Shafqat Ali Khan,
Sublime Sufi:
New Perspectives on
Ancient Sufi Roots

(ARC, 2003)

After Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's inclusion in the soundtrack for Dead Man Walking, Sufi music has built up a following among world music lovers. It appears that the specific vocal style of the Punjab province between Pakistan and India (from which the two Ali Khans hail) is one of the most appealing.

The Indian subcontinent has a centuries-old tradition of mystical Islam, known as "Sufism." Like all forms of spiritualism it tries to achieve a connection, some form of communication or even communion with the transcendent, or "God" if you wish to use that term. By temperament, Persians and Indians seem to have had a penchant for using the rapture of music to create an experience of the beyond. The music of Shafqat Ali Khan is firmly rooted in that vocal tradition of his native Eastern Punjab. The lyrical language and the particular rhythm of the so-called Qawwalis, the itinerant singers performing this kind of music, is eminently suitable to reach a trance-like state in which a glimpse of the ultimate me can be discerned.

Most of the songs performed on Sublime Sufi are ghazals, compositions based on the themes and patterns of ancient Arabian love poems that were later adopted and perfected by the poetically even more gifted Persians. Originally these ghazals were addressed to a female objects of desire, but Sufis used these eulogies for lost lovers as metaphors for their longing for God. Because of their erotic allusions, these poems were considered somewhat risque in Islamic circles, and using them for religious purposes often caused the ire of graver-minded Muslims.

The tracks on this CD provide some excellent examples of this high-charged religious music. As its name already betrays, the opening number, "Ish Kamal (Love Sublime)," is characteristic of the ghazal tradition. "Ish," or more correctly "ishq," is the Arabic word for passionate love.

But Shafqat Ali Khan does not remain stuck in tradition alone. On Sublime Sufi he explores the possibilities that Qawwali music offers, experimenting freely with rhythm and sound color. In "Ish Kamal" he mixes a modern cadence with the timbre so typical of Qawwali singers. It aptly expresses the sadness of the love-torn Sufi and -- according to some Sufi experts -- that of a God longing to be known as well.

"Raqsay Bismil (Dance of the Wounded Lovers)" has a reggae-like feel to it, which merges seamlessly with the wailing exclamations of the Qawwali. The seventh track, "Journey to Marwa," is a return to primordial India. In this lengthy piece Shafqat Ali Khan uses his voice as an instrument, under the accompaniment of sitar music. This is typical of Raga music, which is not Islamic in origin but goes further back in time to more ancient Hindu times. The atmosphere is trance-like, mysterious, transporting the listener to a plane of existence inhabited by deities. As such it is a fine testimony of the syncretism India's religious traditions.

The CD closes with "Putah Butah," rendered as "The Flower Doesn't Know" in English. This song is one of my favorites on this album. With Sublime Sufi shows that an innovative musician like Shafqat Ali Khan can carry his ancestral Qawwali legacy of 11 generations into the 21th century and hopefully beyond.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 20 September 2003

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