Ensemble al-Mahi

Sudan has provided the date of the madih’s first appearance as sung religious poetry. The al-Mahi family, a true dynasty who took upon themselves the task of preserving the genre over three centuries, first emerged in the 18th century. They passed on all their knowledge and musical heritage without interruption from one generation to another, and this has given the madih its particular character. The emergence of Sufism in the Sudan goes back to the person of Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Bahari from Baghdad, who introduced it into this region at the end of the 16th C. and established a branch of the Qadiriyya brotherhood there. But al-Mahi has the noble distinction of having inaugurated the madih genre as a sung form; it was he who gave the voice its role, and chose the tar (framed drum) accompaniment.

One of the composers of madih whose name goes back furthest in time in the Sudan is that of Isma’il Sahib al-Rababa, a strange patronym if ever there was – its exact meaning is the lyre, a musical instrument used there. Could we not deduce then that it was originally the lyre that accompanied the madih, before the al-Mahi dynasty took it over and did away with the string accompaniment, but retained the percussion, so as to distinguish it from secular songs?

Thanks to research undertaken by the Sudanese themselves (Ahmed Ibrahim Osman, 1990; Muhammad Adam Sulayman, 1996), the emergence of this art within the immensely talented al-Mahi family has become better known.

The founder of the dynasty is al-Hajj al-Mahi. He lived in Northern Sudan, in Shayqiyyah country in the village of Kassinger, where he is buried. His dates lie somewhere between the late 18th and the second half of the 19th century. His shrine is much venerated and frequently visited. A considerable number of madih are attributed to him, and most of them are still sung nowadays. The story has it that he was originally a singer who specialised in secular songs, but an itinerant saint gave him sakarama (a miraculous demonstration) and converted him to religious singing. This was when he abandoned his tanbura lyre (another name for the lyre in the Sudan), in order to devote himself (or possibly create) to a genre that has since been fully recognised; from then on he accompanied the madih on the tar. This membraphone often played in pairs does indeed fit in with the spirit of hymnology.

There are a lot of stories about al-Hajj al-Mahi’s life. His descendants who now bear the name of Awlad al-Mahi (children of al-Mahi) celebrate his memory and still use his special style whereby certain syllables of the poem are held and drawn out. This feature strangely recalls the 10th C. definition of the action of singing supplied by the poet from Cordoba Ibn ‘Abd Rabbihi: “It involves drawing out words and raising the voice.” A special feature of the songs from the al-Mahi dynasty is the way they quote the author’s name at the end of the poem; another is the way they “dress up” their madih, albeit in discreet fashion, with a local rhythm section, the most frequently used of these relies on the rhythm known as al-dalib.

Al-Mahi must have taught his methods, because other similar groups have been discovered in the Sudan in Kordofan province, also specialising in madih. The Awlad al-Bura’i (sons of ‘Abd al-Rahim al-Bura’I) come into this category; their inspiration comes from local Kordofan themes, and some of their rhythms recall that of dromedaries on the march. Whether it comes from Northern or Southern Sudan, the madih is always based on typically Sudanese pentatonic scales, a feature that brings out the unique quality of this original repertoire, one of the many in the myriad treasures of Islamic hymnology.

Christian Poché
Translated by Délia Morris

Available album : Sacred songs from Nubia and Kordofan