A man sits cross-legged with closed eyes on a stage, surrounded by a dozen others. They seem completely at peace, yet they are invigorated by some unseen force.
Some of them cradle instruments, watching carefully. The man in the center opens his eyes and observes his surroundings.
There is an audience waiting expectantly, their eyes conveying an eager alertness. At seeing the man in the center straighten up, the audience surges with anticipation.
Yes, they think. Yes, we are about to witness magic. We are about to listen to the Voice of God.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the man in the center, gestures to the others. The harmonium, an accordion-like instruments, begins a swaying melody. It is quickly followed in dance by the tabla, a North Indian finger drum.
The energy of the musicians flows like electiricy to the audience, who have begun to clap their hands.
Khan leans forward slightly and calmly places a hand on the microphone.
There is quiet. The harmonium and tabla have dropped to a slight hum.
The audience has reached the peak of their fervor. They are impatiently waiting. They are almost too excited to hear anything, and yet they dare do nothing but listen.
Khan’s voice pierces the air in the auditorium, and suddenly, all divine debts are paid. Suddenly, all is forgotten but the present.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was the most legendary qawwali singer of his time and one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century.
The beauty of Khan’s music lies not only in its technical and acoustic quality, but also in its unique ability to portray the artistic, religious,and philosophical roots of his culture.
Khan’s example suggests a fascinating theory: The clearest and quickest window into almost any culture is its music.
For instance, while Khan’s qawalli performances illustrated the deep, meditative nature of the Sufi culture, contemporary French singer Zaz sings about the charming, idealistic views of the Parisian youth.
While Khan’s lyrics provide insight into how traditional Muslim views merge with modern poetic interpretations, Jewish reggae singer Matisyahu’s hit single “King Without a Crown” is almost a perfect representation of the fierce faith exhibited in Jewish culture.
While the ensemble nature of Khan’s performances reflect the dynamism of Indian culture, the ever-popular Queen song “Don’t Stop Me Now” paints a vibrant picture of the brilliant optimism of the American Dream.
Music can mean far more than a simple string of notes or space on an iPod. Music is a vivid reflection of the culture that creates and celebrates it, leaving an enjoyable impression for anyone who listens to it.