he general hilarity of living across the street from a Sufi master was tempered by the very fact of the master, whose measured sense of purpose had inspired thousands around the world, including, of course, his family. Every so often I think even the tramps in Godot find that life is no laughing matter.
Inayat Khan, born in Baroda in 1882, (d.1927) and whose archives we were involved in, was a consummate musician. A highly renowned singer, he was also a master of a stringed instrument from India called the veena. It was through his music that his Sufi teacher in India recognized his extraordinary talents and said to him, “Go harmonize East and West with your music.” Inayat Khan left India in 1910, giving concerts and lectures and eventually settled in Suresnes, France, across the street from the beleaguered house we had been triumphantly remodeling.
Coleman Barks writes, “Inayat Khan brought one of the strongest and sweetest lineages from India to the West: the music and open heart of Sufism as it blends with Persian poetry and Western intellect. He is a source and a great joy.” (Coleman Barks, author of Open Secret and The Essential Rumi.)
A general understanding of Indian Sufism (Wikipedia) suggests that “The Sufi teachings of divine spirituality, cosmic harmony, love, and humanity resonated with the common people and still does so today.” Humanity is the best part, I think. The yogis like samadhi, merging with the one. But the Sufi likes the steps along the way. The historical self (hysterical self), so often repudiated, has its many charms for the Sufi.
Music for Inayat Khan was his Sufi path. For him it was the way the world was organized. People were like notes on the piano. (God help you if you were a b flat stuck with a c sharp—this is purely me.) Music was the way the raw material of life was composed into meaning. Because he understood music so deeply he transmitted its essential nature first to his own children, who were all accomplished musicians, and then to other musicians. Unfortunately, though, we don’t have any recordings of Inayat Khan’s music, although I have heard there are some vanished recordings, which hopefully will come to light.
I happened to read a post from the newsletter the Creative Independent, featuring the musician Laraaji. In a footnote, he mentioned Inayat Khan’s Music of Life as an inspiration. Laaraji’s latest release is called Sun Piano, in keeping with his (and Inayat Khan’s) view that music ought to inspire. And so I got curious. Anybody else out there with an Inayat Khan vibe? In April 2019, saxophonist David Liebman was featured in a JazzTimes article. And here’s how it begins, with a quote from Inayat Khan:
“Music should be healing, music should uplift the soul, music should inspire. There is no better way of getting closer to God, of rising higher towards the spirit, of attaining spiritual perfection than music, if only it is rightly understood.”-Hazrat Inayat
Liebman goes on to reflect about idealism, spirituality in music. Here’s the article.
No, wait, what? John Coltrane and Inayat Khan? Yes, ma’am.
Another article, this one called, “Jazz Great Coltrane and the Enchantment of Islam” by Shalom Goldman who says that “By 1957 Coltrane was free of his addictions and living a healthier and more spiritual life. He wrote that ‘My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music. … My music is the spiritual expression of what I am.’
“Later,” Goldman continues, “Lateef [saxophonist]suggested that Coltrane read, ‘The Mysticism of Sound’ by the Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan. Among Inayat Khan’s teachings was that ‘To attain spirituality is to realize that the whole universe is one symphony in which every individual is one note. His happiness lies in becoming perfectly harmonious with the symphony of the universe.’”
A Love Supreme is probably the pinnacle of Coltrane’s expression of this understanding of music, but it is challenging to listen to. So here’s a short clip from Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.”
PARADISE IN A MINOR KEY
You can imagine that when we crossed the street from the commotion and grit of remodeling to visit Inayat Khan’s family home, gifted him by one of his students, it was an event. You entered a green gate, climbed a series of stone steps with landings for you to catch your breath, and to admire the stone angel presiding over the garden below, before you made your way to the ornate wooden door.
Inside, a long hallway, tiled in a beautiful blue and grey, led to an elegant staircase. To the right of the hallway was the entrance to the residence of his eldest son who had studied cello with Pablo Casals. Just inside the doorway stood, in pride of place, a grand harp which belonged to Inayat Khan’s eldest daughter. And to the left of the hallway, a locked door signifying the entrance to the Oriental Room, a large room with a fireplace, filled with Indian screens, carved wooden tables, and gorgeous rugs where Inayat Khan played his veena and meditated. Up the stairs you would find the youngest daughter and pianist and her lovely grand piano. And on the lower floor, the son with the violin. Even in his absence, the home of Inayat Khan, Fazil Manzil, was still filled with music.
I think you can see it was the world divided into night and day. Night was the hurley burley of daily existence, getting a house going, a child educated, a publication series underway. Day was like waiting for Godot, not the uncertain, unreliable Godot that we know, but rather the essence of the man, the musician and the mystic who had brought Sufism to the West. There was an added air of melancholy because Inayat Khan had died so young, jolting his young children into a difficult world and depriving them of the pleasure of their father. Perhaps Godot had come but then had gone. That makes the wait all the more painful.
Now all this sounds rather grand, doesn’t it?
(But don’t worry, in the swing from the sublime to the ridiculous, next week we will be back across the street trying to communicate with French people by inadvertently telling them we desire them sexually.)