Asif Ali Khan brings rich music of Pakistan to the 'U'

By Cosmo Pappas, Daily Arts Writer
Published March 18, 2014

This Friday, UMS will welcome Pakistani cultural icon, Asif Ali Khan, at the Hill Auditorium for a performance where he and a group of musicians will showcase an Islamic art form called qawwali. Traditionally, qawwali, which originated in the 13th century, is a Sufi devotional practice where a performer, called a qawwal, will sing religious poetry with the accompaniment of a band called a qawwali party.

Asif Ali Khan – The Music of Pakistan

March 21, 8 P.M.
Hill Auditorium
from $10 (with half-off student discount) to $46

Asif Ali Khan was a student of the late, world-renowned qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose career brought the art of qawwali to the attention of a global audience when he was signed by Oriental Star Agencies out of Birmingham, England.

“There are a lot of good reasons why there might be a general perception in the United States, among laypeople, that Islam has not cultivated the arts,” said Professor Farina Mir, director of the Center for South Asian Studies. “But that would be a misperception. The thing about qawwali is that it’s not an esoteric, unpopular form: it’s actually exceptionally popular as an art form.”

While their music goes hand-in-hand with traditional devotional practice, Asif Ali Khan’s performance promises a night of profound aesthetic experience for every showgoer, Sufi or not. A distinguishing quality of qawwali performances is that a single performer may sing poems written in languages ranging from Persian to Urdu to Punjabi, among others. So even at the level of shared language, live performances mean different levels of access for different audience members. This does not imply, however, that one’s appreciation suffers.

“You don’t have to be Sufi, you don’t have to be Muslim, to actually enjoy this. You’ll enjoy it in a different way, perhaps, but there’s also a political context that I think is just an element of what’s happening here,” Mir said. “We want to understand not just that multiple things are going on but that different people can engage the performance in different ways.”

The political context she mentioned is qawwali’s role in expanding an international audience’s perception of Pakistan beyond harmful, flattening stereotypes. The excitement and beauty of qawwali lies in its ability to move spectators to raptures — spiritual or not — at the same time as it resists untrue and dangerous characterizations of Pakistan.

“Billing this as ‘the Music of Pakistan’ is an important statement about the fact that Pakistan is about more than the War on Terror, the Taliban — more than political difficulties. It’s a place with a very rich culture and aesthetic traditions,” Mir said.