It's got the fervor of gospel, the wrenching emotion of soul, the abandon of rock, the hypnotic rhythms of raga and the vocal flexibility of scat.
It also has a following of untold millions on the Indian subcontinent, most of whom consider Abida Parveen the queen of Sufi mystic singing. Parveen makes her West Coast debut tonight at the Sequoia Athletic Club in Buena Park, under the auspices of the Asian Arts Council of Southern California.
According to Parveen, reached by phone recently at her home in Pakistan, her singing has only one purpose, and she intoned that purpose with the regularity of one of the aforementioned ragas. "Purification," she said in an interview most notable for an abominable connection; Parveen's husband, mentor and manager, Sheikh Ghulam Hussain, served as translator.
"The songs purify the soul of a human being," she continued. "The human is so involved that he has left God. The songs bring us near to God, near the Almighty, so that the human soul should be purified and satisfied." Parveen draws her audiences near to Allah not only by spreading his message of love, but by trying to induce wajd , the state of spiritual ecstasy preceding revelation.
In so doing, the 38-year-old singer is considered a female counterpart to the genre's spiritual and vocal golden boy, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, best known to Westerners through several albums on Peter Gabriel's Realworld label.
Parveen's inspiration is the Sufi saint Shah Abdul Latif, an 18th-Century poet and composer who blended folk music and classical raga in a style known as kafi. Parveen's career was launched when she sang before 12,000 devotees at the saint's ur, or death anniversary, in 1981.
Mark Ginsburg of Voice Pictures, the New York-based promoter of music from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran, has organized Parveen's North American tour, which began Friday in Toronto and ends Oct. 10 in Claverak, N.Y. He recalled first meeting the singer during another ur, when a trip to Pakistan to discuss contracts with Khan coincided with one of the largest Sufi pilgrimages.
"It was a mob scene," Ginsburg said of an annual festival that attracts 1.5 million people to the Datta Ganj Baksh shrine in Lahore. "Nusrat sings there every year.
"I was with Nusrat for about a week, and there was a birthday for his daughter in his hometown. He asked Abida to sing at the party. It was about 4 a.m., and we were about to pass out. Abida sang, and all of a sudden it was morning and we all felt fresh and alive."
Parveen and Khan offer several similarities. Both, for instance, are relatively large and cherubic; both spin melismas like so many filigreed minarets, and both seem to leave epiphanies in their wake. But there are also significant differences.
Khan, for starters, is known as a singer of qawwali, a more raucous and improvisational style of Sufi song, while Parveen primarily sings kafi, which is more poetic and more structured, and ghazal, which can have the pining qualities of a Johnny Mathis song.
Ginsburg, who has worked closely with both singers, elaborated.
"The main difference is that Nusrat gets by you like a locomotive, with inertia, louder and louder, faster and faster," he said. "Rhythm is very important. Abida is more melodic, and I suppose more feminine, although you're not always sure from her voice if she's a man or woman--which of course makes it all the more mysterious."
Though Pakistan is one of the more liberal countries in the region, pressure to abandon Western ways and become more Islamic in daily life has increased in recent years. Kafi and qawwali provide spiritual options for Pakistani youth alienated by the Islamic revival.
"One way of approaching Islam and its ideals--other than the militant, conservative approach--is through its mystical side, the side of music and poetry and art," Ginsburg said. "Parveen and Khan have been incredibly successful at bringing together young people, and orthodox Islam resents that success.
"One reason they're annoyed is that Nusrat has taken this music and turned it into disco. And Parveen travels with a synthesizer. She can go way beyond Sufi poetry into pop, and she'll do so on demand."
Parveen hasn't yet gone as far as Khan has in Westernizing Sufi music, however, and she may have remained closer to her spiritual roots, Ginsburg said. A Pakistani form of appreciation known as nazrana, wherein members of the audience throw money at musicians during concerts, might provide an example.
At a performance last year by Khan at the Buena Park Hotel, for instance, a helper crawled about the stage collecting and counting bills that had been thrown.
At a concert in Bahrain where the audience showered Parveen with jewelry, she left the baubles on stage, later commenting that she will not be remembered for how many bungalows she has when she dies.