Mining the Depths of the Spirit

The Ultimate Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: The Early Years Vol. I
The Ultimate Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: The Early Years Vol. I (Narada 70876-19221-2-7, 2005)

The Ultimate Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: The Early Years Vol. II (Narada 70876-19153-2-7, 2005)

Altaf Gnawa Group – Gnawa Music From Morocco (ARC Music EUCD1922, 2005)

There are many differing opinions as to what “religious music” is and isn’t. To some people it means austere hymns or heavenly choirs. To others it might be Buddhist chants, Santeria percussion-and-voice invocations or Rastas toppling the walls of Babylon in song. Even harder to define is music that isn’t merely religious but attempts to reflect in musical terms the essence of true religious experience.
Music that succeeds in doing so is a tricky mixture of rough and refined, of earthly and heavenly.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, late master of the Sufi Muslim musical style known as qawwali, certainly gave listeners a religious experience. Though in the years just prior to his 1997 death he was known internationally for collaborative fusions with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Michael Brook, Eddie Vedder and others, his qawwali legacy was already sealed and remains so.

The Ultimate Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: The Early Years Vol. II
The two volumes of The Early Years live up to the description of “ultimate” in presenting why Khan was king of qawwali. Over a foundation of harmonium (hand-pumped organ) and tabla drums, Khan’s voice was the most supple, flexible of instruments, blending with or darting in and out of the vocals of his supporting singers, suddenly soaring into ecstatic high registers or belting out elongated wails that seemed headed for paradise at light speed.

The songs on these two volumes (each a two-CD set) cover the years 1978 to 1984. None is less than eight minutes in length, and a few hover around the half-hour mark. Lyrically praising Allah or the virtues of Sufi saints, each song is a study in momentum, building to varied levels of fevered spiritual bliss.

Handclaps mark time and pacing changes along with the complex beats of the tabla, response vocals and harmonium fire up the spaces in between, and Khan’s voice exalts masterfully again and again. As good as Khan’s efforts outside the qawwali realm were (his 1990 release Mustt Mustt on the Real World label being a particularly shining moment), these examples of the mastery of the music that got him noticed in the first place are often nothing short of astounding.

Altaf Gnawa Group – Gnawa Music From Morocco
Also embracing the Sufi concept of connecting with the Almighty through musical expression are the Gnawa, an ethnic group descended from black Africans enslaved by Arabs centuries ago. Most Gnawa these days are found in Morocco, where some of their more devout adherents engage in lengthy nocturnal
cleansing/healing rituals that include trance songs accompanied by the sintir (or guembri, a three-string bass lute) and qraqebs (metal clappers that create a relentless rhythmic pulse).

Many contemporary Gnawa musicians like Hassan Hakmoun and Nass Marrakech successfully embellish their trance tunes with further instrumentation and more globally-reaching elements, but the tracks by the Altaf Gnawa group on the simply-titled Gnawa Music from Morocco handily nail the basics.

The combination of sintir, qraqebs and call-and-response vocals creates a hypnotic effect via swirling, circular rhythms that strengthen songs of praise and musical parables that sound like Afro-Arabic rooted blues. It’s repetitive, yes, but it’s also powerful enough to stir the very spirits that the Gnawa spend many a night calling forth. This is Gnawa music at its rudimentary best.

Author: Tom Orr

Tom Orr is a California-based writer whose talent and mental stability are of an equally questionable nature. His hobbies include ignoring trends, striking dramatic poses in front of his ever-tolerant wife and watching helplessly as his kids surpass him in all desirable traits.