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Members of the Mevlevi Brotherhood

Mevlevi Order dervishes with Ensemble Sarband

Vladimir Ivanoff, head of the Ensemble Sarband, sat down with Deutsche Welle to talk about “Passio” and “Compassio” – about suffering, passion and empathy, all of which play a central role in music and faith.

Deutsche Welle (DW) In your latest project, European, Arab and Turkish musicians, instruments and traditions come together. What does the title “Passio-Compassio” tell us?

Vladimir Ivanoff (VI) “Passio” translates to “passion” and also to “suffering.” In its medieval sense, “Compassio” means “to perceive” and “to empathize.” With this project, we’re trying to sublimate suffering by way of music, transforming it into mindfulness – mindfulness toward that which is foreign, the other.

That’s why we’ve selected a repertoire with a lot of music by Johann Sebastian Bach from his two Passions. We’re pairing it with early Christian music from the East and Islamic music in the Sufi tradition. That means we have music from two of the three major religions of the book – Islam and Christianity. The three predominant book-based religions detail a path away from suffering: going through the tunnel of suffering in order to arrive at salvation.

DW How does that function in confronting various styles of music with each other?

VI We’re using various pieces of music that treat suffering and martyrdom in the tradition of these great religions. But we’re masking it: Bach is also sung in Arabic and Turkish or played in jazz style. Early eastern Christian song sounds out in jazz or Baroque style as well. Some listeners will be more familiar with parts of the repertoire – but the arrangements make these sound foreign. In turn, listeners may find unfamiliar repertoires more accessible. The alienating effect leads one to think, “Okay, it may be very different, but I can accept that because I’ve noticed that what I thought I knew is entirely foreign to me.”

DW In the project, instruments of various cultures are played, with their widely divergent voices and technical possibilities. How does it fit together?

VI That’s the nice thing about art – in it, you can achieve the impossible. We have a jazz string quartet on stage that also performs as a classical string quartet. On the one hand, we have a Western harpsichord, and on the other, the qanun from the Arab and Turkish realms, which has been described as a Middle Eastern piano. Then we have jazz saxophone along with Arab and Turkish long-necked flutes. Then of course – and very importantly – there is one male and one female singer. Mustafa Doğan Dikmen, our male vocalist, is one of the great specialists in classical Ottoman music and sometimes sings Bach in Turkish. The female singer, Fadia el-Hage, is from Lebanon and studied in Germany. The program reflects her own multicultural background.

DW “Whirling dervishes” accompany the trans-musical encounters in the project . . .

VI They perform dance-like movements, but they’re not dancers. They’re from the Mevlevi Order, a lay association. Since their youth, they’ve met once or twice a week to dress in ritual costume and swirl to music. The goal is to reach a state of absolute inner clarity. At the concert, these Mevlevi dervishes will whirl twice for about twenty minutes uninterrupted to jazz, Bach and Islamic music. As they swirl around, an indescribable feeling of community ensues – also with the audience. That’s what we’re primarily going for with the project: to create a community of mindfulness over the course of two hours. For me, the dervishes are like satellites of brotherly love.

DW So, the message is: mindfulness toward the other – even if the two may not really go together?

VI The Orient and Occident don’t really fit together! If they’re supposed to coexist, then you have to make it happen. But before communication can take place, you need mindfulness and acceptance.

We cannot isolate ourselves anymore. We can’t simply close the door and say, “Everything is good here, and it doesn’t matter what happens out there.” You have to work toward that. The beginning is easy: perceiving and noticing, “OK, there’s something different.” What happens then is up to the audience and to individuals. Ours is a call to work towards something both on the inside and outside. It’s actually a counter mission to all of these peace, love and blah, blah projects that send the message: “You can all go home now in peace; everything’s fine!” That’s not at all so! This year, I had to fight three months for each individual visa for my Syrian, Iraqi and Turkish musicians. Understanding is not greater. We’re becoming a bastion, closed off toward everything else. Fear is on the increase. Each individual has to do something to try and make things at least more bearable.

Deutsche Welle