Shafqat Ali Khan,
Sufi Songs
(ARC, 2003)

Pakistani vocalist Shafqat Ali Khan is a scion of one of the country's most famous musical dynasties. His ancestors have been Qawwalis, or performers of sacred songs, since the time of the Mughal emperors. After his father Ustaz Salamat Ali Khan's demise, Shafqat -- together with his three brothers -- became a leading exponent of the singing tradition known as Sham Chaurasi. This style of performing religious songs is widespread in the family's home province of Punjab -- the pentagon-shaped region straddling the border between Pakistan and India. An even more well-known Qawwalisinger, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (of Dead Man Walking fame), comes also from this area.

Starting as a professional singer in the early 1990s, when he was only a teenager, Shafqat Ali Khan's career has only barely moved into its prime. Throughout the years this singer has not just reconnoitered the frontiers of the Sham Chaurasi style, but ventured beyond it, introducing western instrumentation and electronically enhanced sound. Such innovative experimentation actually fits well with this type of South Asian music, which draws most of its lyrics from a rich body of writings by Muslim mystics or Sufis, who often employed the daring imagery of erotic love poetry as a way to express their yearning for knowing the Almighty. Combining such controversial texts with an avantgardist musical approach seems therefore almost a natural thing to do.

On this album of Sufi Songs, we find many poems that must have vexed the more prudish and uptight Muslim establishment. But the careful listener -- or in our case reader of translations -- will notice that the poets' intentions go much deeper than what seems to be implied at first impression. Take the opening number "Aao Sayyon (Friends)," for example: "Oh my Friends! Come together and congratulate me because I found a unique love. The person I fell in love with, is without equal."

In his musical renditions of these age-old poems, Shafqat Ali Khan employs a number of different styles and rhythms. Some songs are set to raga patterns, the origins of which go back to the India of pre-Islamic times. This album's longest song "Raga Yaman Kalyan" -- a composition by one of the subcontinent's greatest Sufi poets, Amir Khusro -- is an example of raga in its purest form.

Thumbri is a more light-footed form of semi-classical music that lends itself particularly well for ballet. But in one case ("Piloo") it is set to a particular raga scale that creates a very sad mood. Shafqat also performs two songs in the much rarer kafi style (the opening number "Aao Sayyon" and "Maar na Vich Vichode Yaar"), which is typical for the Punjab.

Sufi Songs leaves the listener with an excellent impression of the musical caliber of Shafqat Ali Khan. Not only is this Pakistani singer a superb vocalist, but he can also rightly claim the quality of being an artistic pioneer -- not afraid to explore the possibilities of blending various music traditions together.

- Rambles
written by Carool Kersten
published 2 April 2005

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