Ramadan Nights, Barbican / LSO St Luke's, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

And it was a coup to get Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's nephew Rahat as the main qawwali singer, plus two lesser-known groups from Lahore. The dervish minstrel Sain Zahoor and the dhol drumming brothers Goonga and Mithu Sain had not played in Britain before; bringing the music they play at Pakistani shrines, they were living reminders of the religious pluralism - Muslims side by side with Hindus, Sikhs and Christians - which their art celebrates.

But the opening concert was the kernel of the operation: a two-hour ritual by Sheikh Habboush and his Al-Kindi Ensemble. Al-Kindi may be seasoned international performers, but they are just one of dozens of Sufi groups from Syria: as they assembled on stage at LSO St Luke's, chatting and tuning up, they might have been at home. But the moment the flute and zither commenced a duet, followed by the first sung invocation, the atmosphere changed to one of excited urgency. Sheikh Habboush sang in a timbre which was a reminder of how close Arabic singing can be to the "cracked" flamenco sound; when the first whirler began - one hand pointed aloft to collect blessings from God, the other pointed down to distribute them to mankind - the whole thing acquired unstoppable momentum.

The zither - played by the virtuoso Julien Weiss - spun its dusty miasma, and the flute became the embodiment of that lovely Sufi idea whereby its sound becomes the lament for its separation from the reed-bed. As the ritual moved from peak to peak of excitement, and finally reached ecstasy, one had the feeling that these men were being borne upwards by the music.

What can one say of Algeria's rai-king Khaled, who packed out the Barbican the next night? That he sang as he always does, with muscular vigour and impish charm; and that, while the North African members of his audience had a ball, the non-Arabic speakers were not sure how to respond.