Brooklyn Qawwali Party — In their Own Words (Extended Biography) Part 2

Brooklyn Qawwali Party

Paying tribute to one of the world’s greatest vocalists, Brooklyn Qawwali Party formed to honor the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, reworking his thunderous songs for an eclectic, eleven-piece orchestra comprised of groundbreaking jazz musicians. Funky, smart, and loving, BQP captures the joyful spirit of this Pakistani folk music in a unique instrumental blend of jazz and Qawwali. With five horns, guitar, bass, harmonium, and three percussionists, this band’s buoyant rhythm will be sure to get you on your feet and clapping.

The ensemble includes:
Tony Barba – tenor saxophone
Loren Stillman – alto saxophone
Ben Holmes – trumpet
Ryan Keberle – trombone
Brian Drye – trombone
Robert Jost – French Horn
Noah Jarrett – acoustic bass
Mike Gamble – electric guitar
Kris Davis – harmonium
Conor Elmes – percussion
Brook Martinez – drums

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The Extended Biography

A singer does not acquire the nickname “The Voice From Heaven” for no good reason. And anyone that has ever heard Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan knows this moniker to be fitting. Yet Nusrat was more than a singer; he was an ambassador of Sufi/Islamic culture and art, as well as the modern seed of a seven-hundred-year-old lineage of qawwali singers. In his all-too-brief life, he transformed the folk music of Pakistan into something ready for – some would say craved by – global audiences

While alive Nusrat attained the stature and respect of artists like Bob Marley and Fela Kuti, and yet, outside of his own forward-thinking projects (alongside Michael Brook, Peter Gabriel and Eddie Vedder), little has evolved the qawwali form. Until we consider Brooklyn Qawwali Party, that is. An eleven-piece ensemble of New York City-based jazz musicians united under the banner of Nusrat’s legendary music, BQP is one of the most exciting and dynamic groups performing today.

BQP founder/percussionist Brook Martinez had heard Nusrat’s music on occasion, but it wasn’t until watching his Live at Meany performance that a flame was kindled. A NYU graduate that, rather than continuing his education in an Ethnomusicology Master’s program, opted for a more direct hands-on learning experience by working at the World Music Institute. While there he noticed that more Nusrat records sold from their office than any other album. Having tied together the bonds between faith and devotional-based practices with folk musics in his own jazz education, Martinez was taken by the force of Nusrat’s soulful determination.

Ecstasy Recreated…

“The sacred sounds that I yearned to find in western jazz were emanating from Nusrat in this completely foreign music,” he says. “But the similarities to jazz were immediately obvious: improvisation within the form of simple melodies.”

Quite an auspicious journey for someone that was introduced to qawwali from a friend stating it was “a crazy fusion of weird Indian singing and disco funk!” Qawwali music, which includes a deceptively simple arrangement of harmonium, tablas, handclaps and numerous vocalists, is extremely complex in presentation. The music is not, however, complicated to listen to. Audiences are immediately drawn in by the lush textures of vocals, and the repetitive themes underlying each song, which may last for fifteen or twenty minutes. Like life, qawwals create songs that move in waves and express numerous and contradictory emotions simultaneously.

Nusrat was a master at this. Translating the poetry of men like Hafiz and Rumi, he knew that life was a balance of forces, and expressed it in every song. Hence you have music that adds a delicate touch to thunder. This is the essential quality BQP has sought to transcribe in their own takes of his music, and by the sounds of their live shows, as well as their self-titled debut recording, they are succeeding.

“The vocal embellishments of qawwali (and Nusrat in particular) reflect all of the highest aspirations of all jazz and creative musicians,” adds trumpet player Jesse Neuman. “The melodies are virtuosic yet soulful, technically astounding yet emotionally concentrated. Despite its mystical themes, exotic harmonies and twisting Urdu incantations, the essence of qawwali music is both approachable and universal.  The music draws out our basic needs to connect and rejoice, and in this pursuit the ensemble serves a good greater than the sum of its parts.”

While known for their energetic, inquisitive live shows, BQP captured their unique take on Nusrat’s music on their four-song Brooklyn Qawwali Party. Opening with one of the qawwal’s most famous songs, “Mustt Mustt,” and closing with the unforgettable “Allah Hu,” BQP’s saxophone-, trumpet- and trombone-fueled arrangements incorporate previously undreamed sections to this once minimalist music. Still, there is no unfettered deluge of sounds; accomplished musicians, they keep necessary space intact, while ingeniously weaving in and out of the melodies.

“Nusrat’s arrangements were always filled with exciting twists and turns that kept it interesting, from a purely musical standpoint,” says Martinez. “He revolutionized qawwali by adapting classical khyal-style intricacies to qawwali music. I look for these interesting khyal-style interludes that Nusrat throws in the mix. Those fast, exciting passages that we play, that are NOT the repeating melody, are often worked-out improvisation that Nusrat executed in the particular performance that I’m transcribing. Gradually, BQP is getting to a point where we have more freedom to improvise these phrases within the context of any of our songs.”

Martinez also sees the importance of sharing the music, and culture, of the Middle East at such a turbulent and socially charged period in America. At root, qawwali is devoted to the understanding of Sufism. The lyrics, as well as the underlying music, are dedicated to communion, self-understanding and spiritual exploration. In the same way, BQP embodies this concept in the most essential aspect: artists united under music, sharing their passion of one incredible artist with brand new ears.
“BQP seeks not to impersonate the qawwali aesthetic, nor fuse it with disparate modern elements,” says Neuman. “We are respectfully relating this music through the lens of our own experiences, as improvisers and instrumentalists.  The band appeals to several generations of listeners – both South Asian and Western – because it presents Nusrat’s music with reverence and openness. Within the ensemble, individual accents and timbres add to the choir supporting Nusrat’s catalogue, closely aligned with the late great singer’s own need to push traditions forward.”

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