MUSIC / Overflowing with Eastern promise: Is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan the best singer in the world today? Geoff Dyer argues the case for the master of Islamic song

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The Independent Culture
IN ISLAMIC countries, in the desert, it sometimes seems as if the call to prayer, although issuing from the minaret, is actually summoned into being by the vastness of the sky. As if the call is itself a response to the immensity of the surrounding silence . . .

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, 'Shahen-shah-e- qawali' - 'the brightest shining star of qawali' - sits cross-legged, barefoot on the concert stage. To his left are the other members of his 'party': eight-man chorus, tabla player, two men on hand-pumped harmonia and, furthest from him, the youngest member of the ensemble, his teenage pupil. Over the drone of the harmonia the chorus sets up a slow pattern of hand-claps. As simple as that. The clapping initiates a rhythm of expectation, a yearning that cries out for the Voice, which will become the medium of still greater yearning. As soon as we hear it - minutes into a performance which will last for hours and leave us dazed and ecstatic - we are held by its implacable power.

In our century there have been only one or two voices like this: voices that cry out beyond the cry, that rend the soul even as they soothe it. A voice like this - like the voice of Callas or of the great Egyptian singer Om Calsoum - longs to be answered by something as beautiful as itself. And so it soars. Higher and further, until it consumes and destroys itself. Or until it finds God. That is why, on Peter Gabriel's soundtrack to Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, it is Nusrat's voice you hear in the climactic moments of the Passion.

Qawali - literally 'utterance' - is the devotional music of Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam founded in 10th-century Persia. An amalgam of classical and popular styles of music, qawali, in something like its present form, was established on the Indian subcontinent by the end of the 13th century.

Nusrat himself comes from a line of qawals stretching back over 600 years. He was born in Lyallpur - now Faisalabad - in Pakistan in 1948, and received informal lessons from his father, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, a qawali master. When his father died in 1964 Nusrat began training with his father's brothers. With the death of his uncle, Mubarik Ali Khan, in 1971, he became the greatest living qawal. Since then, and especially in the past eight or nine years, he has built up a worldwide audience.

Much of the credit for the popularity of Nusrat, and of fellow qawals the Sabri Brothers, must go to the Womad festival and Peter Gabriel's Real World record label. On cassette, Nusrat's greatest hits run to over 20 volumes and there are fine concert recordings from Paris (on Ocora) and London (on Navras), but the best-produced albums - such as Shahen-shah (1989) and Shahbaaz (1991) - are all on Real World. There are dozens of remixes and samples of Nusrat floating around the Asian dance circuit but, again, the most sensitive of these are found on Real World's Mustt Mustt (1990), which crosses Nusrat's voice with a range of electronic backing tracks, including a dub-heavy Massive Attack remix of the title piece. The Last Prophet, his latest release, returns to traditional form.

By the robust standards of qawali, The Last Prophet is a gentle album, consolidating the repertoire of dedications to prophets and saints, and only gradually reaching the sustained ecstatic heights of 'Jewleh Lal', a 25- minute chant on Shahbaaz. The poems of Jewleh Lal, a 13th-century Turkish mystic known more simply as Rumi, offer prophetic description of the great qawal: 'This voice seizing me is your voice / Burning to speak to us of us.' Intended to induce a trance-like state of religious delirium, 'These cries / Sounds of extreme love' have an overwhelming, transcendental effect on even the most secular ears.

Rumi's poems combine secular and sacred love, and as qawali has developed so the devotional and secular strains have become deeply entwined. So much so that it is difficult not to hear the high, ringing voice of Nusrat's male pupil as the embodiment of the feminine beloved. But there is an element of playfulness in all of this as well, with the master (whose father, remember, died when he was just 16) calling across the chorus, treating his pupil with magisterial indulgence: 'So puppy, you think you can bark?' Nietzsche warned that he is a very poor pupil who remains only a pupil; and these dialogues point to the time when, one day, a pupil will begin to match his master, perhaps even to fly beyond his reach. How long can Nusrat's voice last? How long will he continue to soar?

Now, as the chant settles deeper into the body, members of the audience are whirling, throwing money on to the stage. Nusrat's hands, which initially had been simply rising and falling, emphasising the rhythm, are now tracing patterns in the air. Pitting himself against the massed power of the chorus, he flings back elaborations of the main phrases, leading the chorus in surging, hypnotic repetitions.

Nusrat is no longer projecting his voice; he has become the physical incarnation of the Voice. Much Western religious music seems clammy with death; driven by the gallop of hand-claps and the dust-swirl of tabla, qawali exalts in itself: incandescent, burning . . . 'I am not a voice, I am the Fire singing / What you hear is crackling in you.' (Rumi)

'The Last Prophet' is on Real World (CD / tape). The Sabri Brothers appear at the Hexagon, Reading, 0734 591591, on 16 May.

(Photograph omitted)

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