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The Boston Phoenix Sufi Soul

Beyond Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

By Banning Eyre

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  In a 13th-century Sufi poem a sage explains that "music is the shrieking of the doors of Paradise." "I don't like the shrieking of doors!" complains a "narrow-minded fool," to which the sage replies, "I hear the doors how they open, but you hear them when they are closed."

That ancient wisdom may apply to two lavish compilations of Sufi music, Echos du Pardis: Sufi Soul and Hommage à Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (both on Network). Some listeners will readily ascend to music lovers' heaven; others will remain below wondering what all the fuss is about. But if you're one of millions worldwide who have been moved by Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, it's a chance worth taking. Nusrat opened the doors. These two double-CD sets, and the photographs and text that accompany them, give a glimpse of what lies beyond.

Sufism is a mystical sect of Islam that includes some 50 million people from Morocco to Southeast Asia. Its disregard for religious formalities, its goal of inspiring a union between human beings and God, and its outpouring of artistic expressions have earned it the scorn of mullahs throughout the Muslim world. But the beauty of Sufism is at times almost enough to counterbalance all the bad PR that international terrorists have brought to misunderstood Islam.

Sufi Soul bills itself as "the most swinging religious music on earth." That's misleading. The qawwali tracks that conclude each of the collection's two discs -- one by Nusrat and one by the Sabri Brothers -- do indeed swing like an elephant. But most of the other tracks rise on the strength of an entrancing instrumental palette and overwhelming vocal performances. Ercan Irmak's silky smooth ney (wooden flute) emerges from behind a curtain of ominous orchestration and male choral singing. Egyptian Fawzy Hafez offers a tighter, woodier ney performance accompanied by a loping frame drum, the bendir. Iran's Ostad Elahi plays the tanbur, a long-necked lute that dates back to pre-Islamic times. In his hands, it produces a mad, joyful jangling, something like an Indian sarod in overdrive.

Among the vocal revelations on Sufi Soul is Uzbekistan's Munadjat Yultchieva, a woman who broke social norms by taking up a male profession and offended Communist leaders by refusing to replace her Sufi texts with political tracts. She starts out breathy and wavering and builds in aching crescendos. Her wavers and pitch bends, as she plays at the edge of that whistling sound produced by Tuva's celebrated throat singers, can have something approaching a physical impact on the listener. Then we hear Kani Karaca, a Turkish master of religious recitation, performing at a dervish ceremony, his magnificent voice tearing through the air in jagged lashings.

The music on Hommage à Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is equally good, and more accessible. Nusrat opens the collection, and a number of other qawwals contribute recent works in tribute to him. Some shed light on Nusrat's influences, like that of Punjabi singers Salamat and Shafqat Ali Khan. The elder Salamat was one of Nusrat's idols, and in his improvisations you can hear elements of North Indian vocal music that Nusrat incorporated. And others, like Asif Ali Khan, offer eulogy in the form of a furious miasma of joyful grieving: "My beloved has returned home/I forgot everything, including the prayers/Bring bowls of wine, let us celebrate."

Some of Hommage draws from farther afield, like the track by the Kamkar Ensemble, a Kurdish family orchestra from Iran. Their melodious singing has an almost Latin sensibility, and the eight instruments provide lush, stately backing. The biggest surprise comes from rising Senegalese star Cheikh Lo, a member of the Baye Fall sect, an African offshoot of Sufism. Acoustic guitars tangle in a vaguely Eastern mode, and the song evolves a sing-along refrain that nicely melds Nusrat's gift for a hook with Senegalese folk music. Lo's clear, keening vocal also does Nusrat proud.

Nusrat's Sufi ancestors used music and trance to spread Islam to the Indian subcontinent. By becoming one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, Nusrat continued their work mightily. With his Buddha-like girth and his enormous, supple voice, he induced collective ecstasy in concert halls from Boston to Tokyo. The stories of Pakistanis bashing their heads against the stage until they bled are not exaggerations. Although foreigners generally kept their heads at Nusrat's performances, they experienced a spiritual uplift rare at any concert of any music anywhere.

When Nusrat died last year -- shortly before his 50th birthday -- he had become the apotheosis of a world-music phenomenon. Brilliant as the music on Echos du Pardis: Sufi Soul and Hommage à Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is, little of it has the rare universality that Nusrat embodied. But it's music that illuminates the past and present of a spectacular musical tradition -- and even hints at its future.

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