Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Jeff Buckley

People don’t listen to world music enough. Music transcends cultural, even language barriers, yet too many of us don’t think to, or don’t even know how to start opening our ears to it. I sometimes wonder, what if there a musician from a faraway country, whose voice would bypass my ears, and my brain, and go straight to my heart, if I only got to hear it! That is why whenever I need a new fix of songs to rotate on my playlist, I ask my friends from different backgrounds for Arabic songs, or Greek, or Latin music, or anything really. Just because I don’t understand the language doesn’t mean that the rhythm and the beat won’t move me. However being Desi, and having a classical Rabindra Sangeet singer for a mother has it’s advantages, I grew up exposed to music from at least two cultures, although I wish it were more. I grew to love Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in my teen years as dearly as I loved my American artists. I didn’t have a true grasp of what Qawwali was at the time, or it’s spiritual connections to Sufism, but his music became as indispensable to me in times of sadness as listening to Jeff Buckley’s Grace album, or Sketches For My Sweetheart the Drunk.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with his haunting music but I’m willing to bet if you’re a female who grew up in the 90s and watched The OC you know this song:

That’s “Hallelujah” for those of you that are uninitiated.

I spent years admiring Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and A.R. Rahman, Gulzar, Hariharan, but that type of music ran parallel to my more American tastes. There is generally little meaningful overlap between these two worlds of music. Interplay is generally limited to sometimes comical, and crude (though catchy) sampling, there are some examples in my last musical Motley Monday post, “Bollywood Meets Top 40 Pop“. The music that truly spoke to my soul from the two cultures I belonged to rarely brushed past each other.

Imagine my surprise and delight years later when I found out two of the artists I spent years admiring, that I would never imagine ever crossing paths, had met each other. In fact Jeff Buckley revered Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan so much he called him his “Elvis.” He met him, interviewed him, and even did his own rendition of “Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor Hai.” Not the best rendition, not anywhere close to Ustad Fateh Ali Khan – but Buckley’s soul shines through, even though his voice breaks and he can’t carry the notes quite successfully. For those curious to hear a white man attempt to sing a famous Qawwali:

Jeff Buckley’s words on Qawwali music is much more moving and accurate than any description I can come up with:

“In between the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit is the void. The Qawwali is the messenger who leaps empty-handed into the abyss and returns carrying messages of love from the Beloved (Allah). These messages have no words, per se, but at the high point of a Qawwali performance, they come in bursts of light into the hearts and minds of the members of the audience. (Of course, by that time the whole house is either hanging from the rafters, or dancing.) This is called Marifat, the inner knowledge, and it is in the aim of the Qawwali tradition to bring the listener into this state: first through the beauty of the poetry and the weight of its meaning; then, eventually, through the Qawwali’s use of repetition; repeating the key phrases of the poem until the meaning has melted away to reveal the true form to the listener. I’ve seen Nusrat and his party repeatedly melt New Yorkers into human beings. At times I’ve seen him in such a trance while singing that I am sure that the world does not exist for him any longer. The effect it has is gorgeous. These men do not play music, they are music itself.”

Here is the rest of his dedication to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and here is his interview.

As a brown girl who loves and clings to both pieces of her culture (sometimes more one than the other), and desires to be exposed to many more cultures in her lifetime,  this cross-cultural link means a great deal to me. Jeff Buckley did not understand an ounce of Urdu, yet, if you read his words, he understood the soul of the music. Probably better than somebody who speaks perfect Urdu. On this Motley Monday, branch out of your musical comfort zone and listen to something new! It doesn’t have to be in another language, maybe just a new genre that you haven’t given a chance to before. You may be surprised at how much you enjoy it.