“My Heart Opens and My Spirit Flies”: Musical Exemplars of Psychological Flexibility in Health and Healing


  • Benjamin D. Koen


Across several disciplines in the health and social sciences, psychological flexibility is gaining in influence and explanatory power as a conceptual frame to better understand diverse cultural and clinical contexts of health and healing. Although music as a potential primer of psychological flexibility is seldom considered in extant research, key contributions have framed aspects of music's potential efficacy to promote health and healing within the construct of psychological flexibility. Building from this research and from studies in psychology and anthropology concerned with flexibility, and based on field research I conducted in the Pamir Mountain region of Tajik Badakhshan, I explore how the preeminent genre of Pamiri devotional music, known as maddoh, facilitates or primes psychological flexibility for participants. In this case study, priming a state of psychological flexibility is accomplished by engaging specific cultural exemplars found in the natural and built environments, the local belief system, poetry, prayer, and music, creating a multilayered network of flexibility.

This article emerges from a broader research program in medical ethnomusicology, an innovative field of integrative research and applied practice concerned with music, medicine, health, healing, and culture. Building from a holistic conceptual framework that comprises the biological, psychological, social, emotional, and spiritual factors of health, healing, illness, and disease, medical ethnomusicology aims to advance knowledge with respect to the efficacy of music, sound, and related practices in healing and to apply that knowledge for the benefit of people. As a field at the nexus of the holistic, integrative, complementary, and alternative medicine discourse, medical ethnomusicology shares many of the concerns of psychological anthropology. Medical ethnomusicology draws on a diverse array of fields across the health, physical and social sciences, music research, music performance, and the expressive arts and is oriented to integrating insights from research with indigenous and traditional cultural practices and with the efforts of practitioners in the areas of wellness and healing (see Koen 2008, 2009). However, ethnomusicological studies have seldom pursued psychological flexibility and music in healing (see Hinton 2008; Jones 2010; and Koen 2005, 2006, 2009 for notable exceptions), while studies in psychological anthropology have had even less engagement with music's role in ethnomedical practices (see Hinton 1999 for an important exception).

Hinton's benchmark dissertation (1999) was the first in-depth anthropological research to link flexibility theory to indigenous musical healing practices. His study of the Isan people of Northern Thailand showed not only how symbol and metaphor are key components of ritual healing, but also how psychological flexibility is central to a process of embodiment and mimesis where Isan healing music mirrors and represents deeply valued aspects of the natural environment and laden words of the healer, all of which prime a state of psychological, physical, and emotional flexibility. This in turn sets the stage for effecting healing transformations in the patient. Other works that have further developed the concept of flexibility have focused on emotional flexibility as a key aspect of psychological health (Clore and Ortony 2000; Rozanski and Kubzansky 2005), somatic correlates of flexibility where stress is shown to decrease psychological flexibility (Dreisbach 2006), and nervous system correlates of psychological flexibility, where, for example, increased vagal tone results from relaxation and meditation practices (Cysarz and Büssing 2005). The most important work that has formulated and advanced a flexibility hypothesis is Hinton's (2008) chapter “Healing Through Flexibility Primers.” In that chapter, Hinton draws together several relevant threads from research in anthropology, neuroscience, health science, and ethnomusicology to show how psychological flexibility is viewed as being important for health within diverse cultures and that it is promoted through multiple means, music being the most understudied and perhaps the most powerful. Hinton suggests that music-based healing practices provide “a sort of cognitive workout, a hyperkinetic induction of…an ability to view from different perspectives or to generate more possible solutions, more possible action paths, or more attention sets,” which can lead to healing transformations (2008:159).

In this article, I am particularly concerned with a growing interest in music and psychological flexibility shared between psychological anthropology and medical ethnomusicology. To explore this, I developed a case study rooted in Badakhshani culture in the eastern province of Tajikistan.1 In addition to cultural exemplars of flexibility in the natural and built environments, the belief system, local poetics, and prayer, I examine two aspects of music itself that promote flexibility. First is the overarching form of maddoh, which consists of three rhythmically distinct sections that prime the experience of flexibility as the music shifts from one section to the next. Second is the symbol of “five,” which forms a key exemplar of psychological flexibility in the culture. Importantly, this core exemplar exists within the musical structure of maddoh, wherein its distinctive, rhythmic framework is based on “five,” expressed as five flexible and recurrent accents played by all the musicians involved. I demonstrate that these aspects of the music I target play a key role in priming psychological flexibility. Moreover, I posit that investigating how music engenders flexibility is a useful analytic approach that gives insight into the healing process and that music, as a quintessential primer of psychological flexibility, merits further study within psychological anthropology. Finally, this article emerges from an ongoing research program with the understudied and sorely vexed region of Tajik Badakhshan.


In the broader project from which this article comes, I employed an integrated methodology of in-depth participant-observation field research methods including formal and informal interviews in the local language (Persian), performing and studying with local musicians, and collaborating with local physicians and traditional healers in treating patients. I used ethnomusicological techniques including audio and video music recording, transcription, and analysis of music, prayer, poetry, and song,2 as well as physiological experiments.3 This project draws on all of the above sources of data with the exception of the physiological experiments.

A few aspects of my personal background that helped to facilitate my research are worth mentioning. Through my life experience and studies, I was fortunate to have become conversant with the constellation of ideas that relates to a spiritual or mystical (erfáni or báten) worldview in the Persian-speaking world—within and across religious traditions—this was key in developing trust and understanding with people in the field; likewise, having fluency in the language was a boon for all aspects of the research. Lastly, being a musician facilitated a deep level of communication between me and the musicians with whom I had the honor of working. Before approaching the central theme of this article, a brief background on Pamiri culture and maddoh is necessary.

Mountains, People, and Poetics

The Pamir Mountain region of the eastern province of Tajikistan is situated in the heart of the legendary Silk Road trade routes. It is an ancient land that comprises a unique geographic and cultural area known by many names. Pamir and Badakhshan are the local names for the area and the people typically refer to themselves as Pamiri or Badakhshani. Throughout the written and oral traditions of Persian mystical poetry, Pamir is known by the names kuhestán (lit. “mountainland”) and bám-e jahán (lit. “roof of the world”). It is generally reported that approximately 85 percent of Tajikistan's population is Sunni Muslim and 8 percent Shi‘eh, half of whom are Isma‘ili and generally live in Pamir.4 The remaining religious minorities are primarily affiliated with Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Judaism, and the Bahá’í Faith. Two natural borders are of particular importance when conducting research in Tajikistan. One is the Pamir Mountain range, which defines the semiautonomous eastern region of the country; the other is the Amu Darya or Oxus River that forms the major border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Locally, this river is known as the River Panj (lit. “five” in Persian). Historically, these dominating natural borders have kept Badakhshan largely isolated from outside influences and allowed the local, spiritually-oriented ontology to remain connected to the local epistemology and understanding of medicine and music, rather than being compartmentalized into belief and religion, science and medicine, and music and the arts.

Persian is the mother tongue of Tajikistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. As the language of Tajikistan, it is typically referred to as Tajik, Tajiki, Tajik-Persian, or Persian.5 In the language itself, it is called Tájiki or Fársi (often transliterated as Tojiki or Forsi). Tajik is spoken as a common language throughout Tajikistan, including Badakhshan, where Shughni is also commonly spoken among most Badakhshanis.

