The 20th Century Greatest
This time I get to write about a concert I did attend. There can be no argument that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan of Pakistan (1948-1997) was one of the truly great singers of the 20th century in any form (opera, popular song, or qawwali) and in any language. Anyone who care about singing and who are aware of the history of this art form in the 20th century and who have ears to hear the available recordings would not deny Nusrat’s stature as a great man, great artist, exceptional musician. So it seems eminently reasonable, if one wishes to honor the performing arts, to place one well-executed example of his work in his chosen art form on a greatest-works-of-the-era list. And since it is not easy to determine whether in fact audio or audiovisual recordings of the performing arts can be considered the equivalent (for purposes of making aesthetic judgments) of actually being present at a dance performance or musical concert, it makes sense that the judgment of the singers’ live audiences (as individuals and collectively) must be considered by critics and commentators and curriculum committees identifying “great works.”
So of course, what is really on my list is “a concert by Umm Kulthum,” “a concert by the Grateful Dead, “any concert by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.” Great hits of the era, indeed. But to mock the fact that critics and art historians must point to particular objects, specific paintings or novels or compositions, I chose for my list a few credible examples of concerts on specific dates by the aforementioned great artists. Concerts which you who are reading these words in another century surely wish you could have been present at. I apologize if I seem to be boasting of my good fortune–but it does seem appropriate to me that one of my selections be a concert I actually experienced directly as an audience member, someone standing or sitting before the performer in the actual time and space in which the work of art was created.
Okay, in order not to get trapped in trying to justify this particular Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan concert as an especially memorable work of art, let me point to the obvious: It is memorable to those of us who were there because we were there, and this is the universal rule for the performing arts. And let me repeat and quote what I wrote about this concert back then, in my quarterly music newsletter,shortly after seeing and hearing (and being part of) it:
Saturday September 16 was a day I’d been looking forward to for weeks. For years–-since good friends in Europe introduced me to his music and described the hysteria at his live appearances wherever there are Pakistani immigrants–-I have wanted to see Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in concert as much as I’ve wanted to see any living performer. And finally my chance came. Nusrat has been called “the Elvis of Pakistan.” He’s also the inheritor of a long (and sacred) musical tradition called qawwali–-Sufi devotional music, “a dominant feature of Indian Islamic culture since the twelfth century.” This is truly ecstatic vocal music (accompanied by tablas and harmoniums) about the love of God. Expressing and conveying the love of God. What can I tell you? If you haven’t heard his records yet, he is one of the greatest and most expressive singers now alive on the planet. I would even describe him, if this makes any sense to you, as the person Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard have always wanted to be. God’s singer. Who has the power to make us feel our oneness with Divine Spirit by opening his musical mouth. Regardless of one’s religious or cultural background. On the Indian sub-continent, he’s also loved by Hindus and Sikhs and non-Sufi Muslims. He also, on his albums, speaks directly and convincingly to me of my God, as too few singers ever have. And it makes no difference that I don’t speak his verbal language, because his, musical language is utterly universal. I’m not talking about theory. I’m talking about ecstatic personal experience. Get yourself a copy of Shahenshah or any other Nusrat album. You too might find that this is something you’ve forever waited for. So we went to the pyramid-shaped basketball arena at Long Beach State College to see and hear the man described on the ticket as “The Great Khan.” My anticipation was keen. I really believed in this man’s greatness, though I hadn’t heard him live yet, and I knew that many others also passionately believe in and recognize him as a great soul, a star of a very special kind … I mean just slightly beyond even, say, Willie Mays or Jackie Kennedy in our culture (besides, imagine you were going out tonight to see Willie Mays play outfield!) … and I knew or expected that many people who felt that strongly would be, present at this show tonight.
