Ecstasy and Trance in Tarab Performance

Maren Lueg

Department of Music
Course: Performance Theory

December 2007

MMusic Performance, SOAS

Ecstasy and Trance in Tarab Performance

Ecstasy and trance have a significant relevance with regard to the description of the overall experience of the participant of a tarab performance. However, the use of these terms within academia to describe a wide range of extraordinary phenomena within different cultures all over the world has made it difficult to clearly define these concepts.
There is no word in English that accurately translates the word Tarab from Arabic to English, which makes it very difficult to define. Tarab is used in Arab culture to describe the emotional effect of music, but it is also associated with a traditional form of art-music.
“The word ‘Tarab’ … refers to an older repertoire, which is rooted in the pre World War 1 musical practise of Egypt and the East- Mediterranean Arab world and is directly associated with emotional evocation.”
(Racy 2003, p.4)

Tarab was a widely used concept within medieval writings on music and musicians during the Ottoman Empire. It is still in use today in the Arab culture where “there are several factors that facilitate the creation of Tarab. Within art-music context the correct use of the maqams and modal progression combined with musical inspiration and creativity.” (Racy 1982, p.391)
Tarab has been defined by various ethnomusicologists, with the terms ecstasy and trance often being used as synonyms. This lack of definition has not just occurred in the description of Tarab music: there is also lack of clarity in the use of ecstasy and trance within ethnomusicology.
My aim in this essay is to analyse the definition of ecstasy and trance in relation to Tarab Performance. To do this I need to look at the relationship between the meaning of the word trance and ecstasy in ethnomusicology and their use in music performance.
In the first section I’m going to look at the relationship between the meaning of the word trance and ecstasy in ethnomusicology. Secondly I’m going to research the use of the word trance and ecstasy in relationship to music performance. Within the main section I’m going to analyse the significance of trance and ecstasy in relationship to Tarab.
The relationship between the meaning of the word trance and ecstasy in ethnomusicology.
Rouget (1985) has found that, within the subject of ethnomusicology, the definitions of “trance” and “ecstasy” have been inconsistent. Both terms lack precise definitions, and are interchangeable. “‘Trance’ and ‘ecstasy’ are often used as synonyms in ethnomusicology.” (Rouget 1985, p.4). He believes that the definitions of the terms in relation to music need to be differentiated, and thinks that spiritualism first gave trance the meaning it has today, to describe the possession of a medium by a visiting spirit. He then states the differences he has found between trance and ecstasy, in which ecstasy is experienced in loneliness, and is a conscious experience that stays in the memory of the person. Vision and hallucinations are often part of an ecstatic state, while trance is mostly free of such events. Trance is achieved in a community ceremony or music performance, and is characterized by unconsciousness and amnesia. Rouget (1985) has constructed a list of what he sees as the characteristic definition of ecstasy and trance:
Ecstasy //Trance
Immobility //Movement
Silence //Noise
Solitude //In company
No crises //Crises
Sensory deprivation //Sensory over-stimulation
Recollection //Amnesia
Hallucinations //No hallucinations
(Rouget 1985, p.11)

There has thus been a lack of clarity within ethnomusicology regarding how ecstasy and trance are defined, which has lead to some confusion of the concepts. Rouget (1985) has attempted to bring some clarity by defining trance and ecstasy very precisely and almost in opposition to each other. Although there are aspects of his definition that are useful and accurate, it can be limiting to use such rigid definitions. To be able to use these terms within the context of music and emotional expression it may be more appropriate to allow for a certain amount of fluidity and flexibility in these definitions. Racy criticises Rouget’s interpretations of trance Tarab in relationship to the use of trance. “I question his [Rouget’s] profiling of Tarab as ‘trance’, or for that matter his strict dichotomy between ‘trance’ and ‘ecstasy.’ (Racy 2003, p.13)
I am now going to look at the use of trance and ecstasy in the musical performance of a variety of cultures in order to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of these terms within the context of world music.