A key function of the language throughout Persian-speaking cultures is poetry, which is “placed at the center rather than the fringes of life”; it is found in virtually every ceremony, emerges from the many dimensions and “facets of daily existence,” and constitutes “the prime esthetic pleasure of man.” Indeed, in Persian-speaking cultures, “mighty and meek have for centuries composed, recited, listened to or read, and lived with the poetry which remained their constant companion” (Allworth 1994:397). Moreover, the rhythm, intonation, and emotional content of poetry constitute the foundation upon which the mystical, classical (maqam, radif, dastgah), and folk traditions of music are built (see During 1987, 1989, 1997; Miller 1999; Reckord 1986). With respect to maddoh, its sung poetry-prayer is predominantly from the “classic” period of Persian mystical poetry, roughly from the 10th to the late 15th centuries.6 Maddoh draws from the works of such poets as Molana Jalál al-Din Rumi, Shams-e Tabrizi, Sanai, Khosrow, Sa‘di, Rudaki, Hafez, Jami, and Hilali.

Maddoh Poetry-Prayer

Maddoh is a special term imbued with mystical, religious, historical, and didactic meaning. Literally meaning “praise,” maddoh generally refers to a genre of sung, panegyric poetry found throughout history in Persian-, Arabic-, and Turkic-speaking cultures.7 The genres referred to as maddoh in this vast region have similarities in poetic content and in the family of instruments used for performance. However, the music itself and the vocal style are highly varied. Moreover, while there are strong relationships between the diverse cultural groups along the Silk Road, the Pamir Mountain range and River Panj that largely isolate Badakhshan have preserved a uniquely Pamiri genre of maddoh that is distinguished in many sonic and musical aspects, including the overarching form and rhythmic structure examined below.

Maddoh performance consists of multiple, often overlapping, poetic forms, including ghazal, rubáiyát, qasida, masnavi, mukhammas, as well as the prayer forms of munáját and du‘á. Passages from the Qur'an and Hadith are also employed in maddoh performance, as are spontaneous, inspired poems, prayers, and vocalizations of the maddohkhán (singer or reciter of maddoh), accompanying musicians, and other community members who attend a maddoh ceremony. All of these forms and expressions are interwoven and linked together in flexible ways, allowing for the inspiration of the moment to guide performance.

During the era of Soviet control that lasted until 1992, the traditional practice of maddoh was forced underground. Since then, it has emerged as a symbol of cultural and religious identity, as well as a means of individual and community healing. In recent years, maddoh has been employed as an adjunctive medical treatment and supplement to anesthesia during surgery in the Khoroq hospital. Maddoh is regularly performed on Thursday or Friday evenings and can last up to several hours, at times extending to the dawn of the following day. It serves multiple functions in Pamiri culture, being performed for devotion, worship, education, at funerals, memorials, rituals of mourning, on certain religious occasions or commemorations, and as a healing ceremony. These functions are not mutually exclusive. Thus, at any given maddoh ceremony, one or more of these functions might be the specific reason an individual chooses to participate.

Typically, three to five men perform maddoh, although the number could be twice that many on rare occasions. At times, only two musicians perform maddoh. The essential instruments are the Pamiri rubáb (long-necked lute) and the doire, which is a small daf—or frame drum—with metal rings attached throughout the inner circumference of the drum's wooden frame. In addition, the Pamiri tanbur, which is similar to the rubáb but with a bit longer neck, can also accompany the performance, as can the ghizhak (spike-fiddle, also known as the kamánche in some areas), though the latter is quite rare. The combination of instruments is usually from one-to-three rubábs and from one-to-three doires.

The maddohkhán initiates and leads the ceremony and is accorded great respect for his social position and function, second only to the khalifa or mulla (local religious leaders).

Maddoh is performed in the largest, main room of the Pamiri home. The room is considered sacred, and a special degree of reverence is accorded to it, and thus shoes are not worn on the main floor and seating area. The main floor is typically raised, providing an underneath section that can be heated with coals or embers during the dangerously cold winter months. During maddoh performance, the room is transformed into the sacred, ceremonial space known as the maddohkháne, which literally means “praise house” (kháne means house, home, or room). During the oppressive Soviet period, when local beliefs, practices, and expressions of Pamiri and Islamic culture were forbidden and systematically squelched, the maddohkháne, which, to the uninitiated, appears to be just a large room, enabled the Pamiri home to secretly function as a family or local mosque. Thus, within the physical structure of the Pamiri home, two central institutions of local belief, the maddohkháne and the mosque, were quietly kept alive during much of the 20th century. Due to this dual function, the physical room that comprises the sacred place of the maddohkháne is perhaps the most important built structure in Badakhshan.

Maddoh has three main sections in most performances. The first section is the munáját, which consists of prayers and poems often testifying to one's lowness and humility. It is in two alternating sections, the first a free musical meter where the maddohkhán usually accompanies himself on the rubáb in a kind of call-and-response format between the voice and the instrument. This expression is a metaphor for communication between the spiritual world and the world of creation. One legend about the rubáb says that the instrument, in a shape that reflects that of a person, descended from the heavens, itself sounding divine melodies on the gut strings from a sacrificial lamb; the maddohkhán receives the rubáb and mirrors this melodic action by vocalizing and wailing out mystical poems and prayers. (See online supporting file 1 for an excerpt of this early phase of a maddoh performance.)

The second section is the haidari (an epithet of Ali), which consists of narrative, didactic poems that often recount the sunna, or lives and actions of Muhammad, pirs, saints, or holy people. The doire frame drum enters in this section, providing a regular pulse in a strong duple meter. Other rubábs or tanburs can enter during this section as well. (See online supporting file 2 for an excerpt of this middle phase of a maddoh performance.)

The third section is the setáyesh, literally “praise”; this is the most intense portion of the maddoh in terms of energy, musical content, and interaction with the sung poetry. The three sections form a crescendo in both a musical and meditative sense. While the sonic features increase or become more complex on all levels—including amplitude, waveform, speed, sound spectrum, and rhythmic organization—the meditative focus of participants becomes deeper. (See online supporting file 3 for an excerpt of this final phase of a maddoh performance.)

Pamiri Sacred Clinical Reality

The inclusion and utilization of both the physical and spiritual realms in healing has been described as a “sacred clinical reality” (Kleinman 1980:241), emerging from Kleinman's foundational concept of “clinical reality”—a complex of interrelated features including “the beliefs, expectations, norms, behavior, and communicative transactions associated with sickness, health care seeking, practitioner-patient relationships, therapeutic activities, and evaluation of outcomes” (42). Building from this framework, healing systems or clinical realities oriented toward that which is spiritual, religious, or metaphysical “emphasize sacred reality, illness orientation (meaning that they take into account the patient's account of the problem as their central concern), symbolic intervention, interrogative structure, family centered locus of control…and substantial expectation of change, even cure” (1988:120; emphasis added), all of which are fully present in the Pamiri context.

For maddoh participants (performers and listeners), as well as Pamiris in general, the belief in a spiritual power known as baraka is central to the potential for healing through maddoh. Equally important is the notion of self, framed as having higher and lower natures with an emphasis on the spiritual aspect.8 Baraka is a spiritual energy that emanates from God and is manifest throughout all of creation. It can heal people and effect change in all aspects of life. At one level, baraka is understood as a generative life force that can be increased in an individual through multiple ways, including the blessings and mercy of God, prayer, reading and reciting religious scripture and spiritual poems, living a virtuous life, service, and the performance of devotional music, including maddoh.

