“Ritual Journeys and Devotional Niches: Ambient Sufism in Tunisia”
In Tunisia, trance rituals animated by praise songs to Sufi saints are not exclusive to members of Sufi orders or participants in Sufi ceremonies. Rather, a number of distinct healing and devotional musical traditions co-exist, each associated with particular social and devotional communities. In this paper I bring together four such traditions, those of women, Jews, blacks, and hard-drinking laborers, to demonstrate how each of their musical practices serves as a musical, social, and devotional niche while contributing to a larger ecology of Sufi music that also includes the great variety of Sufi rituals as well as staged concerts.
More specifically, while the musical “journey” (riḥla) through a chain (silsila) of praise songs is a metaphorical image and organizational scheme that is shared by each of these traditions, the nature of the journey and the different destinations along the way musically mark each one as distinctive and representative of the particular histories and devotional itineraries of each ritual community. This paper emphasizes the important role of women and minorities in cultivating Sufi aesthetics, and shows how Sufism resonates throughout Tunisian society via listening publics associated with numerous genres of music—both “sacred” and “secular”—that evoke the spiritual and therapeutic power of music and trance.
Based on ethnographic research between 2009 and 2015, this presentation takes as its starting point the changing politico-religious climate after the Tunisian Revolution of 2011 and the concomitant threats to the survival of musical practices associated with Muslim saints.
Richard Jankowsky (PhD, University of Chicago) is Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at Tufts University, where he is also Director of the Graduate Program in Music. His book Stambeli: Music, Trance, and Alterity in Tunisia (University of Chicago Press, 2010) received honors from academic societies in ethnomusicology, anthropology, and North African studies. His most recent publications include essays on ritual and the space of betweenness (in Resounding Transcendence: Transitions in Music, Ritual, and Religion, Oxford University Press, 2016) and jazz and the democratic imagination (in Jazz Worlds/World Jazz, University of Chicago Press, 2016), and, as editor, the Middle East and North Africa volume of the Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of Popular Music of the World (2015). His current book project examines the politics and circulation of Sufi ideas and aesthetics through musical routes that rely on, yet transcend, genre distinctions in pre- and post-revolutionary Tunisia.