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Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali

A Better Destiny (Realworld)


Eddie Vedder was making a point when he worked with the late Qawwali master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a less romanticized point than George Harrison made with Ravi Shankar a generation before. Vedder and Ali Khan emphasized the ties that bind Western popular music to Eastern traditional music. Finding such a link between a secularized American descendent of gospel (rock) and a 700-year-old form of Islamic devotional music adds its own exclamation points, especially today, when the world is suddenly so much smaller and the cultural gulfs that separate us seem so wide. Last year, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's great nephews Rizwan Ali Khan and Muazzam Ali Khan built their own bridges with a crossover dance collaboration with Temple of Sound; this year, they make plain the accessibility of their music's traditional root form.

Each of the six songs on A Better Destiny is remarkably varied melodically and rhythmically, though the instrumentation and approach to the music remain essentially the same. The songs begin a little haphazardly, with a tabla player beating out a rhythm and harmonium players jumping in with a melody or vice versa. Hand-claps and chants reinforce this rhythm before the two featured singers enter the mix, using call-and-response to push each other to heightened vocal riffing until all the voices and instruments become feverishly engaged in an extended jam. If the instruments were foot-stomps, tambourine and organ, each virtuoso's vocal gymnastics would be a sure sign that the holy ghost had visited this congregation with tongues.

And that's just the thing. Westerners don't have to work to get this music because its essence is so familiar to us. (In fact, the church-shy might have a harder time with gospel than with this music.) If you can appreciate rock or jazz improvisation, this music will likely move you. All of which is to say, yes, music is the universal language, but the Arabic here suggests even deeper connections. While these lyrics are based on Sufi texts, the press kit says the vocalists "sing songs of romantic love and alcoholic intoxication." In the West, that's the dividing line between gospel and rock -- sort of flips the script on intolerance, doesn't it?

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