It’s lucky for the late qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan that there is no heaven, so he doesn’t have to explain to any celestial authority what he was doing with Rick Rubin. Yes, that’s blasphemy, but so is recording with the man who brought you Slayer, Danzig, and the Geto Boys. Reign in Blood and “There Is No Other Like Mohammed” don’t quite mesh.
His past infamies aside, there’s no reason to doubt that Rubin feels qawwali as intensely as he once dug speed metal, goth metal, or hardcore rap. Like many Westerners raised on rock, Rubin grew up and started looking for fresh music that expressed rapture rather than rebellion. And Khan wasn’t musically chaste before he began hanging with Rubin. The Pakistani singer, who died in 1997, made two albums with Canadian musical hybridist Michael Brook and collaborated on movie soundtracks with Peter Gabriel (1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ) and Eddie Vedder (1995’s Dead Man Walking). The Massive Attack remix of Khan and Brook’s 1990 track “Mustt Mustt” even became part of a Coca-Cola TV ad seen internationallyalthough only in those nations where cricket’s World Cup attracts an audience.
Corruption from a man who sang of purity? Islamic hard-liners might say so, but then they’ve never liked qawwali. The genre is rooted in Sufi mysticism, long regarded with skepticism by Arab, Indian, and Persian puritans. Some qawwalis offer texts as unambiguous as “There Is No Other Like Mohammed”the title of one of the eight tracks on Khan’s two-CD The Final Studio Recordingsbut other lyrics conflate divine love with earthly, even carnal, varieties. And the music itself, with its hypnotizing drones and repetitive chants, is meant to alter states. (Mustt means “spiritually intoxicated.”) That’s bad news to a religion dedicated to perpetual sobriety.
Actually, there are two separate issues of impurity involved in making albums like The Final Studio Recordings and Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Rahat (which follow qawwali’s traditional format), and Temple of Sound & Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali’s People’s Colony No. 1 (which dubs up the style). The first is the transplantation of the music, however true it remains to its 13th-century precedents, to concert halls and recording studios, not to mention dance clubs. After all, qawwali was originally performed only at the shrines of Sufi saints. The other is innate to the genre, which despite its austere origins is relatively accessible and assimilable. Its themes of courtly love, sinuous melodies, and regular eight-beat cycles lend themselves to commercialization, and not just by Westerners: Bollywood film songs and other varieties of Indo-Pakistani pop drew on qawwali long before British ethno-techno remixers started to mess with it.
A title such as The Final Studio Recordings sounds definitive, and even Kahn connoisseurs who believe that the singer’s technique peaked a few years before his reputation did are likely to be impressed. Khan and his groupa tabla player, a harmonium player, and six additional singersoffer assured, ecstatic performances; Khan’s voice soars above the others, keening, swooping, and chattering in a manner that’s characteristic of lead instruments in the Indo-Pakistani tradition and also reminiscent of jazz scat singing. But sometimes his singing blends into the whole, a communal epiphany that is both atypical of the subcontinent’s other musics and one important aspect of qawwali’s pop-crossover potential.
Definitiveness, of course, is a Western concept. Although based on established melodic motifs and texts, Indo-Pakistani music is always improvised. It’s subject to the lead musician’s mood, the weather and the seasons, andif you believe in that sort of thingdivine forces. Freezing such music’s ephemeral elation is, in a sense, a misuse of it, but it’s one that Kahn certainly countenanced. Dozens of his recordings have been released on CD in the West, and hundreds more circulate on cassette in Pakistan, India, and import shops in Britain and beyond. The Final Studio Recordings could stand as Khan’s legacy, but it needn’t.
Qawwali traditionally dispenses with the alap, the meditative and rhythmless introduction of Indian classical ragas, instead cutting directly to up-tempo verses (on these three discs, running from 13 to 18 minutes) driven by a tabla’s cantering, resonant thump. Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Rahat begins a bit more emphatically. Tabla player Ustad Abdul Sittar Tari Khan opens the album with a brief but surprisingly speedy flourish, which is followed by an unusually rhythmic harmonium passage before the entrance of this younger Khannephew of the great man and “side singer 2” on The Final Studio Recordings. Such moments could be called “punk qawwali,” but the younger singer makes no major break with the past.
Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was in fact being groomed as his uncle’s successor, and Rubin seems ready to anoint him. Rahat is packaged to resemble The Final Studio Recordings, with dignified black-and-white photos and simple English and Urdu text. (Whereas the two-CD set includes images of everyday Pakistan, however, Rahat depicts only its star and his accompanists.) Although Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s group is slightly smaller than his uncle’s, it includes some of the same musicians. Rahat’s harmonium-and-tabla intros have a garage-band directness lacking in the elder Khan’s work, and the singer sometimes rides a simple phrase more doggedly than his uncle did, but these are not dramatic differences. And if the chanted refrains of tracks such as “Ali Dum Dum (Ali in My Soul)” seem ideal for dance-club remixes, that’s hardly unprecedented. Each qawwali singer has his own path, and there’s no reason to think that Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s inevitably leads to crossover rather than transcendence.
The same can’t be said with certainty of Rizwan Mujahid Ali Khan and Muazzam Mujahid Ali Khan, two more nephews of Nusrat Khan. This duo recorded traditional qawwali, even returning to the style’s original languages, Persian and Hindi, for a 1999 album on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, Sacrifice to Love. The new People’s Colony No. 1, however, allies the brothers and their eight accompanists with Transglobal Underground’s Neil Sparkes and Count Dubulah and such guests as the ubiquitous Jah Wobble. This is essentially an exercise in skipping the remix middleman, going directly into dub-qawwali mode on tracks such as “The Jewelled Heart” and “Solar East.”
Bass-boosted and condensed for Western attention spansthe longest track is barely eight minutesPeople’s Colony No. 1 is richly textured and often driving. Still, its virtues are those of qawwali: the rubbery, skittering tabla beat and the eloquent babbling of the two brothers, who trade vocal riffs with conviction and grace. Temple of Sound (aka Sparkes and Dubulah) just adds such inessentials as congas, keyboards, and “dub atmosphere,” failing to earn its top billing. Even the instrumental tracks, for all their studio treatments, belong primarily to Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali’s tabla player, Zafar Ali Khan. If qawwali’s euphoric groove is eminently crossoverable, the lesson of this album if that it really doesn’t need all that much help. CP