Singing Bodies and Dancing Sounds Photo: Masoumeh Jalalieh, Kalut Shahdad Desert (Iran); photo credits © Klaartje Lambrechts

Singing Bodies and Dancing Sounds

October 16, 202011-15 minutes read

Written by:

Masoumeh Jalalieh

Edited by:

Andrei Rusu

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As the whole world went into lockdown and all of a sudden everything got limited to the houses we are living in, I started dusting my attic and at a certain point, a substantial dusty figure caught my eye. It was my old loom!

I remember my grandmother teaching me how to weave and make knots with colourful yarns. Weaving and knotting, my imagination moved between the warps and wefts, then got tied to the dyed threads. It followed the piles and walked me from one row to another. The comb beater did not only press and compact the knots on top of each other, it sealed my inner conversation behind the warps, then it was pulled forward with the hooked-like knife.

The comb beater, which is used after each row to press the knots to the pile, I applied after every few knots because of the sound it was producing. It sounded like a drum to the music I was singing. Yes, I was singing as my imagination was moving between the horizontal and vertical lines of the loom.

My grandmother didn’t anticipate such a strong interest from one of her grandchildren for carpet weaving. This was, after all, only her suggestion to keep me busy. I, on the other hand, didn’t imagine that in later life, as a choreographer, I would think back of those moments at the loom, wondering whether they formed a kind of basis for what came next.

I keep thinking about the moving bodies and the fact that reading the pattern can turn into music for the weavers who are spending most of their time sitting behind the loom being in a place, but moving freely within their sound and imagination, thus shaping the singing culture and music of an era and region without even having the intention to do so.
Persian carpet
Persian carpet

Carpet weaving and singing

Little could I know, having fun at my grandmother’s loom, that I was becoming part of an almost forgotten tradition among Iranian carpet weavers. Iranian pattern singing consists of different methods, depending on the region, religion and the musicality of the dialect or language of the weavers in question. In his recent research on the relation between weaving and singing, musician Mehdi Aminian describes Iranian pattern singing – the technique of reading the pattern of the carpet in song – as consisting of recitals and tunes serving as “a guide of patterns for the weavers while they are weaving”. There’s another part of the weaving process, taking place “in the form of storytelling, singing, poetry and prayer recital”, which he argues it influences the labour process.

Persian culture is highly connected to the earth and Iranians have a very strong connection to the soil. The influence of the hot and dry climate can be seen on culture and tradition, as people tend to spend a lot of time on the ground, even sleep. Therefore, the first solution was to find something natural to cover the floor, that nonetheless would keep the connection to the ground. That may well be one of the reasons the carpet got invented in the first place.

We don't know when exactly the history of carpet weaving in Iran began. However, the Persian carpet was first documented around 400 BC, by the Greek historian Xenophon in his book Anabasis. From simply a material to cover the floor, the carpet little by little turned not only into an interdisciplinary artwork for sale and export but also a royal present. Carpets were woven all around the region by royal court manufacturers, in village and town workshops, and by tribal nomads.

However, this art/craft is about to vanish, and inevitably with its disappearance a part of history will be lost. Carpet weaving is a representation of Iranian traditions and relative to the history of Iran and its people, their daily life, which is indeed a part of their identity. From clipping wool off the tribe sheep to the moment the carpet becomes a part of the house for children perhaps as a large pattern to play on, from spinning the wool to the ritual of pattern singing, from collecting natural substitutes to the moment the elderly take a rest and reconnect with the ground, all of these are different parts of the identity that is about to disappear.

I call carpet weaving interdisciplinary because of its interactive form: we see it, we touch it and we can hear it. The patterns which carry a special story, the stories the weavers sing during the weaving process and even how we use it after it is produced, for example in gatherings, rituals and ceremonies. In gatherings of the tribe or family, the carpet proposes a frame or space to gather inside on.

In the case of ritual healing dances, such as the le’b guati, a ritual dance involving music, trance, and movement, performed to rid a person of what is believed to be a possessing spirit, or in the case of Zār, another kind of spiritual dance, the carpet becomes a stage. Zār is a form of women-only entertainment. These gatherings involve food and musical performances and they culminate in ecstatic dancing, lasting between three and seven nights. In wedding ceremonies, a special carpet is hung behind the bride and the groom, not only as a decoration but also to absorb what is believed to be accumulated negative energy.

According to traditional beliefs, the negative energy of others can cause misfortunes for the hosts (accident, illness, infertility,...) therefore some symbols were used, for example Amulet (a triangular shape thwarts the evil eye) in their carpets or costume to repel the negative energy from themselves. This carpet is specially woven for the marriage ceremony and the mother of the bride used to weave it and place it in the dowry.

When I was a child I used to start whirling on the carpet and looking at the patterns which were getting dissolved into each other as I was turning around and around. I was unaware of the traditional dance called Sama— the spiritual practice of listening to music and seeking unity with the Divine through whirling. I was just enjoying the games the carpet was proposing to me. So we see its form change from a horizontal cover to a stage or frame, or to a vertical canvas and backdrop according to different conditions.

Masoumeh Jalalieh – Decline; photo © Klaartje Lambrechts
Masoumeh Jalalieh – Decline; photo © Klaartje Lambrechts

The songs and the carpet

The songs have been sung in the weavers’ different languages, dialects and accents (there is a wide range of different languages, accents and ethnicities in Iran). So there is a relation between the language of each region and the songs the weavers from this specific region sing, and of course the music of that area which is again related to their language and the musical instruments they have in each region.

It's not clear whether variations of the carpet pattern are inspired by songs or they both are affected by social and cultural differences of the region in which carpets are woven. However, what is evident is that carpets are very distinctive in patterns just like the span of languages and dialects in these regions. What did they sing? Either the pattern of the carpet or folkloric songs.

