The Amir Vahab Ensemble performed at Stony Brook University’s Charles B. Wang Center Wednesday, Oct. 2. The performance included traditional Iranian and Turkish folk music and the samâ, known to many in the West as the Whirling Dervish Dance. The “Sufi Dance and Songs of Love” mixed improvisation with traditional Islamic poetry and music, broken up by English translations and lectures.
Over the course of the night, Vahab performed on many different instruments from across the Mediterranean, including a flute carved out of river reed, and used Persian, Arabic and Turkish instruments.
Calling on ancient Persian and Turkish culture, Vahab composed and performed a series of beautiful pieces that his dervish danced to in the traditional Sufi way. A dervish is a Sufi monk, traditionally associated with vows of austerity and poverty and known for their prayer dance. The goal of this rhythmic dance is to bring about a state of “mystical intoxication” in which one is able to communicate with higher beings.
Since 1981, Vahab has been performing from his New York-based studio, composing for theater, television and radio, as well as doing live shows for select audiences across the United States. His dedication to traditional music won him the title of “ambassador for a silenced music” from the New York Times.
Amir’s Ensemble also included two performers who doubled as vocalists and drummers, Yvette Ghoughassian and Gail Wiggin. They read the world famous poetry of Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi between songs. Amir himself gave in-depth lessons to the audience about the instruments they used and the ancient wisdom of Islamic Mysticism.
The poetry of Rumi dates back to the 13th century, and his words speak to all people. “I am neither Christian nor Jew, neither Magian nor Muslim,” Rumi writes in his poetry a message the ensemble carries with it. Ghoughassian, a student of Vahab’s for 17 years, was born into a Catholic family. She said that since traveling with the group, “I think I believe a little in all of them now.”
This sentiment is shared by those who work for him and study the breadth of religions across the world.
Wiggin, another student-turned-performer of Vahab’s, recalls her first experience with the words of the ancient Persian poet. “I heard him talking about Rumi and it was like opening a door, like an invitation into something,” she said.
Vahab said the performance and the whirling dance is not about entertainment; it is a form of prayer. “People don’t exist, it’s just you and God in the room.”
He spent years trying to find someone to fill the role of his ensemble dancer, but most were too flashy, too focused on entertainment and not focused enough on the deep spiritual meaning of the dance. It took Vahab three years to find the performer he wanted.
When the Wang Center asked Vahab to credit the dancer, Vahab replied, “He said, ‘I don’t want to give them my real name, he just said write “a handful of dust.’” When The Statesman asked him directly, he gave a similar reply: “My name is not important, I am just someone turning.”
His dedication to the craft and apparent desire for anonymity first attracted Vahab to him, and the two have been touring since.
The group’s performance was well received in the Wang Center, and Stony Brook awaits the continuation of this annual tradition.