UNIVERSAL CITY, CALIF. — At first glance, he could be a cross between Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and a smiling Buddha.
In flowing blue silk draped over sumo-sized girth, he sits cross-legged on a raised platform, head bobbing in an attitude of contemplative ecstasy. Cued by his raised palm, an exotic beat begins from a tabla player, one of 10 accompanists that surround him in a semicircle. A mournful melody from the accordion-like harmonium is added, then a voice that seems not of this world.
Both in tone and content, it is not intended to be.
Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is widely considered the world's preeminent performer of qawwali - the devotional music of the Sufis, the mystical sect of Islam, which is meant to elevate the spirit and bring both performer and listener closer to God.
Meaning literally "utterance," qawwali was invented by Amir Khusrau in the 12th century. A marriage of sophisticated rhythms and exultant vocal spontaneity, its repetitive and lyrical forms became an essential part of Muslim worship at Sufi shrines and a popular element in conversion of Indians to Islam.
As exhibited in Khan's current world tour and recent popular albums, the music is introducing a growing number of Westerners to both the wealth of global music beyond their shores as well as the possibility of expressive forms whose intent transcends mere entertainment. The driving, percussive instruments in tandem with the soulful rises and falls of Khan's extraordinary voice are bringing acclaim on several continents.
First heard widely outside Pakistan in Britain in 1979, Khan's meteor-like ascension to prominence is considered unparalleled both within and without the Islamic world. He has toured Britain every year since. His visits have grown to include other countries in Europe and, on rare occasions, America.
Khan has now recorded more than 70 albums on several labels and has collaborated with European popular artists Peter Gabriel and Jan Garbarek. His music was used in the soundtrack of "The Last Temptation of Christ" and the recent "Dead Man Walking" in duet with Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam.
Because of such collaborations, Khan's name is becoming known in the same manner as the Beatles' embrace of Ravi Shankar in the 1960s, and as the South African musicians who worked with Paul Simon on his mega-hit album "Graceland."
"Qawwali is about the most joyous, ecstatic music this musical gourmand has ever encountered," wrote critic John Rockwell in The New York Times in October 1989. And during Kahn's current tour, one Los Angeles critic called Khan "the world music choice of the mid-'90s."
Besides the one or two tabla, two harmoniums, and perhaps six handclappers, that musical expression consists of lead singer Khan and several other soloists who respond to Khan individually and as a chorus.
Usually, a melody line is introduced by voice, harmonium, or both. Then improvisations and ornamentation begin, often by repeating a single word so often that it becomes more a sound than a word.
"Such play with language and rhythm is utilized by the qawwal to induce the state known as mar'rifat, an inner truth akin to the zen concept of sunyata - the formless 'void' that is the fountainhead of all possibilities," says Robert Browning, artistic director of the World Music Institute in New York.
Khan, who comes from a family of distinguished and classically trained musicians, has a rich, soulful tenor voice that he uses virtuosically across a broad vocal range. He was born in the city of Faisalabad, Pakistan, where his family has lived and practiced music - including north Indian ragas (improvisatory songs) - since the 1300s.
Most Westerners will not recognize song structure or lyrics. Set to Sufi poems in Farsi, Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi, and other Indian languages, qawwali is "considered the voice or mouthpiece for the spiritual message of Sufism through the poetic text enhanced by the musical expression," says Regula Qureshi, a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Alberta, Edmonton.
At the Los Angeles concert, the capacity crowd was on its feet within minutes and remained so - often dancing in the aisles - for the duration of a two-hour concert. Some showered the performers with wads of cash, a tradition of adulation.
Khan and party performed perhaps seven or eight numbers, each lasting close to 15 minutes. But because of the otherworldly task at hand - "do not accept the heart that is the slave to reason" translate the lyrics of one song - the time of each seemingly vanished.
Khan himself is a charismatic figure, punctuating his vocals with sweeping hand movements and facial expressions that range from scowls to delectation. By the sheer power of his sound and improvisatory rhythm, one cannot remain unmoved.
The numbers begin slowly and build with ever-more-complicated polyrhythms. Oftentimes the singers seem to aid themselves with staccato hand-chops in what appears to be an animated two-way conversation.
"When we sing in Pakistan the public is very varied, with diverse motivations," he said in a 1988 interview. "Some come for the music, some to hear the message, and others to find a solution to their problems. Those able to understand the message and its depth will react to the message and the music, but for those others the exact effect sought by the master's words will be created by the music alone."