Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has popularized qawwali, the ecstatic devotional music of the Sufis, but fellow Pakistanis the Sabri Brothers were actually the first performers to take it outside their native land. The Sabris, whose lineage runs back 400 years to Punjabi court musicians, made their first recording in 1958, and in their homeland they have a larger following than Ali Khan. When longtime lead singer Haji Ghulam Farid Sabri died in 1994, his younger brother Maqbool Ahmed Sabri masterfully assumed leadership of the ten-man group--before Haji's death the two engaged in some truly sublime vocal sparring. On the group's latest recording, Ya Mustapha (Xenophile/Green Linnet), it avoids most of the vocal acrobatics--the improvisational staccato bursts and the high-pitched soaring--of Ali Khan, but it still has power to spare. Rather than driving the music consistently upward as Ali Khan does, the Sabris concentrate on thickening and intensifying the middle ground. They employ a traditional mix of harmonium, tabla, dholak, hand claps, and chorus--although a few album cuts show Western influence via saxophone and electric bass--and with a mix of inventive melodies and dizzying vocal call-and-response they attain a trancelike state without hyperbole. The liner notes of the new album provide translations of the lyrics, usually sung in Farsi and Punjabi: in an original tune called "Khwaja ka Diwana" the narrator travels to the tomb of a Sufi saint, pouring forth lavish, uncontrolled praise--"I am insane and enchanted by you, oh master / Obsessed, obsessed, obsessed, obsessed." But you don't even need to know what they're saying to feel what they're singing. Chicago's seen more qawwali just this year than in the past four total, but we shouldn't take these splendid opportunities for granted. The concert is presented by the Old Town School of Folk Music. Wednesday, 7:30 PM, Gateway Theatre, 5216 W. Lawrence; 773-525-7793.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Josh Pulman.