Foremost, baraka is associated with the founders of the major world religions, prophets, holy people, saints, and religious and mystical figures. In addition, special places in the natural and built environment are believed to possess an especially high degree of baraka. More importantly, maddoh is viewed by participants as having baraka in its words and sounds and is capable of increasing baraka in a person, thereby having the inherent potential to heal. This belief is shared by maddoh participants, local religious leaders, medical doctors, the lay and the learned alike, and forms a central part of the Pamiri illness and healing etiologies, which revolve around the concept of baraka.

The emphasis on the spiritual in Pamiri religious belief and worldview is perhaps best understood by the local concept of báten and záher. Báten refers to that which is inner, mystical, spiritual, invisible, or intangible, whereas záher generally refers to the outer, tangible, physical, visible material world. The self is viewed as being essentially spiritual in nature, having a soul that lives beyond the death of the physical body. The lower nature or nafs is the aspect of self from which one should detach and to which one should not give any attention, since it will lead a person away from the higher self. The true or higher self is viewed as a three-part whole known as aql-tan-ruh. Aql refers to the mind and its capacities; tan refers to the body and the physical aspect of the human being; and ruh refers to spirit or soul and the spiritual or metaphysical aspect of life.9 It is important to note that tan (“body”) is intimately linked to the mind and soul in this three-part whole. Tan can be viewed as a link between the lower and higher aspects of self—being the primary vehicle of action in life and always having the potential to facilitate progression or regression of the self (i.e., perform acts that imbue an individual with ruh or nafs).

Not only is maddoh believed by participants to convey the healing energy of baraka, but it is also viewed as being a way to change thoughts and behaviors through a process that can be seen as a practice of psychological flexibility. Within a maddoh performance, a constellation of sounds, words, symbols, and metaphors come together to prime psychological flexibility. Indeed, building from the framework of the Pamiri sacred clinical reality, we could even say that a broad process of psychological flexibility begins from the moment a participant (musician or listener) contemplates, anticipates, or has expectations about an upcoming maddoh performance and its potential outcome. As one maddoh performer told me, he looks forward to the maddoh ceremony because “when I sing maddoh my heart opens and my spirit flies, I change and feel better and I see things differently than before.” Another participant (a listener) stated that “maddoh is a special atmosphere for my mind and heart, my thoughts are peaceful, and I feel like I am floating.” Another stated that “during the maddohkháni (maddoh ritual performance), I remember who I am and I feel comfortable and able to choose the right thing for my life.” After a brief overview of psychological flexibility, I examine how a confluence of sounds, symbols, words, and beliefs prime the state and experience of flexibility.

Psychological Flexibility Through Maddoh

Psychological flexibility is a fundamental aspect of health and wellness and refers to three broad areas: (1) psychological processes of change, (2) a psychological or holistic state of potentiality, and (3) the ability to adapt or traverse psychological domains (Hinton 2008; Kashdan 2010; Koen 2009; Rozanski and Kubzansky 2005). In a recent review of key research on psychological flexibility, Kashdan refers to “a number of dynamic processes that unfold over time [that] could be reflected by how a person: (1) adapts to fluctuating situational demands, (2) reconfigures mental resources, (3) shifts perspective, and (4) balances competing desires, needs, and life domains” (Kashdan 2010:2). Building from Rozanski and Kubzansky (2005), who advocate for a paradigm of flexibility in the research and practice of psychology, Hinton gives a concise definition, stating that psychological flexibility is “the ability to shift in order to adaptively adjust to a given context” (2008:125). He further articulates three steps, or the “triphasic structure of psychological flexibility” that entails shifting the emotional or analytic lens through which an event or situation is viewed (124). The three steps of this “set shifting” are: (1) Disengage, (2) Contemplation of Choice, and (3) Selection. In addition, Kashdan points out that psychological flexibility interventions are not only effective treatments “for people suffering from disorder, they can [also] be used to increase well-being at the personal and even societal level” (Kashdan 2010:19).

To highlight the role that maddoh plays in facilitating psychological flexibility, I build upon Hinton's discussion of culture-specific exemplars and representations that evoke “the therapeutic or healing effect: an increase in psychological flexibility” (Hinton 2008:121). The exemplars create cognitive links that bridge the gap between a present state (illness) and a desired state (health), and which thereby “may cure by being promoters (or, put another way, ‘primers’) of the desired quality. Consider the expectation of the maddoh performer above who stated “my heart opens and my spirit flies”; prior to maddoh, the heart was closed and the spirit bound. For him, maddoh itself forms an exemplar of flexibility since the contemplation of maddoh alone facilitates a shift from one frame or perspective to another—from a closed heart to an open heart, from a bound spirit to a free and flying spirit. The theme of being bound or trapped then set free is well known in the poetics of the region. For instance, in one performance using a celebrated poem by Molana (Rumi), the following lines appear:

mir manam pir manam, death am I, spiritual guide am I,

baste be zanjir manam bound up by the chain am I

sáheb-e tadbir manam the one who gives freedom am I

dur masho, dur masho be not far, be not far

These lines have multiple and deeply embedded cultural meanings that relate to diverse and interwoven dimensions (i.e., spiritual, religious, social, psychological, political, and emotional), and a complete analysis and discussion is beyond the scope of the present article. However, two aspects will be illustrative as to how maddoh primes psychological flexibility. First, as one maddoh performer indicated, “I lose myself when I am performing and feel the words of our great pirs (spiritual guides and poets) coming through me and I feel the effect of the meaning of the words in my body and soul, in my thoughts; it's powerful, and sometimes unsettling.” This, he said, was due to the feeling of not having control and that in the context of maddoh, he would let go of himself and allow the music and prayer to carry him. We went on to discuss that the sense of embodying the meaning of the poem happens for performers as well as listeners and that in such an experience mental shifts occur according to the shifts in the poem and music. Hence, poetic meanings that convey transformation, health, healing, and cure can also prime that sense or state in the participant.

Second, a key local phrase, fekr o zekr, is often invoked in relation to mystical poems, devotional music, or religious scripture, and conveys a core concept of bringing out that which is within. Fekr means “thought” while zekr has multiple meanings: remembrance, mentioning, chanting, and singing, repeating as a mantra, and action. Fekr is internal, while zekr is the expression or manifestation of the internal thought. Hence, if fekr, “the internal thought” is one of embodying baraka, zekr or its “expression,” will be manifest as a shift in some area of the participants being, perhaps as increased spiritual sensibilities, or perhaps as a health benefit or healing in the body, mind, emotions, or in a relationship. These shifts in thought from one state to another (e.g., from bound to free) or one identity to another (e.g., from death to spiritual guide) represent a key aspect of the function of local poetics in priming psychological flexibility. Additionally, the music of maddoh progressively becomes more intense and ecstatic throughout a performance, thereby buttressing the psychological shifts that follow the poetic meanings. Moreover, throughout interviews in the field, the music and baraka were virtually always reported as central to a maddoh's potential to bring about shifts in thought.

In the context of a maddoh ceremony, multiple levels of baraka interact, forming overlapping layers of potential healing energy. For instance, the Pamir Mountains, viewed locally as a majestic creation of God, and as a region associated with various holy figures—most importantly with the mystic Naser Khosrow (see Daftary 1990), are believed to contain and emit baraka. Within this mountainous region, the maddohkháne is believed to contain a special degree of baraka. In addition, the maddohkhán is believed to embody baraka and have the power to facilitate its flow through the performance of maddoh.

