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Minding the Contextual Gap: Sufism, the Stage, and the Ambiguities of Modular Culture

Richard Jankowsky

Tufts University 

Sufisms in North Africa are both esoteric and exoteric; that is, they harbor hidden forms of knowledge and experience known only to initiates but perform them regularly in rituals that are public or semi-public, making them accessible to all. When musics of these rituals are brought onto the concert stage, then, they pose analytical challenges to binaries such as spectatorship/participation, desacralization/resacralization, and loss/renewal. In Tunisia, the staging of Sufi music has been monopolized for decades by a staged spectacle called El-Hadhra, which, along with its offshoots and competitors, proceeds according to a modular logic of culture in which music, dance, trance, and other aspects of ritual are approached as separable, extractable, and available for recombination in a plug-and-play manner. This paper unpacks the implications of this logic of modularity through a close reading of El-Hadhra that focuses on strategies of minimizing and maximizing the “contextual gap” between ritual and stage performances. The resulting ambiguities, I argue, are inextricable from changing social, religious, and commercial values ascribed to Sufism over the past century. 


January 25, 2017


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