Cellist David Darling will be among the artists doing so in a series of performances to honor and celebrate the words of the Sufi poet Rumi this weekend.
By Naila Francis
“In your light I learn how love.
In your beauty, how to make poems.
You dance inside my chest,
where no one sees you,
but sometimes I do,
and that sight becomes this art.”
David Darling could never claim a favorite.
Neither, probably, could the countless admirers and devotees who have been moved by the sumptuous, soulful words and teachings of Mawlana Jalal-ud-Din Balkhi-Rumi — or Rumi, as he is known in the United States.
Here, the great Sufi mystic, Persian-language poet and Islamic scholar has become the country’s most popular poet, despite his un-American origins — he was born in Balkh, or present-day Afghanistan — and his having been dead for more than 700 years.
His poetry, brought to life, and into mainstream consciousness, by Coleman Barks, a former University of Georgia professor who has become the foremost translator of his writings, tends to arrest those who encounter it, whether that discovery is an accidental stumbling or guided initiation.
The rich language, the images, both sensual and playful, conveying both a deep yearning for the highest expression of love, as well as an ecstatic awareness of God’s omnipresence — to discover Rumi, as Barks once put it, is “to deepen your connection to the mystery of being alive.”
His poems are rife with such keen insight of what it is to be human while ever striving toward the spiritual that to have one favorite, or even a few, is impossible.
For Darling, the renowned cellist who has often accompanied Barks in performances where he reads from his translations, the joy is in constantly rediscovering their wisdom and humor, as Rumi’s evocative words strike with greater resonance against the heart each time they are read or heard. While much of his poetry appears to be romantic in nature, Rumi’s devotion was really to the source of all creation, his praise and his longing both expressions of seeking absolute union with this divine presence.
“These poems never seem to get old,” says Darling, a Grammy-nominated artist whose prolific collections of recordings span a multitude of musical genres, as well as collaborations in the performing arts. “There are things that are so beautiful and always so profound and they always reveal themselves in different ways in different listenings.
“Rumi is like Mozart or any of those great lights that have come out in the planet and into our consciousness. The messages that have come out of him are unbelievable.”
While Darling has performed on stages around the globe for more than 30 years, beginning with his days as part of the acclaimed Paul Winter Consort to his many appearances with artists from Munich’s ECM label with whom he has long shared a rewarding partnership, few things compare to the gig he will have this weekend when he comes to the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Center in Philadelphia.
Darling, along with Grammy-winning percussionist Glen Velez, will accompany Barks when he reads from his translations during the “One House — Many Doors” performances, being presented Friday and Saturday by the Philadelphia Society for Art, Literature & Music (PSALM) in conjunction with Penn Presents and the Philadelphia Dialog Forum, a Turkish-American organization devoted to promoting understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. The event will also feature the Whirling Dervishes of Istanbul, who will demonstrate the ancient ritual of turning — or Sema — which was inspired by Rumi.
The program is being presented as part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s 2007 International Year of Rumi, marking the 800th anniversary of the poet’s birth.
For Darling, appearing onstage with Barks is always a wondrous experience.
“I’ve been so lucky to be with him so many times,” says the Goshen, Conn., resident. “He’s an American original — it’s so charming that he can speak in this southern drawl and yet be so authentic. I’ve heard some of the poems now so many times, and seeing that he’s affected by them every time. … It’s a very special performance. It rates with the great gigs I’ve had in my life.”
The musical accompaniment, whether provided by Darling and Velez or the numerous other musicians who have shared the stage with Barks over the years, is essential to the poems’ delivery, as Rumi himself often claimed music as a metaphor for what connects us to God.
“We do know from all the scholars that he insisted that the readings be accompanied by music and dance and be acted out,” says Darling, whose recordings include “Cello Blue” and “8-String Religion.” “All we’re doing is enhancing what history has told us.”
He does share in Rumi’s passion for music — and art, in general — as a means to experience the sacred.
“Just being in a creative field, you realize you’re probably as close to what God is as anything there is,” says Darling. “The spirit of art and creativity is the greatest entity we human beings have in all cultures and it’s devoid of politics or racism or fanaticism. It’s about the soul of human beings.”
He discovered Rumi more than 10 years ago after reading a story about composer Leonard Bernstein requesting that several of Rumi’s poems be read to him on the afternoon of his death.
“It was obvious that it was something that was causing a stir,” says Darling. “Soon thereafter, it seemed that every place I turned I kept hearing something about Rumi. I’d get e-mails and friends of mine would send me quotes and I’d go to workshops and the workshop leaders would give a quote from Rumi. And all of a sudden, instead of him being never present, he was always present. It’s now part of the fabric of my daily life.”
It wasn’t long before he was invited to perform with Barks. Yet while the music is vital to these live readings, its presence is also a subtle one.
“There is an element of being extremely sensitive to not overwhelming the reading of the poetry. The music is not primary; it’s part of it, but it can help beautifully set a mood,” says Darling. “We’re still doing a lot of improvisation throughout every performance and that’s one of the great beauties of it for a person like myself. It’s just laughable that I get to do this — to show up and do what you hear at the moment. Every hall is different where you play because of the acoustics of the hall and the vibration that the audience is giving and Coleman never reads it the same way. You witness him going deep and then you go deep with him, and then he’s laughing with you and at you and then admiring the music ….
“Every time these concerts take place, the audience leaves feeling so inspired. We’re in a place of spirituality the entire evening. There’s a gentleness to it and one tends to drop some of the pretension and just be disarmed by the words and the way they come out in such a wonderful way. It makes us feel like we’re in a community and like life is a beautiful thing to take part in.”
– The Intelligencer