(from The Beat, Vol. 23, No. 1, 2004)

Shanachie's World Music Portraits-series DVD of Jerome De Missolz's documentary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: The Last Prophet starts off rather wobbly with a meander down New York City streets as a cab driver explains how much the Pakistani qawwali singer means to him. But the anonymous cabbie means nothing to us, so his enthusiasm carries little weight. As the setting switches to Khan's home in Lahore, Pakistan, it soon becomes clear that this production predates the singer's death in 1997 and leaves the larger question of his legacy unaddressed.

            Despite these bumps, however, the DVD presents a good overview of Khan's career via interview snippets with the singer and two of his producers. Even better, the concert settings with his gospel-music-on-steroids qawwali ensemble provide a lovely contrast to solo performances in the artist's sparsely furnished living room, where he quietly describes his revolutionary approach to the sacred music of the Pakistani Sufis.

            Qawwali -- which comes from the Arabic aqwaal, meaning "word of God" -- may not exactly be a household name like reggae or rumba. But if you're a moviegoer and have seen The Last Temptation of Christ, Dead Man Walking, Bandit Queen, or Natural Born Killers, then you've heard a sample of a genre that, aside from a few specialty-label releases, was unknown in the US before Khan's ascent to stardom. Set to a propulsive beat of tabla drums and handclaps, his voice of pure yearning swoops imperceptibly from suffering to ecstasy in a gliding, keening cry that skates on the knife edge of pure spirit. In that voice, Peter Gabriel heard the complex emotions that he wanted to accompany Christ's crucifixion in Martin Scorsese's film. But Nusrat's Sufi music hasn't always been used with reverence. In Natural Born Killers, director Oliver Stone scored a rape scene with Khan's performance of a religious song. "My permission was not sought," he tells Last Prophet filmmaker De Missolz. "I was hurt and criticized."

            While Khan's sacred repertoire was frequently profaned, cropping up unauthorized in cheap Bollywood action flicks, his departure from traditionalist circles was well planned. From almost the beginning of his career in the late 1960s, he sought to broaden the outreach of qawwali beyond the mosques and shrines of Sufi saints, where qawwals have historically performed. "At first I sang just like my father or my uncle. Pure classical," he explains, referring to his musician father Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and his paternal uncle Ustad Mabarak Ali Khan, who performed in the ensemble that Nusrat inherited. "I couldn't better them in their style of music. So I started to innovate. I included folk music and some light music. I simplified the heavy classical composition. That made the music more accessible and usable." While Peter Gabriel first brought Nusrat to an international audience, Canadian record producer Michael Brook made him a world music star by combining a folk-based more secularized qawwali with Euro dance beats on the CDs Musst Musst and Night Song. Massive Attack's remix of the title cut "Musst Musst" proved so popular, the song was transformed into a Coca-Cola commercial for Indian audiences with Khan's blessing.

            Brooks' interludes with Khan provide some of the most compelling moments of the documentary as Khan illustrates one of the rags or musical modes used in qawwali along with different vocal techniques for expressing the rag, while accompanying himself on harmonium. Even while speaking, he is fascinating to watch. His smooth, unlined face is ageless, and when he refers to a man who appears much older than he as his younger brother Farrukh, it comes as something of a shock. His warm relationship with Brooks adds the right touch of intimacy to counterweight a feeling of remoteness to the way he carries himself, except during his vocal performances. And these are powerful. An excerpt from a Chicago concert finds Khan in full improvisational mode as his ensemble claps, sings, and sways around him, intoxicated by the moment. "Our music is close to jazz music. It is not written down. It's revealed to the soul," he tells De Missolz, leaving the viewer to wonder if Khan might have eventually considered collaborating with a jazz ensemble.

            The best assessment of his contributions to qawwali is provided by two directors of Oriental Star Agencies, the firm which represented the singer in England. Mian Mohammad Arshad notes, "Before him, qawwali was cold. He has rearranged it and given it a lift. But he has not deviated from the tradition." Muhammed Ayyub observes that Khan conveys emotion that easily crosses cultural boundaries. "In Japan, young people listen to his music. They say, 'We don't understand the words, but it goes into our hearts.' No one can do what he does." Ayyub concludes with a statement that could serve as a final tribute to the Pakistani vocalist. "He has transformed [qawwali] greatly. Now it belongs to the entire world."

            Jimmy Cliff doesn't come across like one of the biggest international reggae stars of all time in the Shanachie DVD of Francois Bergeron's 1996 film Jimmy Cliff: Moving On. Shot from below, his face expands to fill the entire screen, suggesting his monumental status as a near feature of the Jamaican landscape. But Cliff moves with affable offhandedness as he leads us through his old Kingston neighborhood and mounts the deserted stage where he made his public debut in the early 1960s. He chats amiably with whoever is around, turning from the camera to trade small talk with a steadily growing crowd of hangers on. If he's not the man of the people that he seems, then he's an amazing actor.