“Star” is an overused word in our culture, but in a certain context it can be understood to have a spiritual side. Sometimes a mere singer or athlete can shine forth as our brightest embodiment, a king but truly a man of the people. Nusrat is often referred to by his public as “Shahenshah-e-qawwali” (the brightest, shining star of qawwali). I worried that we’d have trouble meeting up with our friends who had the tickets, not likely, but I mention it as an indication of this inner trembling I felt (some- thing extraordinarily important may be about to happen to me tonight, unless something goes wrong somehow). We did meet, got inside, and waited in long lines for Indian food being supplied by special concessionaires, because we were hungry but also perhaps because we all collectively knew that we were to begin this evening by eating together. Real (homeland) food. Meanwhile an opening act, maybe an Indian pop singer, was warming us up, but speaking for myself I was impatient. “When do we get to the real stuff? The Man?” And as my own kind of warmup, while waiting in the curry line, I read to my friends from a xeroxed page of a book called Qawwali I’d grabbed from my files as we left the house:
Like other forms of Islamic vocal meditation, qawwali transports the audience into another plane of consciousness. Regular attendees of qawwali sessions often use the concept of travel when they speak of their experience during a qawwali. They feel as if they are traveling to another domain or plane. The external manifestation of this transportation is the ‘haal’, literally meaning ‘state of mind’, often used to denote musically induced ecstasy. This ecstasy can range from rhythmic moving of the head, dreamy dancing, to such extremes as violent convulsions of the body, depending on the person affected. This musically induced state of ecstasy is closely watched by the qawwal [the singers], who find the combination of music and content responsible for the state, repeating it with increasing intensity until a climax is reached, often creating enough resonance to pull in other members of the audience.
–-Qawwali by Adam Nayyar, Islamabad 1988
We ate, found our seats on the arena floor, waited through the pop singer and her band, glanced around at the crowd, mostly Indian or Pakistani, some anglos but not many and, mysteriously, almost no college students. And then Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan took the stage with his party, other vocalists, tabla and harmonium players. I was not disappointed.. He sounded good, the sound of his voice (and of the other occasional lead voice) was familiar to me from the records, and though I wasn’t sure yet that anything remarkable was happening, my feeling was more one of acceptance, being lulled by the music and believing that it would catch me up more and more palpably as the chanted, droning rhythms repeated themselves. I was not sure what was happening yet, but I believed I’d get to like it a lot, and it was easy to give myself to the music, though I wouldn’t have called it a trance, yet. Just a warm happy I’m-hearing-a-good-concert feeling. I wanted to get a little closer, to see the singers and musicians, especially Nusrat, more clearly. There were hired security people preventing audience members from moving from the higher seats to the floor, but I guessed that I could go forward for a little while up the side row we were in without being stopped. I did, and saw the musicians more clearly, and felt like I brought that image of them back with me to our seats, I could feet their presence better now. Good singing, good music, good songs. But not tense. As though it just felt okay to accept it and enjoy it gradually, naturally. Oh, those highs and lows, those rhythms, those repetitions, felt by my body and spirit, not so much thought about by my mind. It was pleasantly easy to be mindless while grooving with this performance.
I had heard from friends including one with us who had attended a Nusrat concert before, that it’s common at these shows for men to rush up and show their enthusiasm by giving money, currency, to the performer. And I’d heard descriptions of the excitement of the men taking part, like girls at a Beatles or Elvis show at the right stage in their careers, keen in any case, caught in a kind of frenzy. And I’d been told, maybe by a German friend, that the audience was an important part of the Nusrat experience, in the right communities. I had the notion before the show that I might like to do the money ritual if it turned out to be not too bold or improper for a non-Muslim, and so I made sure to have a number of dollar bills in my wallet. I think I envisioned something like men sticking bills into a belly dancer’s costume, or perhaps with more dignity leaving bills at the singer’s feet.
It took time (things were building, naturally and wonderfully, with time), but I did see some men make money offerings in the second or third hour of Nusrat’s performance, and what they did was shower the performer, tossing the bills into the air in front of him or over his head. I’d got up from my seat again, as the show went on and again it felt like it would feel good to get closer (well, don’t I always feel that at a good concert?). I was standing in the side row near the front, and I’d watch the occasional man (once or twice a woman, we’d wondered if it was okay for women to do, but it seemed to be; the women in our party felt underdressed when they saw the great colorful finery the Indian or Pakistani women came in) walk past the front row and over to the floor space before the singer (he kneels or sits cross-legged on the low stage, as do the others) and look at him and then throw money. Nusrat would nod to the person who approached him, thus acknowledging the acknowledgement. I was watching, and an Indian man standing near me said, “Go ahead!” as if my eyes showed clearly that I was considering walking past where we were to the midstage area. I guess I had the bills in my hand, that was the other clue that I was considering it, despite my white skin. So okay (the security hadn’t been restricting us at all, us who were standing somewhere near the front). I walked over, and by this time I was happily and naturally dancing, moving back and forth in place like at a Grateful Dead concert, to the unstopping pulse of the music, and that feeling helped take me right to the singer.
