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Brooklyn Qawwali Party

A Brooklyn jazz band breathes new life into Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's sufi music.

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Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is more than just a great musician and sufi singer for percussionist Brook Martinez. He is the spirit that binds the 11 members of his all Caucasian band, the Brooklyn Qawwali Party, founded in 2003, which performs jazz to Nusrat's music.

Growing up with hip-hop, sufi music did not feature in Martinez's teenage world. Then, one evening, he saw Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on a VH1 Awards ceremony. "I heard Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for the first time then and my first reaction was 'who is this large Pakistani guy'? That performance completely bowled me over."

Martinez, who studied jazz and contemporary music at New York University, says the decisive moment that led to the formation of Brooklyn Qawwali Party came after he heard Nusrat's interview on a TV channel. "Nusrat said qawwali is like jazz. That immediately caught my attention. Nusrat himself said that he improvises his music, and that's when I got the idea to play and popularize Nusrat's qawwali music through the medium I know best - jazz."

 
Martinez picked up some of Nusrat's songs, transcribed the music and began rehearsing with other musician friends who were also fans of Nusrat. Shawn Trail, a percussionist in the band, remembers walking into a music store and picking up his first Nusrat CD by chance: "I was just looking at some CDs when I saw a CD of Nusrat's final studio recording. The packaging and the beautiful art work was so interesting that I decided to buy that CD! Though I must add that the packaging might have drawn me to Nusrat, but it was his music that blew me away."

Many in the band had heard Nusrat's music on their own, while others had been introduced to his music by Martinez. The band was established in 2003 under the temporary name Martinez's Qawwali party and performed its first gig at a friend's apartment in Red Hook in Brooklyn, New York.

Qawwali is a vibrant, improvising musical tradition that dates back 700 years ago. The songs that constitute the qawwali repertoire are principally in Urdu and Punjabi.

The improvisation tradition of qawali has served the Brooklyn Qawwali party well as the group plays Nusrat's music to their individual instruments. Says Tony Barba, a saxophone player in the band, "I am trained in jazz and find a lot of similarity in sufi music and jazz. Both improvise while being performed live, have solos and repetition of themes."

Martinezs explains, "Nusrat also introduces Hindustani classical while singing qawwali. We follow the main components of qawwali, meaning we repeat the melody in jazz and then one person goes solo. We have designated clappers as well. It's the same in qawwali."

Martinez adds, "We decided that we won't sing the songs since the words were unfamiliar to us and we weren't sure of our diction. We included just basic chorus words to give the effect, like Dum Mast Kalandar and Allah Hu."

Performing in public was not easy at first. Recalls Martinez of the debut public performance at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn in September 2003: "I was really scared. I did have thoughts like who am I to play this music? I am neither sufi, nor Pakistani or even South Asian. I wasn't sure how the audience would receive us."

But the gig was a hit and since then the group has attracted many South Asians fans, some of who do a double take. Oftentimes, South Asian audience members recognize a song, Martinez says, "There are tentative smiles and whispers amongst the audience when they realize that we are all white Americans playing their music. The response though is extremely positive in the end."

Tony Barba adds: "When we play, we do try to see how the audience is reacting. There are times when the audience face lights up, because they recognize the music or the song and then they start clapping. That's really satisfying for us."

A fan, Shridhar Bhave, who has attended many of shows, says: "The main thing about BQP is it transcends all the borders and barriers of language, religion, countries and race. It actually shows the power of music. It's a unique experience listening to Allah Hu from a jazz ensemble."

Another fan, Avantika Pandit, adds: "I am extremely impressed. It is something very different and unique. For me as an Indian, who knows Nusrat's style of singing, watching Caucasians performing it in a jazz form - this format itself intrigues me!"

The group, in turn, has introduced many of its fans to Nusrat's music, says Barba, "There are many people, friends of friends and relatives who have not been exposed to Nusrat's music but now, after listening to his music at our performances, they are huge fans of Nusrat!"

 
Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is the spirit that binds the 11 members of the Brooklyn Qawwali Party
jazz band together.
Barba, who had developed an interest in Indian music, says he was struck by Nusrat's voice and melody the first time he heard it: "I had never been exposed to any qawwali before and when I heard him, I was awe-struck. Sufi music sounded similar to Indian music to me, but still different in some ways. In fact, I know people who don't know anything about qawwali or what kind of music it is, but if you mention Nusrat's name, they know who he is!"

Brooklyn Qawwali Party, which performs regularly at Brooklyn's Joe's Pub, performed at the Indian and Pakistani Independence Day parades in New York last year.

Whatever the language or the event, the central theme of qawwali remains spiritual, exemplifying the devotion and love for the Divine. That devotion seems evident on the faces of members of the Brooklyn Qawwali Party. Percussionist Trail says playing Nusrat's music is equivalent to praying: "It is definitely a spiritual practice for me. I have reached a higher state of consciousness while playing qawwali music."

Martinez adds, "We are not westernizing sufi music. It is just a pure expression of our feeling in our unique way. It's not pure, but it is borne out of immense love and respect for Nusrat."

The sentiment is shared by Barba: "For all the members in the band, music is spiritual in nature. When we play it, we experience it. We were conscious that the members we put together know that and relate to that feeling."

Says Trail: "Most music tends to have a direct connection with the creator. Nusrat's voice seems to have a direct connection with the universe. I had heard sufi music in Morocco, but Nusrat went further than his own vision."  

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Entertainment | Arts & Entertainment | Magazine | March 2008

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