Trance ritual

Trance ritual

Les Aïssawa de Fès

The Aïssawa brotherhood, founded by saint Sidi Mohammed Ben Aïssa (d.1526), is one of the mystical orders which give music an eminent spiritual role.
By studying the Aïssawi ritual we get the intimate feeling that the founding saint and his disciples have engaged in a deep meditation on the nature of music and its influence on the human soul. They have made good use of this fact by elaborating the content, form and course of exercises which are particular to their order. Their conception of music makes a very clear distinction between melody and rhythm. The melody, purely passive, invites the spirit to revel in imaginary speculations, whilst the rhythm, of an active nature, revives in the human being that which, in his bodily life, brings him closest to animals.


1Tahlîl/Glorification – 1’30
2Râkib lburaq/The Prophet on the winged horse – 4’04
3Allahumma/Song of praise – 7’25
4 – Suite of hurm songs/Entreaty – 26’01
5Suite de chants haddun/Invocation of the One and Only – 6’55
6Dkhûl l-hadra/Prelude to the ecstatic dance – 7’44
7Mjerred/Dance of the initiates – 12’07
8Jilâliyya/High point of the ceremony – 4’50

Interpreters and instruments

Hadj Saïd Berrada (direction)
Aziz Alami Chentoufi
Seddiq Ben Layachi
Saïd Fellah
Driss Filali
Mohamed Khalaf Larhzaoui
Abderrahmane Loulidi
Abdelhaq Messoudi
Hassan Sahel
Mohamed Sefrioui


Music, as such, is excluded from the Islamic cult and its practice prohibited within the mosques. However, not everyone considers it as incompatible with religious practices. The opinions of the founders of the different brotherhood orders differ greatly on this point. Some people consider spiritual exercises as an extension of religious obligations. Even if practised outside of the times and places dedicated to worship, they forbid themselves to introduce any music, considered a suspicious contribution, into these exercises. Others, on the contrary, see it as a powerful ally of spirituality. The Aïssawa brotherhood, founded by saint Sidi Mohammed Ben Aïssa who died in 1526 and whose tomb is located in Meknes, is one of the mystical orders which give music an eminent spiritual role.

By studying the Aïssawi ritual, we get the intimate feeling that the founding saint and his disciples have engaged in an in depth meditation on the nature of music and its influence on the human soul. They have made good use of this fact by elaborating the content, form and procession of exercises which are particular to their order. Their conception of music makes a very clear distinction between melody and rhythm. The first, purely passive, invites the spirit to revel in imaginary speculations, while the second, of an active nature, revives in the human being what, in his bodily life, brings him closest to animals.

However, although it is possible to block the road to the imaginary seductions that the melody may inspire by reducing its scope to that of incantation, it is absolutely impossible to do the same with the rhythmic component. This is because the religious practices of the brotherhoods are first and foremost comprised of collective recitations and any collective recitation necessarily implies the mediation of rhythm. In fact, rhythm is nothing but an anticipated calculation of the passage of temporal duration which allows a group of individuals to “say together” and to “move together” as if the whole group forms a single body. What is more, rather than looking for a way to contradict it, the masters of the trance brotherhoods prefer to channel the ascendancy which the rhythm exerts on human perception, by turning it into an ally of religious passion. That is how they have developed the theory of es-saken “the inhabitant”.

For the Aïssawa, as for all brotherhoods of therapeutic trance, each human being is inhabited by a spirit, often the spirit of a predatory animal, whose desires and moods are independent from the desires and moods of the individual in whose body it takes shelter. The inhabited meskun is dominated without knowing it. Subject to the whims of his inhabitant, he is made unbearable to others, unavailable towards God as well as his own self. He can choose to remain deaf to its dictates and to believe himself free in his acts while, at the same time, acting against his own interests. He can also entirely submit himself to the spirit, no longer belong to himself and find himself cut off from the human community.

What the trance brotherhood proposes to its followers is that they recognize in their own behaviour the signs which come from their inhabitant and accept them. By making himself accomplice to its enticements and by using his receptivity to rhythm, the inhabited may impose discipline on his saken and make it show itself freely, but only during certain moments. Just as in a sort of pact, the follower accepts to let himself become dispossessed of his body and stripped of his “me” during the span of a trance. He can thus give satisfaction to the inhabitant spirit in well-defined limits and in all security. Because this same rhythmic movement through which the follower lets himself be stripped of his human me and the responsibility which it bestows on him makes him flow in a larger “me”, comprised of the whole group of his fellow disciples, united by breath and voice, in the synchronized invocation of the divine presence.