I met his eye and threw the bills in the air more or less over him. He nodded slightly to me, still singing,and I (feeling great) continued in the direction I was going, to before-stage-right, intending mostly to head back to my seat and friends, already with some feeling of pleasure at accomplishment (acknowledging and being acknowledged, participating). There were a lot of men standing and dancing, crowding the aisle of the left front section. One man grabbed my hands aggressively and I thought he was like a security guy telling me to go around and not walk down that aisle, but he didn’t let go of my hands and in an instant of understanding and acceptance I suddenly realized he was dancing with me, so we danced, held hands and danced together happily. Another man danced with me, and one of them or another threw some bills at me and gestured that I should pick them up. I declined, not knowing if it was wrong to decline, but I was doing fine just doing whatever came naturally to me. People looked at me appreciatively, warmly, I felt good, knowing my own sincerity and enjoying this feeling of freedom and wet, come and acceptance as I walked, danced, back to our seats. Before long my girlfriend and a male friend and I went back to that left front comer again and danced in the crowd. It felt great. And when the four-hour performance (Nusrat and party, not counting the opening act) was done, we just all felt so high [with no alcohol or other intoxicant having been consumed]. People came up to me and said friendly things. At least two men, one in the auditorium and another at a convenience store a mile away, said, “I saw you dancing!!” One man told us with pride and pleasure that Nusrat was from his home town in Pakistan. The excitement of dancing and being danced with and of feeling so accepted and appreciated by the Muslim men and women, was a wonderful high certainly, but for me it was part and parcel with what I was feeling directly from the music. In hindsight, I could say that I did enter a kind of trance, and that it was not alien to me. I recognized it from, say, the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms in
San Francisco in 1967 when I was 18 or 19. And, thankfully, many other music experiences. I’ve been similarly transported at a Violent Femmes concert in a club. Reading that trance passage again, now, I recognize more surely than I did then (I didn’t want to “try” to have anything happen, just let it take place naturally) that I was in fact in a musically induced ecstasy, encouraged and pushed on by the performer,
by each new verse or song, and supported by the friendship of and safe space created by the rest of the audience, all of us in this altered state together. It was absolutely fantastic. Okay, I got treated nice because I was an anglo and because I had so sincerely and genuinely participated (I guess), and that was a wonderful experience for me, but the main thing (and this is the basis of community) was that we had accepted each other. United by our common love. For the singer, for the singing, and for God. Singer as vehicle of God’s spirit. And each other as vehicles of the singer’s and song’s spirit. Yeah. Something like that. We all had such a good time. Because the singing and the music truly were great, fulfilling needs too large for even a long-winded music essayist like me to articulate. Naw. It happened. Great good fortune. Just a matter of being here now. What else could be the secret of the live music experience?
I don’t know. But I gotta tell you, it gets easier with practice. But at the same time there’s something holy about being a beginner, as I was a beginner that evening in Nusrat’s audience. Zen mind, beginner’s mind. Different tradition. But the same ancient wisdom. Love of God. Love of music. Spontaneity. We don’t have to be so afraid of these things. And I think of Patti Smith [at a club performance a week earlier-see entry #24] even sharing with us, from her experience, that we also don’t have to be so afraid of death and loss. Love of life. What a teaching. Gosh, the things you can team at a concert! School of love, school of awakening, school of community, and refreshing fountain of courage and health and spirit. Drink deep. That’s what I’ve been doing. Who needs to drink spirits? I mean, it’s okay, but for me drinking music is like drinking Spirit itself. And I sure have some great adventures. I’d like to thank the music for constantly calling out to me and getting me into these situations. I can’t help it if I’m lucky … spirits? I mean, it’s okay, but for me drinking music is like drinking Spirit itself. And I sure have some
great adventures. I’d like to thank the music for constantly calling out to me and getting me into these
situations. I can’t help it if I’m lucky …