Culture & Conversation

Hitting the Note Divine

A recent TED talk, The Surprising Need for Strangeness, emphasized the need for us to connect with people who are different from ourselves. Doing so helps us discover new ideas and avoid sameness. This notion can also be applied to music. 

“I now know there is a God in heaven,” was reputedly uttered by Albert Einstein after hearing the young violinist Yehudi Menuhin. An aspect of Einstein’s genius lay in his ability to decipher much of our world’s beauty not merely through emotion but also through understanding. While the concert hall attendees certainly all venerated Menuhin’s virtuosity, for Einstein there was something even deeper, a mind and purpose behind the beautiful rhythmic patterns, melodies and harmonies translating the physical laws of the universe through elegant mathematics. This was Einstein’s holy trinity. An interconnected equilateral polygon – far from the shallowness of big business, bureaucracy and government but that of artistry, science and spirituality.

It’s no marvel that numerous practices of devotional music – such as reggae and Qawwali – have touched audiences all over the world, inspiring a better understanding and closeness to the divine. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, a practitioner of Qawwali, has yet to reach the legendary eminence of say Bob Marley nor his mentor and uncle, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Still, he has put his mark on the thousand-year-old devotional musical tradition.

The historical trajectory of Qawwali can be seen much like a musical composition. The scales dating back to 8th century Persia; ascending and descending pitches symbolizing its historical rise and decline in popularity; medleys reflecting its fusion of other musical forms throughout its geographical spread; rubatos reflecting local sensibilities and concerns of social justice. And through all this, the tone has consistently been the same in its love for its spiritual master.

The “father of Qawwali” is considered to be the Sufi mystic Amir Khusro (1244-1325), credited with merging the Sufi Sama rituals of dance, music and poetry with Hindustani classical music. A devotee of the Sufi Chishti Order, it’s no coincidence that the rise of Sufism, and with that the Chishti order, was a response to the worldliness of the early Islamic empires.

Within today’s context, the American Iron Triangle is everything the Chishti Order contradicts. Completely contemptuous of power and authority its emphasis is on love, tolerance and openness, welcoming all regardless of one’s spiritual faith. This love is to be achieved by evoking the divine through melodies and dance; purifying one’s soul through a mystical spiritual ascent by unveiling what is already in one’s heart.

The content of a Qawwali ballad can be seen like a drunken night out. And an understanding of lyrics is not an essential prerequisite in attaining the trance like state that Qawwali offers.

“The wine symbolizes the knowledge of the divine, the cupbearer the spiritual guide, the tavern the place where the soul may attain spiritual enlightenment and intoxication, the attaining of spiritual knowledge in the soul’s longing for union and love with the divine.” – Peter Manuel

The late Jeff Buckley once said, “Nusrat, he’s my Elvis.”  Nusrat, a.k.a. “ Singing Buddha” in Japan,  “Voice of Paradise” in the U.S.A. and “Pavorotti of the East” in France, is one of the most iconic musicians in the past 50 years. While an artist-in-residence at the University of Washington, one of his students described him as speaking only in half-whispers. Nonetheless, while in worship, on stage, Nusrat’s incredible six-octave range was holy and ecstatic, often moving listeners to tears. Sadly, Nusrat died in the pinnacle of his career in 1997, on route from his native Pakistan to Los Angeles for a kidney transplant at the age of 48.

Rahat, nephew and disciple of Nusrat, first sat in the modest cross-legged Qawwali stage position next to Nusrat at the age of seven, carrying on the 400 year Khan family religious tradition. “If I have half the talent as Nusrat, I’ll be pleased,” Rahat proclaimed on a BBC Radio interview. Rahat’s Qawwali performances echo the soul of Nusrat within him, alongside the alluring sounds of the harmonium and tabla, all resonating various frequencies in acoustical energy oscillations, defined by a mathematical formula that certainly Einstein would find as sacred.

Pearl Jam & Rahat Fateh Ali Khan: The Long Road

Rahat’s North American tour schedule: here.


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