I could feel the sweat trickling down the back of my neck. The air was rarefied, and as I breathed in it seemed inexplicably cold. I was wearing an above-the-knee strappy dress with opaque tights. It was too hot to wear tights but I hadn’t been out in public with bare legs since I was eleven years old and I was not about to start now. Plumes of dry ice periodically wafted over the crowd, reducing all vision so I could barely see my hand in front of my face. In those moments I could have been anywhere, set adrift by the hypnotic, rhythmic beats of the tracks as they pounded from the makeshift sound system with Josh Wink’s Higher. State. Of. Consciousness. Agitated by an enthusiastic smoke machine, I asked someone whether the fog was toxic. Apparently not. It was just vaporised carbon dioxide, or was it liquid nitrogen. What certainly was toxic, however, was the sea of lit cigarettes lighting up the cavernous room like fireflies. Also lit up were everyone’s eyes. Wide.
I had been to a club before, with school friends to celebrate finishing our A levels. The type of place which would refuse you entry if you were wearing trainers. Where the music was cheesy but dance-able. Where everyone was dressed smart/casual and would get drunk and obnoxious, and the atmosphere was heavy with aggression and misogyny. Resolutely sober I felt awkward and a bit revolted. It was not my kind of place at all. This, however, was an entirely different experience. We had trekked through a faceless industrial estate in London’s Docklands, functional and un-pretty buildings forming our landscape deep in urbanity but far from all things residential. We only knew we were getting close to our destination as the heavy thump of the bass, suddenly discernible, became gradually louder and eventually deafening. The derelict warehouse was like a huge void, and once inside you had no choice, actually no other desire, than to surrender to the music. There was a bar selling alcohol and many people had taken recreational drugs, but I detected no air of menace. What I did feel was the unifying effect of the trance beats culminating in a simultaneous feeling of collective purpose, and internal expansion. The music captivated every single being, sending them into a state of seamless, unadulterated ecstasy. In Raving Iran, Jasmin Irscheid mentions the impossibility of drawing neat parallels between raves in Europe, like the ones I have attended, and those in Iran, where the stakes are far higher. Organising and attending techno raves are criminal acts in the Islamic Republic, whereas all we feared was the arrival of the police to shut everything down. But ultimately, escape through pleasure, a pride in the purity and quality of the music, the bonding and highly intimate collective experience of dancing with abandon in the company of equally ecstatic revellers, is a universal tumult.
It is not a solely universal emotional response that music elicits. Academics researching cognitive psychology recently discovered the way in which listening to music you love, impacts the brain. When hearing a favourite piece of music, particularly one that has a ‘drop’, having built up to a momentous crescendo, the listener’s heart rate increases, pupils dilate and dopamine, a common neurotransmitter in the brain, is released. Dopamine has been associated with activities that humans depend upon in order to survive, such as eating and sex. Listening to music has never before been considered a pleasure vital to our existence. However, the fact that two distinct parts of the brain are activated, releasing dopamine at the exact moment of peak pleasure when listening to a much cherished passage of music, and also the moment just before it, when we feel the anticipation of our favourite part of the song, indicates that music is far more biologically significant than we previously assumed. We all know that listening to music can be relaxing, invigorating, and calming, and it is the release of tension combined with emotional catharsis that bestows so much pleasure. In his Last Word on Recycled Muslim, C Scott Jordan delves further into the intricacies of neuroscience to explain why some songs, with their irritatingly catchy use of repetition, manage to get into our heads, and play out our internal audio system on an incessant loop whether we like it or not.
Whether in Iran or in London, once you step out from the linguistic templates that confine and contract what it means to listen to and enjoy tunes, what opens up is endless possibilities of escape. As the music takes over, the listener is invited to clamber into the empty chambers that exist between the lyrics and devour those feelings that are inspired, that rise up within our complicated, contradictory selves, and shake off those states that have made-to-measure labels, or expected outcomes. Instead, hidden depths can be accessed by feeling around in the non-illuminated spaces for the non-conformity that is out there, and by using enlightenment to cast light where previously only dark chasms stretch out. In his review of Blinded By The Light, based on the book by Sarfraz Manzoor, Shaizir Aly relates to Manzoor’s deeply profound connection with the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen’s songs. The words he sang spoke to him, they articulated his pent up teenage angst, those songs made sense of everything he was feeling, hoping, dreaming and fearing. And to share this sublime connection with strangers at a gig or at a club or at a classical concert, as Jeremy Henzell-Thomas movingly reminisces in his essay, is a musical frisson for the soul that can be compared to very few other collective experiences. Henzell-Thomas laments the reductive ‘music is haram’ narrative, pointing out the healing potential of music. He cites the research undertaken by the neurologist Oliver Sacks who has spoken of the way in which sufferers of dementia and Alzheimers can be ‘reached’ through the playing of pieces of music they are known to have once cherished.
