Jeff Buckley
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The first time I heard the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was in Harlem, 1990. My roommate and I stood there, blasting it in his room. We were all awash in the thick undulating tide of dark punjabi tabla rhythyms, spiked with synchronized handclaps booming from above and below in hard, perfect time.

I heard the clarion call of harmoniums dancing the antique melody around like giant, singing wooden spiders. Then all of a sudden, the rising of one, then ten voices hovering over the tonic like a flock of geese ascending into formation across the sky.

Then came the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Part Buddha, part demon, part mad angel...his voice is velvet fire, simply incomparable. Nusrat's blending of classical improvisations to the art of Qawwali, combined with his out and out daredevil style and his sensitivity, outs him in a category all his own, above all others in his field.

His every enunciation went straight into me. I knew not one word of Urdu, and somehow it still hooked me into the story that he weaved with his wordless voice. I remember my senses fully froze in order to feel melody after melody crash upon each other in waves of improvisation; with each line being repeated by the men in the chorus, restated again by the main soloists, and then Nusrat setting the whole bloody thing alflame with his rapid-fire scatting, turning classical Indian Solfeggio (Sa, Re, Gha, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni) into a chaotic/manic birdsong. The phrase burst into a climax somewhere, with Nusrat's upper register painting a melody that made my heart long to fly. The piece went on for fifteen minutes. I ate my heart out. My roommate just looked at me knowingly, muttering, "Nusrat...Fa-teh...A-li...Khaaan," like he had just scored the wine of the century. I felt a rush of adrenaline in my chest, like I was on the edge of a cliff, wondering when I would jump and how well the ocean would catch me: two questions that would never be answered until I experienced the first leap.

That is the sensation and the character of Qawwali music, the music of the Sufis, as best I can describe it.

Jeff and Nusrat In between the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit is the void. The Qawwali is the messenger who leaps empty-handed into the abyss and returns carrying messages of love from the Beloved (Allah). These messages have no words, per se, but at the high point of a Qawwali performance, they come in bursts of light into the hearts and minds of the members of the audience. (Of course, by that time the whole house is either hanging from the rafters, or dancing.) This is called Marifat, the inner knowledge, and it is in the aim of the Qawwali tradition to bring the listener into this state: first through the beauty of the poetry and the weight of its meaning; then, eventually, through the Qawwali's use of repetition; repeating the key phrases of the poem until the meaning has melted away to reveal the true form to the listener. I've seen Nusrat and his party repeatedly melt New Yorkers into human beings. At times I've seen him in such a trance while singing that I am sure that the world does not exist for him any longer. The effect it has is gorgeous. These men do not play music, they are music itself.

The texts from which traditional Qawwals are sung come from the works of the great sufi poets: Bulle Shah (1680-1753), Shams Tabrez (d. 1247), Shah Hussain (1538-1599), and the great Sufi poet and scholar, Amir Khusrav (1253-1325), who was the inventor of Qawwali itself. These texts are devotional, of course, meaning poems of worship for Allah (Hamd) and the prophet Muhammad (N'ati-Sharif). There are also love poems (ghazals), where a more secular romantic interplay is happening between man and woman (which I can dig). The Qawwali's, however, see ghazals as a metaphor between Man and the Divine. They don't care about which meaning was derived from where. In the true Sufi way, through their music, any meaning that is needed by the listener is there for the listener to absorb. For the true Qawwali, all meanings of the music exist simutaneously and there is no need of purpose for religious dogma. There is only the pilgrimage to the light within the heart, which is the home of God. There is only a pure devotion and a fierce virtuosity to grow wings and soar through music. To plant a kiss on the eyes of Allah and then sing His loving gaze back home into the hearts of Man.

-Jeff Buckley, New York, 1997

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