Ecstasy and trance in musical performance
Trance has been used predominantly within the context of spirit possession. Most traditional societies use music and dance to induce a state of trance within a religious context for healing, or as part of a community ritual. Many traditional communities across the world have unique forms of trance-inducing music performance. The instruments and style can vary from loud drumming and repetitive chanting to quite meditative flute or string sounds. Induction of trance consciousness is believed to enable communication and union with God, gods, deities or spirits.
In Bali, for instance, where trance is a common event as part of established religious practice, a particular type of meditative gamelan music accompanies this ritual. The dancer, who enters into a state of trance, is believed to be possessed by a deity or demon. This has been explained in the following way: “…while trancing, the core consciousness is temporarily replaced by a trance persona, a trance consciousness.” (Becker 2004. p.11)
The Balinese ritual is celebrated in a calm meditative atmosphere, in comparison to the Trance Fire Dance in Sri Lanka, which is complemented by intense drumming and verbal audience participation, as demonstrated by the following example:
“Very suddenly the drummers began a very loud and fast beat and the dancers leaped into the centre of the oval…for more than an hour the trance dancer never broke rhythm, he never rested.”
(Schechner 1988, p89-90).
The audience expresses its appreciation of the performance with vocal encouragement; the trance dancer is oblivious to the crowd, but still has enough presence of mind to reach into the fire dust pot and hurl dust into the air as part of the ritual.
“Healing in Tumbuka is based on transformation through the power of music.” (Friedson, 1996, p.37) The dancer is believed to lose his identity in the state of trance; the spirit that possesses the dancer makes him move and takes over his consciousness. Drumming and singing are believed to transform the spirit from a possessing spirit to a source of energy.
Within the Middle East we can find religious dhikr Sufi rituals that use music as part of their ceremonies. The dhirk Sufi ritual is practiced in dervish brotherhoods from India to Morocco.” (Rouget 1985, p.263) Repetitive chanting and drumming are used as part of the ritual, to induce a violent trance, during which the dervishes pierce their flesh, walk on burning coals, grasp red-hot pieces of iron without harming themselves, or swallow broken glass to give visual proof of their invulnerability.
Ecstasy is often used in the context of a Sama Sufi ceremony of the Mevlevi Order, to describe the state of consciousness in which the practitioner experiences the union with Allah while listening to music. Within the Sama ritual, “…one may attain a spiritual union with God or Allah in a state of mystical ecstasy.” (Becker, 2004, p.42) The Whirling Dervishes in Turkey practice a meditative dance as part of the Sama ritual in which they turn in a particular manner on their own axes over long periods of time without suffering any physical complaints or dizziness, experiencing a state of ecstasy. The Dervishes remain fully conscious both during and after the ceremony. “Sufis use music and poetry as an essential means of reaching a state of ecstatic communion with God.” (Sullivan 1997, p.282)
Ecstasy and trance have thus both been used to describe a process of transformation that moves the subject, in which the person may access physical or mental strength that enables him to perform beyond his normal abilities. The main difference between the use of the words trance and ecstasy seems to be that in a state of ecstasy, the subject has got the ability to concentrate intensely, being in full control of himself, expanding his state of consciousness, whereas the trance dancer loses control and memory, during the ritual.
The examples discussed above correlate with many aspects of Rouget’s definition of trance, such as movement, noise, in company, sensory over-stimulation, and amnesia. However, in contrast to his definition of ecstasy as being achieved in solitude, silence and stillness, music and movement are important aspects of the Samma ceremony in achieving ecstasy for the Whirling Dervishes.
Thus, in order to be able to analyze ecstasy and trance in relation to Tarab Performance, I am going to use the term ecstasy to describe a concentrated state of consciousness, which is achieved while in full control, at the same time as letting go of the identity with oneself. This means that the mind is not limited to one’s personal experience, but expands to a collective or higher consciousness: it is experienced as great joy or bliss.

Analysis of ecstasy and trance in Tarab music performance
To gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between Tarab, trance and ecstasy, I am going to first of all look at the historic context from which Tarab performance has developed, and then look at the use of the terms ecstasy and trance in relation to Tarab performance.
Tarab performance has developed from a cultural context that has given great importance to music. Throughout the history of the Middle East, music has been associated with extraordinary powers that are believed to transform the audience and musician on a spiritual level. “The Babylonians and Egyptians have linked music and sound to the “cosmological fabric of the universe … In the medieval Islamic courts, singers and instrumentalists are known to have cast an overwhelming emotional effect upon their audience.” (Racy 2003, p.4). This powerful emotional impact can still be found in Tarab musical performance today, in which the audience and performers are transported “to a state of musical ecstasy (Tarab), which the audience expresses by shouting and verbal appreciation during the performance.” (Racy 1982, p.391)
The members of the audience freely express their reaction to the performance to help build the overall emotional mood. The audience may call out phrases that have become part of the Tarab performance ritual to encourage the musician in their performance. For example, one might exclaim “Allah” or “away” (greatly elongating the first syllable of the Egyptian colloquial word for “yes”). The musicians, in turn, are moved and encouraged by the responses from the audience. This interaction “creates a dynamic feedback system that contributes, ideally, to the ecstatic state of Tarab.” (Music of Egypt, p.115)
Racy explores Tarab as a multifaceted experience that can have intense emotional and mentally transforming effects ranging from excitement, inspiration, creativity and empowerment to a sense of timelessness intoxication and pain.
“The listeners’ reactions to the music are quite demonstrable, and often appear involuntary and virtually uninhibited …They often describe their own musical sensation through metaphors as becoming intoxicated and losing the sense of time,” (Racy 2003 ,p..5)” …to the extent that one may cry, faint or tear one’s clothes.” (Becker 2004, p.2)

