In 2007, A group of friends met at a Turkish tea house called Konya in Granada to play music together, for the joy of it. These European Muslim friends connected through their love for music and its use for spiritual expression. Out of this, Al Kauthar was born – the origins of Al Firdaus Ensemble.
After considerable success as Al Kauthar, the original team moved in different directions. In 2012, Ali Keeler initiated a new group, with a mix of former and new members, under the name of Al Firdaus, with the vision to connect with their spiritual heart through music.
“At our best we hope to be able to nurture through music the highest principles of love for God, and those He loves, love for our fellow human being, and the love of His creation”
In a time full of emotional and physical conflict, Al Firdaus Ensemble’s deeply inspired music has the power to move hearts toward something meaningful. Earlier this year their concerts in the US were sold out, proving to be a timely reminder of the deep spirituality and beauty of Islam-inspired action.
We caught up with Ali, Al Firdaus’ lead musician, who is currently crowdfunding their second album. He shares stories of the people behind the music, their experiences, inspirations, and other gems.
1. What is your vision for Al Firdaus Ensemble?
The desire to produce beauty, in whatever form that may be, comes from the source of all beauty. According to a prophetic saying: “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” In Sufi poetry al hadi is often mentioned – the one in the caravan who sings special songs to the camels to motivate them to keep trotting on so that the caravan reaches its destination.
In the same way, spiritual music can inspire us to keep advancing along the path and is a source of refreshment for the weary traveler. I have also come to realize from comments of people who listen to our music that it has a healing quality. This is an aspect which I would like to develop, so more people in need can receive the healing benefits of our music.
I think we have an important role to play, especially during these times full of conflict and misunderstanding, in building bridges between communities of different faiths, and spreading peace both spiritual and social. People from all backgrounds irrespective of the religion or cultural background can enjoy our music. That is our experience on our travels as a group, during the last 4 years.
2. Who are the musicians part of the ensemble? We’d love to hear some fun facts or interesting stories…
I would like to start with Salma, (ladies first). Salma is from Elche a town near Alicante with a million date palms, part of the Muslim agricultural heritage of Al Andalus. She started playing cello at the age of 7 and is an accomplished classical cellist.
Salma has always been connected with the Arab culture and it is her interest in Arabic music that led her to Islam. She took up the lute as her second instrument and started a group called Nakhla which is the Arabic word for a palm tree. She moved to Granada to finish her musical studies and that is where we met.
Yusuf El Mezghildi resides in Granada and is an internationally known Qanun master fromTetouan, a Northern Moroccan city founded by a Granadian refugee expelled from Spain during the inquisition. Yusuf came to Granada more than 10 years ago invited by famous flamenco artists, such as the late legendary singer Enrique Morente who he accompanied in numerous concerts. I discovered his acrobatic skills in London at the beginning of a concert when he got just too close to the edge of the stage and fell backwards with his instrument almost achieving a full back flip. He managed to keep hold of his Qanun and fortunately escaped injury!
Omar Benlamlih comes from a Fezi family with Andalusian roots. He came to Granada as a student of business administration. He was already an accomplished singer and percussionist having studied in Morocco learning from an early age in the zawiyas. In that time Granada was going through a revival of its Islamic history and there was great interest in Andalusi arts and culture.
Before long Omar found himself performing with different groups of Arabic, Andalusi and Flamenco fusion.
We have been recently joined by the Venezuelan drummer Muhammad Dominguez who became a skilled drummer accompanying belly-dancers. He then journeyed to Granada where he discovered Islam and now he puts his skills at the service of music which moves hearts before bodies. Allah Almighty guides people in mysterious ways.
The two drummers have a great time setting off each other and when they get going together, latino versus Morocco, sparks fly.
I’m so fortunate to be accompanied by these musicians and am constantly learning from them. My musical background was in classical violin. I started learning the violin at the age of 7. However from an early age I started listening to traditional music from India, Egypt and other parts of the world.
I was particularly inspired by the great Egyptian Quran reciters such as Sheikh Mahmud Khalil Husary. At the age of 14, I remember saying to the house master at my boarding school when he asked me what I wanted to be, “I want to be a violinist or a Quran reciter.”
It is in the project of Al Firdaus Ensemble that I have been able to do both. The Quran is of course the highest and purest form of music and we try to start all our concerts with a recitation of Quran to receive the light and grace of the Divine speech.
After several years playing together with the same musicians you develop a chemistry where by each musician knows intuitively what to do and is able to improvise freely. You also develop a way of communicating through eye contact. I have the habit of introducing the songs and a tendency to talk for too long (I’m working on brevity). A frown from Omar is a sign that I should wrap it up.
3. What is the motivation behind this album?
The new album is a great creative opportunity for the band. It is also an opportunity to renew our repertoire and to progress further, exploring new musical spheres. To produce an album with a variety of songs is like producing a necklace with different coloured stones. It is not just important that the individual beads are beautiful but that they are in congruence with each other.
We want to keep the musical identity that we established with our first album Safa and at the same time introduce new elements. We will continue to explore that space where different musical traditions meet including Celtic, Arabic, Andalusi and Turkish traditions. We will use some instruments not used in the first album and some new languages.
I don’t want to give a way too much. Also, during the course of the recording anything can happen. The final result is never how you expected it would turn out.
4. What is the key message & impact you want your music to contribute to the world?
All musical traditions are related, just as all human beings are related despite their different languages and skin colours.
We hope that through our new music we can show this strong connection between musical traditions. We also hope to communicate with and touch the hearts of a wider audience and to help awaken more souls into a state of consciousness of the Real. When we reach closer to our essence our differences seem more and more trivial.
Click here to support Al Firdaus Ensemble’s crowdfunding campaign for their second album, so that we can hear more of this moving music.
I’ll leave you with this beautiful piece from their previous album:
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