Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Casa Persa, Madrid

Last Saturday, some friends and I had a rather unusual night attending a 'Sufi' performance at Casa Persa – ‘Persian House’ - in Madrid. Casa Persa is a small Hispanic-Iranian cultural association with the purpose of exchanging cultures and experiences through music, dance & poetry. The Sufi mystic dance, a highlight of the performance, is similar to the Turkish whirling Dervish dance (a ritual often involving men wearing conical hats and spinning in long white robes) which I’ve often seen but only on T.V.

Led by just a small notice on a nondescript door on Calle Silva No. 5, we had no idea what to expect as we treaded up to the 5th floor of the old apartment building. I soon realized however, that it was going to be a pretty intimate and up-close experience as the venue was indeed, a ‘casa’ (a house/apartment). It was one open hall space of just about 500sqft I think.

We arrived on time and settled in quickly as the lights dimmed. The lone female Sufi mystic dancer sat quietly at the side while the leader/vocalist of the 3 piece ensemble began by explaining Sufism, and introducing the musical instruments involved in their performance. I can’t say I understood entirely what was explained. Sufism has various definitions depending on where it is practiced. Some say it stemmed from Islam, others believe it is the essence of all other religions, yet it is not a religion itself. I figured it has to do with the attainment of spiritual enlightenment after detaching oneself from the material world through periods of intense meditations.

Above: Some of the instruments they used include: the daf (a frame drum with metal rings attached to the inside of the frame that produce a unique jingling sound effect), the setar (string instrument), the ney (similar to a flute), and the tombak (a goblet drum made with animal skin).

Above: Majid the vocalist demonstrating the various instruments.

I must admit that throughout the initial part of the performance, I was not really feeling it. But at some point, you’ll find yourself being drawn into the spiritual and intense rhythm of the music. The musicians played passionately with their eyes closed. So were some of the audiences, listening with their eyes closed. The harmony of sounds produced by the ancient acoustic instruments within the small space was pretty amazing. Then came the best part as the music softened and slowed to a halt, giving the cue for the mystic Sufi dancer to get ready.

The mystic dancer, dressed in all white attire with a flowing skirt, first began with a bow before starting to spin in a slow, anti-clockwise direction. Gradually she increased her speed in tempo with the music. I was initially convinced that the spinning looked faster than it actually was because of the illusion of her billowing skirt and her long hair…she went on and on, sometimes with her hands outstretched to the sides, sometimes held up in front of her face. At one point, as the music got louder and more intensified, I swear she was spinning like a possessed hurricane, as she entered into a trance of deep meditation. It just didn’t seem humanly possible! For a moment she looked like she was about to lose control, but yet, she managed to centralize her position again without losing balance.

The audience was absolutely enthralled. As she continued the spinning ritual non-stop for at least a good 15mins (it felt like forever really), I started to wonder. How is it possible to maintain the axis at one spot over an extended period of time? Does she have an innate ability to do this or how long did she practice to achieve this level of deep meditation? Does she not feel dizzy? Is she going to pass out once she stops?!?

It is believed that the spinning ritual rids a person's mind from all earthly desires and thoughts, thereby allowing them to enter into a state of trance, where the mind is able to conquer the dizziness. And in case you’re wondering, after she stopped spinning, she just gracefully bent over in a low bow, got up and walked normally back to her seat at the side of the stage. It was really quite fascinating.

I must say I can’t even remotely relate to this level of meditation (I probably can only spin 5 rounds before passing out). It was certainly spellbinding to witness it up close and this is probably one of the most amazing performances I’ve seen in a while.

This 2 hour performance costs 12€ and there’re some refreshments after the show.
So if you're interested to experience this mystical cultural performance, check out Casa Persa's website here.

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