Music: Review: Rizwan and Muazzam Khan, St Georges

Jamie Skey, March 28, 2017

Once we hung plaques in halls of fame to mark virtuosity. In our brave new digital world, however, a great artist or thinker’s excellence is enshrined in Google Doodles, those temporary educational skits on the internet giant’s logo.

Past recipients of this digital-decoration include such world-beaters as Martin Luther King, Einstein and Beethoven. Very few singers have been bestowed the honour. However, on his 67th birthday, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the late, legendary Pakistani vocalist famed for exporting Qawwali devotional music to the west, was deemed superhuman enough by the search-engine monopoliser to be elevated into this info-highway hall of fame.

Nusrat had the kind of voice that gave people no choice but to bow down. Jeff Buckley, a man who knew and thing or two about musicianship, revered the multi-octaved vocalist saying of him “he’s my Elvis”, high praise by anyone’s standards. Many others, including Peter Gabriel, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, are also avid followers of his intense, ecstatic vocal capabilities.

But after his untimely passing of a sudden cardiac arrest in 1997 aged 48, Nusrat left behind a colossal hole not only in the Sufi community but the world stage too. Few, if any, could’ve filled so big a gap.

Enter Nusrat’s nephews, Rizwan and Muazzam, two exceptionally gifted frontmen who continue to carry the torch of mystical Sufi singing which has been burning brightly for centuries thanks to the ongoing and frighteningly talented Khan bloodline.

St George’s is the perfect venue for this hallowed show celebrating the 70th anniversary of the formation of Pakistan. The Grade II former church, with its vaulted ceilings and Italian-style marble fittings, is possessed of an air of grandeur fitting for the brothers’ dizzying religious incantations. The acoustics are crisp too; every snaky verse and incandescent outburst is captured cleanly in the hall’s airy expanse. Pomp and gravitas abound, but the outfit soften the solemnity with a humble warmth, seated on blankets and cushions as if casually taking tea in a chai tent.

Robed in emerald green, the two brothers are flanked by red-robed harmonium and tabla players, as well as hand-clapping back-up singers. The electrifying, capricious music, led by the duo’s force-of-nature vocals, is anchored by the unwavering handclaps, which would sound hollow affixed to any other style of music. Bur here the steady body percussion serves to drive forward the doleful harmonium wheezes and scampering tabla rhythms. Rizwan and Muazzam, meanwhile, weave together the most complex tapestries with voices that are, no exaggeration, as fluid, fiery and heartfelt as any John Coltrane sax solo.

Of the two, the stouter Muazzam is the more eloquent vocalist, reaching genuinely bewildering heights with his gilded, glottal outcries. Nevertheless, Rizwan is a devastating singer in his own right, delivering breathtakingly severe rejoiners with controlled fury. Their voices whirl violently about the band’s mellifluous backdrops like dervishes, all in their native Urdu tongue, which falls on deaf ears for most of the audience. No matter. Their fierce passion for Allah and unswerving desire to connect with life’s deeper mysteries is universally understood.

Photography credit: Dee Robertson

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