RumiFest Saturday night. I thought it was an annual thing but it turns out this was the first one, organized by Nomans Land Productions. It was held in the sanctuary of Trinity-St. Paul's United Church, a beautiful, intimate space. We had pretty good balcony seats with a better view than I think we would have had on the floor. The event, emceed by Raheel Raza, was planned so that each performance was about 15-25 minutes and then the next one would be introduced. The main attractions were Rumi translator Coleman Barks, sitar hero Irshad Khan, guitarist Garo and some of his musician friends, and singers/musicians from the local Jerrahi Sufi order with two whirling dervishes from the US.
Coleman Barks, the person who has created the most popular English translations of Rumi, is a big man with a big personality. His particular southern accent (Barks was born in Tennessee) kept reminding me of Elvis (whose accent was a Mississippi/ Tennessee mix, I think). If you can imagine English translations of Rumi read by a tall bearded man with an accent like that, you've got the picture. His readings were accompanied by the music of cellist Anne Bourne, who also does what one reviewer describes as "otherworldly vocalizing" while she plays. Bourne was very good, but quite often far too loud; the volume of her music would vary dramatically, and drowned out Barks's lines several times. I found this extremely annoying and I bet was not alone. I wanted to go ask the sound guys to turn down her microphone (or turn Barks's up--but he was perfectly audible unless she started wailing).
I'm still not entirely sure the musical accompaniment was an improvement over speech alone. I've seen some videos online with Barks reading to other musical accompaninent, and they're okay, but I really think I'd prefer to be able to hear and concentrate on what Barks was saying. Certainly between his own stage presence and the poetry of one of the greatest poets in the history of the world, he can hold his own. He also told lots of funny personal anecdotes and some Mulla Nasruddin stories and read at least one of his own poems. Obviously an experienced speaker and performer; very comfortable on stage. I was delighted when, very early on, he read one of my favourites from his book The Essential Rumi, called "Who Says Words With My Mouth?" A few lines: "This drunkenness began in some other tavern. / When I get back around to that place, / I'll be completely sober." And later: "I didn't come here of my own accord, and I can't leave that way. / Whoever brought me here will have to take me home."
Irshad Khan rocked. Raza introduced him by noting he's often been called the Mozart of India but as I said to Neman after Khan had been playing for a bit, "More like the Eddie van Halen of India." He's the consummate performer type: able to engage and educate the audience while he goes through the unavoidable process of retuning the sitar to various scales (Persian, Indian, Western). For this event, Khan had translated lines of three Rumi poems into English, and was singing them to sitar compositions that he said were about 90% improvised. His virtuosity elicited much enthusiastic applause mid-song. (You know you're good when people want to applaud before you're even done.) The evening was running a little behind schedule due to widespread traffic delays through the city, so a couple of minutes into the third song, the organizer gave Khan the "two minutes" gesture. I really wish they'd shortened up the previous performance, Garo and friends, which I think went on for at least twenty-five minutes. They were fine, but we really would have liked to have more of Irshad Khan. (And we didn't get any good pictures of him playing; they all came out blurry. Hence the stock photo.)
After the intermission, Barks read again, and then we got to the grand finale: the whirling dervishes and dhikr (devotional recitation of God's names) by the singers and musicians of the Toronto-based Jerrahi Order of Canada. The first time the dervishes whirled, Coleman Barks read some poetry along with a handful of musicians: a drummer, a ney player, and someone playing a stringed instrument I don't know the name of. Then it was full-on dervish time, with at least thirteen musicians on stage, playing and singing while the dervishes whirled. This, thankfully, was sufficiently attentuated to induce the more contemplative state which is the aim of all this artistic activity. (Neman would say it went on too long, but for me it was just barely long enough.) But it was only during this sequence that I sensed the majority of the audience was completely absorbed in the aesthetic and spiritual experience. It's kind of clichéd to say this, but it was genuinely mesmerizing. This Sufi order has regular gatherings on Saturday nights; they start at 8:00 p.m. with a traditional supper and continue until midnight. Admission is free and you can come and go whenever you like.
Quite an enjoyable evening, very reasonably priced with tickets at $20 and $30, and well-executed given that it was the first such event. Looking forward to more from Nomansland Productions.