Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Bismarck Theater

Every time I go to something with multicultural cachet–an Indonesian shadow-puppet show, a gamelan concert, a Day of the Dead installation–I’m haunted by the scene in Woody Allen’s Sleeper, set 200 years in the future, where Diane Keaton invites her fatuous hip friends over for the evening and one of them arrives wearing a big silver swastika around his neck. Everyone admires it, evidently unaware of its historical meaning.

When hearing music or seeing art from a different culture I never know if my experience of the work at all resembles the experience of someone raised in the culture. And I never know if I’m witnessing an appropriation of only those elements that are most palatable to foreigners.

I do know that something of a work will always be lost in translation, just as I know that my cultural expectations will always color my experience. Gamelan orchestras will always sound a bit too random to my Western ears, and Day of the Dead scenes will always look like outtakes from one of those early surreal Betty Boop cartoons that are haunted by ghosts.

Such considerations troubled me when I caught Pakistani musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s recent concert at the Bismarck. Ali Khan and his orchestra–with its drums, harmoniums, singers, and clappers–perform a style of Sufi devotional music called qawwali, which plays a very specific role within Sufi culture. Qawwali songs, usually Sufi poetry set to music, are meant to entrance listeners, putting them in a state of ecstasy that the Sufis believe creates a mystical union with Allah. The Sufis are big on ecstasy as an expression of spirituality. The whirling dervishes, who dance themselves into an altered state, are Sufis. Other Sufis achieve a similar state through the hypnotic repetition of mantralike holy names.

Every qawwali song has a strong rhythm–supplied by several drummers and five or six men who clap their hands–and once the beat begins it’s hard not to dance to it. This makes qawwali very accessible to those of us raised on dance music and rock and roll. From the start of Ali Khan’s concert people around me were shaking their heads, patting their thighs, moving their toes in time to the music. As the concert progressed, much of the audience–about two-thirds Pakistani and Indian and one-third urban whites–seemed transported. To the consternation of the security guards, groups of people, mostly Pakistanis, started dancing in the aisles. No sooner had the guards quieted down one group than another group in another part of the house would hop up and begin dancing.

Ali Khan’s expressive voice slides from joyful noise to cries of despair and back again with a palpable passion, carrying you with it. And when his voice blended in duets with his younger, clearer-voiced nephew, Rahat Ali Khan, the effect was pure and sublime. But there’s another level to qawwali that we non-Sufis weren’t getting.

Ali Khan fills his songs with praises to Allah. He comes from a distinguished line of qawwals, none of them Sufis but all expected to sing passionately about their love for Allah. In this respect qawwali is not unlike gospel music, but because these songs are sung in Farsi, Urdu, Hindi, and Panjabi, those of us in the audience who understand only English or some other European language missed their spiritual side entirely. Which left us free to read into the unfamiliar syllables whatever meaning we liked.

Or no meaning at all, as the critic for Variety did when, sounding a bit like an Ugly American, he compared Ali Khan to Ella Fitzgerald. Ali Khan’s voice does have the range and sweep of Fitzgerald at her best, but the Variety critic also meant that the languages he didn’t understand reminded him of scat singing. But Ali Khan is praising Allah when he sings, not spitting out meaningless syllables to imitate a horn player.

The same writer also compared Ali Khan’s songs to “the tenor sax improvisations” of John Coltrane–an apt description of how his keening sounds to Western ears, but again a description that fails to acknowledge the layers of meaning. For all I knew, Ali Khan was singing the praises of a deity whose will is often used to rationalize practices that I, as a liberal humanist, would consider unjust.

Splitting the signifier from the signified is essential for appropriation. And appropriation is the name of the game in our culture’s global capitalist machine, which absorbs everything in its path–Japanese comic books, Latino dance crazes, South African choral music–and turns it into product.

Just as two generations ago record studios took the music of African-Americans, lightened its skin, straightened its hair, and made rock and roll, savvy producers like Peter Gabriel are roaming the world looking for the next vibe. And qawwali fills the bill nicely, being a more likely target for appropriation than, say, a classical Indian raga, which requires the sort of patience European classical music demands.

Ali Khan has been on both sides of this appropriating game. Back in Pakistan he records not only traditional qawwali but also dance-club versions of it, called “disco/jazz tarana” and performed on electric keyboards and drum machines. But when music directors on Indian films allegedly sampled freely from his prodigious oeuvre to create a poppy version of qawwali called qawwali filmi, Ali Khan complained, according to the Indian Express, “My tunes are being stolen because Indian music directors lack talent.” That led to his first album on an Indian label being banned in India, a ban that was lifted only after Ali Khan denied that he’d said Indian music directors lacked talent.

In the U.S. and Britain Ali Khan is a willing participant in the appropriation. He has collaborated with a number of British and American recording artists–Peter Gabriel, Trent Reznor, Michael Brook–and contributed music to several films, including The Last Temptation of Christ, Natural Born Killers, and Dead Man Walking. His music is used mostly to underscore scenes that are the antithesis of Sufi ecstasy–the crucifixion in Last Temptation, a violent, bloody prison riot in Natural Born Killers–but that doesn’t seem to bother him.

His reward is to be designated flavor of the month for devotees of world music. No surprise that Madonna, Flea, Rosanna Arquette, and Beastie Boy Mike D. all came out to see Ali Khan when he performed in LA.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn photo by Randy Tunnell.