The words of the poems and prayers of maddoh are also believed to possess baraka, and close association with these empowered words can bring about healing and transformation of the self. This association comes in many forms both during and outside of performance: by one meditating upon the words—allowing the multiple levels of meaning to penetrate one's being (aql-tan-ruh) and effect a change; by singing along with the maddohkhán at certain points of a performance; by reciting or singing in a low voice during performance; and by wearing tumár prayer-amulets, which are believed to possess an even greater degree (at times disease-specific form) of baraka. Additionally, the maddohkhán and accompanying musicians, by virtue of their role as performers, maintain a unique association with the words of maddoh. Finally, in varying degrees, all people contain baraka within themselves, and this is enhanced by a performance.

Through the process of a maddoh performance, the baraka within an individual joins or interacts with the external levels of baraka. In this regard, a local khalifa explained that, during a maddoh ceremony, there is a continual increase and intensification of the flow of baraka between the dimensions of báten and záher as the maddoh progresses from munáját, to haidari, to setáyesh, allowing baraka to be further embodied by participants.

For maddoh participants, embodiment is not limited to “the body,” nor does it accept a mind-body dichotomy. Rather, embodiment refers to a process of transformation through which a human being, comprising intellect, body, and spirit or soul, internalizes and manifests virtues, positive ideas, and energy. Through maddoh, participants seek to enter a purified state of consciousness to transcend the physical world and transform or leave behind the nafs (lower self), more fully incorporating ruh (spirit or soul) into their beings, not just their physical bodies. In this sense, a process of what I have called embeingment rather than embodiment best describes the levels at which maddoh is efficacious—that is, it positively effects change on all levels of a person's being or, in the Pamiri case, in the aql-tan-ruh, and nafs. In numerous interviews in Pamir, common themes emerged that linked maddoh, prayer, poetry, and meditation to flexibility. With respect to musical healing, this confluence is ultimately attributed to God and baraka. The sense of baraka's presence, paired with an aesthetic shift, gives the musical event an ecstatic element—literally, a stepping out of oneself to something else. Many of those interviewed emphasized the musical event as creating an entrance into a unique realm of experience, a distinctive state of being often referred to as rohani or erfáni (spiritual or mystical state). One musician who specialized in spiritual and mystical music including maddoh stated:

My body relaxes; I become empty, but full of spirit (ruh) and love. I leave my body and forget. I am in another atmosphere, another world…I think it is a kind of mercy (rahmat), music is a mercy and blessing, it is like traveling far away and I can see things, spiritual things… I change when I sing and pray and everything can change then…to be good, healed, it is a mystical (erfáni) feeling, a transcendent state that is moving like water, free, and I fly. I am always better and refreshed afterwards, I become new, if the music and prayer is true. [Field notes June 18, 2001]

In sharing his experience of healing in the context of maddoh, one young khalife stated:

There is something special I feel if there is any problem or illness that I have, after hearing or listening [to maddoh], all the problems disappear. The particular problem that I felt, and every problem, they all disappear … this is what happens to me … in all respects, the soul, mind, body—in whatever way I am ill, from that perspective, be it soul or mind, I get a kind of feeling, a special condition, and to the degree of illness, I listen to maddoh to that degree. The healing is different each time. Depending on the illness and my feeling, the illness feels like it just disappears, or I feel something else, it is not one way, the healing happens in multiple ways. Sometimes it's stronger or weaker, the feeling or special atmosphere varies. …I think deeply, meditate on the meaning, on the words of God, and something happens, a change, I become well—in my body, my thoughts, my being, my spirit … it's mystical, a thing that is spiritual, but effects everything … Sometimes people have a serious physical or mental illness and they become healed too—not always, as I said, everything is in the hands of God, but I have witnessed it. [Field notes July 9, 2001]

Many participants made similar statements referring to a categorical change in thought, again indicating a flexibility, a shift in thought, an awareness of other options, a process of change: “My thought changes … and becomes a different kind of thought, a mystical, spiritual thought.” Another stated: “…My mind moves to another world, a spiritual world…beyond the mountains and the roof of the world…I am not in my body then, but my soul flies.” Another maddoh participant said that “When I listen to it [music and prayer], sometimes I feel like I am dreaming where I can fly, I know that life is good then.”

In discussing one's daily actions and the preventive aspect of maddoh, as is often the case in Pamir, this participant began with a poem to explain the essence of meaning: “Az to harakat, Az khodá barakat” or “From you, action is required, and from God baraka is given.” He continued, “This couplet [often invoked in daily life in Pamir] shows a connection between the individual and baraka. So you see, an individual's actions form one path through which baraka gives healing.” More importantly for the present discussion is that this couplet primes the participant's mind toward action, to consider alternatives, to shift thoughts toward that which is healthy, to make better decisions, and to live a virtuous life. In other words, baraka rests with God—action lies with the individual; the couplet's first line is a call to action for the individual: “Az to harakat,” which is a type of command for the person to arise and act irrespective of anything else. That is, a person should not arise and act to be rewarded with baraka. Rather, the individual's responsibility is to arise and act and God will do His part by bestowing baraka. Following in this line of thought, the didactic aspect of maddoh is seen to give counsel to individuals as to what is halál and harám (allowed and forbidden) in the culture, what are an individual's spiritual and social duties, as well as what constitutes a healthy life.

The didactics are often presented as a variety of choices (or put another way, as attentional set options)10 in the context of stories and traditions associated with holy figures, some historical, others legendary or mythological. As a story unfolds, the listener shifts attentional focus from one possible path to another, considering personal and community consequences for certain choices and actions, which can be seen to follow the “triphasic structure of psychological flexibility” of disengaging, contemplation of options, and selecting the best option (Hinton, 2008:124).

For example, the text of maddoh often suggests the choice of purity or health over contamination or illness and tells a story of the consequences for choosing one path or another. In one performance the maddohkhán, Sohib Nazar, sings the story of contamination and illness that result from eating contaminated and forbidden (harám) meat, which is a metaphor for all things impure and forbidden. The story states if a person consumes that which is forbidden, the ill effects of that impurity will be diffused in the physical body through the process of digestion, and it will subsequently manifest corollary illnesses in other domains of the person's being (aql-tan-ruh), in one's behaviors, leading finally to one's spiritual and physical demise. To avoid this, the maddohkhán goes on to sing verses of didactics oriented to living a pure life. If a listener has not “eaten the forbidden meat” (i.e., broken certain religious laws or teachings), the maddoh becomes a preventive, aiming to strengthen one's personal will to make healthy choices; if one has eaten the forbidden food, then the maddoh can function as a curing agent by activating the adaptive flexibility network of purity. Here, purity suggests being free of impediments, which would then facilitate flexibility. Similarly, when an impure river (i.e., full of impediments) is cleansed, the result is a free flowing river of water.

As participants listen to the stories, mixed with prayers and poetry of supplications and praise, attentional sets shift from one possibility to another, from one potential state (illness, for example, if one follows a forbidden path), to another (health and well-being if one follows the path of love and spirituality). These options are cast in a dynamic musical setting of shifting rhythms, emotional intensity, and spiritual implications.

