My first thoughts on entering the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Church were about how small a space it is, and how small a stage the altar area makes.
It was a stage that seemed even smaller when Asif Ali Khan and his large chorus of Pakistani Qallawi singers and players – nine men in total – gathered for an inspiring and invigorating 90-minute performance.
But the UU church turned out to be the ideal venue for this scintillating and transcendent performance of Muslim spiritual music – not only acoustically, but in that the Unitarians have always been a remarkably open and tolerant group. As such, they were the perfect host venue for this world-class ensemble of musical ambassadors from the Islamic world.
There were only six songs – seven counting an encore – but the point of Qallawi isn’t to crank out three-minute radio hits. It’s to explore the particularly mystical brand of Islamic thought, theology, and culture known as Sufism, to bring the divine to earth through the passion of music, especially singing, and to build emotion and ecstasy through rhythm and repetition.
As such, each song takes on a life of its own over the course of many minutes -- more mini-symphony than song, really.
Khan – once the premier student of the late, great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – is a huge superstar in his home country, accustomed to performing for much, much larger audiences than the 150-odd listeners who packed the little UU church Tuesday night.
That he is performing in Savannah at all is quite a coup for the Music Festival, and one more reason they’re to be commended for curating such an excellent world music component each and every year.
Qallawi isn’t necessarily Pakistani, and isn’t necessarily sung in one particular language, but is particular to the Indian subcontinent and south central Asia. As such the style has a lot in common with Indian musical forms: use of the tabla for percussion, a slow, building intro, repetition of passages to induce a trance-like state, complicated but driving rhythms, and occasional tempo changes within each piece.
The difference is all about the singing style: Very high in pitch and very loud in volume, always pushing the vocal envelope to nearly out-of-control religious ecstasy (even the “love songs” in Qallawi have a spiritual and semi-religious subtext).
The performers all sit cross-legged on the floor in two rows, their physical stage presentation limited to beautiful hand gestures which are at once stylized and improvised as the feeling strikes the singer. There are only two instruments: a floor-mounted accordion called a harmonium, and the tabla.
Ali Khan and the other featured soloist in the first row traded virtuoso passages, echoed by the call-and-response of the choristers on stage, who augment their role with frequent rhythmic hand-claps.
As the music and rhythm build – phrases repeated, improvised, and reimagined – the mystique of the music and its obvious spirituality fill every part of the room, both in volume and in sheer emotion.
It was an evening those in attendance won’t soon forget.
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