To the editor,
I was very impressed with the accuracy of Jack Helbig’s review of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s performance [September 13]. His synopsis regarding the tradition from which the performer comes is well researched. His caution about how he understands what he hears is admirable. His criticism of “cultural appropriation” amounts to a patronizing isolationism, however.
Accompanying the self-reflection that many Westerners have done in the last few decades about the damage that the West in the past has done to indigenous cultures has come a healthy dose of caution with regard to how we now interact with various traditions. But some Westerners unwittingly play the role of a pretentious guardian by denouncing cross-cultural contacts even when initiated by non-Westerners. In this vein Helbig worries that the devotional music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan will become the “flavor of the month” in America. Why? Will qawwali be diminished if Madonna stops spinning her CD after 30 days? Will Indian and Pakistani devotees stop dancing to qawwali as performed in Sufi tombs? Did India’s guru traditions suffer from the Western attention the Beatles brought to the Maharishi?
The answer to all these questions is an emphatic no. Helbig’s attitudes come down to a parental protectionism which wishes to preserve some idealized, uncontaminated South Asian culture from Western “appropriation.” He writes, “And appropriation is the name of the game in our culture’s global capitalist machine, which absorbs everything in its path . . . ” Isn’t it a bit narcissistic to imagine American capitalism absorbing South Asian traditions wholesale? Joe Schmo Yank hasn’t gone to Pakistan, recorded qawwali, and pawned it off as “Oriental jazz.” Rather, a group of Pakistanis are making a living by choosing to perform music from their traditions around the world. To imply, as Helbig does, that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his group are dupes for American capitalism suggests that South Asians don’t know what’s good for them the way that an American newspaper critic does.
If only a few of the “urban whites” in the audience at the Chicago performance go away with the sense that Islam is more than bloodthirsty militancy or that South Asia is more than Calcutta slums, then the worth is self-apparent. Understanding comes best with contact, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music compels a lot of us to try to understand more.