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Products for grant FA-251630-17

The Role of Devotional Music in Modern Tunisia
Richard Jankowsky, Tufts University

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Absence and 'Presence': El-Hadhra and the Cultural Politics of Staging Sufi Music in Tunisia (Article)
Title: Absence and 'Presence': El-Hadhra and the Cultural Politics of Staging Sufi Music in Tunisia
Author: Richard Jankowsky
Abstract: Sufisms in North Africa are both esoteric and exoteric; that is, they harbour hidden forms of knowledge and experience known only to initiates but perform them regularly in rituals that are public or semi-public, making them accessible to all. When musics of these rituals are brought onto the concert stage, then, they pose analytical challenges to binaries such as spectatorship/ participation, loss/renewal and authenticity/inauthenticity. In Tunisia, the staging of Sufi music has been monopolised for decades by a staged spectacle called el-Hadhra, which, along with its offshoots and competitors, proceeds according to a modular logic of culture in which music, dance, trance and other aspects of ritual are approached as separable, extractable and available for recombination in a plug-and-play manner. This paper unpacks the implications of this logic of modularity through a close reading of el-Hadhra that focuses on strategies of minimising and maximising the ‘contextual gap’ between ritual and stage performances. The resulting ambiguities, I argue, encourage multiple and sometimes contradictory readings that nevertheless illuminate the musical and ritual chains of value activated by Sufi performance and draw attention to the shifting social, religious and political functions and meanings of Sufism in the Tunisian public sphere.
Year: 2017
Primary URL:
Access Model: Subscription
Format: Journal
Periodical Title: Journal of North African Studies
Publisher: Journal of North African Studies

Sonic Traces of Trans-Mediterranean Itineraries of Jewish Musical Healing (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Sonic Traces of Trans-Mediterranean Itineraries of Jewish Musical Healing
Author: Richard Jankowsky
Abstract: In traditional Tunisian healing practices, one of the most common diagnoses is affliction by water spirits (ba?riyya). A wide variety of ritual healing musics feature songs dedicated to these water spirits, as well as the saints, such as Sidi Bu Sa‘id el-Baji, who are believed to control them. The praise song (nuba) for Sidi Bu Sa‘id called ra’is el-ab?ar (captain of the seas) is found in numerous healing and devotional musics, providing a shared reference for musics associated with a diversity of communities, including healing traditions of women (such as the mannubiyya), the Jewish community (rebaybiyya), and even drinking parties of laborers (mizwid). In this paper, I examine this song in relation to the cultural “work” of the silsila (“chain”), a flexible musical form that provides a sonic inventory of the saints of the local devotional landscape. In doing so, I explore the Jewish-Muslim convergences that defined the rebaybiyya tradition, the trans-Mediterranean (Tunis-Paris) traffic in musicians that nurtured it, and the faint traces of those collaborations and movements that remain in the Tunisian devotional musical landscape.
Date: 06/20/2018
Conference Name: Music and Sound at the Mediterranean Crossroads, International Council for Traditional Music, Essaouira, Morocco

Ethics and Musical Form in Tunisian Islam: The Silsila of Sayyda Mannubiyya (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Ethics and Musical Form in Tunisian Islam: The Silsila of Sayyda Mannubiyya
Author: Richard Jankowsky
Abstract: Can musical form reflect, or even encourage, particular ethical stances? This paper approaches this question through a consideration of the devotional and healing rituals held at the shrines of Sayyda Mannubiyya in Tunisia, which have been high-profile targets of militant Islamist vandalism and threats in recent years. The women’s trance healing ritual is based on a musical form called the silsila (lit. “chain”), a flexible succession of songs dedicated to different saints in the local devotional landscape. The silsila references the “home” traditions of these different saints, including those of Sufi orders that may have competing claims about the appropriateness of music and trance, while also bringing these disparate traditions into the distinctive soundworld of the Mannubiyya. Sayyda Mannubiyya is also unique in the local context as the only female saint to have inspired a men’s devotional ritual. Male members of the Shadhuliyya Sufi order perform their liturgy immediately following the women’s trance ceremony. The men’s liturgy revolves around the dhikr (chanted repetitions of religious formulas), which has ritual objectives, aesthetics, and priorities that, at first glance, seem to stand in opposition to those of the women. Yet ethnographic and musical analysis reveals fissures that complicate binaries of male/female or dhikr/silsila to show how they each constitute a devotional niche within a shared ecology of saint-based ritual practices and espouse distinct yet complementary ethical work at the individual and community levels.
Date: 11/09/2017
Conference Name: Music and Monotheism Symposium, New England Conservatory of Music

Music and Religion in North Africa (Conference Paper/Presentation)
Title: Music and Religion in North Africa
Author: Richard Jankowsky
Abstract: Women, black, and Jewish North Africans all co-participate in a musical and spiritual "commons" in which they co-participate in an ecology of saints and a system of devotion and healing that ascribes a song to each of those saints. They share a musical form called the silsila (chain), which is flexible and encourages borrowing. But each one also reveals the distinguishing characteristics of each ritual community: the women's silsila highlights women saints and the role of motherhood; the black Tunisian silsila highlights its history of trans-Saharan movements of people, spirits, and musical aesthetics; the Jewish silsila avoids mention of the Prophet but connects to ritually adjacent practices. This talk shows how music performs the work of integrating women and minorities into a shared spiritual ecology while simultaneously asserting each community's unique identity and ritual priorities.
Date: 07/12/2018
Conference Name: Yale Summer Institute: Building Religious Literacy, Teaching on the Religions of Africa and the Middle East

Ambient Sufism: Devotional Plurality and Music as Everyday Mysticism in Tunisia (Public Lecture or Presentation)
Title: Ambient Sufism: Devotional Plurality and Music as Everyday Mysticism in Tunisia
Abstract: 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” (ri?la) 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.
Author: Richard Jankowsky
Date: 11/21/2017
Location: Center for the Humanities at Tufts University, Medford, MA