Music News

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Many fans of underground or cult performers are purists of an especially intractable type. Not only do they take pride in the fact that their favorite sounds are like sandpaper on the eardrums of the majority of listeners, but they're flat-out offended when said music is tinkered with to up its accessibility quotient. Even the slightest change is declared to be apostasy -- an attempt to water down, to sell out, to befoul true art with the unmistakable stench of commerce. But such dogmatism tends to overlook a simple truth: Sometimes impure albums can be pretty damn good.

Enter Magic Touch, a disc on which the voice of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the acknowledged master of the Indian musical technique dubbed Qawwali, is used as the primary ingredient in a sonic soufflé whipped up by Bally Sagoo, a renowned DJ and remixer. Although Sagoo is an Indian by birth, he's a Westerner by experience (his parents moved to England when he was just six months old), and he has a very modern love of juxtaposition. For an example, look no further than "Kinna Sohna," the first offering here. The tune begins with a blast of faux brass straight out of a big-band showstopper that blends into a sample of a hipster counting off the beat in Spanish: "Uno, dos, tres, quatro..." That's followed by a bass line that's half East Punjab/half lower Manhattan, a clubby backbeat, funky guitar fillips, electric pianistics and -- oh, yeah -- Ali Khan's otherworldly wailing, which floats over the track like a flock of gulls alternately dipping down toward the water and then zooming into the clouds.

More violations of tradition follow. On "Jhoole Jhoole Lal" (rendered in a so-called "tabla mix"), Ali Khan's impassioned ululations are frequently chopped into echoey, dub-inspired pieces while a disembodied voice remarks "It's gonna be very popular"; "Mera Pia Ghar Ayaa" pits the Big Man against a slamming house rhythm straight outta Detroit; "Dum Dum Ali Ali" sports energetic scratching, dancing keyboards and a smidgen of reggae; and "Sahnoon Rog Laan Walia" moves on a solid groove over which Ali Khan seems to be soloing as much as singing. Such results are inauthentic as all get-out, sure, but they're also wonderfully ethereal and consistently inspirational -- spirituality that lifts you up even as it makes you want to get down.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts

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