In the healing itself, shifting is emphasized, continual shifts occur (particularly as exemplified by music and poetry), and ultimately a state of flexibility is created. Often, this flexibility is experienced primarily as a healing shift in one of the areas of the aql-tan-ruh. However, participants also experience a shift in all areas together. A participant in maddoh or other spiritual music might focus on the biological aspect of health if there is a physical ailment, yet this is inextricably interwoven with the other aspects (the mind, emotions, relations, or spirit). For instance, to modulate stress or depression, there is an attempt to shift to certain positive emotional states, encompassing the whole of a person's being: The body relaxing, that is, a downward modulation of autonomic nervous system arousal; becoming filled with peace or joy, which involves an emotional shift; developing a sense of oneness with others, an empathic attunement; and a shift to a spiritual-religious state (considered as a unique state of consciousness, a shift to a cosmological frame, a meta-state of awareness). As one performer put it: “Maddoh brings healing if you can focus your thoughts (fekr) and have a pure heart, it happens to me, if I am not well, sick, or sad (depressed) maddoh changes that feeling in my body or my emotions.” Such statements by maddoh participants (performers and listeners) are common and since the potential for healing is always attributed to the spiritual power of baraka that flows from God, any illness, disease, or problem can be potentially cured or remedied through maddoh. Although I heard many stories about dramatic healing experiences (e.g., from cancer and various undiagnosed severely painful internal ailments),11 maddoh and other related prayer practices were most often used to modulate or heal (shafá) stress, anxiety, and depression. A local physician, Dr. Shirinbek, agreed with the notion that maddoh and other prayer practices could potentially cure any illness; however, he also stated that there is a clear biomedical rationale for maddoh's potential efficacy:

Maddoh's healing effect can also be found in its ability to transform stress to peace inasmuch as stress is the cause of or implicated in myriad illnesses and diseases, this music, as well as other spiritual music and prayer can be powerfully healing. I have experienced the baraka of maddoh and it can be very great, especially mentally, for psychological problems. It's [maddoh's] effect is primarily in the mental and spiritual domain, but can affect the whole person. [Field notes July 12, 2001]

When enlisted for healing, several maddoh participants stated that the shift in the body would occur in the place(s) where they experienced illness or pain. For instance, one participant reported she had depression and would experience temporary relief and happiness after prayer or maddoh. She experienced this primarily in her physical and emotional heart saying, “After maddoh, my heart opens and feels better whereas before all day my heart and chest were tight.” In Persian, del tangi (lit. “heart tightness”), a term that indicates both emotional heartache and physical tightness in the chest, commonly accompanying sadness, stress, anxiety, and depression. Typically, if one experiences relief from del tangi, it is expressed by saying delam báz shod (“my heart opened”), delam shád shod (“my heart became happy”), shád shodam (“I became happy”), delam khub shod (“my heart became well or better”), or khub shodam (“I became well or better”).

Experiencing a resolution or healing of del tangi is common in maddoh. However, as mentioned, there are other reports of dramatic experiences of healing. One maddoh participant (a local khalifa) stated that his sister had suffered from leukemia, which had not been successfully treated by conventionally trained medical doctors and she had given up hope. They decided to use local traditional approaches of spiritual healing with a focus on prayer and maddoh. Over a period of several months and regularly attending the maddohkháni, she became well, and they attributed her healing to the baraka that flowed from God through the maddohkháni.

In more typical cases relating to stress, the triphasic structure of psychological flexibility is well illustrated in the flow and shift from one section of maddoh to the next. For instance, the first stage, “disengage,” is central to the first section of maddoh (munáját) where there is an emphasis on detachment or disengaging from the nafs (lower self) that frames a person's state before the maddohkháni—at times as a pathological state or state of difficulty that one seeks to remedy or overcome. The second stage, “contemplation of options,” is central to the second section (haidari) where didactics often conveyed in the form of stories present different options to the listener. The main character of the story will often face a conflict (e.g., moral, religious, or social) and have options that illustrate the potential outcomes if the selection is made from the perspective of the lower or higher self. The third stage, “selection,” is aligned with the setáyesh where the conflict presented in the haidari is resolved by the main character making a selection. With selection, a shift is made to a new state of mind and being. As participants follow the narrative of maddoh they will, like the main character, commit to a choice that relates to their personal situation. In this regard, one maddohkhán repeated the phrase “Az to harakat” and explained:

Maddoh often offers two paths in its counsels, one goes up to the higher self and the spiritual realm, and the other is the path of the nafs and leads downward. Sometimes this is very clear in the text and a person is encouraged through performance to follow the higher path. [Field notes July 18, 2001]

Usually the options of these paths are presented in the haidari and selection is made in the setáyesh. Moreover, there are connections among poems of maddoh that link in the mind of a participant and encourage shifting between different symbols and options. In the following field notes, one participant explained his experience that he termed a “healing transformation.” He begins with his state before maddoh, how he entered the maddohkháne in preparation for the performance, then a description of his experience relative to the music and poetry.

My heart was heavy and my head felt like it was going to explode—I'd been having severe headaches lately, usually for many hours. Before the maddohkháni, I was eager to hear this ostád's (master musician) maddoh since I'd never heard it before and I was very depressed—the people here (Khoroq) said that it had strong baraka, and it did. I had a terrible pain in my head all the way down my neck and shoulders I felt that the maddoh would heal it. I sat in meditation as the maddohkhán tuned his rubáb and then he sat silently for some moments. I don't know why, but on the first strum of the rubáb, I felt a release in my heart—right here in my chest and I could feel myself relax. Upon the first sound of his voice, I was pushed into another feeling—I was expecting a softer voice, but it was very loud and clear. I was excited, but peaceful. After the first section, I closed my eyes and felt like my body began to fall away from my mind. The next memory I have was of the setáyesh and the ostad's voice piercing my ears, but without pain—my heart at the same time felt moved as the verses danced in my head “Yár manam, ghár manam, delbar o deldár manam…áb manam, náb manam, ranj manam, ganj manam, panj manam!” (Friend am I, beloved and lover am I…water am I, pure am I, suffering am I, treasure am I, five am I!). I could feel the drum's beat in my heart [here he began to illustrate the setáyesh rhythm] and I felt like I was moving, flowing like water. I felt like I can be the water in the poem and the river Panj—like the rivers we saw outside flowing into the river Panj…and I thought of the Panjtan [literally “five people,” which refers to the five holy people or central figures of Islam] and felt that I can be pure, without suffering and pain, even though I had pain and suffering, like many people here. So many times Molána says, “man na manam, na man manam; man na manam, na man manam!” (Me not I am, Not me am I; I am not me, I am nothing!)12 or he says “I am this or I am that—I am not this or that” and I know that feeling, that I can change from one thing to another—like before the maddoh, I was sick with so much pain, but now I am better, no pain, happy, new, completely better—khodá barakat dáde (“God gave baraka”). [Field notes, July 20, 2001]

Although the symbol of “five” is prominent in local culture (see further below), perhaps the most outstanding aspect here is the line that states “Panj manam” (“I am five”). Here, the notion of embodying or being five, with all that this symbol implies locally is fully present. Moreover, the meaning ascribed to this key symbol is primarily spiritual and baraka-laden, thus, embodying the meaning of the symbol is central to increasing baraka in one's being and therefore the potential for healing. In the following sections, I explore further some specific aspects of the words and poetic expression of maddoh and the central symbol of five.

Baraka and the Poetic Consciousness of Maddoh

Among maddoh participants, poetic expression is greatly emphasized. The local language, Persian, is turned to poetic means, utilizing sound, silence, rhythm, meter, tone, intonation, cadence, melodic flow, among other aspects, to heighten the emotional effect of the language. As an interesting aspect of this tendency, a certain poetic device, parallelism (Bauman and Briggs 1990; Jakobson 1966) is typical: referring to key objects or entities with multiple names, which has the effect of changing attentional sets, and shifting an individual's focus with respect to the entity in question. For instance, with reference to the poem above, one participant stated that as he listened to the words, he felt that in the present moment he was bound and limited by his social circumstances, but that also he could free himself from his predicament as he identified with the words sáheb-e tadbir manam (“the one who gives freedom am I”). Further, he said the phrase that repeats throughout the poem dur masho, dur masho (“be not far, be not far”) gave him a feeling that he was moving closer to or shifting toward a peaceful resolution and from his lower self to his higher nature—from nafs to ruh. These became a kind of mantra for him that he would emphasize as he recited the poem outside of the maddohkháni.