            Oddly, the studio performances of "Crime" and other songs with his band feel stilted in comparison to the outdoor scenes and lack the flow of his more-or-less impromptu solo rendition of "Many Rivers to Cross." Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, he crouches amid rocks and weeds in an awkward posture that emphasizes the pain and suggestion of deliverance that first made the song so memorable. Rising, he leads the cameraman to the bushes that have sprouted on the spot where the room in which he grew up once stood. It's an affecting moment, conveying as much a sense of all the time that's passed since his youthful triumph as the nostalgia you can glean from his eyes. Walls may tumble, this wistful film suggests, but icons manage to persevere.

            After the concise songcraft of his studio albums, the swirling jams on Habib Koité's two-cd set Fôly! Live Around the World (World Village) require a little getting used to. Koité's interpretation of Malian roots music has always been unique in its emphasis on smooth ambience over drama and pyrotechnics. The bad news is that the nearly jazzy elongations on these European concert pieces stretch differences between songs to the vanishing point. Not that Koité was ever a tunesmith whose melodies stepped forward to shake your hand and lodge themselves in your head, with the exception of "Cigarette Abana," which here gets a crowd pleasing deejay intro, and "Wassiye," which loses some of its taut pop appeal onstage in Tubigen.

            The good news is that the instrumental solos can take up the slack. "Ma Ya" spotlights balafon player Kélétigui Diabaté, whose violin phrases mirror Koité's guitar lines in a "Dueling Banjos"-style moment. Boubacar Sidibé contributes tasty harmonica toots to the same piece and probably the ocarina solo that gives the song opening an Amerindian mystique. The extended length of "Fatma" rides a smoky, minor key riff that allows a slow intensity to build, capped by a brief but tasty guitar solo from Koité in his trademark sharp, staccato style. But his cheery "danke" to the applauding German crowd deflates the mood of the song into, well, a showpiece. So, how well you take to this collection depends on your tolerance for sing-along moments or playful borrowings from Gershwin's "Summertime" on "Kunfeta." If ever there was a cd that cried out to be a DVD, it's this one, because visuals would help resolve the loose conflict between gravity and goof. Still, the set is highly recommended as an opportunity for hearing one of the more innovative West African artists around strut his stuff.

            Anybody ancient enough to remember "A Fifth of Beethoven" by Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band? That number-one single from the fall of 1976 combined the main theme of Uncle Ludwig's Fifth Symphony with disco beats. Now we've got "Salsa No. V," a meld of the familiar Fifth with timbales and congas on Classic Meets Cuba (Sony Classical) by Klazz Brothers and Cuba Percussion. Call it a novelty album. Disc opener "Mambozart" finds classically trained German pianist Tobias Foster flexing his montuno chops in service of syncopating the most recognizable bits of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 as his brother Kilian Foster gets jazzy with his acoustic bass. Timbales master Alexis Herrera Estevez and conguero Elio Rodriguez Luis, both of Cuba's Ensemble Havana, add pulse and flourishes along with unison vocals and enough cool to knock this way out of novelty territory.

            So call it a concept album on which the old classics provide the anchor for Latin and jazz excursions. Sometimes the music meshes so perfectly, you'd swear Brahm's had the percussive "Cuban Dance" in mind when he wrote Hungarian Dance, while Bizet's Carmen Suite effortlessly makes the jump to "Cuban Carmen." Third Brazz Brother Tim Hahn pushes the envelope on Beethoven's Fur Elise via "Afrolise," proving that this drummer for Queen tribute band Mercury sometimes has just a little too much fun. And if a bass-propelled "Flight of the Bumble Bee" reminds you that Perez Prado did it first and better with his gorgeously skewed Cubanization of Rimsky-Korsakov some 40 years ago, that memory jog is no bad thing. Neither is this pretty listenable disc.

            In the most evocative songs on End of the Holiday (Rounder), with her low and bluesy voice Chava Alberstein comes off like a Jewish Cesaria Evora. More chanteuse than folk singer on this project, the Polish-born Israeli brings the required world weariness to blandly work both prostitutes and Rosh Hashanah into the title cut. It's a fitting start for an album whose despair over peace in the Middle East focuses on the denizens of her south Tel Aviv neighborhood. And to prove she an equal opportunity ironist, she also buries the lyrical knife provided by her co-songwriter husband Nadav Levitan in the back of a Christian tourist to the Holy Land in the deceptively bouncy "Black Video." The disc's vocals are in Hebrew, and the small combo backing Alberstein contributes clarinet sighs suggesting klezmer, though a late-night '70s-ish pop milieu envelopes and falls away from the lead melodies. The closing nod "Fellini in New York" with its sleeping pigeons, pouring rain, and hint of death appropriately concludes these tightly cropped snapshots of human frailty.

