I’m not really a very religious person. Sometimes it occurs to me that I ought to adopt one of the world’s faiths; you know, just in case – all that hell business seems like something worth avoiding. But such thoughts are fleeting, and it only takes a good Richard Dawkins documentary to set me firmly back on the atheist road.

A Whirling Dervish in full spin

So it was with slight scepticism that I entered St George’s Church last Saturday for the Sufi and Mystic Music Night, part of the Brighton Festival of World Sacred Music.

The charming yet spacious venue was packed to the rafters, and there was a great deal of hustle and bustle as the organisers intrepidly attempted to find seats for everyone. But calm soon settled over all as Sufi troubadour Latif Bolat took to the candle-adorned stage and enchanted the audience with the hypnotic rhythms of his resonant voice and superb self-accompaniment on saz.

‘Breathtaking’: Parvathy Baul with her ektara (single-stringed instrument), duggi (drum) and nupur (anklets)
‘Breathtaking’: Parvathy Baul with her ektara (single-stringed instrument), duggi (drum) and nupur (anklets)

But as impressive as Latif Bolat was, nothing had prepared me for what was to follow, as the magnificently dreadlocked Parvathy Baul took to the stage. Watching and listening to Parvathy Baul was a simply breathtaking experience. Her voice soared effortlessly to notes I didn’t think it possible for a human to reach, with astounding grace and control. Her energy and enthusiasm was contagious, as she danced and spun on stage – singing all the while – so that her dreadlocks fanned out like a peacock’s tail feathers. It was a thrilling and invigorating experience that left a tingling sensation all over the body.

After a short interval, Sheikh Ahmad Dede led his troop of Whirling Dervishes on stage for the final act of night. What followed was as bizarre as it was moving. Sheikh Ahmad Dede had not planned anything in advance, it seemed, but rather guided his musicians as he was moved to in the moment. This involved asking a man that he had met on his travels to sing us a song about the recent passing away of his wife.

I felt all my initial cynicism prickle over me again as the ‘Tears in Heaven’-esque ballad filled the church, its sentimentality incongruous with the artistic refinement of what had come before. But as the Sufi Dervishes began their whirling dance (a kind of active meditation which involves rotating on one spot in time to the music) my cynicism subsided and I became entranced by the almost unearthly beauty of the spinning figures, their white robes fanning out majestically around them.

There was, dare I say it, something profoundly spiritual about the performance (if performance is the right word). And I left St George’s Church with a warm and prevailing feeling of contentment – not exactly a convert to religion, but altogether less cynical than I had walked in.

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