Ever since Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses, gave the wax tablet to mortals,
memory, writing and technology have been interconnected.
—Carolyn Guertin

Staying Alive

I never really understood the use of the word iconic to describe a voice. That word is a visual one for me. But here it will have to do—it has no parallel in sound. A new installment of the All Things Considered series 50 Great Voices aired on the radio yesterday. From the opening moment, I knew who they were featuring.

Iconic. Unmistakable. Inimitable. I attach all these descriptors to the late Qawwali singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Nusrat, as he is affectionately known in my household, passed away in 1997. I was fortunate enough to see him perform live, shortly before he died. But my fascination with him and the music of mystic Islam began earlier, when I picked up a CD on a whim–eons ago, when one still visited the record store.

The HMV store in Harvard Square was a haven for music. Upon entering, you passed busy check-out lines and walked through a hum of noise and commerce. You skirted the ephemera of the moment: promotional displays and cardboard cut-outs of the latest top-40 stars. Slowly, you made your way through the crowds in the Pop, Rock-and-Roll, Easy Listening, and Broadway aisles, until you got to the back of the store. There, in a quiet corner, was a door. Behind it was a room. Not just a room—a world. And not just one world, but many. You passed through that door not knowing where you would arrive. Kenya? Thailand? Argentina? Norway?

For me, one particular Saturday afternoon, it happened to be Pakistan. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Devotional and Love Songs was playing over the sound system. I had just started getting into the poetry of Rumi and was drawn to anything with the exotic whiff of Sufism, so this recording was particularly au courant. But there was nothing exotic or what I once thought of as “mystic” in my first experience of those sounds. The music had a physical, even visceral, joy with its sloppy hand-claps, the buoyant ringing pongs of the tabla, Nusrat’s stirring call, and his Party’s group response. It sounded like a spontaneous, down-home, backyard jam. It grabbed me by the collar and dragged me all the way to the check-out counter.

(Nusrat later released Night Song, a collaboration with Canadian producer Michael Brook. This record also holds a place of honor in my music collection, and it’s this music that wafts of complicated, exotic, “Oriental” spice.)

That initial foot-stomping response was all but forgotten a few months later when I saw Nusrat and Party at Symphony Hall in Boston–perhaps because of what I witnessed as I arrived for the concert. Near the venue’s side entrance, there was Nusrat, being helped out of a mini-van and hobbling to the door. He was morbidly obese and needed assistance walking. Seeing this great musician in a moment of vulnerability felt like stumbling upon a god in the midst of dressing.

photo by Gentlemanldn

I was still trying to get over the emotional dissonance of the mini-van scene when Nusrat took the stage. Here, he seemed comfortable. He sat on the carpet like a happy Buddha, his crossed legs making a base for his rotund chest and belly. His Party (a ragtag of younger brothers, nephews, and cousins) settled around him in a semi-circle. The lights dimmed. Nusrat’s face was serene. Someone initiated a drone on the harmonium and Nusrat opened his mouth to sing. As the notes rose, so did his hand. It hovered around his head like a fluttering bird. The Party clapped along and sang their group response. I sank back into my chair, ready to get lost in the mysticism of the music.

The people around me had other ideas. They leaped to their feet and began to participate. They clapped and sang along with the Party. I looked at them indignant. I disapproved. I seethed. I didn’t come to hear them. Where was their concert etiquette?

More people joined in the raucous display. A processional line formed and snaked through the aisles of the restrained and elegant home of the BSO. Men whirled. Women waved bright scarves in a blur of color. Spectators on the balconies stomped in unison to the beat of the tabla. Nusrat was entranced by the music, while the Party sweated to keep up with his heightening pace. I remained seated, inert, bewildered by the unfolding scene.

The Hall began to shake. I watched the chandelier rattle above my head and thought the ceiling was going to collapse. So did a little man in a suit, who came onstage to tell Nusrat to tone it down. But the music was a runaway train. It propelled onward—ever faster and with more fervored pitch.

Then, the uniforms arrived. There were protests from the audience as the Boston Police lined the perimeter of the Hall, but Nusrat kept singing. The cops held back at the edges, wary of taking the tail of the tiger. They simply watched, as bewildered as I was. In the middle of a song, the little man returned to stage, now with three officials. He bent low to speak in the singer’s ear, breaking his trance and disrupting the music. There was a collective gasp as Nusrat was “helped” to his feet and escorted off stage. As he was leaving, he seemed to tell us that everything was all right; the faraway look in his eyes was betrayed by a small mischievous wink. Or was that my imagination?

I can’t recall if this incident made the local news back in 1995. Post-9/11, it would certainly be a headline: PAKISTANI SINGER’S CONCERT SHUT DOWN BY BOSTON POLICE.

Yesterday, I was reminded of that night. I found myself wishing I’d had the presence of mind, of body, of spirit, to have shaken the chandelier at Symphony Hall, too.  We tend to think of mysticism as a pristine and silent affair of the soul. But such moments of spiritual rapture can also happen in public, with the full participation of tingling hands, hoarse voice, and a sweat-drenched body. My younger self knew this for a moment at the record store, then forgot it: Some music simply requires you to move, even if—especially if—it is made for, and with, the divine. (Eddie Izzard hits this particular nail on the head in his bit on the Anglican Church and singing in Dressed to Kill.)

So yesterday, when I heard the opening of Devotional and Love Songs on the radio, I sang “Allah Hoo” right along with Nusrat and Party. I slapped the steering wheel in time with the tabla. I danced in my seat, even while stuck in traffic on a mundane late winter afternoon.

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