Notably, the central theme of Persian mystical poetry is that of love and the relationship between the lover (human) and Beloved (God), which is embodied in numerous metaphors that encourage a coming together or shift toward oneness between the lover and Beloved. In the context of maddoh, the poetic-musical process is one that engenders a spiritual-sensory shift that facilitates flexibility, in part, through a kind of multireferential association with different names of God, as well as with other exemplars explored below.

There are myriad names for God employed in Persian poetry and in the context of maddoh performance. The most direct references to God are Khodá (Persian) and Allah (Arabic).13 In addition, the attributes and names associated with God, for example, the merciful, the compassionate, the forgiving, the mighty, the sovereign, the healing, and so on, comprise a kind of web of possibilities that one's mind can shift toward in the context of performance. Depending on what is being sought by a participant during maddoh (e.g., healing), that particular name or attribute will become the focus of the person's attention and a shift will occur toward that goal. However, it is not simply a one-to-one relationship, as in one seeks healing and therefore focuses on healing, though that may be the case. It might be that healing for a particular person will come through God's mercy, forgiveness, or strength, in which case, one or more of these names will come to the focus of one's attention, facilitating a shift toward that reality. Moreover, there are limitless possibilities and associations that are part of the network of exemplars, which relate to healing and are promoted through devotional musical praxis.

One key association related to healing coming through forgiveness relates to water, rivers, and the symbol of “five.” That is, water is viewed as a purifying agent and a gift from God, especially with respect to the concept of áb-e haiyát or áb-e zendegi (“water of life”); the main source of water is the legendary River Panj (panj means “five”), and various waterfalls, streams, and natural hot and cold springs—these waters purify a person on multiple levels from physical to spiritual—a purity which leaves no room for illness, hence healing occurs and health is created (see Koen 2009:131–139). In one sung prayer by a wandering dervish, his voice rang out, “God, the ever kind, at home, from the side, on the island, in bread and water, in your home…,” showing a direct connection between God and water, even that God is in water.

In addition, poetic means are used to create a unique state of consciousness, an ecstatic state of association in various situations. In this way, there is a shift from linear to a poetic free-associative state. For instance, walking through the Pamiri mountains and valleys on any given day often brought to mind poems and metaphors rich with themes of love, nature, mystical sojourning, and spiritual ecstasy—themes common in the poetry of the region. Often times, while on a field excursion, a member of our group might point out a particular mountain peak, river, village, or tree—and without more than brief comment, encourage reflection on what was pointed out—effortlessly responding to or resonating with the natural surroundings. Such a moment was often accompanied by reciting a line of poetry or telling a personal, historical or legendary story, which related to the natural beauty around us; or the person might share a perspective that related to individual beliefs or hopes.

Such experiences were virtually always accompanied by a physical and physiological response: lifting one's gaze upward to the mountain peaks and simultaneously deeply inhaling. This experience of inhaling is better viewed as inspiring for many reasons. Foremost, as mentioned above, the mountains are viewed locally as an expression of the majesty of the Divine, and a conveyor of baraka. Hence, when one is in kuhestán (“mountainland”), reciting or recalling poetic verses that redound to the upliftment of one's consciousness, spiritual sensibilities, and emotions, and then one inhales deeply while physically stretching and elongating one's body—back and neck especially—and lifts the eyes upward to the physical mountain peaks, one's emotional heart is also turned upwards to the metaphoric kuheján (“mountain of the Beloved”), and a shift occurs from an inflexible or rigid state to one of flexibility and potential for change. There is a shift to another state of consciousness, another way of processing, where the mountains and the meaning they convey become the lens through which the moment was experienced or an issue discussed.

Five and Quintet-Set Shifting

The number five refers to multiple entities in Pamir. As one considers each symbol or entity of five, one contemplates a radically different thing. It also becomes a mnemonic, so each of those “sets of five,” receives emphasis and is recalled. And as one thinks of one set of five, one thinks of one of its five components; so there is a shift from one set of five to another, and within one set of five, from one element to the other in the “quintet.” Let me give an example.

The number five represents the most significant and power-laden symbol and metaphor of local belief. Five is a symbol intimately linked to baraka, giving sacred meaning to and even defining many elements of Pamiri culture, including the architectural design of the Pamiri home and maddohkháne, the individual, the Isma‘ili community, the five central figures in Islam, the five central religious beliefs and practices of Islam, the natural landscape, poetry and prayer forms, and the music of maddoh.

The maddohkháne within the Pamiri home has a specific architectural design, which embodies central religious beliefs and contributes to its role as a place of healing. Often, various aspects of its built form, which are somewhat flexible in their meaning, are described as originating in the Zoroastrian religion and other ancient, pre-Islamic beliefs (Keshavjee 1998). However, several specific meanings are commonly shared among Pamiri Isma‘ilis. These relate to the primary structure of the maddohkháne and the role of baraka in healing. Architecturally, the room is supported in part by five structural pillars, collectively representing the Panjtan (five holy people or central figures of Islam) as well as the community of Isma‘ilis. Each pillar represents one of the Panjtan and has a specific structural role and symbolic meaning. The pillar that represents Muhammad is centrally located, providing the most structural support and maintaining a pre-eminent symbolic position. The second and third pillars represent Ali and Fatimih, while the final two pillars represent Hasan and Husayn. These last two pillars are joined by a decorated crossbeam and form the entranceway to the maddohkháne. During a maddoh ceremony, the pillars are in full view of all participants; some people might even rest or lean against one of the pillars throughout the performance. Moreover, the pillars provide the structural support and metaphoric spiritual foundation for this room to function both as the maddohkháne and a local or family mosque. For Pamiri Isma‘ilis, the Panjtan are viewed as the primary channels of God's baraka. Thus, the pillars symbolically create a baraka-laden, sacred place for the mystical experience of maddoh performance.

A key feature of the natural environment that is related to the poetics of the region, local belief, and empowered symbolism are the panj áb (“five waters or rivers”) that flow into the legendary Oxus River, also known as the Amu Daryá, and River Panj (lit. “five”). The five rivers are the Bartang, Ghond, Shakhdari, Vanch, and Yazgulám rivers. The River Panj forms a natural border with Afghanistan and is the most powerful river in the region. It is mentioned throughout the literature, especially the poetry, and is seen as an attracting and entraining force, drawing the five rivers to it. These rivers provide the physical water needed for the body and are a symbol of the spiritual water of life and an expression of baraka essential for a human's being.

Simultaneously, the rivers are exemplars of flexibility, laden with meaning found in the poetics of the region, and are pervasive in the lived experience within Pamiri culture, evoking the ideas of fluidity, movement, freedom, change, and adaptability. Hence, the physical expression of flexibility coupled with the symbolic meaning that is central to local conceptualizations of health naturally activate the desired state of flexibility. These symbols frame the ritual performance and experience of maddoh and serve as attentional set options or catalysts for the evocation of other networks or other options for contemplation and choice. For example, elaborating on the “pillar” symbol, one of the five pillars in the maddohkháne symbolizes the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, Fatima, who is viewed as the essence of purity and can therefore be viewed as the exemplar of the adaptive network related to purity. While simultaneously, the River Panj is viewed as conveying áb-e haiyát or áb-e zendegi, the baraka of the “water of life,” which is a purifying, cleansing force. Additionally, requirements of prayer and giving alms, which are two of the five “pillars of Islam,” are practices that purify one's being and possessions. Their meaning is evoked by the structural pillars of the maddohkháne, which function as exemplars of the religious pillars, thus activating this network. All this is key with respect to healing, often viewed as a process of purification from the contamination of an illness, which can have its root cause in a lack of purity in any or all of the aql-tan-ruh.