            The big daddy of dub albums is back. One listen to the title track of the deluxe reissue of Augustus Pablo's King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown (Shanachie) explains the vaulted reputation of this reggae classic. The seed of almost every element present in today's computer-based dance music is right here, from the machine-accurate drumming of Carleton Barrett to the psychedelic processing of Jacob Miller's vocal and the extreme rhythmic push. Pablo's ghostly melodica flings the piece into an ethereal dimension, giving it a depth few dub or club records can claim. Thanks to the remastered sound quality, the whole disc feels modern enough to stand alongside your favorite techno track as a peak example of electronica. Rockers holds together nicely as an album, too. Glistening horns unite the first few tracks, while Pablo's piano glues the next batch together. Melodic hooks and standout added percussive effects fix the songs in memory almost as firmly as the discarded vocal tracks. The addition of four 'lost' tracks from Pablo's Jamaican singles gives this big daddy a bonus.

            Speaking of electronica, Australian label Music-Mosaic packages a diverse group of world music-club music productions in Tribal Trancedance, beginning with neo-Aboriginal rave "Xingu" by Professor Trance and ending with Atman's meditative thumper "Gatekeeper." Among the many standout cuts is "Taniye" by Malian-born singer and percussionist Bekaye Kouyate and his band Sonkoma. The multi-layered drumming provides a nice alternative to the predictable heartbeat rhythms commonly encountered in clubland. With its mile-deep bass and drum groove, fat keyboard textures, spidery guitar lines, and chanted vocals, "Taniye" is some kind of 22nd century Afro-funk. This Colorado-based band needs an album of its own.

            Fiestas of Chiapas and Oaxcaca earns every syllable of its title with its vibrant presentation of the varieties of religious celebration. This reissue of the Nonesuch Explorer Series 1976 classic literally kicks off its aural documentary of Mexican festivals with a bang as a procession punctuated by fireworks, drum, and amay end blown flute commemorates the fiesta of Mother Guadalupe. The party seldom flags with peppy marimba ensemble tunes, a sodden "Bats'i Son Martomail" (True Song for the Churchkeeper) fueled by harp, guitar, violin, and alcoholic spirits, and a buzzing Guadalupe prayer that segues into a pleasant harp, guitar, and vocal ditty. The 'found' quality of the mostly nonprofessional music recorded by David Lewiston gives this disc a charming immediacy.

            Back in 1972 when Caribbean music meant reggae or calypso to most folks, John Storm Roberts taped a different spectrum of songs in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. The newly reissued Nonesuch Explorer Series Island Songs and Dances hangs together nicely despite the many styles on board. It transitions smoothly from heavily African-influenced Dominican dances to the more Europeanized mangulina and merengue genres, then a pair of pieces derived from medieval Spanish religious music. The interplay of Old and New World elements is particularly intriguing in this collection, and Roberts has a keen ear for catchy material.

            Sometimes music is best preserved away from the homeland. Old time Scottish traditional instrumental genres reigns in the Canadian maritimes on Cape Breton Fiddle and Piano Music (Rounder Records). The Beaton Family of Mabou first recorded for Rounder in 1978, and now the second generation tears up the joint with rousing, deeply rhythmic dances that are as joyous as any music you'll ever hear. Much of the style is characteristic to Cape Breton, including the ornamented violin note flurries played in the space of one beat and the syncopated piano which provides the bass and sets the pace. But the reels, strathspeys, jigs and marches have a strict tempo archaic quality faithful to the 19th century settlers. The Beatons bang and wail in the throat of these conventions, creating a gorgeous whirlwind of sound that makes Celtic modernisms like Riverdance seem as tame as a lullaby. The included 36-page booklet by Bert Feintuch proves that painstaking scholarship can be oodles of fun to read.

            Field recordist Steven Feld discovered that bells in old European villages serve a similar function to birds in rainforest villages. Different songs mark different times of day. And he explores even deeper links on The Time of Bells (VoxLox), his soundscapes of Italy, Finland, Greece and France. Previously, Feld documented Papua New Guineans at work in play in his three-disc set Bosavi and the bird and insect life of the same area in Rainforest Soundwalks. In Bells he compresses hours of aural environment into minutes, giving us the outdoor ambient music of belled sheep and Ave Maria bells in the marble mountains of Italy's Tuscan coast, belled men dancing to drums and bagpipes at a Balkan festival, and a suite of four French villages tied tight from dawn to dusk with the bells of the Angelus and other local sounds. Imaginative and evocative, Feld's sound compositions demonstrate that music is truly in the air. (Distributed via www.earthear.com)

Main Menu / Columns by Date / Reviews by Artists / Bob's Books / Dave Hucker / Hey Mr. Music