The Pakistani form of Islamic devotional music called qawwali works this way: An ensemble of nine men sits on a beautiful carpet in the middle of the stage. Two harmonium players squeeze out simple Western major-key chord changes while the five guys in the back row provide a rocking hand-clapping chorus and a tabla player contributes a percolating rhythmic commentary. This setting frames some of the most exciting improvisational singing audible in any idiom today, which comes not only from Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan himself (who’s regarded as the foremost living qawwali singer, and it’s not hard to hear why), but also from three others in his “party” (they’re all related) who continually trade riffs back and forth with him in a friendly game of can-you-top-this. Nusrat’s young nephew, with the high voice, is a standout, constantly threatening to steal the show with his searing ripostes to Nusrat’s most fluent, ornate phrases. It’s true there are times when Nusrat gets so carried away, gesticulating with his eloquent hands as he tosses out phrase after musical phrase, that things begin to seem a tiny bit repetitious and one momentarily suspects actual musical content is being subordinated to the display of technical flash. But Nusrat’s persistent impulse toward embellishment and elaboration is less show-biz mannerism than the expression of an uncontainable spiritual exuberance–he’s so excited and overjoyed that he just can’t help himself. Taking all this in, you soon realize that such excitement is infectious; and that’s why the aisles are full of people dancing. Sunday, 6 PM, Gateway Theater, Copernicus Center, 5216 W. Lawrence; 472-4471 or 559-1212.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dave Peabody.