In the Sound

Participants enter the maddohkháne reverently and with their attention moving from a state of reflection to one of expectation—reflection on the past and present and moving toward the expectation of change. The maddohkhán takes his seat with one or two other musicians flanking him on each side. His head is bowed as he whispers a soft prayer for assistance, or just closes his eyes and breathes deeply a few times to collect himself, perhaps saying a silent prayer in his mind as he prepares to begin the maddoh.

The first sound that emerges in the performance is the plucking of the gut strings of the rubáb. The motives played on the rubáb are light, descending and ascending, with slight or stronger bursts of volume as the maddohkhán's inspiration directs. A second or two of silence is followed by the voice, at times rough and raspy, at times gentle, and at times strong and booming—we have now fully entered the first section—the munáját. This section is only performed by the voice and the rubáb (or at times the tanbur). As mentioned above, melodically and rhythmically there is an overlapping call-and-response form in this section between the voice and the rubáb, and there is no percussion or overall regular pulse that is part of the munáját, although there is rhythmic structure that is recurrent. (Review online supporting file 1 for an illustration.)

Shifts occur with a movement into the second section, the haidari, which recounts stories and traditions to admonish participants to live according to local religious and cultural standards. The melodic and rhythmic content support the shift—the voice virtually always climbs in pitch and intensity while the doire frame drum enters with a powerful duple rhythm that often progressively increases in tempo throughout. (This middle segment of maddoh is illustrated in online supporting file 2.)

Again, there is a shift with the beginning of the third and final section, the setáyesh. Between the second and third sections, there is often an interlude of the voice growing in intensity in a free rhythm along with the rubáb(s) creating a harmonic fabric supporting the voice. Once the frame drum enters with a new propelling rhythm (analyzed below), a heightened level of attention ensues and thoughts are progressively directed toward the ineffable. (Refer again to online supporting file 3.)

The voice continues to weave poems together, each poem having a structured poetic meter or rhythm that can be analyzed at the level of syllabic structure of word(s), hemistich, poetic line, verse, and form, all of which adds to the rhythmic complex of the performance—patterns overlaying and interweaving with each other creating multiple attentional set-shifting potentials in the context of the setáyesh. The presence of improvisation in maddoh further increases the diversity of possibilities that is a function of the musicians’ inspiration during the time of performance, especially in the setáyesh.

Local musicians typically describe the setáyesh as something erfáni (mystical or spiritual), baráye shokr kardan (for giving thanks), beseyár ajáyeb (very unique and wonderful), and pore baraka (full of baraka). When asked about the rhythm of the setáyesh, musicians would simply show the rhythm, without the need of any term other than setáyesh. Musicians, the local khalifa, and other participants would consistently describe the setáyesh section as a “feeling” or “atmosphere”—a time during which regular consciousness would change into another consciousness and that the potential to facilitate healing was attributed to the confluence of baraka, which intensifies as maddoh moves from section to section, culminating in the setáyesh. Musicians further emphasize the rhythmic shift between sections, especially from the haidari to the setáyesh and they always emphasized that the rhythm used throughout the setáyesh was critical for a successful performance.

Whereas psychological flexibility during ritual performance might occur through diverse means, and is not necessarily dependent on any one element, the rhythmic structure of the setáyesh is a defining element and key component for creating the spiritual aesthetic of maddoh, and thereby is critical for effecting a change of consciousness. For instance, in my own learning to play the doire for maddoh, while there was flexibility with respect to secondary rhythmic aspects (e.g., using the fingers of one or both hands to create a rolling sound in between the five accents) the essential and required aspect of the setáyesh was that there were five strong accents, which are shown as five bursts of energy in the waveform of Figure 2. Importantly, maddoh is taught as an oral/aural tradition, hence my teachers did not say, “there are five essential accents you must play”; rather, they demonstrated this and I followed.

Although there are many aspects of the sounds and music of maddoh that can be seen as exemplars of psychological flexibility, a complete analysis of maddoh in this respect is beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, one aspect must be explored in some detail as it relates to the central symbol of “five,” which itself is an exemplar of multiple adaptive flexibility networks. Below, I examine the foundational rhythmic structure of the setáyesh to show how musical rhythm can be an exemplar of flexibility. In the recurring and driving, rhythmic pattern found in the last and most intense section of a maddoh performance, five accents dominate the rhythmic structure.

Rhythmic Flexibility in Maddoh

In Figure 1, a graphic of a waveform represents one complete cycle that is repeated throughout the setáyesh. Five prominent bursts of energy, marked 1–5, are shown as amplitude peaks in the waveform. The setáyesh begins with this new rhythmic structure that is maintained throughout the remainder of performance. Organizationally, the poetic verses follow these cycles of five, recurrent pulses of energy or loosely structured beats. (See online supporting file 3 for an excerpt of this final phase of a maddoh performance.)

Figure 1.

Waveform Showing 5 Recurrent Bursts of Energy.

Although the five accents do not indicate a strict 5/4 musical meter (i.e., musicians do not conceptualize this section in any musical meter as such), the accents do occur in a distinctive and fluid way that organizes the flow of the setáyesh in five unevenly spaced yet recurring and powerful pulses, which are key in creating a sense of flow and forward motion. That is, the pulses follow the uneven pattern of “short-long—short-long—short” as indicated under the numbers in Figure 1. As this pattern recurs, the last short pulse (beat 5) of a cycle pushes to beat 1 of the next cycle, which is also a short pulse. Hence, a feeling of flexibility and forward motion is created when these two short pulses occur one after the other throughout the setáyesh. The pattern is established as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2.

Flexibility Engendering Rhythmic Pattern.

Musically, the five-based rhythmic structure of the setáyesh gives a distinctive feeling of forward motion, of a sense of being pushed or carried forward. In discussing the music of the setáyesh, maddoh participants often expressed their feeling as being a kind of “non-stop forward motion,” “upward movement,” a “rising sensation,” “energy,” or a movement from “heaviness to lightness” which, when coupled with the mystical poems of maddoh, creates a shift in consciousness that was not only directed toward the báten (spiritual or supernatural), but also created a physical shift in the body. Participants experienced these feelings physically, emotionally, and spiritually. For instance, one participant and maddoh musician stated that throughout maddoh, he experienced a progressive sense of being physically lighter and that during the setáyesh, this feeling would further shift into a floating feeling and he would have an ineffable experience of the báten. Afterwards, he stated, “If the maddoh was good, I always have a happy feeling and am thankful.”

The purpose of this analysis is not to prove that the setáyesh is constructed and conceptualized in a 5/4 musical meter. Rather, it is to show that a flexible and recurrent rhythmic structure based on five strong, musical accents encourages a state of psychological flexibility and serves as an implicit and inherent exemplar of “five,” which is viewed locally as central to conceptualizations of belief, identity, health, and the healing energy of baraka. It is an implicit example because the music in Pamir is not conceptualized in terms of a 5/4 musical meter. Indeed, it is not conceptualized with respect to any musical meter—and yet the pre-eminent symbol of “five” is inherent in sonic structure of maddoh as shown in Figure 1.


