“The purpose of the Sama is to create the conditions in which the human soul can experience divine love. Transcendental and ecstatic, the music produces in the listener an intense love for God.” (Barbican website on Sufi music).
There’s an encouragingly mixed crowd gathered in the hall at the not quite finished Factory International venue on Water Street (a grimly prophetic location for a certain reviewer, who arrived having soaked up half a reservoir in a crazy Manchester downpour).
My sources tell me the company has been making real efforts to bring members of diverse Manchester communities to events like this MIF concert by renowned Sufi singer, Sanam Marvi. Let this be a core and continuing policy, and not just a brief nod to broadening arts access and participation in this region. The venue cost £186m (and rising), and the people of Greater Manchester have to be convinced that it genuinely was money spent with their benefit in mind.
The auditorium (though not officially opened until autumn of this year) is splendid: comfy seats with decent legroom, and an acoustic (on tonight’s evidence) fit for the 21st century.
A charming woman on the row in front of me presents me with a vegan chocolate mousse she brought down from the restaurant. She didn’t fancy it but was sure someone would. Very tasty.
Having been tempted here by the brief clip on the MIF website, I’m grateful to find myself chatting with a fan and (comparative) aficionado of Sufi music.
“The best way to experience this music,” she begins (I’m picturing a quiet, warm, candle-lit space, perhaps a little meditation), “sun, whisky and a big spliff, or a hookah.”
Momentarily, my mind misspells that final word – head totally messed with.
Manchester is home to a fair number of people who can trace their roots back to the Sufi community of Pakistan. This is one reason the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (who, with Peter Gabriel’s support, introduced modern western audiences to Sufi singing) made the city a regular tour date.
Sanam Marvi – small, dark, subtly stylish – glides serenely onto the stage. Warmly welcomed, she sits comfortably cross-legged, her three musicians to either side, and an hour and a half of sublime sound begins…
Her voice, controlled and assured, soars and swoops. The power and grace of her opening (often unaccompanied) phrases is supreme, while the driving rhythms that follow urge the devoted to lift their arms in appreciative recognition, or clap along, joyously.
Requests for favourite songs are called out from stalls and circle, and Marvi does her best to accommodate them. The performance never wavers and ends to a rousing ovation. No encore. None needed. It is enough.
As we filter out, some young men in the circle chant militantly about Pakistan.
“Oi! None of that!” my new friend rebukes them. “You’re not out for a kebab!”
I intend to employ her as my cultural advisor/bodyguard – she’s clearly more knowledgeable, tougher and braver than I am.
I make my way back onto Water Street, passing the ever kind and helpful MIF volunteers. I’m still damp and a little chilly from the deluge. But inside, I’m warmer. Music for the soul.
Sanam Marvi was at Aviva Studios on 8 July 2023 as part of Manchester International Festival.