Whether it is techno or another genre of music drawn from anywhere in the world, the ability to be catapulted into an unexpected mental space, either in the form of collective, shared experience with others or as part of a deeply introspective, inner journey, reigniting almost-forgotten memories and being transported to the past, the potential for untold pleasure, self-knowledge, healing and escape, exists. In times of crisis, illness or difficulty, the lyrics of a song suddenly speak to us or the melody melts away our worries. We all know the song, ‘Last Night The DJ Saved my Life’, and this is how Leyla Jagiella describes her relationship with the late, great Meena Kumari’s art. ‘Meena Kumari is somewhat of a patron saint of the broken hearted. And I do actually often invoke her, like an actual patron saint. I have done so often in my own times of heartbreak. But also in far more mundane moments. In moments when I need the strength of a woman who has never stopped giving beauty to the world even though the world broke her. A woman who continues to offer her allure to the world even beyond her death, through her heartfelt and exquisite songs that offer comfort to those of us who have ever longed for a love that society seeks to deny.’ Forbidden love, unrequited love, disappointed love, love that society chooses not to understand; fractured love suddenly coheres and is given the kiss of life in song, in the iconic vision of a woman who embodies the tragedy of the heart through her enchanting voice and sublime elegance.
Music can be a balm on a world so fraught that it is easy to feel disconnected. We are encouraged to put the best versions of ourselves out there by posting on Facebook and curating the Instagram superficiality that is the airbrushed story of our lives. We project an image in an attempt to feel better, craving virtual validation and acceptance from external sources. What we are not encouraged to do is to draw resilience from within. Music can provide the soundtrack to our lives and offer a medium that aids every effort to express our response to all that is going on in the maelstrom of our inner and outer realities. Notes can be immeasurably moving, lyrics breathtakingly familiar. A piece of music has the inexplicable capacity to capture our emotional anarchy as if the songwriter was a fly on the wall, lurking in the deepest recesses of our minds. This fast-paced, distracted era in which we live throws up so much background noise, but what if we took a moment to stop and listen and allow ourselves to be swept away by the sounds, the words and the feelings they evoke. To consciously and deliberately feel the poetry of both pain and euphoria, each with our own Meena Kumari or Bruce Springsteen.
But to be a true poet, is it enough to be an avid and passionate consumer of music? Sometimes I feel as if I should immerse myself even further, upskilling my musical persona to create, not only consume. Anyway, the time is nearing when I will need to rest this tired body and leave the raving to the young. So it was that I recently decided to learn to play the electric guitar, a long-held ambition despite long ago burying all hopes of joining a band and becoming a rock star. Anyway, as Shanon Shah testifies in My Pop Star Life, the transience of celebrity is surely confirmation that fame is not all it is cracked up to be. I logged on to the local buy-and-sell FB page. Someone in my area, living on a far more salubrious street than mine, was selling a black and white Encore electric guitar for £40. I immediately consulted a musical friend who agreed it was an excellent investment and deigned to give me my first guitar lesson in exchange for dinner, oblivious to my lack of culinary prowess. I excitedly informed my husband. He shook his head, muttered something about a mid-life crisis and put his headphones back on. Clutching two £20 notes I went to get my guitar at the pre-arranged time, picking up a friend on the way who was up for tagging along and we set off on our adventure as if enacting a scene from an episode of Seinfeld. I knocked on the door and a kind, matronly-looking woman answered. ‘My son is just changing one of the strings, let me call him down’. A tween bounded down the stairs clasping the guitar that evidently held great sentimental value. ‘He’s loathe to sell it but he’s grown out of it now that he’s almost thirteen. Are you buying it for someone?’. My friend and I looked at each other. He asked to handle the guitar in a show of faux inspection and to buy me some time to come up with a back story. ‘Oh yes, it’s for my niece. She’s so looking forward to learn.’ My niece was five years old and not party to this charade. ‘Yes it looks fine. We’ll take it. She’s going to be thrilled’ my friend humoured, enjoying the ride. ‘I hope she has as much fun learning to play as I did’ said the twelve-year-old boy as I handed over £40 for the guitar he had grown out of. ‘Did you bring a case for it?’ ‘Er… no’. ‘Oh.’ ‘Don’t worry, we’ll just carry it like this.’
