Asim Gorashi assumes a look when he performs. To those in the audience, he almost seems in the throws of a deeply meditative state. That’s partly because that’s exactly how it feels to the Sufi musician.
“‘Sufism’ is the mind-set that I am in when I am playing music, elevating towards God and thus elevating my existence,” explains Gorashi, who is also a world whistling champion (he claimed first place in 2009 at the 36th International Whistlers Convention in North Carolina after whistling the second movement from Mozart’s famous Eine kleine Nachtmusik).
“Spectators often think (of the performance) as beautiful because they are seeing me as I move towards God,” he says, adding, “it has no religious restrictions, Islamic or otherwise, because it is a state of human purity.
Gorashi – who is also a classical violinist and the first Sudanese musician to play violin and sing at the same time – doesn’t compete for the fame, however. His participation in musical festivals and competitions across the globe stem from a need to attract attention to the cultural diversity of his home country: Sudan.
“I always wear the traditional dress – a white jalabiya and turban – when I (perform) because it is a part of my identity. I’m a not particularly good-looking man, but I am cultured and able to interact with those around me under the umbrella of our shared humanity,” he says.
Asim also strives to foster cultural tolerance within his homeland – no easy task in a country plagued by ethnic divisions.
“I believe that understanding through music can provide an arena for recognition and lead different peoples to respect each other,” he says.
“My message is that the search for an all-encompassing Sudanese identity will not be fruitful because there is no understanding between people. Understanding and recognition is a part of the Islamic message – there is even a Quranic verse that says ‘O mankind, we have created you from male and female, and peoples and tribes so that you may know one another.’”
To this aim, Gorashi worked with the Sudanese government’s Administration for Cultural Diversity to promote the music and traditions of Sudan’s many indigenous tribes as a way to foster understanding between them.
“Through this exposure, we were able to cultivate local ideas on how to enrich modest musical genres enough to break boundaries, and rather than promote tradition, promote ingenuity,” he says.
A Sudanese symphony
Gorashi attributes his love of indigenous music to his upbringing in Sudan’s Blue Nile State, an area rife with division due to ongoing civil conflict . In Gorashi’s memory, however, the region was symphonic.
“The Blue Nile State is home to at least 40 native tribes, each with four distinct genres of music,” he explains.
“During harvest, I would listen to the cacophony of songs as I slept in the yard of my home. I would listen to the differences in the music, not as noise but rather as a symphony. I always strive to re-enact the musical sounds I heard as a child, in a practical and modern way.”
As an adult, Gorashi has travelled throughout the country to teach local people to use indigenous music as a tool for peaceful dialogue.
“If an individual within a restricted space is able to hear themselves at a distinct melody and at the same time be able to listen to the melodies of others, then they have achieved a level of tolerance that is built upon the acceptance of difference,” he explains.
Gorashi recalls settling a disagreement between two small tribes through his method, which he refers to as “conscious listening.”
“All I did was compose a song that carried meanings, which celebrated each tribe in a context of peace, and interweaved well-known local tribal songs. My main message was that instead of promoting conflict and warfare, they could promote culture through musical collaboration.”
It’s an approach that comes at a crucial time as Sudan launches a national dialogue aimed at finding a solution to the country’s ailing economy and conflicts in Darfur, Blue Nile state and Kordofan.
Gorashi says that in addition to breaking boundaries, music can play a part in “positive brainwashing.” He worked with the Mada Center for Social Studies to train 165 community leaders, including traditional “war singers” involved in the Darfur conflict to sing about peace.
“Through music, brainwashing is incredibly fast and effective because a song, once caught in the head, is repeated and transformed into thoughts which in turn become actions that eventually become a way of life,” he explains.