<%-- Page Title--%> A Roman Column <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 117 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

August 08, 2003

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Music of the Spheres

Neeman A Sobhan

A huge moon is festooned above the ramparts like a tied balloon or a glowing cannon, vying for attention with the statue of the Archangel Michael sheathing his sword from the top of this medieval citadel-castle. Far below, our footsteps ring on the cobbled courtyards and stony steps as we proceed through a labyrinth of corridors, terraces, shallow stairways and ironclad portals of this bastioned fortress within this ancient city on the Tiber. I am at the Castel San Angelo on this Roman summer's night.

Originally, this fifty metre high fortress started out as a tomb, conceived by the emperor Hadrian as his mausoleum, which later transformed into a fortified castle, also used as a prison, and which now houses a military museum.

Legend has it that in 590 when Rome was under the onslaught of plague, a mass prayer was held by St.Gregory the Great; soon after, an angel was seen on top of the roof, sheathing its sword, which marked the end of the epidemic and the origin of the building's name. Later centuries saw the castle being claimed by popes as well as imperial forces.

Tonight, treading the cobbled interior, I feel as if I were a hooded priest hurrying through its maze of halls and passages, not unlike the hidden escape route connecting the castle to the Vatican, carrying some secret message for some papal intrigue. Never mind that my mission tonight is not secret but somewhat godlier and certainly goodlier than papal conspiracies. I am in quest of the source of the Sufi music coming faintly yet incongruously through these stolid Roman walls. Actually, I only imagine I can hear the Qawwali music that I am here to see performed in one of the open courtyards of the Castle. The thickness of the stones prevents any superfluous sounds from escaping. We climb higher and higher in search of our musicians.

We pass an open courtyard where a medieval game of fencing and spear throwing is taking place; at another, we hear the beat of Spanish drums and guitars. Leaving that behind, we finally hear the cracking slaps and claps of human hands keeping beat to the music about the unearthly beloved. Quite suddenly we arrive into a surreal vision: a giant statue of an angel stands like a benign but brooding presence, below which sits the sprawling team of Muslim choir, warming up to its rousing hymn. The audience, mostly curious initiates as well as a few hard-core aficionados, sits under the open sky, half swaying to the mounting passion of the rhythm and beat of the Qawwals from Pakistan.

I lose myself equally in the ambience as in the Sufi music; for me it is the music both of the sphere as well as the atmosphere. Later, as the performance closes with the staccato refrain from Shahbaaz Qalandar, we leave the courtyard to climb even higher towards the roof terrace at the next level from where the stretching vista of the city's many lit-up bridges and domes and alleys and monuments, along with the effect of the now receding music, makes my heart fuller than the moon, more buoyant than a balloon. As we walk down the ramp of steps, passing courtyards and terraces down to the ground level, and then through the gigantic portal out into the cobbled streets near the Tiber, I gaze up to my moon-shaped heart caught among the ramparts high up on an angel-graced, fairytale castle.


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