YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A Touch of Nirvana : Despite some miscues, Good Karma Festival delivers inspiration from qawwali singer Ustad Badar Ali Khan in the tradition of his late cousin--and Jerry Garcia.


A lot of people talked about Pakistani qawwali star Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who died of coronary arrest in London on Aug. 16, as the new Bob Marley. Indeed, though his music--a 6-centuries-old tradition of Sufi poetry and Eastern classical singing--was much further outside Western pop than Marley's reggae, he was leading a global rise of the style.

But at the ambitious Indian-Pakistani music showcase called the Good Karma Festival on Sunday at the Greek Theatre, an electrifying, elevating performance by Nusrat Khan's cousin and musical protege Ustad Badar Ali Khan showed that a more useful icon for Western music fans may be Jerry Garcia.

In fact, midway through Ustad Khan's set Sunday, many in the audience--both Pakistani and Indian nationals and Western fans--were moved by Khan's emotional melisma and ecstatic outbursts to leap to their feet and dance. At that, concert organizer Suresh Varma invited many of the dancers to go on stage, resulting in the odd sight of the somber Khan and his eight-man "party" of musicians and singers seated cross-legged on a platform now surrounded by a couple dozen spinning and leaping neo-hippie Deadheads.

It was easy to see the connection, though. There's a clear parallel to the qawwali form--extended improvisations over ebbs and flows of rhythmic dynamics--in both the Dead's trademark musical explorations and the spirituality imbued in them by the Deadheads.

Khan at first seemed a bit bemused by the dancers' arrival on stage, but soon responded to their enthusiasm by taking his vocals, matched by his own dramatic hand and body gestures, to higher and higher levels of force. Then still surrounded by the dancers, he concluded his set with "Must Qalander," one of Nusrat Khan's signature pieces. It was an emotional tribute to his cousin, but also a clear demonstration that qawwali's international presence can continue to grow and evolve even without its best-known practitioner.

Khan's presence was also key to the Good Karma Festival overcoming some serious problems to even begin to live up to its name. Nusrat Khan's death had cast a cloud over the event and ultimately caused the absence of Nusrat Khan's nephew, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, the designated heir to the qawwali flame for the next generation and the intended star of this event.

Rahat Khan stayed in Pakistan to observe the traditional mourning period, a decision that Baba said Sunday he had only learned the day before, too late to inform the public. Anglo-Indian singer Najma, a very popular and influential figure in the world music scene, also canceled close to the event, with no reason given.

That left holes in the program's spectrum of musical styles, though the four remaining acts still offered considerable variety. Krishna Das Kagel opened the show on what to many was the odd visual note of an American (who looks like a physician or schoolteacher more than a musician) singing Indian devotional music backed by three young American female singers.

Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who in 1993 collaborated with Ry Cooder on the world music Grammy-winning album "A Meeting by the River," followed with a captivating raga performed on his Mohan vina (a customized slide guitar), though he was prevented from playing more because of schedule constraints. After Ustad Khan's centerpiece set, violinist L. Subramanian proved an anticlimactic closer with his jazz-fusion group. While the longtime Los Angeles resident showed his accomplished skills in the form, focusing on the North Indian classical music he is also noted for would have been a better fit in this show.

Bigger factors in hampering the event were sparse attendance (only about 2,000 of the Greek's 6,000 seats occupied) and a very disappointing cultural fair accompanying. Though the fair had been promoted prominently, it was limited to one Indian food concession, two mehndi artists (henna skin painting) and two small booths selling incense, clothes and such, crowded into the Greek's restaurant patio area.

Even with the small crowd, lines were so long and slow that anyone wishing to eat or get a mehndi tattoo wound up missing a large part of the show. Still, the audience's enthusiasm and informed receptiveness to the music was a sign that more of such experiments would be welcome.

Los Angeles Times Articles