Tuesday, October 22, 2013

O the bright sun!

Today’s formative-album replay: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Shahen-Shah. Any list of the great singers of all time must include this Sufi qawwali powerhouse, whose vocal pyrotechnics on this--his first full record for Western audiences (and still his best)--feel closer to the Olympian achievement of a virtuoso instrumentalist, and not only because amid the ululated Urdu, the melisma, and the non-lexical vocables, this music doesn't hit me primarily verbally. No, it's really more that the extended, incantatory form of these six "naats" (essentially psalms to the Prophet Muhammad), and the way Nusrat's huge, raspy, imposingly precise but startlingly soulful voice sprawls and climbs and dances within that expansive form, make the listening experience uncannily akin to, say, Coltrane's A Love Supreme, or to Part's Fratres.

There's something else here, too, that gives this music a particularly strong, plangent sweetness, and I figured out on this listen that it's about the scales. Nusrat, along with his eight other singers and two harmonium players, bases nearly all of this music in bright, major-key modes--mostly Ionian, the scale we all learn in the West as the "major" scale, but also in sunny variants of it, like Mixolydian, a kind of happy-blues mode (into which, in the piece excerpted above, he inserts an utterly disarming extra "blue" note--listen for it at 4:07), and the open-ended gleam of the pentatonic scale. By contrast, there's only one Phrygian mode here--i.e. the classic, minor-sounding "gypsy" scale. These bright modes, which are also heard in a lot of African pop, give the record an extra sunburst glow. Nusrat's extravagant ecstasies here, then, have not only the soul-deep ache of all great sacred music but an irresistible spring in their step, as well.

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