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Ambient Sufism

Ritual Niches and the Social Work of Musical Form

Ambient Sufism

Ritual Niches and the Social Work of Musical Form

Ambient Sufism is a study of the intertwined musical lives of several ritual communities in Tunisia that invoke the healing powers of long-deceased Muslim saints through music-driven trance rituals. Richard C. Jankowsky illuminates the virtually undocumented role of women and minorities in shaping the ritual musical landscape of the region, with case studies on men’s and women’s Sufi orders, Jewish and black Tunisian healing musical troupes, and the popular music of hard-drinking laborers, as well as the cohorts involved in mass-mediated staged spectacles of ritual that continue to inject ritual sounds into the public sphere. He uses the term “ambient Sufism” to illuminate these adjacent ritual practices, each serving as a musical, social, and devotional-therapeutic niche while contributing to a larger, shared ecology of practices surrounding and invoking the figures of saints. And he argues that ritual musical form—that is, the large-scale structuring of ritual through musical organization—has agency; that is, form is revealing and constitutive of experience and encourages particular subjectivities. Ambient Sufism promises many useful ideas for ethnomusicology, anthropology, Islamic and religious studies, and North African studies. 

272 pages | 9 halftones, 20 musical examples, 9 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2020

Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology

African Studies

Middle Eastern Studies

Music: Ethnomusicology

Religion: Islam, Religion and Society


“It was a real delight to read Ambient Sufism: Ritual Niches and the Social Work of Musical Form. This book is important. It brings a wealth of ethnographic experience and expertise to bear on foundational questions in ethnomusicology and the anthropology of ritual.”

Jeffers Engelhardt, Amherst College

“Stepping away from a focus on a single tradition, genre, or community, Jankowsky offers a fine-grained study of an entire complex field of sonic practice rooted in the neighborhoods and shrines of post-revolutionary Tunis. In sensitively tracing how diverse micro-communities touch shoulders around a common pool of musical and affective resources, Ambient Sufism is a signal contribution to the study of North African music, popular religious practice, and the social power of musical form.“

Jonathan Glasser, William and Mary

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

List of Website Figures and Audio, Video, and Musical Examples

Notes on Transliteration, Musical Notation, and Companion Website


1 Introduction: Ambient Sufism

2 Ritual Reflexivity: Musicality, Sufi Pedigrees, and the Masters of “Intoxication”

3 Ritual Hospitality: Women Sufis and the Musical Ethics of Accommodation

4 Ritual Alterity: The Musical Management of Sub-Saharan Otherness

5 Ritual Remnants: Legacies of Jewish-Muslim Ritual Musical Convergences

6 Ritual as Resource: Set-List Modularity and the Cultural Politics of Staging Sufi Music

7 Conclusion: Ritual Niches and the Social Work of Musical Form



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