Sufi songs from Tunis

Sufi songs from Tunis

La Sulâmiyya

Founded in 1958, the Sulâmiyya ensemble ensures, with great talent and nobility of spirit, the everlastingness of the Sufi tradition established by many brotherhoods. These, which settled in the Maghreb, and in particular Tunisia, as of the IXth century, have managed to rehabilitate music by giving it back its spiritual dimension. Sulâmiyya, for his part, has made it the ideal intermediary between men and the celestial world, giving it a power at the same time magic, emotional and therapeutical. Its repertoire, backed-up by percussion instruments, is mainly based on vocal performances.


1Al-‘Âda – 4’51
2Tajwîd – 12’27
3Sulâmiyya – 7’12
4Ana Bwâya – 3’34
5Lagmar wa ndjoum – 3’34
6Qâdiriyya – 5’43
7Tayyibiyya – 8’06
8 – ‘Isâwiyya – 17’23

Interpreters and instruments

Cheikh Abderrahman ben Mahmoud (singing)
Cheikhs Ahmed Shehini (singing, bendir)
Hadi Na’ât (singing, bendir)
Abderrazzâq Tounsi (singing, bendir)
Badreddin ben Mahmoud (choir, bendir)
Soulaymân ben Mahmoud (choir, bendir)
Salah Melliti (choir, bendir)
Abdelazîz ben Mansour (choir, bendir)
Hmida Naqqash (choir, bendir)
Yacine Landoulsi (choir, naharât)


Islam and music

In the aftermath of the Moslem religion, which has spread as far west as the Atlantic coast of Africa and as far east as Indonesia, a large network of communication and cultural exchange has come about. The various degrees of Islamization, like the multiple cultures it has penetrated, make up the elements which have contributed to shape and diversify the cultural aspect of the Moslem world.

The consequences have undeniably been particularly important in the realm of music – since it is music, above other cultural or artistic forms, which better translates the kind of “unity within diversity” characterizing Islamic arts. (…) Throughout its historical evolution and geographical expansion, this musical fund, continuously enriched by various local contributions, has managed to impose its specific mark wherever the Arab language and notably the Moslem message have triumphed (…)

This music has found a true impetus in the old system of craftsmen’s guilds, and most notably in the mystic trend, the taçawwuf, a doctrine going back to the first century of the Hegira (VIIth c.) with the first ascetics (zuhhâd sing. zâhid) but not institutionalised as a religious pathway (tarîqa) until later on. Music has a preeminent place in the taçawwuf. Sufism, while serving as a bridge between the upper mystic spheres and the devotion of the common man, has inspired a rich tradition of poetry and music, in both erudite circles and popular classes.

All this has taken place via numerous Moslem brotherhoods (tarîqa, plur. turuq) which are neither sects (despite what their sometimes hectic history could lead one to believe) nor a regular order, but groupings according to spiritual affinities. Within the framework of orthodoxy and mysticism, these ways stand out as particular through their organisation system, their practices and certain traits of their teachings, as well as their predilection for one Saint or Master. They obey a general rule in the realm of religion and they are concerned about justifying their legitimacy and thus connecting with the Prophet through a series of successions (silsila) of masters acknowledged for their piety and knowledge, traditionally acquired after years of travelling through the various Moslem countries and associating with their most eminent wise men.

The creation of most songs in the repertoire dates back to the origin of the brotherhood it pertains to; these songs are an integral part of the teaching given to disciples; they are the work of several masters, among whom is the founder of the tarîqa in question.

Traditionally, most of the zâwiya-s (the seats of the brotherhood) appear as centres for the development of musical arts, to such an extent that their repertoires have become a norm which serves to judge the competence of professional musicians – the majority of whom have been trained there after the kuttâb (Koranic school). Their merit, as far as saving and developing traditional music is concerned, has been considerable. They limit themselves to the voice, which is the basic element of that repertoire. Some brotherhoods use percussion instruments, alone or along with winds, while others tolerate all instruments.

Although often present in such profane occasions as birth, marriage, circumcision, khatma (when a child has finished studying a part of the Koran…), this music is mainly featured at religious celebrations. Among these are the mawlid al-nabawî (the Prophet’s birthday), Ramadan (the month of fasting) and the hâj’ (pilgrimage). There are also such prime events as the festival of the Amdâh of Mulây Idrîs in the town of Zarhoun (Morocco) or the celebration of Mawlid in Kairouan (Tunisia).

