What Does Islamic Music Have to do With Blues, Jazz, and Surf Rock? More Than You Think.

What do Bruce Springsteen, Mahalia Jackson, and John Coltrane all have in common? Well according to Dr. Hussein Rashid of Hofstra University  each bear witness to the Islamic Contribution to American Music. This was the title of his lecture at my law school alma mater, Southern Methodist University. The event was sponsored by the Aga Khan Council for Northern Texas. I received my invitation from my friend Hind Jarrah. Dr. Jarrah is on the board of Directors of Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, Inc. , my new home. She is also the founder of The Texas Muslim Women’s Foundation. One of the Foundation’s projects is the prevention of spousal abuse. Because our agency helps immigrant spouses escape abuse, we’ve been privileged to collaborate.

The lecture was fascinating. Dr. Rashid began by discussing the fact that there several waves of Islamic/Arabic immigration to America. First, was the heartbreaking slave trade, which included Muslim Africans. He pointed out that they were not permitted to practice their faith and their ritual drums were prohibited, and thus began a tradition of music which have come down to us as “Negro Spirituals.” He played a brief clip of the Adhaan, the Mussein’s Call to Prayer, followed by Mahalia Jackson’s Amazing Grace. The Adhaan is based on the Arabic musical system with wavy intonation. The fluttering notes of Mahalia Jackson clearly reflect the chant of the Adhan, in a really surprising manner. Next, he played an old and primitive Mississippi Delta Blues number, Levee Camp Holler, again reckoning the rhythm of the Adhaan.

Of course, one of the courses of Blues led to Jazz. He played a clip of Billie Holiday’s lament on lynching, “Strange Fruit.” The mournful, spiritual, reverential tone was unmistakable. Perhaps my favorite example however was the next more mature Jazz standard John Coltrane’s jazz and spiritual masterpiece, “Love Supreme.” Of this song, author Ashley Kahn wrote:

“It’s an unusually complete vision of one man’s spirituality expressed through his art. Coltrane used the tools he had available and that he knew: a saxophone, a well-practiced quartet — even his own voice — to create music worthy of his creator.”

In the reciting of “Love Supreme” repetitively, Dr. Rashid hears the chant Allah Supreme. He compares the song to a Sufi chant.

One of the most surprising comparisons is Dick Dale’s surf standard Misirilou. Born Richard Anthony Monsour, Dick Dale was from Lebanese descent. The song is apparently an adaptation of an old song from Ottomon Turkey, and has lyrics in Arabic. Who knew? Dr. Rashid then found elements of these minor tones from the ancient Arabic in such surprising places as the Jefferson Airplanes “White Rabbit” and the Rolling Stones “Paint it Black.” I love the song, but hear more Indian influence from Brian Jones’ sitar in that song, however. (A personal aside, one of my favorite moments in my son Fred’s high school years, was his playing sitar to “Paint it Black” at Club Dada.)

I was happy to see him mention the legendary Malian guitar player, Ali ‘Farka’ Touré. It is impossible to miss the North African influence in acoustic Delta Blues and then in return the effect of those blues in modern North African Music. It’s the clearest place where Islamic influences show up in American music in my view.

The lecture featured modern artists who continue to explore these themes, such as Junoom, from Pakistan and hip hop artist, Ali Shaheed Mohammed from Tribe called Quest. One of my favorite examples was the collaboration of Eddie Vedder and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in “The Long Road,” from the soundtrack for the film, Dead Men Walking. Finally, he mentioned Bruce Springsteen’s “Worlds Apart,” from the post 9-11 album, The Rising. Rolling Stone wrote about this song: “His most inspired gesture comes in “Worlds Apart,” a track that writhes with the sounds of qawwali, the intense, God-conjuring, life-affirming vocal music of the mystical Sufi sect of Islam.” Springsteen no doubt intended to make a point in the anti-Islamic hysteria that gripped America in the aftermath of 9-11.

This was an inspiring lecture. One of the things I like about American music is that it shows the influence of so many different styles. Blues, Gospel, Spirituals, Country and yes Arabic music all come together and find creative expression in rock and roll and later rap and hip hop. It is said that music is the universal language. I like how Dr. Rashid put it, “all music is sacred.” Amen.

Image: Ali ‘Farka’ Touré via