Friday, April 25, 2008

Qawwali at Royce Hall

When good music transcends language, cultural and societal barriers, it always amazes me, no matter how many times I witness this phenomenon. Last night was once again one such experience. I was inside Royce Hall on the UCLA campus listening and goose-bumping to Mehr and Sher Ali's ecstatic and devotional Sufi music, better known as Qawwali.

While one cannot put a price tag on excellent virtuoso music, my friend Matt and I, since we are both students, were unwilling to shell out $35.00 for this event, when the actual face value of the tickets was $22.00. So we decided to go to the UCLA campus a bit earlier and purchase the tickets at the box office. UCLA actually accepted our student IDs and gave us an even further discount and we ended up getting our tickets for half the price, center orchestra seats, seven rows from the stage! But since we had arrived on campus an hour early, we decided to wander around. The organizers from the Los Angeles Book Festival were putting up various booths. The numbering on the booths went all the way into the four hundred range! The campus will be very crowded on Saturday and Sunday. And of course parking will be a nightmare as usual.

Ah, but back to the music. There were nine people in the Qawwali troupe sitting cross-legged in two rows on a raised platform which was covered with woolen rugs. One of the Ali brother's was playing the harmonium while the other was leading the "qalaam" or the lyrics. Their sons were sitting and also performing next to them. There were three musicians whose sole job was to clap rhythmically and then there was a tabla maestro. The clappers and the tabla maestro occupied the back row, while all the singers sat in the front. The first half of the show featured poetry from Amir Khusrow who lived in thirteenth century India and combined Persian and Indian music forms into Qawwali. He was a disciple of Khwaja Nizamuddin Aulia whose shrine I have often visited in New Delhi. I could understand the lyrics in the first half because it was mostly Urdu, though I wasn't able to understand much in the second half where the emphasis was mostly on Punjabi lyrics. The Ali brothers closed the evening with the two songs that were popularized and brought to the West by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. These were, "Mera Piya Ghar Aya" (My lover came home) and "Dum a dum mast kalandar." The brothers learned Qawwali under Nusrat's father's tutelage. If you really want to hear the uncommercialized version of pure Qawwali, I recommend going to Khwaja Nizaumiddin Aulia's shrine on Thursday and Friday evenings.

Needless to say the audience was on their feet, mesmerized, ecstatic, clapping, jubilant, and gave a standing ovation to the Ali brothers and their troupe. Virtuosity and mastery at this level deserves nothing less.

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