Wednesday, July 12, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days # 022: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party: Shahen-Shah

This is some of the most transcendent music I have ever heard. I don’t recall where I first heard Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the leading light (before his untimely death in 1997) in Pakistani Qawwali (devotional) music, but it might have been on the soundtrack Peter Gabriel did for Scorsese’s passionate, courageous Last Temptation of Christ. Or it might have been the dsic called Passion Sources, upon which Gabriel—one of the most honorable gentlemen in pop music—provided a more expansive showcase for the indigenous musicians with whom he’d collaborated on the soundtrack. At any rate, I stumbled across Shahen-Shah at the gone-but-not-forgotten, much-missed Classical Film and Music in Bloomington, a fantastic store, and I was absolutely smitten from the opening track, Shamas-Ud-Doha, Badar Ud-Doja.

Qawwali is an improvisational and devotional music which arose from the music-making at the tombs of Chisti Sufi saints in Pakistan and North India. Its goal was to invoke religious trance in its listeners, using repetitious modal vamps, interlocking tabla and hand percussion, and mesmerizing call-and-response vocals. There’s a strong influence from North Indian classical music, from which Qawwali (particularly in Nusrat’s hands) took improvisational virtuosity and the use of the vocables called bols (you can hear Nusrat use them on this record). Qawwalis (the term is used to describe both the genre and the musicians) are expected to be both musical and spiritual experts, because they have an important spiritual charge: in the midst of the Qawwali ceremony, the singer, like the leader of a Sufi lodge, is expected to observe the spiritual “readiness” each participant, and to make the right repertoire and improvisation choices to send successive celebrants into trance. This still obtains in a non-sacred situation, and even in the West: we were at a concert on the Harvard campus one night when the Party came out, sat down cross-legged on the stage, Nusrat began to sing, and what looked like the entire Pakistani community of greater Boston mobbed the stage, dancing ecstatically and showering the musicians with money.

Years later, while in Bloomington, I became interested in Sufi music through various channels, but especially the writings of Brian Cullman in the old Musician: Player and Listener magazine and the a certain rock video by Kate Bush (a long story for another day). I wound up probably knowing more about Sufi, especially Chisti and Mevlevi, music than any other non-Muslim in town. I wrote about it, read about it, composed music based upon it, and years later I got a tattoo of a hoopoe, a bird sacred in Sufi symbolism, which was formed by a calligraphy of the illahi: the opening lines of the Holy Qu’ran. All this led me to Rumi, for which I am profoundly grateful.

Nusrat came from a long line of Qawwalis, but was not interested in being a musician himself: he wanted to study engineering in the West. He did this until he began to have recurrent dreams, in which various Sufi saints would visit him and insist that he was called to be a Qawwali. Finally, one night a white dove visited the dream and touched him on the throat. He claimed that he was a Qawwali and a virtuoso singer from the next morning.

The music is absolutely transcendent. People who know nothing about Pakistan, nothing about Qawwali, and nothing about Sufism still find themselves mesmerizing by the swirling ecstasy of the singing and playing. In that respect, Qawwali is like gospel: the spiritual intensity is so vivid, the religious commitment so fervid, and the palpable aura of love so great, that anyone who hears the music is entranced. I certainly was.

The Sufis have a saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

Nusrat was that teacher for me.

1 comment:

Dharmonia said...

You saw Nusrat at Harvard? Did I know that? I must have been somewhere else...I have always regretted never seeing Nusrat live. I've rarely heard more powerfully "spiritual" music, and I've only heard recordings / videos.