For eons, traditional cultures have used music to mark important milestones: fertility rites, birth, puberty, marriage, and death. So it’s not surprising to learn that operating rooms in major hospitals have music piped in as well. Surgeons create playlists that help focus and calm them and others in the operating theatre. Sometimes patients and close relatives bring their own.
The other day in the hall I ran into Anil Dewan, KCRW’s Webmaster. Anil and his wife Laurie just celebrated, at the end of April, the birth of their first child, Kavi. Somehow Anil and I started talking about music, and he mentioned that during Laurie’s labor and delivery they chose to listen to the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s album “Night Song,” produced by Michael Brook. I was floored. Usually, I would think that such life-changing moments might just call for Bach or some sort of solo flute or music for relaxation. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was the greatest purveyor of sufi music, searching, ecstatic, mystical, soulful. And certainly not understood by most people in the West.
While playing his music on KCRW, we once got a call from a woman complaining that the music sounded like somebody’s toenails were being pulled out. No doubt, his powerful voice expressed a rich variety of human emotions, and met with a variety of reactions among listeners. It’s not the music most people would choose for the birth of their first child, but I was impressed by this unusual choice. In Nusrat’s music, the agony and the ecstacy of childbirth finds a true complement. This is music that truly reaches for the sublime.
Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms. Magazine, once wrote a piece about primitive people during prehistory, who worshipped women because they had the magical power of giving birth. She suggested that the mystery of childbirth created early goddess and fertility cults, where men worshipped woman for having powers beyond male potential. There are still many people who carry around carved fetishes of pregnant women. I once saw female angelic figures in Salvador, Brazil’s Sao Francisco Cathedral with distinctly pregnant bellies carved into the walls, no doubt part of Brazil’s African heritage.
To get back to Nusrat’s cd: On the cover of “Night Song” is a picture of a rose stem, bright green against a crimson background. The rose’s beauty contrasts with the large thorn depicted in the photograph. It suggests, to me anyway, beauty and pain, in this case the beauty and pain of childbirth.
Our conversation in the hallway reminded me of that fact that soon after Peter Gabriel featured Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in a live Womad Festival recording in 1982, I was regularly playing the Womad LP on Morning Becomes Eclectic. I and other deejays also played the amazing soundtrack Gabriel put together for the Scorcese film The Last Temptation of Christ. There was always something magical, mystical and profound in his ecstatic music. Chris Douridas and I were fortunate enough to interview the great singer before his early death in 1997 at the age of 39.
Nusrat performed in Los Angeles only three times: first at LAX in a benefit performance hosted by the famous Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan, the second in Buena Park (I was about the only non-Pakistani there), and finally at the Universal (now Gibson) Amphitheater.
I told Anil about something that happened to me a long time ago. It was the early 80s when I was KCRW’s music director. I was in line at Sears to buy tickets for a Ray Charles concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. I didn’t have a credit card, and was told I either had to use one or pay cash. I had only my checkbook. The woman behind me told me she’d charge it to her account and I could pay her back. I needed four tickets, I explained. She said no problem. Such trust from strangers is a rare occurrence. It felt good, this kindness from strangers.
We started talking and I learned that she was from South Africa, and worked as an anaesthesiological nurse at Santa Monica Hospital. At the time we were soliciting and receiving LP’s from Johannesburg, both from the Kohinoor Store there (“we sell records like hotcakes” was stamped on every LP), as well as South Africans living in LA and people going there. Remember this was 1982 — apartheid was still in force, and long before Paul Simon’s landmark Graceland album. We had gotten LP’s by a group named after a Ladysmith Township. The group was Ladysmith Black Mambazo, famous now. To thank her, I taped a cassette of the men’s group and sent it to this kind woman, who had never heard of this now-famous men’s choir. I ran into her later and she told me that it had become the top 40 hit of the operating surgeons at the hospital. They listened all the time. How cool was that?
It just shows us once again how important music is to not only the mundane rituals of daily life but in pivotal moments as well. Congratulations to Anil, Laurie, and their baby boy Kavi.
Editor’s Note: KCRW DJ Tom Schnabel flexes his musical expertise regularly for the KCRW Music Blog and also teaches classes at his Venice home. Learn more about his Music Salon series here: http://www.tomschnabel.com/musicsalon.html