In this article I have shown how maddoh and its multiple related cultural symbols are potential primers of psychological flexibility. With respect to the music of maddoh, its overarching form and shifts between sections and the distinctive rhythm of the setáyesh, with its driving, and laden five-based structure in hand with an intensification of sonic, symbolic, poetic, religious, and mystical meanings, serves as a kind of multivalent primer of psychological flexibility with a special potential to push or draw a participant away from a rigid or inflexible psychological state, where a new choice can be made, a new action produced. As Hinton notes, “a culture promotes psychological flexibility through various means: dance, music, visual culture, metaphors, socialization, and psychology…Priming means to ‘predispose to enact some action;’ in psychology, a certain cognitive set is said to be primed, meaning that its activation is promoted…” (Hinton 2008:136, see also Kirmayer 1993). As already seen above, not only are there didactics involved in the texts of maddoh that encourage specific actions and choices, but the experience of the music is one that can create a psychological, emotional, spiritual, or bodily shift for participants. Hinton goes on to say:

Viewed from a psychological perspective, flexibility is a key aspect of health: Pathology is often an inability to adaptively change psychological sets, to change emotional and attentional set, or to change the type of attentional object. One remains stuck in a worry-oriented mode, continually thinking of certain subjects; remains in a dejected state, thinking of negative past events and negative self-evaluations; or remains angered, thinking only of the slight and of ways to gain revenge. One is unable to disengage from the current attentional object, the current emotional set, or the current action plan to consider and enact other options. [Hinton 2008:125]

Certainly, the potential for music to effect health changes, either through the dynamic indicated by psychological flexibility, or perhaps framed by other concepts or practices, is not limited to one genre of music or one culture. Indeed, diverse musical forms and practices can promote flexibility to engender a state from which health changes or healing can arise (Koen 2008:7–14). As I have stated in detail elsewhere (Koen 2008, 2009), the process of internalizing musical meaning is not limited to the body, but also includes other factors of one's being—hence, I have preferred embeingment over embodiment to highlight the depth and scope at which music can activate flexibility networks (see also Hinton 2009:158). If culture-specific, music-based healing practices or rituals are considered as flexibility networks that provide the psychological, somatic, and spiritual context wherein one can be fully immersed in a state of flexibility, perhaps the anthropologist and psychologist can better appreciate how such a state can constitute fertile ground from which healing can emerge. This, I believe is one key area where a closer synthesis between shared interests in psychological anthropology and ethnomusicology can lead to significant advances in research.

Elsewhere (Koen 2008, 2009), I have investigated in detail how music, specialized sonic structures, prayer, poetry, and meditation can activate and enliven a state of cognitive flexibility wherein transformation and healing can occur in specific areas or the whole of a human's being. In some cases, culture specific rhythmic structures play a part in creating a state of consciousness or being that is best described as a state of potentiality in between illness and health.

In the example from the rhythmic structure of the setáyesh, the recurring, entrancing pattern conveys a momentum and sense of expectation through its flexibility and feeling of forward motion. Moreover, the words (prayers and poems), cultural symbols and meanings, the natural and built environment, and performers are all believed to convey the healing energy of baraka. The rhythmic aspect of this musical complex analyzed above is such that it creates a flexible and open-minded state in the attentive listener or performer.

In hand with directed thought, attention, and intention, is the powerful role that music plays in priming adaptive flexibility networks. In other words, as music encourages states of flexibility in specific areas or the whole of a person's being, new generative cognitive material can be introduced through exemplars of the desired state, quality, or outcome, and the multiple associations that they evoke. In Pamir, if a person aims at healing an illness or dis-ease in any or all of the areas of the aql-tan-ruh, the devotional performance of maddoh, laden with exemplars of health and spirituality, helps to create a spiritual state of being wherein the person or patient detaches from the illness, is immersed in a state of consciousness that is beyond the physical expression of the illness and is only healthy. Such a dynamic in this transcendent state is viewed in the Pamir Mountain region and should be viewed by academics alike as a spiritual experience that promotes healing and well-being.


  1. 1

    In this article, Badakhshan and Pamir refer to the specific districts where field research was conducted. These include Shugnon, Roshon, Ishkishim, and the capital city of Khoroq. IRB approval was given at The Ohio State University for research conducted in 2001 and 2003.

  2. 2

    These include techniques of poetic analysis based on Persian poetic meters, which must be considered for both the poems and the music (see for example Farzaad, 1967).

  3. 3

    See Koen 2008 for details of the physiological experiment. Research for this project within Persian-speaking cultures began in 1998, with primary field research in Tajikistan being conducted in 2001 and 2003. My research is ongoing within the Tajik diaspora and within Persian-speaking cultures more broadly.

  4. 4

    Isma‘ilis form a community within Shi‘eh Islam that developed from one line of descendants of the sixth Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq, who had a son named Isma‘il, hence the name of the community.

  5. 5

    Note that “Persian” not “Farsi” is the correct term to refer to the mother tongue of Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan when speaking in English. “Farsi” is the English transliteration of the Arabic and Persian word used to refer to the mother tongue of these three countries. In ancient Iran, the language was known as “Parsi,” referring to the language of the land of Pars, but since Arabic has no letter “P,” Arabic speakers replaced it with the letter “F,” hence “Farsi,” referring to the language of the land of Fars. In English, the national languages of Afghanistan and Tajikistan can also be referred to as Afghani and Tajiki respectively. “Dari” is the transliteration of the Afghani word for the Persian spoken in Afghanistan.

  6. 6

    This period is usually dated from after the 7th-century Arab-Islamic conquest of Iran and the subsequent “two centuries of silence,” until the death of the poet Abd ar-Rahman Jámi in 1492.

  7. 7

    Throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, depending upon local language conventions, the term maddoh and its variants (madá, maddoh, meddah, madh, maddai, madih) can have multiple meanings—referring to one or more aspects of performance, including the music itself, the prayer or poetic text, a section of the performance, the genre as a whole, the master musician or panegyrist, or the regular, often weekly ceremony in which maddoh is performed.

  8. 8

    The concepts discussed here are certainly not confined to Pamiris or their particular religion. That is, across religions and belief systems similar concepts are found: the belief in a higher and lower self; a spiritual power or energy that can heal, bless, assist, and protect; and practices that facilitate the flow of spiritual energy.

  9. 9

    Ruh is often used interchangeably with “ján,” which means “life” and can also refer to the level and sense of energy in one's body and being. Ján is also used as a term of endearment, meaning “beloved,” or “dear.”

  10. 10

    See Hinton (2008) for his discussion of “attentional set flexibility” and “cognitive flexibility.”

  11. 11

    There are numerous such reports. However, there are no cases yet reported with scientific medical evidence to document such healings.

  12. 12

    This celebrated couplet is multi-referential and can be translated in a few different ways. As it was repeated twice here, I have translated it as shown to provide key aspects of the poetic meaning.

  13. 13

    Note that “Allah” is the transliteration of the Arabic word for God and should not be exclusively associated with Islam. Indeed, Arabic speakers from diverse religions refer to God as Allah when speaking in Arabic. Too, when speaking in English, the correct term for the translation of the Arabic word Allah is God.


  • BENJAMIN D. KOEN is Distinguished Professor Minjiang Scholar of Medical Anthropology and Medical Ethnomusicology, Xiamen University, Fujian, China.