My first lesson was not a success, despite the patience and enthusiasm of my friend as he tried to teach me ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes. I ordered a take-away from the local Indian restaurant and it went downhill from there. My fingers seemed too small and lacking in dexterity to make the moves I had seen carried out so effortlessly by PJ Harvey when I saw her play with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It was tricky and technical and not fun at all. I decided I would give the guitar to my niece and my nephew who is three years younger, when they’re a little older. Until then it continues to live in the corner of my living room, a ‘talking point’ and reminder of my need to persevere against adversity. Every now and then I pick it up and put the ‘Lesson One: How to Play the Guitar’ YouTube video on. Quickly frustrated as my fingers start to hurt I regretfully put it back.
I am now contemplating piano lessons, conscious that I may be coming across as a fickle child who begs their caregiver for a particular toy, only to tire of it within days and hanker after the next shiny must-have item advertised on kids’ TV. Not that I wish for the single mindedness of the protagonist of Nadira Babayev’s short story, dedicating his young life to the accomplished playing of a particular instrument. Hot-housed in music schools, the prodigy from the East practises for hours every single day and is encouraged to view escape from his post-communist homeland to the West as vital to pursuing a successful career as a classical musician. Escape, not through pleasure as experienced by Rim Jasmin Irscheid’s ravers in Iran, but escape through music as toil. Music becomes his ticket to a new life away from the economic hardship and state oppression of the society into which he was born. Talented and precocious he is exactly the type of good immigrant we are told we want. That is until the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ towards foreign nationals means he is forced to survive on his wits, living on the margins and leaving him dependent on the kindness of strangers who attach expectations to their generosity, which he inevitably disappoints. Escape to the West, because he is led to believe the monopoly on high culture lies here. From a young age, music dominates his life, the only respite from incessant practising comes five times a day when he flees to the mosque to pray. His mother, who is herself constantly struggling with the ‘music is haram’ conundrum, cannot conscionably, after all, curtail her son’s newly discovered piety even if they both know that it is just to escape the monotonous routine of his practice schedule.
Escape through music need not always be a ride of pleasure, although who am I to define what constitutes pleasure? Years ago I watched the spoof rockumentary Spinal Tap and was fascinated by Nigel Tufnel’s assertion that D Minor is the saddest key on a piano. The entire scene was hugely amusing but it did make me think about the pathos we feel upon hearing songs which carry great personal resonance for us, while leaving others utterly unmoved. The response is unique to those experiences only we have had, which is precisely why we have our own highly select soundtrack to our lives. Bruce Springsteen fans may feel convinced The Boss is speaking directly to them because the sadness evoked by the music already resides within us, it is not the music that creates the sadness. Just as D Minor may well be the harmonic match for a version of melancholy, those who create music seek to articulate the infinite realities of the human experience through the language of sound.
The sounds we hear, the notes that are created and fused together in rhythms and melodies to make music, speak to us in a transformative language of wonder and discovery, about the universe and ourselves, our inner worlds and the abstract world around us. I yearn to learn to play an instrument because I wish to grasp the mechanics of music, and make sense of the mathematical shapes and geometric patterns that are forged from this language that sings out our innermost fears and desires. Music is often described as a succession of sonic waves and patterns but the secret is to be able to place patterns within these sequences through our subjective thoughts and emotions. Music will project the meaning we are searching for within but only we can unlock the answers we think we need. Within bountiful sequences there will be an opportunity to place our own pattern in the right place at the right time. Whether it is the rapture of techno beats or the guitar riff of a Led Zeppelin song, we superimpose our own personal history to the music and pack it away in the treasure trove of our secrets.
