Sheikh Ahmad Al Tuni
Ahmad Al-Tuni comes from the village of Hawatka, near Assiout, and is one of the last great munshidin (singers of the inshad dini, the islamic sacred song or hymn) of Upper Egypt. Beneath the starry sky of the nights without end when the Sufis celebrate their rituals in the villages of the Upper Nile region, all is dusty and dimly lit; then, as the night lengthens, its penetrating chill gradually seeps through the air, mingling with the fervent clamour of the devout. From the midst of this somewhat chaotic expression of faith, the munshid's voice rises forth and induces via the dhikr (literally a memory or remembrance) the state of trance common to Sufi ritual. On Egyptian soil, the dhikr - where the name of God is recited according to some special breathing techniques - takes on the aspect of an ancient rite where all and sundry take part and indeed, where no-one can avoid entering into the trance-like state, as if there were no need to belong to any particular brotherhood (tariqa).
It includes the hadra, that moment of collective spirituality, where the common man can enter into the presence of the Divine; this is an open, creative event where a whole range of emotional behaviour is expressed.
No matter whether one is a disciple of Ahmad Al-Badawi, the founder of the Egyptian way known as the Ahmadiyah, or a member of the Shadhiliyah, the brotherhood created by Abu al-Hasan al-Shadili from Fez in Morocco, or a member of Ahmad al-Rifa'i's Rifa'iyah brotherhood, founded in southern Irak in the 12th century, everyone flocks towards the sound of the munshid's voice. He is the true master of ceremonies, he will throw forth several spirited phrases guaranteed to charm and win over his public in exactly the way he wants.
The inshad or sacred chant is the central pillar of organisation here. In this context, where there are absolutely no authoritarian or religious sanctions from on high banning music and emotion, it is the munshid who controls everything, and and as a result the inshad is both freer and all the richer in musical terms.
Generally speaking, the religious singing of today recalls Arab music in urban style from before the 30's – this fact has been drawn to our attention by Michael Frishkopf. A small mixed instrumental group (the takht) in which each instrument is allowed to keep its individuality and express it in richly ornamented style, a flexibility of form that can include vocal and instrumental improvisations, the inclusion of some deliciously sensual modulations that float from one mode (maqam) to another, the whole punctuated with melodic rhythms (qafla-s): these are the traits that give this particular style its inherent richness.
So little by little the munshid has built up his ensemble and its musical potential. Thus we find the instruments originally linked to this type of singing – the daf, the naqrazan (a percussive copper drum to be struck with sticks) the raq (a little tambourine with tiny cymbals attached) or the qawal (the flute) – this is the instrumentation still used by Shaykh Barrayn – but others have started to make a timid appearance, too: the Egyptian tabla, for instance, the kamantcha (the oriental violin), the 'ud and even occasionally the qanun. The musicians who perform on these instruments are not necessarily great virtuosi in the classical or strict sense of the term, but rather than being masters of a technique, one senses their devotion, their desire to amplify and serve the voice of the singer.
The great Egyptian munshid Ahmad al-Tuni, a master of the inshad, chants almost in the manner of an actor from earlier times declaiming his lines. He holds his sipa (the Muslim rosary) in one hand and accompanies his poetry with expressive gestures and mime; his body moves nervously to and fro, from side to side, as if to mark the violently forceful rhythms of the daf and the Egyptian tabla. He recalls better than anyone those singers of former times known as the mutrib, literally "one who creates tarab", the singers who produced the ideal blend of emotion from the mingling of words and voice.
The texts tell the story of the prophets, they recount their exploits and their devotion, their wisdom, too; the voice in turn models these words like a craftsman, forming and deforming them, modulating or shaping them as if they were palpable matter, as indeed they are in terms of sound. These words are the light and shade of life itself, of mystical love, ecstatic bliss, desire and sweet or bitter passion. They tell of suffering, the suffering caused by separation, the anguish in the absence of the beloved, the body and all corporality abandoned–these are what the munshid recounts in his chanting.
The ibtihalat (a supplication in free poetic form) the tawashih diniya (religious poetry based on a musical exchange between the soloist and the choir) the qisas diniya (stories on religious themes) and the Sufi inshad are the various steps along the musical way to the state of saltana, the bliss of listening.
The first time Ahmad al-Tuni came to France to sing at the Théâtre de la Ville in 1999, everyone was surprised by how easily he managed to transpose his art to the setting of a stage in a Western theatre. With the particular power one always finds in oriental trance music – one has only to recall the qawali from Pakistan – he weaves his vocal arabesques around poetic maxims from some of the great masters such as al-Hallaj or Ibn al-Farid. In this context the maxims become mere shivers of sound, a resonance of notes lost in the emotion of the moment.
Ahmad al-Tuni's charisma is such that he stands out as one of the last truly great singers of his kind, those of another era where lyricism and the voluptuous sensuality of the words had their place, where the voice alone could provoke mystical love, desire, passion and the feeling of leaving the body.