In this series of posts on musicians doing high quality work after 40, little has been said about their audience. Today’s post will start out with them first. Last October, I went to see the Pakistani group Rizwan-Muazzam perform at the Reynolds Industries theater at Duke University. I knew little about these performers from Pakistan, other than that they were nephews of the late great Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, who a friend of mine had recommended to me when I was in college. I never took him up on the tip beyond a few tunes I listened to that didn’t make much of an impression on me. For some reason, I decided to see if his nephews would clue me in. Since his death in 1997, they have endeavored to carry the flag of this tradition of Sufi devotional music. In the Euramerican tradition, this would not sound promising, (think Wallflowers.) But this group identifies with a family musical tradition going back 700 years. That goes quite a bit farther than trusting someone over 30.
I’d never been to the venue before, which is buried in a part of campus farther from avenues traveled by the public than Duke’s Baldwin Theater, which is not far from Whole Foods on Broad Street. As a result, I found myself unsure of where to head as I approached the address. I parked in the wrong lot at first, and then realized I needed to head further down the road after consulting my GPS. Once I arrived in the proper parking lot, my task became easier. I immediately noticed several families who appeared to be from the Subcontinent dressed in impressive fashion heading towards a particular exit, so I followed them, and soon reached my destination.
In order to get to the hall’s entrance we had to make our way through several stages of a honeycomb style student lounge, which I found a bit off putting. It felt like I didn’t really belong, and that the milieu was too casual for the occasion. But the gathering audience made up of mostly whole families dressed in styles from Pakistan made me feel more comfortable. It was clear that the performers would not be received as “exotic” curiosities from the crowd gathered at the ticket window. What’s more, the introduction to the concert once we filed in was delivered in Urdu rather than in English, by a Pakistani scholar from the University of North Carolina. No translation was provided, which I liked. It made me focus more on the way the members of the audience who spoke the language were reacting with warmth and togetherness, rather than on the words coming out of the speakers from the stage.
I looked around me and saw folks of an age I’m used to seeing at Classical concerts, but without the attendant stuffiness. They were accompanied by their children and/or grandchildren, who seemed just as excited about the event as their elders were. I can’t remember ever having that experience at a concert of music from Europe or North America. For example, I went to see the Takacs Quartet this year because I really like a record they did of Bartok material. I ended up feeling that it was a waste of money because the audience was so insufferably snooty during the safe-as-milk program of Beethoven and Mozart that it made me want to pull a Pete Townsend on the surely expensive string instruments sitting on the stage a few feet away from me. No one moved or uttered a peep in between the rote applause.
At the Rizwan-Muazzam show, the audience applauded when they felt like it. They applauded the onset of refrains that were familiar to them – such as Allah Hooh, performed above by their uncle – they applauded at the close of stirring vocal solos, and they laughed and applauded in response to stage banter in Urdu of which I understood nothing. I sat next to a couple in their 50’s who had their arms affectionately draped around each other for the entire concert. The audience struck me as being more relaxed and comfortable in their own skin than a typical rock show, because there was not the cult-of-personality hero worship factor involved that you often see with a majority teen-and-twenties crowd.
Part of this atmosphere was down to the way the musicians carried themselves on stage. Their interaction with the audience was heavily framed by a series of gestures that I was unfamiliar with. The impression I received was one of respect given to the audience and therefore expected to be received. Scott Solter had told me a story prior to the performance about a concert the group gave in Berkeley CA that testified to the importance of this respect. It being Berkeley, the concert was attended by many hippies. They occupied the front rows and parked their bare feet up on the stage while waiting for the group to come on stage. When the group did arrive, they took one look at this display and went back behind the stage in disgust. After several confused minutes, one of the promoters came on stage and told the hippies, “Look, they’re not going to come out and perform with your bare feet up on the stage like that. They see it as a sign of disrespect.” Scott said he held his head in his hands in embarrassment. The feet were recalled, and soon the show went on without a further hitch.
I could see why this music would appeal to those who would mistake musical abandon for personal abandon. The vocal solos were stunning, running up and down scales and swelling the dynamics of the pieces with a force that was hard to believe came from an unamplified ensemble of 7 singers accompanied only by tabla drums and 2 harmoniums.
What most interested me on a formal musical level were the transitions in the pieces, from refrains to solos and back again. They were not signaled by anything in the music that I could identify. Instead, they seemed to be cued by the continuous gestures made by the two brothers whose lead vocals came at the audience from either side of the stage. Since I didn’t know that code, the refrains would come back after the solos and hit me over the side of the head with a pleasing disorientation. I had no idea they were coming! In western popular music, there’s usually a drum fill or instrumental cue that precedes transitions in and out of solos and choruses. After watching Rizwan-Muazzam for a few hours, those pop cues started to seem as stilted as the “Laughter” or “Applause” cards held aloft at the taping of television sitcoms.
In their absence, the transitions the players made came off more like the way a large group of birds changes directions as they fly up in the sky. All of a sudden, they change course in a unified movement that responds to a prompt each individual seems to pick up with a sixth sense tuned something in the atmosphere, rather than from a hierarchical command or imperative. This is perhaps the ideal expression of what it really means to be in tune.