We attempt to possess our personal history through our favourite songs, denoting the highlights, the lowlights, the joys and successes we have witnessed, because songs are a witness to our world(s). Aural tracks experienced by Estrella Sendra in Senegal communicate social justice and the blue-collar experience, while, as one of few Muslims active on the punk scene of the 1970s, Hassan Mahamdallie details the anti-establishment message of that era’s music. Music offered escape through resistance, and endless live gig experiences that were similar yet dissimilar to the ‘extreme’ intimacy of the rave experience. He describes seeing Eddie & The Hot Rods play ‘Do Anything You Wanna Do’ at the Marquee in London in 1977 and tells us the song ‘still rings in my ears – the ’77 anthem for all the bored, angst-ridden, pissed off teenagers who were attracted to punk:
I’m gonna break out of the city
Leave the people here behind
Searching for adventure
It’s the type of life to find
Tired of doing day jobs
With no thanks for what I do
I know I must be someone
Now I’m gonna find out who’
Songs of revolution that rail against the system and descry the status quo, not only offer escape from harsh realities but hope for the future, a rousing call to action to aspire to a new social order. Escape from the frustrations of youth, but also escape from this life, placing hope in the next. Songs of revolution are rather like songs of devotion, a belief in the possibility of something better, an escape to a. Higher. State. of. Consciousness.
Devotional music from Nasheed to the Sufi-inspired murid music of Senegal has sent the faithful into raptures of meditative observance for centuries. I went through my own Nasheed phase, and, in a move that went against all my better instincts, opted at the last moment to have a Nasheed band play at my wedding, instead of the wonderful klezmer ensemble She’Koyokh who I had initially approached. She’Koyokh play an extensive repertoire of Jewish wedding and Eastern European folk music. I had met Jim Marcovitch, co-founder and leader of the band years earlier, at a backpacker hostel in Kathamndu in Nepal and we had hit it off immediately and kept in touch.
He and the band had been very excited at the prospect of playing a Muslim wedding and disappointed when I inexplicably cancelled. I was deputy editor of the Muslim lifestyle magazine emel at the time of my wedding and can only imagine that my tastes had temporarily turned a little vanilla as a result, perhaps brought on by a fit of piety. I had just attended my first ever Living Islam Festival, organised by the Islamic Society of Britain and had enjoyed it. It wasn’t like any festival I had attended before and although sleeping in a damp sleeping bag in a non-waterproof tent was a somewhat familiar feeling, I knew I was a fish out of water when I woke up in the women-only marquee at around midday to find I was literally the only person still asleep. Mine was the only occupied sleeping bag where there had previously been around a hundred women and girls jostling for room to lay down their head for the night. The majority had woken at fajr. Anyway, Jim forgave me and when I learned of his untimely death just a few years later, I was particularly pained that I had missed a beautiful opportunity.
At my wedding I got my dear university friend Tony to put together a playlist that was the soundtrack of my life. Another close friend, Andy, mixed one of my favourite songs of all time – ‘Angel’ by Massive Attack with the intro of ‘Anokha’ by Talvin Singh to create the song I would ‘walk down the aisle’ to. My husband was incredibly underwhelmed and lamented the lack of heavy metal and guitar-based rock but as he had offered zero input in the wedding planning, choosing to be as passive as can be humanly possible in all things nuptials-related (a sign of things to come) he had no one to blame but himself.
I went to see Massive Attack perform the entire Mezzanine album live at the O2 in early 2019. The show was an Adam Curtis-inspired, politically-charged, anti-nostalgia work of art. At the end of the evening, the musicians implored devotees of their music to move on. I don’t know if I can obey their command for unsentimentality because I feel so incredibly sentimental about their sound. After all, they remixed Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s mesmerising Qawwali song ‘Mustt Mustt’ into the moody trip hop track that spoke to my postmodern teenage angst. It was a song that, for me, settled the ‘music is haram’ debate. How can music be dismissed as ungodly when it is a medium through which faith can be celebrated. As Ziauddin Sardar writes in his essay on Qawwali: ‘This world, the old Sufi mystics used to teach, is a mirage. There is a higher Reality that exists by its own essence. The purpose of existence is to love the higher Reality more than this mundane world of illusions. Like the (oblivious?) selfless moth immolating itself in the candle flame, Sufis direct their passion towards fana, or the annihilation of self in the higher Reality of the One. In the particular form of Sufi devotional music practised in the Indian subcontinent, Qawwali, the function of the performance is to enable the self-annihilation of the listener.’
Music is food for the soul. The angel Gabriel emitted sound when he met with the Prophet and sound is music, and it is therefore through music that the soul entered the human form. The power of music is to help us to transcend to something beyond the surface. Listening to music in a club and hearing the recitation of the Qur’an are part of the same experience. Whether it is a spiritual experience at a rave or being swept away by emotions at a gig, music can be as meditative as prayer. We can choose to respond with congregational dance or the solitude of inner appreciation. However we choose to consume, create or fathom the music we hear, we are another step closer to escape to a. Higher. State. of. Consciousness.