Brotherhoods in Tunisia

Through its geographical position, Tunisia has been, since the advent of Islam, a meeting point between the two poles of the Arab-Moslem civilisation: the East and the West. This has allowed contacts with several brotherhoods, which first appeared at the time of the Hafsides (1205-1570), to reach their peak around the second half of the XVIIIth century, under the reign of the bey Muhammad al-Çâdiq. Several Sufi mausoleums – zâwiya – were built, and the brotherhoods, officially recognised by law under the administrative patronage of a Sheikh, increased throughout the country. This way, most regions, towns and even villages, have their own sacred places and the most important saints (awliyâ’ plur. dof walî) have their own zâwiya. These have a vocal, religious, therapeutic, cultural and artistic role. They also serve as hotels for pilgrims and visitors, as well as meeting points for a “collective, cyclic, letting off stream, which relieves the soul metaphysically and the body physically” (…)

One of the oldest brotherhoods in the Arab world is the Qâdiriyya which goes back to Sîdî ‘Abd al-Qâdir al-Jîlânî (1097-1165) in Bagdad. It has spread throughout the Maghreb, and in particular in Tunisia, where several brotherhoods can be counted. Among them is the Sulâmiyya, which goes back to Sîdî ‘Abdessalâm Lasmar (1475-1573) in the town of Zlîten, Lybia, and the A’rusiyya founded by Sîdî Ben ‘Arûs in the XVth century, in Tunis.

Singing is accompanied by percussion instruments (bandîr) and performed by a chorale of men placed in a circle and doing slow steps to the rhythm of the melody. This melody is a priori written, but soloists can improvise by changing modes. The repertoire of the Sulâmiyya is considered as one of the richest in the whole Maghreb, and is just as popular in Tunis as in Nabeul, Beja, Tozeur or Nefta.

The ensemble and its programme

The Sulâmiyya ensemble of Mahmoud ‘Azîz has specialised since 1958 in the sacred repertoire, both Tunisian and Oriental. Its quality and the level of its soloists (munshid) has allowed it to gain fame and be invited to great cultural events in Tunisia and abroad. They interpret a repertoire with a musical and poetic corpus based on the works of several masters, notably the founder of thetarîqa from where the piece originates. An integral part of the teaching given to disciples, this body of work forms the perpetuation of a tradition including music, song and dance and through which the Tunisian “mystical maraboutism” has been fulfilled.

One finds in the programme of this ensemble, excerpts belonging to several religious brotherhoods spread troughout Tunisia, about the Prophet Muhammad (mûldiyya) and on other themes pertaining to the repertoire of the Tayyibiyya, Qâdiriyya, Sulâmiyya and ‘Isâwiyya. brotherhoods. When the tarab (emotion) reaches its peak, profane and sacred meet each other in order to melt into the same community of spirit. Besides the chorus leader, Sheikh Abderrahman ben Mahmoud (vocals, bandîr and târ) and the virtuosi with impressively warm and powerful vocal chords – the Sheikhs Ahmed Shehini, Hadi Na’ât and Abderrazzâq Tounsi -, the ensemble comprises backup singers-instrumentalists with multiple talent: Badreddin ben Mahmoud, Soulaymân ben Mahmoud, Salah Melliti, Abdelazîz ben Mansour, Hmida Naqqash and Yacine Landoulsi.

Based mainly on vocal performance, this repertoire uses percussion instruments exclusively, such as the bandîr (a large, single-skinned, circular frame drum), the nagharât (a pair of kettle drums played with two sticks) and a târ (a small, round, single-skinned frame drum with jingles).

Mahmoud Guettat, translated by Dominique Bach

The recordings

1 – Al-‘Âda
This term designates the entirety of brotherhood hymns. Interpreted at the entrance of the zâwiya or the place of celebration, it is generally accompanied by great noise and the beating of special rhythms. The selection comprises four examples :

Bismi-l-Lâh wa bil-Lâh
In the name of Allah and with Allah (madkhal
Allâh dâyim rabbî
Allah the eternal (tabdîla 1)
Shaykhî Lasmar 
My Sheikh Lasmar (tabdîla 2)
Agbala al-badru ‘alaynâ
The full moon has come towards us (inçirâf)

2 – Tajwîd
Psalmody of some Koranic verse

3 – Excerpt from the repertoire of the Sulâmiyya
Yâ shaykhî Lasmar
O my Sheikh Lasmar (muqaddima)
Bismi-l-karîm Rabbî ‘âlim al asrâr
In the name of Allah the merciful, knower of secrets (bahr
Sammît bismi-l-Lah al-ma’bûd
In the name of Allah our lord (khatim
Salâmu Allah ‘alâ ibn Maryam
Holy peace be on the son of Mary (as related by Mary, bahr
Sîdî Burâwî 
(a Hymn to Abdessalam Lasmar, tabdîla)
Ya la’imî (suite, khatîm)
Anâ dawâya mushâhid al-rasûl
My remedy is to visit the Prophet (bahr)
Minnî wâsh ‘alayya
(suite, khatim )
Al-lîl zâhî bil-gamar wi-njûmâ
Night lights up with the moon and stars (Hymn to Abdessalam Lasmar, bahr

