How did Al Firdaus come about and how did you all meet?
I moved to Granada in 2006 and gradually got to know musicians who were also interested in Sufi music. Granada has attracted a lot of very talented artists from Morocco due to the great interest in traditional Andalusi music and its relationship with Flamenco. What started as a jam with some friends in a local tea shop lead to our first group Al Kauthar and subsequently Al Firdaus Ensemble which I formed in 2012 with Spanish and Moroccan musicians residing in Granada.
Your music is essentially Sufi in nature. What have been your biggest inspiration and your major influences?
Regarding inspirations and influences it is a lengthy topic but I will try to be brief. Of course each member of the group has their own story so I can only speak for myself.
From the age of 7 my training was in Western Classical music and I was inspired by the great Classical composers especially Bach whose music has a deep spirituality. At the same time from an early age I was inspired by music from the Islamic world and would listen to a diverse collection of records of my father who had a great interest in Islamic art and civilization. I remember being particularly inspired by the Egyptian Quran reciters such as Sheikh Mahmud Al Husary and Sheikh Minshawi. My father became close friends with a master sitarist called Ustad Mahmud Mirza from Delhi and I had the privilege of listening to his music and entering and experiencing the amazingly profound and subtle world of the Raga.
Later I would travel to Syria to further my studies in the Arabic language and Islamic Sciences. In Syria I had an immersion in the tradition of Sufi music in various zawiyas in Damascus and Aleppo where I listened to some renowned munshids (singers of devotional music) and started to learn to sing within the maqam tradition. I have also had the opportunity to travel to other important centres of Islamic culture in Turkey and Morocco and listen to some of the finest Sufi music.
What role do you feel music can play in bringing people together and promoting understanding?
Music is a universal language and has the power to bring together people from very different backgrounds, something that the politicians cannot achieve. It is also a way of presenting the spirit of a tradition through beautiful sounds which touch the heart and transcend the barriers of political or intellectual differences. The human spirit is one, and music which expresses this essence can be appreciated by all who listen with an open heart. In this regard music has an important role in promoting understanding and respect between people of different religions and cultural backgrounds.
Tell us a little more about collaborations that Al Firdaus have done or have in the pipeline?
In the past we have collaborated with artists, sometimes from very different genres including blues, hip-hop and reggae, which is always a challenging and enriching experience.
We have also collaborated with the American poet Ahmad James known as Baraka Blue and he features on a track on our new album. I have also been discussing with Sami Yusuf a possible collaboration. I greatly admire his work and it would be great to do something with him in the future.
We understand Al Firdaus are set to release a new album this year. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?
We are just in the last stage of the recording process in the final mix. The recording studio is just like a mysterious cave. When you enter, and disconnect from the outside world searching for that sound, amazing things happen. We entered the studio with the basic structure of the songs and what has developed has surprised us and we hope it will be equally surprising for our listeners. It has taken a lot longer than expected and we ask our listeners out there to be patient. The new CD is full of variety and different musical traditions are bridged together in an interesting way. We hope to reach a wider audience with this new album.
What themes are important to you as an artist?
One of the themes which is central to my work with Al Firdaus and follows in the tradition of Sufi music is the different forms of praise of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), producing new arrangements of traditional qasidas praising the Prophet in different languages and musical styles. The Prophet Muhammad was sent to all mankind and it is important to express this universality through music. We use poetry which focuses on the beauty of his character and his qualities such as mercy, generosity and justice. We hope that these songs may be a means of reviving our love for the Prophet and strengthening our bond with the one who is the greatest example for us in all aspects of life.
Another theme which is important to me is the way that the experience of Divine love and union is described by some of the great Sufi poets. Often they use the metaphor of wine. They call it the pre-eternal wine, something that we have a memory of deep within our souls and that we long to taste again. Divine love cannot be intellectualised but can only be experienced through taste. That brings us to another theme which is how to reach that blissful state described by the great Sufis.
In brief, this requires us to embark on the spiritual journey of the purification of the self and intention from all besides the One.
In terms of music, I´m interested in the way that different musical traditions are related and this is what we explore in our music. In the current formation of the group the members are Moroccan, Spanish, English and Venezuelan and each musician contributes to the sound of Al Firdaus with their unique musical and cultural experience.
Where have Al Firdaus recently performed? Do you have any upcoming shows?
Our most recent performances were in Canada and Paris.
Our next concerts will be in London in April and in Fez in Morocco in May during the Festival of Sacred Music.
How important an influence have your individual backgrounds played in the music you have produced?
Al Firdaus is a garden which has a variety of flowers and plants of different kinds which enhances its overall beauty. Each member of the group has contributed in a unique way. Salma with her experience in Western classical cello and Flamenco, Omar and Yusuf who have a long experience in Andalusi, and Flamenco traditions, Muhammad the Venezuelan with his latino touch and myself with my background in Western classical music and experience in the Syrian tradition. This cultural mix has been a key to the distinctive sound of Al Firdaus.
How can fans gain access to your music?
Our album “Safa” is on i-tunes, Amazon, and spotify and the physical CD can bought via our website: alfirdaus-ensemble.com
You can also watch our videos on our youtube channel Al Firdaus Ensemble.
You performed in 2016 at London’s St John’s Smith Square in a concert entitled “Sufi Chants”. Our readers are looking forward to you performing in London again. Do you have any words for them?
We are also looking forward to returning to London. Whatever happens in London has far-reaching ripples elsewhere. I was born in London and spent my first seven years there so I feel a responsibility to give something back to my home city and establish a strong presence for the group there.
If you are not familiar with the band check out some of our videos on Youtube. I particularly recommend our official videos Celtic Salawat and Al Madha, and if you like our music please share it on social media.
Ali Keeler was speaking exclusively to LAFZ Magazine.