I first heard the Sufi devotional music called qawwali around 1982 on a WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) album. WOMAD was Peter Gabriel’s world music label and brainchild. This was right about the time when a bunch of Brit record executives coined the term “world music” as a category for retail sales purposes. The five-minute excerpt I heard was powerful, enthralling. I was transfixed. I contacted WOMAD and asked them how long the original was. The answer? Two hours.
The music was that of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a Pakistani devotional singer who died in 1997. His musical journey started with a dream he had of singing in Pakistan’s most famous mosque, and it was something he was able to realize before his untimely death at 49.
The word qawwali means “utterance” in Urdu, and Nusrat was and is the most famous qawwal. I first saw him perform at a fundraiser at the LAX Hilton on behalf of a cancer hospital in Lahore. The speaker was Pakistan’s #1 cricketeer, Imran Khan. My table was besieged by men asking us to raise $5,000, the amount assigned per table. Me and a bunch of music fans and public radio types? No way could we come up with that. Nusrat had food poisoning and looked green onstage. It was not easy for him.
The second time I saw him involved driving to Buena Park for an all-Pakistani show. I recall hundreds of Mercedes in the parking lot but no BMWs. Fans were crumpling up $10-20 bills and throwing them on stage in tribute to the great singer. His next show took him to the former Universal Amphitheater (now Gibson). I didn’t make it to that one.
One time I was playing Nusrat’s music on air when KCRW’s then General Manager Ruth Seymour got a call from her mother, who was put on phone hold while the music was playing. When Ruth picked up the phone, her mom said the music sounded like somebody getting their toenails pulled out. It’s a good thing that not all people hear Nusrat that way. Though often intense, his is a music of peace and love.
Nusrat would try anything musically, which is one reason he became the most famous qawwal. There was the Massive Attack remix of “Mustt Mustt,” and also the fun, crazy Bally Sagoo remixes. Don’t be fooled, however. Nusrat also performed powerful, rich devotional music and love songs with his group, as you’ll hear on the first cut by him of this show.
Abida Parveen is the most famous female qawwali vocalist, adored by fans all over the world. I heard her once in Orange County years ago. She has a big voice, perfect pitch, and a powerful, ecstatic delivery. She will occasionally visit the U.S., but you will likely not know about it unless you read the local Pakistani newspapers.
In a 2013 article in the UK paper The Guardian, Parveen said, “My culture–our culture–is rich in spirituality and love. Sufism is not a switch, the music isn’t a show–it’s of life, it is religion. If I want to recognized for anything, if we should be recognized for anything, it’s the journey of the voice. And that voice is God’s.” Qawwali, like gospel music in the U.S., is a communal experience, a joy meant to be shared.
I did not include another famous qawwali group, the Sabri Brothers, because their tracks are super long. Sadly, I recently wrote a post about one of their founding members who was murdered by an Islamic extremist. Sufi gospel is a way of getting closer to the divine, both for listeners and performers. Dictatorships and Islamist hardliners don’t like music, don’t trust it either. We’ve seen that in the Soviet Union, Chile, Argentina, Iran, and other places.
For those who don’t know about this powerful and ecstatic music, let it be a reminder that its message of peace and harmony is an antidote to the turmoil in Pakistan that we hear in the news.
Here is a video shot in Pakistan in 1993 of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan:
Rhythm Planet Playlist for 9/2/16:
- Abida Parveen / “Choonghat Ohle Na Luk Sajna” / Baba Bulleh Shah / Oreade Music
- Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan / “Allah Hoo Allah Hoo” / Devotional Songs / Real World
- Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan / “Mustt Mustt” / Mustt Mustt / Real World
- Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan / “Kinna Sohna (Bally Sagoo Remix)” / Big Noise: A Mambo Inn Compilation / Hannibal