This wide range of experience makes it very difficult to separate the ecstasy and trance within Tarab performance.
Nothing can better explain what Tarab is than the following anecdote taken from Kitab al-aghani (‘The Book of Song’), a famous collection composed by Isfahani in the 10th Century AD. “As Jamila sang, all those gathered there were seized by Tarab: one of the guest the poet Umar began to shout out: ‘Woe is me. Woe is me…’ He tore his robe from top to bottom, in a state of total unconsciousness.” (Rouget 1985, p281) This act of tearing a robe in total unconsciousness, through the influence of Tarab music, suggested that the guest entered a state of trance during the Tarab performance. Compared to that, the audience might have a more subtle experience, being transformed into a state of ecstasy through a moment of silence after an expressive and skilled performance demonstrating effective modulation and use of the maqams “… especially during the pause that follows the qafla.” (Zuhur 2001, p233) “Musicians stress that playing music can be a profoundly ecstatic and creative experience.” (Nettl 1998, p.110) The musicians often experience a state of ecstasy during the Tarab performance that heightens their mental or creative abilities and prepares the artist to interpret the music and improvise with feeling. This ecstatic creative state of the musician is called “saltanah”. In a saltanah state, the musician becomes self-absorbed, focusing intensely on the music during the performance. Saltanah is part of the overall Tarab experience: “It is the ‘magic’ that momentarily lifts the artist to a higher ecstatic plateau and empowers him or her to engender Tarab most effectively…saltanah is creative ecstasy.” (Racy 2003,p120.) Saltanah is a state in which the artist experiences heightened mental and emotional creativity though fully conscious. The skillful application of musical inspiration in a state of saltanah is an essential aspect of the classical Tarab performance of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries in Egypt, that being Racy’s (2003) model.
The term Tarab has also been used in other parts of the Middle East in relation to musical performance. Rouget describes professional drummers in Iraq “breaking drums on their heads, a form of destructive behaviour” (Rouget 1985, p.282), as part of a Tarab performance. This example of violent behaviour of the musicians in Iraq is more likely to have occurred in a state of trance. Such an act of distracted behaviour may indicate that the drummers lost self-control and experienced a state of unconsciousness similar to that described in the examples of trance in spirit possession rituals or within a Dhirk ceremony. We therefore need to look at the historic and cultural setting of a Tarab performance to be able to define its relationship to trance and ecstasy. The emotional intensity and overall experience of Tarab performance has changed over time, and may be less pronounced in modern day Egypt than it was during the Ottoman Empire, before the influence of the western industrial revolution introducing modern technology, large orchestras and concert halls. “Nowadays, however, especially in urban settings, trance as an expression of musical emotion, of Tarab is less customary than it was in the past.” (Rouget 1985, p.282) He continues that Tarab occurs today, mainly in country districts, where people still gather in the evening to sing, dance and play folk music in rural village communities.
The experience of the musician during a classical Tarab performance of Arabic art music as described by Racy in “Making Music in the Arab World” is more likely to be affected by ecstasy than trance. Gaining creative inspiration and being alleviated to a heightened mental state. The example of the destructive trance-like behaviour of the professional drummers in Iraq demonstrates that the term Tarab is also used for other music performances within the Middle East that may essentially differ from the traditional Arabic art-music style. Therefore a trance experience of the musicians is more likely to occur outside the Tarab-art music performance tradition in Cairo, because the complexity of the structure and textual material of classical Arabic music demands full concentration of the performer.
It is much harder to separate the relationship of trance and ecstasy with regard to the overall experience of the audience. We can generally say that it is more likely for a member of the audience to move into a state of trance within smaller communities or private settings.
Looking at the historic context of the Middle East, in which music was believed to have extraordinary powers to spiritually transform the musicians and audience, gives us a great indication of a tradition of using music to gain an altered state of consciousness such as ecstasy or trance within the Middle East. The style of music and experience of the participant of the performance would have changed over the centuries, depending on the religious beliefs and state of society. Achieving a state of ecstasy or trance may have been more likely or relevant at different times and within different parts of society. Thus Tarab may have been a more powerful and deeply transformative trance inducing experience in the past when music was limited to the experience of live performance.

The significance of ecstasy and/or trance within a Tarab Performance is difficult to define, because of the lack of clarity of each of these terms. However both trance and ecstasy play an important rule within the Tarab performance. Ecstasy is in generally more relevant to describe an altered state of consciousness that the Tarab musician may experience during the performance of a traditional takht ensemble. Trance is more likely to affect the audience of a Tarab performance, but often to a lesser extent then experienced in a religious context. There is still a lot of room for further academic research of the definition of ecstasy, trance and Tarab within the use of music performance. The terms ecstasy and trance are to limited to successfully define their use in relationship to Tarab. Also, the use of Tarab as a term to describe an emotional experience during a music performance within Arabic culture is lacking clarity, and needs further investigation.


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Ali Jihad Racy
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Stable URL: http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0014-1836%28198209%2926%3A3%3C391%3AMAIPC%3E2.0.CO%3B2-H
Ali Jihad Racy Racy 1982 Society for Ethnomusicology, Inc. page Musical Aesthetics in present-