Rock Era Magazine continues its journey of exploring and analyzing Loreena McKennitt‘s music. The previous part was about Lorena’s earliest releases: “Elemental” (1985), “Parallel Dreams” (1989), and “The Visit” (1991). While this one tackles one of the most celebrated albums by the artist “The Mask and Mirror” (1994).
The Mask and Mirror (1994)
“I looked back and forth through the window of 15th century Spain, through the hues of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and was drawn into a fascinating world: history, religion, cross-cultural fertilization…who was God? and what is religion, what spirituality? What was revealed and what was concealed…and what was the mask and what the mirror?” L.M.
Released in 1994, “The Mask and Mirror” is, in my opinion, a turning point in Loreena’s music. It is a continuation of her spiritual and historical journey which is why her music is influenced by various genres; it is a hybrid of Celtic and Oriental music, Spanish folklore and the melodic calls of the Troubadour.
The album is opened with “The Mystic’s Dream“. The first time I listened to it, I sensed it was deeply philosophical and spiritual due to the instrumental intro with Loreena’s chanting, the sound of the Oud (lute) and Nai (Flute), and the deep church-hymns influenced chorus. I felt that the musical pattern of “The Mystic’s Dream” is influenced by an old Spanish musical rhythm, known as “Mowashahaat”, which is one of the common artistic forms in Ancient Spain, Andalusia had a massive impact on other folk rhythms such as the Troubadour.
Here is a link of one of the most famous “Andalusian Mowashahaat” called “Mann Alif El Hob Bakah” (Who Cries is Who Experienced Love). This piece was used as an intro for a famous Syrian series called “Rabeei Qortoba” (Cordoba’s Spring). The series talks about the Cordoba’s political and social life during the lifetime of Al Manzor Muhammed Ibn Abi Amer. In the video, you will have a chance to see a real-looking simulation of old Spain.
Going back to my first listening to the track, its intro reminded me of “Arsal Allah” (God has Sent) by Lebanese and oriental music legend Fairuz. I believe that there are common points among Loreena, Fairuz and the Greek Haris Alexiou who was mentioned last part. Alexiou’s “Mia Pista Apo Fosforo” carried also the same pattern. They have various similarities in terms of music, live performance, tone, physical appearance, and recalling traditions and roots.
Back to “The Mystic’s Dream“, the track expresses a mood of divine love, meditation, and purity. Loreena depends on the spiritual dimensions of music and how they move a person’s inner feelings until they reach a psychological state where they are detached from materialistic existence. Muslim thinkers Ikhwan El Safah highlighted the physical and spiritual impact of music through their “The Brethren of Purity“. In this context, Professor and Author Fadlou Shehadi explains in his “Philosophies of Music in Medieval Islam,”
“The Ikhwan first approach sound as physicists, discussing its nature, its causal conditions and its subdivisions. There is also a brief explanation of the process of perceiving sound. When they come to musical sounds and the combinations that make up a musical composition, they shift to the biological and psychological effects of music on the listener,” Mysticism itself is a common concept among all religions and beliefs. The Sufis aim at experiencing wisdom, increasing their mental skills, and spiritual traveling away from the chains of the human body and the restrictions of reality.
The lyrics themselves are highly influenced by the book that Loreena mentioned, “The Sufis” by Idries Shah, which I had the chance to come across. It is really impressive that Shah dove into the basics of the Sufi literature and linked it with traditions, noting that it originates from various other religions and civilizations (Indian, Celtic, Greek and Christianity). He also pointed out that mysticism is a way to knowledge, not a certain religion.
Loreena used a semi-Sufi discourse in “The Mystic’s Dream” lyrics. She depended on certain images and structures influenced by her spiritual readings. For example,
A voiceless song in an ageless light
Sings at the coming dawn
Birds in flight are calling there
where the heart moves the stones
there that my heart is longing for
All for, for the love of you
I think, what she means by the “Voiceless Song”, is the harmonious activity of existence, such as the organized activity of day and night, the portraits of the stars, the magic of the moon shining the desert, the sounds of birds, and how creatures adapt themselves in their environment. This concept is a holistic one.
“The Mystic’s Dream” is my most favorite Loreena McKennitt’s track so I can speak endlessly about this track. The music brings so many images before my eyes: the first scene of Loreena’s “Nights from Alhambra” DVD when she passed her hands on the walls of Alhambra, the first time I went to the historical El Sultan Al Ashraf mosque, established in 1437 near my home, and touched the historical walls of it, the religious breeze of noon prayers, the gathering of the early religious lessons, the scattered Kufi-lined scripts, the flying birds, the touches of my grandma on the painted hanged icons on the Catholic cathedral walls beside the family’s second home, the first visit to El Moaz street after renovation in 2009 and watching the earliest huge buildings and mosques built in ancient Cairo.