The word hadra “ecstatic dance”, means “presence” with, doubtless, this double sense of divine presence and the presence of the inhabitant spirit. A public session of the Aïssawïa tariqa “way” is a lengthy preparation of progressive intensity which must lead the follower from suffering to relief. It generally unfolds in three stages, going from the hizb incantatory recitation to the hadra trance via a long intermediate stage made up of a series of chants of recollection, dhikr, of entreaty, horm, and of the invocation of the divine Uniqueness, haddun.

During the first stage the followers, sitting in a circle, start by reciting, on an incantatory rhythm and without musical accompaniment, the content of a breviary a few pages long, the hizb, composed by the founding saint. After the recitation of the hizb starts a long series of chants led by the soloist, dekkar, to whom the followers respond in chorus. This series of chants start by the dhikr “recollection” and is comprised of a set of poems borrowed from the malhûn repertory devoted to the celebration of the Prophet, his companions and his descendants. This first series is sung by the experts in the sitting position and with ordinary costumes to the accompaniment of light percussion instruments, the tabla (clay drum, held by the leader and struck by sticks), the tasa (an upside-down copper cup, struck by sticks) and a varying ensemble of ta’rija-s (clay drums struck by the hand).

On the other hand, during the next stage, or the horm, which is both sung and danced, the followers dress up in the handira, a thick woolen tunic, and, standing in rows, slowly sway according to a guide’s directives. The ceremony thus proceeds towards the stage of the invocations, called haddun, which immediately precedes the phase of the trance. The dancers’ swaying then transforms itself into a series of more or less lively dances, punctuated by moments of silence. After the first responses, the voices are relayed by the dominant “voice” of the ghayta (oboe) and the percussions are played in a more and more energetic and accelerated manner. Musically speaking, this phase is a sort of a “medley” composed of rhythms borrowed from sacred and profane musics of nearly all regions of Morocco and beyond. This musical itinerary is intentional because these rhythmic “quotations” allow each person, wherever he may come from, to feel recognized and integrated.

Upon the arrival of the hadra stage, the actual trance, the tension is at its peak and the double-hided drums, the tbel-s, come to the forefront in their turn. The voices, made breathless by the efforts of the dance, are no more than a noise in the background, covered by the strength of the percussions and the oboe. Having reached this stage, the bodies are weary and the passions appeased by the agitation/relaxation alternation. Each dancer is supposed to be sufficiently incorporated in the group so that the inhabitant spirits may show themselves without risk. Now you hear inciting voices announce: ra suq ‘amer, “the market is at its peak”, a phrase which means that the spirits are present and that the time has come to abandon oneself to the ecstatic dance.

At the end of each dance, the follower falls to the floor in trance, thereby meaning that his inhabitant spirit has shown itself. But if he falls during the dance, it means that the tune or rhythm being played does not suit the inhabitant spirit of the follower and that it is asking for it to be changed. And if the music stops while a candidate for the trance has not yet reached the phase of ecstasy and is still dancing in limbo, he may ask for it to start again by a solemn phrase of protest: ana b-llah u b-chchra’, “I appeal to God and to the Law”. This moment is justly dreaded by the leaders. A follower who thus obtains the privilege of becoming the pole of the trance, even if during a short instant, may feel that he is in a position to lead and there is a risk that his example may be followed by the others. The way is then open to an endless game of rivalries and the ceremony is threatened with being turned away from its goal which is to create, in the individual, the feeling of belonging to a whole. This is where the personality of the delegate, by his capacity to control the situation, shows all its importance.

In this connection, it should be pointed out that the practice of the ecstatic dance is not reserved for the sole followers of the brotherhood. It is open to all, to anyone who suffers. Here, people with few resources, the elderly the physically disgraced and the handicapped find, with the help of others, the occasion to be completely receptive towards themselves in all legitimacy. The Aïssawas’ music is true to their conception of the trance: it is a polyrhythmic music. It is composed of several strata of overcrossing drummings. The different rhythmic parts of a piece are distributed among the participants as if they made up together a unique body with several hands. The same goes for the text which, while at the same time transmitting a content, functions as one more rhythmic stratum. Indeed, its translexical (syllabic) cutting is organized like a suite of percussion sequences that are recognizable aside from the meaning. As such, the sung part constitutes the common denominator of all the rhythmic strata and takes on the role of a score. This is the explanation for the importance of the dekkar, the song leader, in the unfolding of the ritual.

The Aïssawa brotherhood is made up of a multitude of communities, tayfa, or “processions” rakb, each placed under the authority of a muqaddem or “delegate”. Aside from its affiliated followers, the community must necessarily have, in order for it to function, a dekkar, the song leader. But the latter is not necessarily always an affiliated member of the brotherhood. He must also have recourse to the services of ghayta players, usually independent musicians who rent out their services for the performance.