Pattern singing is all about singing the pattern of the carpet to guide the weavers through the pattern with the name of different colours and the number of knots or shapes of the motifs . These shapes are derived from existing symbols, animals (e.g: ibex), plants and trees (e.g: cypress), birds (e.g: eagle), geometrical shapes (e.g: cross). It is like a conversation between the person who is reading the pattern and the co-weavers giving a sign of following the pattern to stay together on the same level of weaving.

Folkloric songs, on the other hand, are about epics, spiritual metaphors, the heroes and heroines who were surviving hardships and wars. Moreover, they are sung in daily occasions such as weddings, mourning ceremonies, lullabies, praising the environment and seasons and during work such as carpet weaving, harvests, fishing or as therapeutic remedies for the people who are ill. In that way, folkloric songs play the role of connectors between the carpet or carpet weaving and daily life. In both categories, pattern singing or folkloric songs, you might see a group of weavers all move almost in the same way and direction with the same rhythm.

The natural colours in pattern singing

Once as we were walking outdoors, my grandmother picked a pomegranate from a tree and explained to me how the wool was dyed. Each region has its unique natural vegetation with its own features which make different types of colours of the carpets in different regions of Iran. Madder root is used to make a range of reds, oranges and purples and in some other regions, they use pomegranate or insect dye or lac, derived from the shells of beetles. For example the red cochineal bug dyes. Yellow comes from saffron or, in other areas, from weld. Blue was traditionally made with indigo. Green was made by over-dyeing indigo with weld or by mixing indigo or cobalt with saffron. And many, many other colours are taken from different plants of each region of the world in our daily life. At the same time, these working conditions, naturally, shaped my style and my artistic identity.

However, it is another story with the nomads. They move from low altitudes to higher ones or in dry, flat, vast deserts where water and grass can scarcely be found. They move from their winter locations to summer grazing lands with their livestock and move back to their winter locations again in search of more favourable weather for their families and their animals. Their carpets are mostly in smaller sizes because of their horizontal looms which are designed to be portable so to be carried around easily. The nomadic carpet weavers are less organised in groups and it is more individual weavers telling stories or reciting prayer or poetry in general to outburst their emotions.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that carpet weaving and the pattern singing that accompanies it, and especially the nomadic carpet weaving resemble my own artistic life. I never had a studio to rehearse and work on my ideas, therefore, my room and living room were the only places I had to build up my projects, and thus the outcome was mostly solos or duets or trios which were happening in small spaces. In the same way, my settings were never complicated. In Decline, the first of my minimalistic solos which toured internationally, I used no more than a simple stool. The first reason for this was that this stool was easy to carry around and did not take up much space, yet referred to one of the main objects we use all around the world.

Dancing while singing the pattern

I keep thinking about the moving bodies and the fact that reading the pattern can turn into music for the weavers who are spending most of their time sitting behind the loom being in a place, but moving freely within their sound and imagination, thus shaping the singing culture and music of an era and region without even having the intention to do so.

From where I stand, the weavers are dancing while singing the pattern and their bodies turn into music that we can see. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of dancing sounds and singing bodies. In my piece Time paranoia I mapped the rhythm of each separate musical instrument of the score, and started to search through it for possible patterns which could offer some movements. These movement patterns could be either the performer's position or its movements in the space, also performers relate to each other. In that way I was trying to make the music to be seen and the movement to be heard.

This performance was in a way like a carpet weaving and the performers were like the weavers following the patterns and interacting with each other to shape a dance piece instead of a carpet. As a choreographer I always proceed with my work as a carpet weaver, I let the pattern shape the movements, songs and conversations of the piece. I search for a solution to the needs we have as contemporary humans and try to find a global language which could be understood by audiences all around the world in a way a carpet can communicate with everyone from any place.

In my solo “Decline” (the one with the stool) I followed a more conceptual idea which was inspired by the daily activity of sitting and standing up. It is something every person around the world does several times a day. However, by changing the pattern of the movement but not the movement itself, the composition of movement and music was constantly changing and offering new interpretations to the audience. This solo is derived from the daily activity of contemporary human beings, just like the carpets which reflect the atmosphere of the weavers' life characteristics through the time.

Experiencing such a flourishing craft as a child undoubtedly influenced my character and viewpoint, even in my artistic character. I believe it is important as a contemporary artist to acknowledge history and identity in my works. My next research, and the performance that will come out of it, will be around the symbols in Persian carpets. The cypress tree, which is the sign of immortality, eternity, grandeur, goodness, because of its long life and being evergreen, is an important one. It has been called the tree of life and among trees, it has a powerful mythological feature. The cypress standing strongly has been viewed as sacred from ancient times among Persians. Cypress grows directly and in one line upwardly and because it doesn’t interfere with other trees in the vicinity, it is called a free tree. According to some, the attribution of freedom and unboundedness of the cypress is reminiscent of its affinity to Naahid/Anahita – the ancient Persian goddess of fertility, water, health and healing, wisdom and freedom in mythology. Symbols have travelled through time, different dynasties and leaders within different ethnic groups and religions, and today we see them in paintings, sculptures, carpets and we hear them in stories, poems, and songs. We use them in our daily conversations.

I am currently thinking about ways to translate carpet weaving more directly into choreography. Studying the Weaver's body movements and their movement habits, will allow me to understand more about their identity, beliefs, life and, foremost, of their art and its connection to mine. In the way my grandmother taught me how to weave, now I will tell my grandmother and all other members of my audience the story which is happening on the other side of the loom.

Main photo: © Klaartje Lambrechts

*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN.
About the Author

Masoumeh Jalalieh

Masoumeh Jalalieh is an artist based in Tehran, Iran, working on performative body arts, such as physical theatre (mime) and contemporary dance.

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