Sufi ritual of Hadhra remains popular in Tunisia

Sunday 09/07/2017
Ancient tradition. The founder of Hadhrat Rjel Tounes Taoufik Doghman performing. (Facebook page of Taoufik Doghman)

The scent of Tunisian incense wafted in the air and enveloped the stage in a mist. Singers and musi­cians, adorned in traditional attire, took their places on the platform.

Their voices slowly grew louder in conjunction with the music, until the sound of religious chants filled the air. The audience watched as performers, seemingly intox­icated by the music, whirled and danced in a trance-like state, in what is one of Tu­nisia’s oldest Sufi traditions: Hadhra.

Sufi music dates back hun­dreds of years and Hadhra remains popular in Tunisia. The ritual, which has deep religious significance, is common during religious occasions and in a variety of popular settings. In Tuni­sia, Hadhra performances headline major music festivals, such as the In­ternational Festival of Carthage.

The ancient Sufi tradi­tion, which is practised as praise and supplication to God and the Prophet, regained popularity in the 1990s when Tunisian actor and director Fadhel Jaziri com­bined Sufi chants and choreogra­phy in modern shows. In Tunisia, the unique style grew popular with the working class.

Hichem Ben Amor, who specialis­es in Sufi music, said Sufi orders are behind the music’s rise in Tunisia.

“People often categorise Hadhra music as Sufi music but one needs to trace back the histo­ry of Sufi music to understand how it grew popular in Tunisia,” said Ben Amor, who added that “Hadhra can be traced to the ritual of Sama.”

“In this ritual, one of the Sufis stands up in the Dhikr circles to chant a selection of poems praising religious values. Sufis believe they grow closer to God’s divine presence when fully feeling the music and the chants, when they reach trance. That is why these chanting circles were called Hadhra, which is Arabic for ‘presence’.”

Taoufik Doghman, the founder of Hadhrat Rjel Tounes (Hadhra of the Men of Tunisia), has performed Hadhra since he was young. His group’s latest performance, which took place in June at Tunis’s Avenue Habib Bourguiba, attracted hun­dreds of viewers.

“It started when we were young, at the age of 14,” Doghman said. “Our grandfathers come from these well-known religious families and we were raised listening to Sufi chants.

“We were a group of children who would play together. That is how we came together as a Sufi chants group. Today, some of them are doc­tors, engineers, teachers but they all came from this group.”

After Doghman’s group gained a following, they were invited to par­ticipate in Jaziri’s Hadhra show in the 1990s.

“My journey with Hadhra started 50 years ago when I became a part of a group of young men chanting reli­gious poems,” Doghman said. “I par­ticipated in Jaziri’s Hadhra with my knowledge of Sufi chants and I also learnt from him about this art. Then I started the Hadhrat Rjel Tounes.”

He noted that his group, which has grown to 30-40 performers, has “had shows in and out of Tunisia. This year, we had shows in Canada, Belgium and Algeria.”

Hadhra performances are espe­cially popular during Ramadan and in the summer.

“These chants began growing bigger and they are essentially (a form of) musical appreciation that is created by the followers of these Sufi orders,” Ben Amor said, adding that the tradition is part of Tunisia’s identity and culture.

“It often expresses how the work­ing class, especially in the popular neighbourhoods, believes in the power of this music.”

As much as Hadhra is part of Tu­nisia’s cultural heritage, it has also adapted to the world’s changing mu­sical landscape. By adding contem­porary instruments and techniques, Doghman and Ben Amor put a mod­ern spin on the old tradition.

“Hadhra that is popular in Tunis uses a great number of singers and musicians,” Ben Amor said. “These musical numbers are performed in a theatrical setting with other musical instruments that are modern such as drums, pianos and violins, which is different from the old model.”

Doghman said the change was necessary to keep the heritage alive.

“These are difficult times,” Dog­hman said. “In this century, there is the internet and so many visual things. You cannot just rely on lis­tening to music when the eyes of spectators watch the show too and taste the music. A Hadhra show is not just music but it is a whole show to be watched and enjoyed visually.”

“The dance choreography, the outfits, the lights and other elements are all to make the show something visual and (aesthetically pleasing) to watch,” he said. “By the end of the day, what matters to us is that the spectators feel the peace and feel how this music is from the heart.”