The only reason why qawwali, the devotional music of the Sufis, is known in the West when other types of Pakistani music remain hopelessly obscure is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. While he may not have been the greatest qawwal of the Twentieth Century, his two fusion CDs with British producer Michael Brook, Mustt Mustt and Night Song, made him the most widely embraced. His work can be heard in films such as The Last Temptation of Christ, Dead Man Walking, and The Bandit Queen. And he packed European concert halls with fans who didn't know qawwali from qwertyuoip. Qawwali sets religious poetry to an amalgamation of classical music based on raga modes from India, the semiclassical Indian thumri and dadra repertoire, and folkie ghazal songs originally from Persia. But you needn't know any of this to have your jaw unhinged by Nusrat. In diametrical opposition to the purpose of qawwali, his ensemble's human machinery of chugging voices, rolling drums, bubbling harmonium, and the soloist's voice breaking loose from the constraints of the flesh can be appreciated as pure entertainment rather than as a gateway to spiritual discovery.
A pair of now historic concerts at the Theatre de la Ville in Paris started the whole Nusrat ball rolling, the first in 1985 and the second in 1988. Peter Gabriel's Real World label picked him up for Shahen-Shah in 1989, and global success followed. On the strength of the Paris concerts, it's easy to see why. While Nusrat was never a slouch, he clearly was at his peak in the performances collected on the re-released and newly packaged five-CD set Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Complete Paris Concerts. Got a five-disc CD changer? Load up the entire set, lock your doors, kick the cell phone under a cushion, and drive yourself to blissful distraction. Even in single-disc doses, you need time to let these songs unfold. The shortest is a thirteen-minute nine-second ghazal, "Gir et Ranijhan," on volume two, while the longest run on and on like mighty rivers, ebbing and flowing, drifting, raging, and modulating their intensity for as long a half-hour -- an eternity by today's music standards.
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Fortunately there are enough pleasures to reward short attention spans. I like the way Nusrat's brothers Farouk and Mujahed Moubarak occasionally shift to lead vocals, displaying depth and talent that eludes all but the most gifted singers. These second-stringers resemble Nusrat in such a way that you'll believe you're listening to the man himself. But there's no mistaking his unique mastery when he bursts in with a slow glide that builds to one of his trademark spirals up the scale and over the stars. He may threaten an assault on Heaven with knock-knock rapid-fire syllables, scat-singing the notes of the Indian music scale, or plumb the pits of longing with deeply soulful moans that one moment convey yearning and the next moment satiety. I wish I spoke the languages of the subcontinent to truly appreciate his phrasing of the ancient texts, but the performances are so beautiful that all is poetry. What's especially nice about this set is that the usually expensive Ocora label is selling the five discs for about the price of two. Live it up.