Caption: A Photo of the Crescent moon shining above Al Sultan Al Ashraf Mosque (1437), El Khankah, Qalyubia
The next track is “The Bonny Swans“, which discusses a folk story of a girl who drowned her sister out of jealousy, then a harpist made a harp from the drowned body and the harp tells the story alone in a middle of the royal court. The song has a beautiful guitar melody and the tradition-influenced riffs, and Loreena did impressive narrative work with her vocals.”The Bonny Swans” is about a shift from self-denying and spirituality selfishness, and hatred. Another important factor in the song is the motif of the Harp. Next is “The Dark Night of the Soul“. Loreena arranged one of Saint John of the Cross’s most known poems into calm persistent sounds. The poem reflects the relation between the man and the god. So, it is full of imagery and sounds.
I recalled one of the Andalusian Muslim thinkers and the author of the well-known book “The Neck-Ring of the Dove” Ibn Hazm quotes about the nature of Human,
“Do not use your energy except for a cause more noble than yourself. Such a cause cannot be found except in Almighty God Himself: to preach the truth, to defend womanhood, to repel humiliation which your Creator has not imposed upon you, to help the oppressed.”
“Of Love–may God exalt you! -the first part is jesting, and the last part is right earnestness. So majestic are its diverse aspects, they are too subtle to be described; their reality can only be apprehended by personal experience. Love is neither disapproved by religion nor prohibited by the Law; for every heart is in God’s hands.”
Also, the lyrics ring a bell with one of Omar El Khayyam quatrains,
“Then of the thee in me who works behind,
The veil I lifted up my hands to find
A lamp amid the darkness; and I heard,
As from without,- “The me within thee blind”
The upcoming two songs are really special: “Marrakesh Night Market” and “Full Circle”. Loreena here talks about her experience in Morocco, as she mentions that the album tackles different cultural experiences in Spain, Ireland, and Morocco.
Regarding “Marrakesh Night Market”, she expresses the different events that took place on a Ramadan night at a local market: passing faces, sellers’ calls for their products, noise, active movements, people who did certain shows for money. So, you can feel that the main pattern of the song is highly influenced by Moroccan rich tuneful hybrid music.
I think Loreena had the previous image of an Arabian Market. A lady who is fascinated by her Irish roots might read “Dubliners” short stories collection by James Joyce. In “Araby” short story, James Joyce portraits the Arabian Bazars in a local market in Dublin, Ireland, when “Marakesh Market Night” is played I watched the video and linked it to the crazy streets, the passing cars, the crowded mad traffic, the prayers, the sound of cutlery, the smell of food and drinks. It is a very vibrant scenery. Below are some photos of Ramadan celebrations in Egypt. You can detect the Spanish rhythms in the music.
A few days ago, I found a book in my mother’s library called, “The Discourse of Travel Writing of the Moroccan Travelers from Morocco to Al Hejaz” by Professor Hassan El Ghashtol. The book discusses how the Moroccan culture was impacted by the Spanish.
It occurred while the Muslim Spanish emigrated from Spain to Morocco. The Moroccan rulers were so generous and open-minded, they allowed the Spanish immigrants to have their communities and practice their traditions on the Moroccan lands. In addition, the Moroccans themselves invaded Spain and established a civilization there.
Caption: Moroccan Local Market
Moving to “Full Circle”, it is a calm, simple track of strings. Loreena mentioned in the album that she was inspired by the calling of the mosque at 5 am in Morocco. I think she means the calling of the dawn prayers, we as Muslims depend on a calling for prayers, and in Ramadan, people stay awake until late to pray and start the fasting. Throughout history, Muslims used to practice some “Sufi” traditions in religious celebrations in full circles. People sat in a circle and praised God.
Caption: One of the Religious Sufi Full Circles
I felt great purity and serenity in the song, it is wonderfully inspired by the sacred religious prayer, calling for God at the earliest hour of the dawn, repenting, regretting, washing the soul by true tears and asking for God’s help and salvation. The melody of “Full Circle” reminded me of the musical interlude before airing the prayers calls on radio and TV.
“Santiago”, it is a harmonic pleasing traditional song, it could be considered as a continuation of the mood of connecting the East with the West, moving from Morocco which is a fertile ground for cultural exchange and interaction to Spain. Spain has a wonderful pre-Islamic civilization and an Islamic one in Andalusia. In “Santiago”, you can catch the greatness of the Spanish culture, its rich history, and its glorious festive music.