4 – Ana Bwâya
Praise to Mohamed

5 – Lagmar wa ndjoum
The moon and the stars

6 – Excerpts Qâdiriyya
‘Alâ bâbi khayri al-khalqi awqafanî qaçdî
In front of the door of the best creature, I stopped (Hymn to the Prophet) 
Yâ lâ’imi fî gharâmî
O you who reproach me for my passion (tabdîla 1) 
Wallâh mâ nughlab
(suite, tabdîla 2)
Yâ faris Baghdâd âh yâ Jîlanî
(Hymn for the patron of the Qâdiriyya, tabdîla 3) 
Abhâ qamarun arsalahu-l-Llâh
The most beautiful moon that Allah has sent (hrûb)

7 – An excerpt from the repertoire of the Tayyibiyya
Min yakhdim al-ashrâf yis’id
Blessed is he who serves the Shorfa
Al-Salât ‘alîk yâ zîn al-‘amâma 
(Prayer and holy greetings on « O you Prophet», tabdîla) 

8 – Excerpts from the ‘Isâwiyya
bidâya – wird qudûm – mjarrad (rhythmic sounds)
Yâ khûtî mâ nîsh gharîb
Ô brothers, I am no foreigner (Hymn to the patron of the ‘Isâwiyya)
Yâ lâ’im lakhnân (suite, tabdîla 1) 
Man râd sirra-l-Lâh
Who longs for the holy secret (tabdîla 2)
Yâ tâbi’ al-asyâd” (suite, insirâf) 
basmala – mjarrad (rhythm provided by the hands)
Bismi-l-Lâh awwaluhu
In the name of Allah… (Hymn to the Prophet)
Mâk al-shaykh al-kâmil
You are the perfect Sheikh (insirâf)khammâri (rhythm given by the bandîr, nagharât and târ)
Yâ wâlî Miknâs
Ô patron of Meknès
Yâ ahl Allâh ibî bghâkum 
Ô people of Allah, my heart loves you (a hymn dedicated to the saints, tabdîla)
Kîf na’mal yâ Rabbî min frâg lahbâb
My God how can I bear their being so far away (barwal, suite)

notes :
madkhal = introduction
tabdîla = change, modulation
bahr = the sung part in the repertoire of a brotherhood
khatîm, insirâf, hurûb, barwal = names of rhythms, the final phase of a sung part

Excerpts from some of the lyrics of the repertoire

Mûlad (birth of the Prophet)
O you, lovers of the Prophet
Prayers and greetings unto him
We rejoice at his birth
Prayers and holy greetings unto him
At his birth, I shall slaughter a cow
Prayers and holy greetings unto the Rider of Mecca and Medina.
God and the Angels spread their blessings over you
O you, the best of God’s creatures, our Prophet…

The Hamaziyya (Tribute to the Prophet – based on al-Busayrî)
Can prophets rise as high as you
O sky which no sky can equal
They could not surpass you
For your light has a special gleam
The example of your virtues is to the earth
Like the example of the stars to the sea
You are the leading light of all virtue
And your light engenders only light

Sufi Qasîda :
Poem of the « Mystical wine » by ‘Umar Ibn al-Fâridh (1182-1234)
We have drunk, in memory of the Beloved,
Which intoxicated us
Before the vine was created
The cup which holds it, a shining disk of moon…
Wine is the sun…
A shining crescent which a cup-bearer presents all around
Sparkling with lustre
When with the wine the stars mingle
Without the flavour it exhales, that precious flavour of musk
Never would I have found the path of Truth
Which leads to its side paths.
Without the light showing its presence from afar
Never would its image
Have come to my mind

Brotherhood song
Abdul-Qâdir, (man) with a smock !
I came to you and turned to your strength
For the one who calls upon you, o Jilâlî
You are present, close to him, you are with him.

What shall I do now that my friends have disappeared?
They deprived me from drinking, after making me taste how sweet it is
I cry like a man in exile
Ô Sîdî Ben ‘Îsâ, my friends are now gone and far from me…

  • Reference : 321.025
  • Ean : 794 881 472 321
  • Main artist : La Sulâmiyya (السُلمية)
  • Year of recording : 1998
  • Year of publishing : 1999
  • Music style: Sufi Music
  • Country : Tunisia
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Traditional
  • Lyricists : Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe