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Celtic Fringe and Muslim Heart

26 January 2017 | Dr Tim Winter / Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad

A production company called Mishkat Media has released a music album which seems improbably ambitious: a sequence of translated Persian and Arabic songs, sung in English, to Celtic tunes. Sceptics are going to shake their heads and insist that such a hybrid child could never live. But take a close listen and then ask this surprising question: are British and Islamic musical traditions in fact so very far apart?

A casual look at an atlas reminds us that our cold British islands lie far from the realms of Islam. But somehow or other, a mysterious cultural intermarriage seems to have taken place in ages past. The resemblances are uncanny and unmistakeable. In fact, it is common for lovers of Irish and Scottish music to wonder about the similarity of their beloved sounds to Muslim musical traditions, now increasingly popular in the world music scene.

Could it be that at the heart of a culture now undergoing a full-blooded revival, which seems to define a native British spirituality and local identity, enjoyed in quintessentially British venues such as pubs and folk festivals, we might find ancient Muslim influences?

Here’s an example. Celtic music takes many forms, but it often uses microtones, just like Islamic music and chanting. What this means is that the eight or twelve notes familiar in the European octave are divided further. Somewhere in the interval between a B and a B flat there is another note. The rich Irish and Hebridean traditions of singing without any musical accompaniment allow the larynx and the ear to attune to very subtle gradations of pitch. This gives Celtic music much of its distinctive mood and technique. And Middle Eastern music, which uses microtones, often seems to share that mood.

Hence the very popular Irish style called sean nós can sound very like Arabic music. One of today’s great sean nós singers in Dublin, Naisrin Elsafty, is herself of Egyptian origin: such intonations come naturally to her! The Pakistani qawwali singer Arieb Azhar is also a respected singer of traditional Irish songs, and has worked hard to bring the Indian Muslim and Irish sounds into a better partnership.

How did such influences trickle across such vast distance to reach the Celtic world? Music theorists continue to argue about this. Sometimes the debates get bafflingly technical, involving intricate theories about rhythms, modes, the design of instruments, and abstruse scales with seventeen intervals.

Bob Quinn, a filmmaker and writer who lives in Connemara, has tried to cut through the scholastic debates with a series of cultural productions which, for him, celebrate the Muslim sounds which lie at the heart of some of the best-loved expressions of Irish culture.

His book Ireland’s North African and Maritime Heritage, and his four films ‘The Atlantean Quartet’, daringly propose a theory. For Quinn, Muslim slaves, perhaps survivors of the Armada, came ashore in Ireland to create Irish dance (with its strange resemblance to the dances of Moorish Spain and Morocco), and to introduce the magic of Islamic sounds, especially rhythms and microtone scales.

Other theories, not necessarily in conflict with this, point to ‘gypsy’ or Roma influence. Travelling people whose journey took them through the Ottoman Balkans or Moorish Spain, brought the exciting and dynamic sounds of the Muslim world to add spice to the local British musical menu.

We may never know exactly how these migrations of Muslim culture took place. But it is fascinating to think that behind the current popularity of ‘Celtic spirituality’ and the revival of Irish and Scottish music in venues around the world, we may hear the style and sophistication of forgotten Muslim musicians and performers. Globalisation, it seems, is nothing new.

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