Regarding “Santiago”, I need to refer back to “Marakesh Night Market”. Loreena mentioned in the album booklet that she was in Morocco and she was at a café having minted tea while watching the market. So, where is the link? It is the name of the song “Santiago”. I mentioned before that the music is victorious, hybrid, and carries the breeze of the East and the glory of the West.
While I was working on the final draft for this article, an idea sparked into my mind of re-reading a book that I’ve read when I was 10 years old, “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. I associated the track and the name of The Alchemist ‘s hero, Santiago. There was a scene in the novel when Santiago traveled to Morocco and climbed up a mountain and worked at Crystal Seller and it was suggested to him to serve tea in a beautiful crystal cups to attract more customers. I associated the image Santiago described while watching Spain on the other side of the sea, the merchants, the sailing boats, and the smell of Moroccan tea with the song. The music riffs are so close to the description of Andalusia and Santiago’s tours with his sheep.
The next song is “Ce He Milse Le Ulaingt / The Two Trees”. It is one of the best-performed tracks by Loreena. She adapted one of W.B Yeats’ poems called “The Two Trees”. It is a continuation of Loreena’s spiritual journey into Sufism and Celtic history, incorporating more magical amusing melodies with soft keys and catchy strings work.
It is not the first time that Loreena adapted one of W.B. Yeats’ poems. In “Elemental”, I think Loreena used W.B. Yeats’ poems as a cultural reference for the Irish collective heritage, but through “The Mask and Mirror”, I think she used W.B. Yeats poetry as a spiritual and mystic reference.
Through his “Poetry and Mysticism”, Colin Wilson discussed the spiritual and Sufi aspects in W.B Yeats poetry. Yeats escaped to his imagination, creating a balance with his soul and surrounded nature.
Finally, “Prospero’s Speech” comes another musical adaptation for William Shakespeare that is so beautiful and so deep. She adapted the final soliloquy performed by Prospero in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”. Though Colin’s website contributor Lee Jamieson expressed in his article “Prospero: A Character Analysis”
In Prospero’s final speech, he compares himself to a playwright by asking the audience to applaud, turning the play’s final scene into a touching celebration of art, creativity, and humanity. In the final two acts, we come to embrace Prospero as a more likable and sympathetic character.
Here, Prospero’s love for Miranda, his ability to forgive his enemies, and the true happy ending he schemes to create all coalesce to mitigate the undesirable actions he undertook along the way. Though Prospero can sometimes be seen as autocratic, ultimately he enables the audience to share his understanding of the world.
To finish our journey with “The Mask and Mirror”, I’d like to mention a few things. First off, it takes you on a beautiful spiritual journey at different times and spaces. I like how Loreena uses her superb talents as a singer and a composer to balance between the physical journey and the spiritual one. She used well-composed tunes to reflect on the nature of every topic and every place that emphasizes the mind and imagination. Also, I like how she started to give wide spaces to oriental taste and spoke up about the forgiven nature of all religions and stressed the mutual background.
SO, What’s the MASK and what’s the Mirror?
Regarding the title, I think, (The Mask) carries two connotations: physical and symbolic. The physical is related to the folklore of the Spanish, Moroccan and Irish civilizations, and the symbolic is the art of expression and hiding the truths. Another symbol of the mask is the Face/Side that one aims to show to the public, giving a sense of unreality, changing identities, dancing, art, hiding, folklore, and magic. The Mirror is more complex that the mask; it is related to reflection.
Physically, mirrors reflect light and thus reflect the world around us. Spiritually, light has a symbolic attachment to illumination, awareness, wisdom etc. Therefore, in terms of spiritual symbolism, mirrors reflect the truth. They reflect what is.
In a psychological sense, mirrors symbolize the threshold between the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. By looking into a mirror, one may look towards the depths of their unconsciousness. The image the mirror produces symbolic and can be made sense of in both conscious and subconscious thought processes. The Mirror also could be Art itself. Literature, Arts, and Folklore areas mirror reflect the truth, the magic, the history and civilization of the societies.
So, the appearance of Loreena looks like a reflection of a woman who is staring at the mirror unconsciously. All her thoughts are reflected in the mirror. Simply, the cover is the reflected picture of the mirror; reflection is the main technique of the album which is manifested in the dilemma of hiding and pretending versus showing and expressing.
Next part: “The Book of Secrets”
Edited by: Zena Ismail and Tarek Shehata.
– Dive into the magic of Loreena McKennitt World: Beyond Spatial and Temporal Borders (Elemental, Parallel Dreams, The Visit)