background painting by Lara Summerville/Mandala by Fatima Lassar
Best of the Sufi Choir

Listen to 'Turning' from The Best of the Sufi Choir

The Best of the Sufi Choir - A Jubilee Collection (2004)

The Circumstances

The Sufi Choir formed in 1969 among the followers of Samuel Lewis. A white-bearded, bespectacled, compact dynamo, Lewis had been ostracized many years previously from his wealthy San Francisco family and now, in his early seventies, was coming into his own as a teacher of hippies. Most of us students were in our twenties or early thirties with a kindred sense of alienation, hungry to lift ourselves above what we perceived as the narrows of our circumstances. We knew there was a wider, more complete world beyond the textbooks and suburbs of our growing up. The Sufi-based mysticism of Sam Lewis had both a tremendous range and a focused practicality. The words he used and the practices he gave rang the bell of recognition in our hearts, and helped us live our daily lives. We called him “Murshid,” a Persian word for teacher.

When I first came into Murshid’s circle, I didn’t care much for him or his teaching — I was attracted by the good feeling and bright intelligence of the people around him. His group seemed to glow. The circle dancing opened me up. There were dozens of gifted, natural musicians. Only gradually did I realize how my inner life was being energized by Murshid’s ideas and by his example. As I listened and watched, I began to glow too.

During our gatherings, Murshid led singing practices, often inventive and contrapuntal. “Why not form a little choir?” I asked Murshid one day. “Sure,” said Murshid, “and you’re the maestro.” On a Tuesday evening in November 1969, he appeared at 7:30 sharp for the first rehearsal and sang dutifully with the basses. Likewise the second Tuesday. At 7:25 on the evening of the third rehearsal, he called to give his excuses and blessings. Likewise the following week. By the fifth Tuesday, the Sufi Choir had found its voice, and when his call came at 7:25 I said, “You don’t have to call anymore, Murshid. The seed has sprouted.”

Typically among Sufis, when a teacher dies, the outward forms of the teaching tend to fragment while the essence is internalized and protected. Murshid Lewis died unexpectedly as the result of a fall, in January 1971. The vitality of the Sufi Choir was to a large extent a response to his death; its demonstrative, often ecstatic music was a transmission of Murshid’s clear-eyed universalism. Ultimately we all become teachers — how could we possibly avoid it? You think you are the taught and find you are the teacher, to flip Murshid’s words.

Over the years, there have appeared numerous Sufi Choirs in many creative forms. The community expands, there are new practices, new circles, new histories — Shiva/Shakti, Shiva/Shakti. The Sufi Choir music presented here affirms that it’s okay to learn from history, to hearken to the dead and to crib what doesn’t die. What is timeless is thrown forward. We can listen back over the decades, take a deep breath and move on. Can’t stay here long.


The Best of the Sufi Choir is available from
Cold Mountain Music

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