Tunisia’s Issawiyya Music and Its Evolution
By Dr Hisham bin Umar, Tunisia
Heritage is classified as ‘material’ (buildings, tools and other artefacts) or ‘non-material’, which includes ideas, theories, customs, beliefs and even aspirations as well as legacies recorded on various physical media from stone to paper and those recorded in Man's individual and collective memory, such as behavioural practices and oral narrations that are transmitted on a regular basis in the form of news, stories, wisdom, proverbs, chants and so on.
Important non-material elements include the musical records adopted by followers of popular Sufi orders. These oral narratives are often passed down through the generations, and they include historical data and testimonies related to the field of cultural and social anthropology. They are indicative of various features of the social structure in various Sufi organisations and all of their ideologically-based practices.
Research into these non-material records that have accumulated over centuries is akin to excavation at an archaeological site. There are many valuable pieces that require research, classification and documentation so they can be analysed from various perspectives. This involves identifying their components, highlighting their creators’ aims, exploring the various artistic methods adopted during their formation, and revealing the interrelationships among Islamic Sufi methods and other ideologies and practices. Some of these may go back to sociocultural fields that have absolutely nothing to do with the religious ideological orientation and to pre-Islamic beliefs and legacies.
These oral recordings are a cultural artefact, and the majority of their ethnographic origins stretches beyond the specific geographic area in which they evolved; their historical roots date back to times before their formation and dissemination.
Because of my first-hand field experience, I picked the traditional musical sector and examined the chanting routines and musical practices of the popular Sufi order known as ‘Issawiyya’, which is prevalent in nearly every region of Tunisia.
I divided the work into three parts. In the first, I attempted to show the Sufi organisation's origins as well as the conditions that allowed it to arise and spread. In the second, I documented all of the oral and vocal ceremonial procedures practiced in Tunisia by the followers of this Sufi order. In the third, I documented the most significant developments in Issawiyya and changes in its musical practices and in social roles in Tunisia.