I’ve dwelt in the realm of Sufi music a lot lately. As these varied musical idioms surface in Western markets, I’m often struck by how little of this music has been available until fairly recent times, especially given the high quality of musicianship that remains constant through artists and releases. The Realm of the Heart (A Festival of Amir Khusrau is another fascinating cross-cultural musical blend, which keeps these high levels intact.
Sub-titled Vol. 1 & 2, this two-disc set is an excerpt from a concert held March 23-24th, 2001, to commemorate the writings of the Persian poet Hazrat Amir Khusrau (1253 – 1325 AD), a mystic who was closely associated with the Delhi sultanate during the years that India was controlled by Muslims. To many, Khusrau’s writings define the essence of Sufism, as most are in an easily singable form, with myriad meanings, and with great inherent beauty. Often cribbed by Sufi singers on the Indian sub-continent, his poetry is as commonly found in Islamic households through Asia as in the Middle East.
The featured performers on these sessions are the singers Begum Abida Parveen, and Lotfi Bouchnak. Parveen, originally from Pakistan, is a superb and powerful singer, often considered to be the reigning Queen of Sufi mystical singing. Her broad range and almost tenor pitch lend a very conversational feel to her singing. The Tunisian Bouchnak has a powerful alto, almost sending the recording microphones into distortion with its power. The backing music is the usual Qawalli group of harmonium (an Indian accordion), tabla, and handclaps, giving the spotlight clearly to the singers.
The whole set shines in its simplicity. ‘Moosey Bolo Na,’ featuring Parveen, sets a hypnotic pace while she runs through some jaw-dropping vocal counterpoint. Snaking the poetry through the backing, she sounds as if she’s allowing the muse to control the structure of the song, at times timid and restrained, at others, fierce and ecstatic. She is truly an artist in full control of her voice, and a wondrous instrument it is! Bouchnak, who is somewhat under-represented on this set, brings a fuller Persian touch in instrumentation, with lute and flute flourishes. His main solo piece, ‘Akbaroo,’ also feels somewhat spontaneously composed, and he drives the music around the powerful vibrato of his voice. The two only join on one track, ‘Chashm-E-Maste Ajabe,’ giving some stellar call and response work.
The mix of the two singers’ styles is also fascinating. Bouchnak adds a Middle Eastern touch to an otherwise conventional Qawalli set. The mix is intriguing, allowing the two Traditions to overlap, if not quite blend. There is a slight distance in the styles of these two that never quite becomes a whole, but rather is two musical voices in conversation, despite the cultural differences. The set is superbly recorded, with crystal clear vocals, and little touches like the breathing for the flute, or a finger dragging across a tabla skin, captured pristinely. The liner notes are a bit of a wade: they consist of many accolades and tributes, but little concrete information, or references.
I really liked this set. Jahan-E-Khusrau offers fantastic singing and playing, and some intriguing cross-cultural music collaboration. Although it’s not energetic enough to be a Saturday night type of disc, it fits well for Sunday mornings. Trance inducing, somber and yet joyous, this set becomes many different things through each play, and one always picks up another few details with additional listening. Interesting, intriguing, and invigorating.
(Navras Records, 2002)