Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party: Intoxicated Spirit

The Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a legend in his native Pakistan and somewhat known in other parts of the world before some of his music appeared in the 1995 film Dead Man Walking and turned him into something of a phenomenon even in the U. S.

Born in 1948, Nusrat was a member of a family steeped deeply for centuries in the tradition of qawwali, a form of music which came out of the mystical traditions of Sufi Islam, and which arose in the Persian Empire and then spread to popularity in South Asia.  The devotional nature of qawwali has often been misunderstood because lyrics appear to refer to earthly love and intoxication from the overuse of wine, but instead are infused with metaphors for spiritual concerns cloaked in secular language.  The lyrics of qawaali can be generally aligned with translations of such Sufi poetry as that of the great master, Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, the Persian poet, jurist, theologian and mystic of the 13th century, when the Arab world was among the most advanced in the world and far beyond the Europe of the so-called Dark Ages.

Musically, the structure of the party is along the lines of having a lead singer (Nusrat), side singers and a harmonium (formerly the sarangi) player in a front row and a group of backup singers and percussionists in a rear row.  While there are portions of pieces that are arranged and predetermined, there is also considerable room for improvisation by everyone, with the singer punctuating the lyrics with vocal effects of a breathtaking variety and Nusrat was the indisputed master in his realm, even as he modernized elements of the performances while firmly rooting his work in tradition.  He leads his background singers in chants and call-and-response sections that are part of the trance-inducing magic of the music.

As befits a mysticallly-oriented recording, the pieces start slowly and quietly with the lead vocals laying the melodic and lyrical groundwork and the remainder of the performers providing their accompaniment.  Over time through generally long pieces (20-30 minutes can be typical on recordings, though not necessarily so in live performance, during which songs can go on much longer, not unlike the Indian raga) the intensity builds as the lead singer uses a volume, power and a variety of vocalizing techniques that are not found in Western musics, and which provide a soaring, penetrating and intense quality of inspiration and expression, while the other musicians increase the volume and speed of the rhythms and harmonic accompaniment to keep the lead singer moving upwards into flights of ecstacy.

With Nusrat and Party, the art of the qawaali is at its peak with his unparallelled voice rising and gliding above and within the steady handclaps, hand percussion, and harmonium played by the other performers.  Generally, there are two commonly-available types of recordings to acquire for those who want to experience the transcendent, uplifting and otherworldly sounds of Nusrat and Party. 

The most popular were those issued by Peter Gabriel's Real World label and, while some of these adhere to the traditional format of Pakistani qawaali, others bring in, if usually very sensitively, Western musicians and instrumentation.  Future posts will include some of these recordings, which are consistently high-quality and excellent vehicles for presenting Nusrat's music to a larger worldwide audience, as befits the Real World philosophy and output.

For those looking to listen to Nusrat and Party in the traditional presentation style, there are harder-to-find releases on the Shanachie label, best known generally for its reggae releases, and which licensed four albums from Pakistani sources and released most of them in the midst of Nusrat's mid-90s popularity.  This listener was fortunate enough to discovery Nusrat in the very early part of that decade, through the first Shanachie album, a studio effort called The Day, The Night, The Dawn, The Dusk (1991.)  In this vein, but because it is a live recording, the 1996 release, Intoxicated Spirit, is a good place to indulge in the more "indigenous" type of qawaali made by the group made in Pakistan before Nusrat acquired the brief fame in the West that ended with his untimely passing at only age 48 in Summer 1997.

Intoxicated Spirit features four tracks, the first two of which are 23 and 24 minutes respectively, while the others are 12 and 14 minutes.    The centerpiece of the album clearly is the first piece, Yeh Jo Halka Halka, in which the lengthy translated lyrics are reprinted and have to, again, be seen metaphorically not as an earthbound love song, but as a mystical paean to the religious ecstacy sought by devotees of Sufism.  The steady and building rhythms, the beautiful harmonium work, and, naturally, Nusrat's amazing singing are on full display on this opening song.

The next track, Ruk Pe Rehmat Ka, is lengthier than the first, but also is more subdued and introspective for a longer period before building into that ecstatic display of finely-honed rhythmic intensity and Nusrat's staggering improvisational vocalisations.

The last piece, Meri Saqi Saqi Yeh, is unusual in the sense that it brings in the more traditional, but displaced, sarangi, a stringed instrument that is played with a bow, but which also has to be retuned between pieces, hence the popularity of the harmonium, which doesn't require the retuning.  There is also the use of a zither or qanun, and the use of these instruments gives a notable difference in sound to the song in comparison to the others.

The loss of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to cardiac arrest following kidney and liver failure at a relatively young age was immensely felt among devotees of the music and the Sufi tradition.  While others continue to successfully perform the music, notably including his nephew, Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the visibility of qawaali during that brief period in the mid-90s when Nusrat was a worldwide phenomenon is unlikely to be at that level again.  Fortunately, his recordings can be enjoyed and appreciated and the depth, passion, technique and earnestness of this great artist will live on.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan:  Intoxicated Spirit (Shanachie, 1996)

1.  Yeh Jo Halka Halka  23:00
2.  Ruk Pe Rehmat Ka  24:00
3.  Be Wafa  12:00
4.  Meri SAqi Saqi Yeh  14:00

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