by Larry Blumenfeld
Reprinted from the 2022 Spoleto Festival USA Program Book
“Why is music called the divine art, while all other arts are not so called? We may certainly see God in all arts and in all sciences, but in music alone we see God free from all forms and thoughts.”
Those words appear on the first page of The Mysticism of Sound and Music: The Sufi Teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan. By the time of his death in 1927, Khan, a master player of the vina in his native India, was best known for bringing Sufism—the mystical form of Islam that emphasizes an inward search for God—to the West through lectures that were later transcribed into books.
Spirituality is elemental to the history of music; musical expression figures into all forms of human devotion to a higher power. These reciprocal truths course through this year’s Festival with a particular focus on Sufism’s humanistic message, and a broader consideration of Black spiritual transmission throughout the African Diaspora. Such presentations help reconnect lineages torn apart but never lost, and guide us toward unity in defiance of that which separates us.
I received Khan’s book 20 years ago from pianist Randy Weston, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master who performed at Spoleto Festival USA twice (in 1981 and, two years before his death, in 2016), and whose music emphasized bonds between American jazz and African traditions. Years later, saxophonist Sonny Rollins, as eminent a jazz statesman as there is, recalled for me how his friend and fellow saxophonist—the late, great John Coltrane—had talked about Khan’s book. “Both John and I had ethical values we were developing at that time,” Rollins told me, “So this book was significant, because it showed us that music and those impulses go together in a natural way. It was a wonderful realization that music, if you’re trying to play honestly, and the attempt to become a better person are of one piece.” In 1965, around the time of that exchange between saxophonists, Coltrane released A Love Supreme, an album-long suite from his classic quartet that stands among jazz’s biggest commercial successes and modern music’s most stirring expressions of spiritual awakening. (During the suite’s final section, “Psalm,” the phrases Coltrane plays amount to a recitation, syllable by syllable, of the original devotional poem included in his liner notes: To listen while reading along is a riveting experience.)
The devotional verses that open the Qu’ran are the first words of Rhiannon Giddens’s libretto for Omar, which is presented in its world premiere at this year’s Festival. The opera is based on the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, a scholar of the Fula ethnic group in the Futa Toro region of West Africa (now Senegal), who was sold into slavery in Charleston. It tells the story of one man’s strength, intellect, and resilience as grounded in his Sufi Muslim faith. It also deepens our understanding of this spiritual presence during our nation’s formative period: a significant number of enslaved Africans in the United States were from Muslim communities.
Setting Omar’s story to music unleashes it deepest meanings. Giddens, who composed the score with Michael Abels and has long focused on recovering and re-imagining early African American musical forms, studied opera and vocal performance at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music; she also plays banjo, an instrument descended from West African stringed instruments. The making of this opera was, she has said, her own “spiritual journey.”
Two nights after that premiere, Youssou NDOUR opens this Festival’s Wells Fargo Jazz series. As a singer, composer, and bandleader, NDOUR is a star at home, in Dakar, Senegal. For many worldwide, he is the face of African popular music. Descended from griots, traditional storytellers who serve as oral historians, he has also served as his country’s Minister of Culture. His sinewy tenor and dazzling vocal melismas lend force and beauty to his lyrics, which often combine contemporary social commentary with ancient traditions of praise singing in celebration of Sufism, his country’s primary form of worship, to, as he once told me, “extol the tolerance of my often-misunderstood religion.”
Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, who performs the next night, grew up in the lush and rugged hills of uMgungundlovu, in South Africa. He, too, comes from a long line of griots as well as traditional healers. For him, compositions function like prayers, as “passageways of memory, healing, and transcendence,” and concerts are meant as “rituals in which improvisation is an invocation rather than an embellishment.”
His new recording, on Blue Note Africa—an imprint that plants a storied American jazz label firmly on his native continent—is titled In the Spirit of Ntu, for a cosmology long threatened by colonial disruption and terror, which nevertheless embodies “a spiritual essence that is untouchable.”
Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane was four months old when his father composed A Love Supreme during five days of seclusion in a dormered upstairs room of the family’s home in Dix Hills, New York. Nearly two when his father died, Ravi was raised by his mother, Alice Coltrane, herself a celebrated musician whose own spiritual journey guided her life and music. The Wurlitzer organ, piano, and harp featured in Ravi’s Festival presentation, Universal Consciousness: The Melodic Meditations of Alice Coltrane, are instruments Alice mastered, “whose sounds and tones she used to create an elevated sound to bring our consciousness to a higher place,” he said. Alice, who began playing piano in the Black churches of her native Detroit and was early in her career a bebop pianist, played mostly Hindu bhajans on the Wurlitzer when Ravi was growing up, as the Vendantic Center she founded next door to their Southern California home grew into a long-thriving ashram.
On a purely musical level, the Festival’s Lift Every Voice choral presentation showcases choristers and principal singers of Omar. It also traces a rich tapestry of African American Spirituals and gospel music that, for conductor Vinroy Brown, “reveal the diversity of musical expression from the Black experience,” especially as related to spirituality. One piece, “Total Praise,” a gospel song composed by Richard Smallwood, has illuminated key moments throughout Brown’s life, from the Black Pentecostal church of his childhood in New Jersey to Westminster Choir College, where he conducts the Westminster Jubilee Singers.
The ideas about devotion that connect all these varied musical expressions form a through-line that, just now, may offer something like a lifeline. Throughout my career as a culture reporter and music critic, disorienting moments of crisis have been clarified, maybe even answered, through music shared in real time, in physical spaces either buzzing with energy or near-sacred for their calm. Such experiences and the music itself have answered urgent needs, calmed frayed nerves, voiced outrage, summoned spirits, leaned into hope, released joy, and, when we were lucky, offered glimpses of transcendence. After a too-long, pent-up, locked-down period spent mostly apart, we can listen to the messages embedded in these sounds, some indeed mystical, once again in communion.
Larry Blumenfeld is Spoleto Festival USA’s Wells Fargo Jazz Advisor. He has written regularly about jazz and Afro Latin music for The Wall Street Journal since 2004, and his work appears in many other publications and websites. He was the 2019 Jeanette K. Watson Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Humanities at Syracuse University and a nominee for this year’s Jazz Journalists Association Lifetime Achievement Award.