Each year, during the celebration of the Prophet’s birth, the communities coming from all over, make a pilgrimage to the tomb of the founding saint, al-Sheikh al-Kamel, “the Perfect Master”. There may exist several independent communities in one city. In 1985, you could find more than fifteen in the city of Meknes alone.

The tayfa directed by Saïd Berrada is one of the best known and most appreciated at present in Fez. Its advantage over many other groups is that it is complete, since it is directed by a delegate who is at the same time its dekkar, the indispensable director of chants.

Hassan Jouad, ethnomusicologist,
Translated by Mona Khazindar

The recordings

1- Tahlil/Glorification,1’30

Chant of glorification played on the oboe or ghayta in the evening during Ramadan.

2- Rakib lburaq/The Prophet on the winged horse, 4’04

Dhikr chant or “recollection” on the theme of praise, madh, devoted to celebrating the Prophet.

“God’s blessing on the Prophet with the winged horse.
Mohammad, Taha, the source of existence.”

Borrowed from the malhûn repertory, this text is a fixed-form poem, structured in the manner called ‘arubi “peasant usage”. This designation actually covers a great formal sophistication: the first verse is composed of two distichs rhymed ab, whose odd lines are whole (13 syllables) and even lines reduced (6 syllables). Each new verse starts with a new distich, made up of two reduced lines and ends like the first verse.
Verse 1: rhyme ab, ab, ab
Verse 2: rhyme cd, cd, cd; ab ab ab
Verse 3: rhyme ef, ef, ef, ab, ab ab, and so on.
This first song is directly linked to a wadhifa, recitation without musical accompaniment.

3- Allahumma salli/Song of praise, 7’25

Song of praise with the same origins as the previous one.

“In the beginning of my words,
I place the majestical Name.
The greatest Name,
The Name of God, healer of my sadness,
The Name of God, expression of my joy.”

Possessing perfect mastery and precision, the percussion accompaniment is composed of drummings crossed and intricated by several instruments: a tabla  (double drum in terracotta), two bendir-s (framed drums), one tasa (upsidedown copper cup) and a variable number of ta’rija-s (terracotta drum).

As the performance proceeds, the singers introduce the modifications in the mode and the tempo, mizan. Started on a 4-beat tempo, the instruments pass to a 3-beat tempo on the tenth verse. This change expresses itself by an acceleration whose progress will not stop before the end of the piece.

4- Suite of hurm songs/Entreaty, 26’01

“I have come to beg refuge beside you
Oh glorious Master of intercession.
I fear being manhandled because of the load of my faults,
The day of my appearance before God.
I leave myself in your hands, Oh Mohammad,
Like the slave who abandons himself to his master.
The Devil has cheated me and made me lose myself,
He has thrown me into evil and sin,
I have lost my lifetime in doing wrong,
Old age has arrived, with its clothes of feebleness.
It has dressed me without my realizing it, My hair has turned white, where is the remedy ?”

This first text of the suite is also a fixed-form poem borrowed from the malhûn repertory. It is composed of sizains of aaabab, cccbcb rhymes, etc. On two occasions the song is interrupted by a mawwâl, an off-cadence melodic improvisation, in the Maghrebin and then the Oriental style. At the highest point of the acceleration, the big horns come into action, first in alternation with the soloist and then together with him for the finale.

5- Suite of haddun songs/Invocation of the One and Only, 6’55

In prelude to the ecstatic dance the haddun suite is placed in the continuity of the preceding suite. The big horns are abandoned for the oboes which replace the voices and which are supposed to “sing” the invocations and the praises.

6- Dkhul l’hadra/Prelude to the ecstatic dance, 7’44

After a ftuh “prelude” which is supposed to remind the audience that the music must not make them forget that the goal of the performance is the invocation of God and the intercession of the Prophet, the troupe begins a survey of rhythmic “citations”.

7- Mjerred/Dance of the initiates, 12’07

The word mjerred means “sober”, “spare”. It is a dance reserved for the initiates and consecrated to the glory of the founder. The terracotta instruments which are played sitting down are replaced by two tbel-s (drums) which allow the players to get up and move around.

8- Jilaliyya/High point of the ceremony, 4’50

The peak of the ceremony, the jilaliyya is usually linked to the mjerred without interruption.

  • Reference : 321.011
  • Ean : 794 881 498 024
  • Main artist : Les Aïssawa de Fès (عيساوة فاس)
  • Year of recording : 1994
  • Year of publishing : 1999
  • Music style: Transe ritual
  • Country : Morocco
  • City of recording : Paris
  • Main language : Arabic
  • Composers : Traditional
  • Lyricists : Traditional
  • Copyright : Institut du Monde Arabe