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Pop Music Review

Badar Ali Khan, Unlikely Pakistani Jazz Man

July 26, 1999|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Is it possible that jazz, in its mythic journey up the Mississippi, made a stop in Pakistan along the way?

There were moments in qawwali singer Badar Ali Khan's performance at LunaPark on Saturday when it seemed possible. His riff-like improvisations frequently called up references to Ella Fitzgerald's scat singing, and in one passage his usually rough voice suddenly emerged with a velvety Mel Torme-like sound.

None of this is to diminish the reality of what qawwali singing is: rapturous Sufi music associated with Islamic mysticism. But Khan, like his late cousin Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, has brought qawwali beyond its spiritual roots into a style that inspires ecstatic audience reactions similar to what often occurred at performances of the Grateful Dead.

Khan appeared at LunaPark with a "party" of seven, including back-up singers, harmonium players and a percussionist. Seated cross-legged, they proceeded through a number of pieces, emphasizing the stirring rhythmic aspects of the music, and minimizing its more serene spiritual qualities.

Central to the presentation was Khan's fervent improvisations, building melodies with sequential repetitions, sometimes with startling rapid sequences of notes, often sung using the syllabic note names (like Western do, re, me) of Eastern music. Waving his arms passionately, making eye contact with his associates, he drew them into his orbit, allowing brief solo flights by others, generating stirring ensemble passages in a kind of qawwali version of call-and-response.

It was an extraordinary performance by a great artist. And one can only wonder why the venue wasn't packed with devotees.

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