Song: "Shamus-Ud-Doha Bader-Ud-Doja"
Traditional Sufi devotional song
Performer: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was already a superstar in his native Pakistan when Peter Gabriel brought him international exposure by featuring him first in the music of The Last Temptation of Christ, then on his Real World record label. Khan is the most famous of his family's 600-year long line of Qawwali singers. Qawwali is the devotional music of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam.
It is one of the many beautiful contradictions of world music history. Islamic scripture forbids music for worldly pleasure and yet the Islamic Empire was a cultural force rivaled by few others in the spread of musical ideas. The fact that the words guitar and sitar rhyme is a coincidence but the similar physical construction of the two instruments is not. Stringed-instruments with box resonators range from Europe to India and they are culturally linked through the Middle East. All of those western orchestral instruments you think of as European: violins, violas, cellos, oboes, bassoons? They're all North African in origin. Jewish musicians, already on the lowest social rung in Arabia, brought the music of their Muslim patrons along with their own when they migrated to Eastern Europe. Whenever people of one culture encounter those of another, music grows and expands. It is the history of the world at its best. We have lost thousands of languages over the millennia but the musical voice survives.
Not everyone sees it that way. I am likely naive in my White boy romanticism. Cultural voices do die. Small nations are absorbed by larger ones. The oppressed are too easily silenced, their distinctive arts co-opted by the oppressors if they survive at all. Such is the history of the world at its worst. Plenty have criticized people like Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel for the diluting impact of world beat and maybe they're right. But I still contend that there's something cool about the fact that a culture's music is most often defined by the marginalized peoples within that culture. The dominance of Black music in the United States is no surprise. It's been happening all over the world for centuries.
Getting back to Qawwali, Sufis, like mystics of any religion, tend to bend the rules. Qawwali dates back to at least the 13th century. The poetry is often spiritual though not exclusively so. Below is a live performance of the same piece with Khan and his full party, the traditional name for a Qawwali band. The studio version above has a cleaner sound but Khan had such an amazing stage presence that it would be wrong not to share.
Want to hear all of the songs I have featured in a convenient playlist?
Enjoy: A Window Above
What are you listening to these days?