SHABAZ. Mondo Rhythmica Records. Available at most record stores and at www.mondomelodia.com
I’ll admit that I jumped to a few wrongconclusions when I saw that the Ali Khan Band had changed their name to Shabaz. Their newest album on the Mondo Rhythmica label was co-produced by Miles Copeland (best known as Sting’s m
anager). Consequently, I had imagined a marketing strategy meeting in which some guy in a suit was saying, “These guys are Muslims, right? Half the Muslims in the U.S. are African American. So let’s rename the group Shabaz—that’s the name Malcom X took when he started his own Islamic community. Dress them in black leather and sun glasses so they look like rappers, and then add hip hop and techno to the back up tracks.” As I listened to the album, I decided that this was one time that the guys in the suits really knew what they were doing. Richard Michos’ arrangements had acquired a different kind of sophistication, which shifted the focus to electronically processed drum machine sounds that were both hypnotic and danceable. But this had not compromised his extraordinary ability to combine and transform acoustic sounds, and all of the lyrics were still in Punjabi or Urdu. Maybe this strategy will make Shabaz the first popular American group that doesn’t sing in English.
The only problem with this strategy was that it didn’t exist. I eventually learned from Shabaz’s manager Dawn Elder that Mondo Rhythmica changed the name only because they did not want anyone to confuse Shabaz with the numerous relatives of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The name Shabaz was not taken from Malcom X (it was not even spelled the same way) but from a word in Urdu which meant “chief eagle”(which explained why there was a stylized picture of an Eagle on the front of the album). Mondo Rhythmica had chosen the name because “Shabaz is the top band combining Qawwali with dance music, because they have firm family roots in the Qawwali tradition.” She then quoted several recent reviews of the album praising it for being genuine Qawwali, unlike the numerous albums which simply sampled fragments of Qawwali and mixed them with beats and breaks.
These statements brought back memories to the first time I had heard the Ali Khan family perform classical Hindustani music, and had assumed, partly because of their name, that they were Qawwali performers. Salamat Ali Khan, the patriarch of the clan, promptly set me straight. “Our music is built on Dhrupad, not Qawwali,” he said firmly. But I later learned that Salamat himself had broken from the 400-year-old family tradition to sing Khayal instead of Dhrupad, and that his sons, including Shabaz vocalist Sukhavat Ali Khan, could not avoid being influenced by the Qawwali which is so prevalent in their native Pakistan. But although the music of Shabaz does create the same ecstatic trance effect as Qawwali, their differences from Qawwali are as important as the similarities.
Qawwali singing grows out the singing of the muezzins who call people to prayer at the mosque. Unlike other Indian classical music it is meant to be heard at great distances. It is thus usually loud, harsh, and gritty, not unlike American blues singing. Sukhavat, in contrast, has developed a singing style which exploits the full creative capabilities of the microphone. In fact, he has a better understanding of how to use a microphone than any other Indian singer I have ever heard. Sometimes he sings softly and sweetly, letting the microphone do all the work, other times he pulls the microphone back and sings at full volume to create the power of a Qawwali ensemble. His control over these two extremes in vocal expression is a truly revolutionary development in Indian singing.
Sukhavat’s sister Riffat has also developed her own style, partly because she had no other choice. Although she learned from her father, he did not teach her. She was forced to “study” by sitting outside the door while her brothers were given singing lessons. Her experiences singing dance music caused her to take what she had gathered from the family tradition and transform it into something completely new. This is particularly obvious on the piece called “Queenie’s Jam,” a slinky hip-hopish adaptation of a Qawwali standard which was produced at Miles Copeland’s castle in Southern France. Copeland gave Riffat the name “Queenie” because she reminded him of Aretha Franklin.
Most highly creative music groups go through something like a slump when they record their third album. The first album is usually the band’s getting used to working in a studio, and often simply documents their live sound. The second album reveals their mastery of the studio environment, and then the third album is often a consolidation of that mastery. The remarkable thing about this third album (which is their first under the name Shabaz) is that it breaks as much new ground as their second album, while retaining all of the second album’s virtues. The vocals and arrangements are not only more polished, but also take new chances and succeed.
These new elements include not only a greater use of electronic effects, but new acoustic elements as well. “When I was in Pakistan, I used my DAT machine to record all the natural sounds I could find,” says Michos. “Some of them, like people talking and singing on the street, are buried so deeply in the mix that they don’t really stand out. But I gave special prominence to the brief vocal sample of Sukhavat’s nephew, Shujat, which opens the song “Rihaee.” He was only 12-years-old at the time, but even then you could see that he was in the process of becoming the bright star of the family’s next generation of singers.”
Undeniably, this blossoming of new talent in both generations is made somewhat bittersweet by the recent passing of Sukhavat’s and Riffat’s father Salamat, who oversaw and encouraged the many new directions explored by his talented progeny. He welcomed Michos, his American son-in-law, with unconditional acceptance, often referring to him as “my American son, Richard Ali Khan.” Those of us who were fortunate enough to study with him will always remember his patience, his generosity, and his courage in exploring new frontiers, both musical and geographical. This album, filled with a joy and exuberance that reaches across countless musical boundaries, is a fitting tribute to his memory.
Teed Rockwell has studied classical Indian music for 15 years at the Ali Akbar College of Music and privately with Habib Khan and the Salamat Ali Khan family.