Thursday, July 22, 2010

Songs of the Saints, With Love, From Pakistan

Joshua Bright for The New York Times
Hands waved overhead. Voices shouted lyrics and whooped with delight. Children were hoisted onto parents’ shoulders. In the tightly packed crowd a few dancers made room to jump. T-shirts were tossed to fans from the stage.

Yet in the songs that Abida Parveen was singing, saints were praised. They were Islamic saints, the poets and philosophers revered by Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam.

It was the first New York Sufi Music Festival, a free three-hour concert on Tuesday in Union Square, and it had music from the four provinces of Pakistan, including traditional faqirs who perform outside temples, Sufi rock and a kind of rapping from Baluchistan.

The concert was presented by a new organization called Pakistani Peace Builders, which was formed after the attempted bombing in Times Square by a Pakistani-American. The group seeks to counteract negative images of Pakistan by presenting a longtime Pakistani Islamic tradition that preaches love, peace and tolerance.

Sufism itself has been a target of Islamic fundamentalists; on July 1 suicide bombers attacked Pakistan’s most important Sufi shrine. Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, spoke between sets on Tuesday. “What we’re here to do today,” he said, is “to be at peace with all of America.”

The music’s message was one of joyful devotion and improvisatory freedom. Ms. Parveen, one of Pakistan’s most celebrated musicians, was singing in a Sufi style called kafi. Like the qawwali music popularized worldwide by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, kafi sets classical poems — about the love and intoxication of the divine, about seeking the spirit within — to visceral, handclapping rhythms and vocal lines that swoop and twist with passionate volatility.

Ms. Parveen carried songs from serene, hovering introductions to virtuosic euphoria. Long, sustained notes suddenly broke into phrases that zigzagged up and down an octave or more; repeated refrains took on an insistent rasp and became springboards for elaborate leaps and arabesques; quick syllables turned into percussive exchanges with the band. Each song was a continual revelation, making the old poems fully alive.

While the crowd was there for Ms. Parveen’s first New York City performance in a decade, the rest of the program was strong. The Soung Fakirs, from Sachal Sarmast Shrine in Sindh, danced in bright orange robes to devotional songs with vigorous, incantatory choruses. Akhtar Chanal Zehri, though he was introduced as a rapper, was backed by traditional instruments and seemed more of a folk singer, heartily intoning his rhythmic lyrics on a repeating note or two and, eventually, twirling like a Sufi dervish.

Rafaqat Ali Khan, the heir to his family’s school of classical singing (khayal), was backed only by percussion, pushing his long-breathed phrasing into ever more flamboyant swirls and quavers. The tabla player Tari Khan, who also accompanied Rafaqat Ali Khan, played a kinetic solo set that carried a 4/4 rhythm through variants from the Middle East, Europe, New York City and (joined by two more drummers) Africa. There was also instrumental music from the bansuri (wooden flute) player Ghaus Box Brohi.

On the modernizing side, Zeb and Haniya, two Pakistani women who started their duo as college students at Mount Holyoke and Smith, performed gentler songs in the Dari tradition, a Pakistani style with Central Asian roots, with Haniya adding syncopated electric guitar behind Zeb’s smoky voice. Under wooden flute and classical-style vocals the Mekaal Hasan Band plugged in with reggae, folk-rock and a tricky jazz-rock riff. But the lyrics quoted devotional poetry that was 900 years old, distant from the turmoil of the present.

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