Education About Asia: Online Archives

A Voice from Heaven: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

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Directed by Guiseppe Asaro

Produced by Guiseppe Asaro, Alessandro Storza, Shafiq Saddiqui, and Vikas Bhushan, MD

2001. DVD. Color. 75 minutes.

Distributed by Winstar Home Entertainment

Web site: http://dvds.ontheweb.com

Crossmedia Communications

419 Park Avenue South

New York, NY 10016

A Voice from Heaven is a music documentary that provides a glimpse into the life of famed qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan along with information about the music of qawwali and the Sufi mystic tradition. Qawwali is a devotional music performed by Muslims primarily in South Asia. A significant expression of Sufism, it is believed to be a path for union with the divine. Qawwali’s poetry is derived from mystic Sufi poets such as Jalaluddin Rumi (1207–1273), and the qawwal (singer of qawwali) is believed to convey the very essence of Sufi mysticism through text and song. The vocal style is light classical in nature, and requires intense improvisation, flexibility, and a thorough knowledge of lyrical content. A rigorous and energetic performance style is highly desired, and Nusrat, considered one of the greatest performers in this genre, delivers accordingly.

The documentary begins by describing the qawwali performance and its contexts in relation to the basic tenets of Sufi religious philosophy, all of which unfold through a number of brief interviews. Interviewees include South Asian London DJs, record producers, relatives, collaborators, and admirers of the genre and of Nusrat. The broad range of interviews provides diverse and interesting viewpoints, but several interviewees contribute little to the subject, and the film could do without them. Few scholars of qawwali are interviewed, however, although their commentary is excellent and informative.

SUGGESTIONS FOR THE CLASSROOM

  • Read examples of Sufi poetry and discuss the use of metaphor and symbolism.
  • Listen to a song in its entirety for its overall form and specific musical characteristics.
  • Compare the composition, performance practice, and function of the qawwali ensemble to other singing ensembles and devotional genres more familiar to students such as gospel.
  • Introduce the idea that each qawwali song is never a final product but rather an unfinished version—one improvisation or
    interpretation among many.
  • Discuss the role of women in Islam and in qawwali.

SUGGESTED LISTENING

Songs of the Mystics, Abida Parveen (a well-respected female Sufi devotional singer), Navras NRCD 5505/6.

The Sabri Brothers—Greatest Hits, Shanachie SHA 64090

Qawwali: Vocal Art of the Sufis, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, JVC World Sounds, VICG 5030

SUGGESTED READINGS

Barks, Coleman.1997. The Essential Rumi. San Francisco: Harper.

Barks, Coleman. 2002. The Soul of Rumi: A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems. San Francisco: Harper.

Schimmel, Annemarie. 2001. Rumi’s World: The Life and Work of the Great Sufi Poet. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Wilson, Peter L. 1999. Drunken Universe: An Anthology of Persian Sufi Poetry, 2nd edition, Pacific Grove, CA: Cole Publishing Company.