Gaudi / Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Castles Made of Sand: In Music, Nothing Is Sacred
A Look at Remixes — Part One
First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2008, Volume 15, #3
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Mon, March 10, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
As we spin farther and faster into the 21st Century, history, boundaries, paradigms, and alliances continue to be rewritten at an unprecedented pace. Concepts of truth — both scientific and spiritual — shape-shift as the universe around us shrinks. The things that were true yesterday have become quaint, obsolete, or inconvenient today. The remains of the world as we knew it have been thrown into a blender and poured into a form that is all but unrecognizable. In the debate on globalization, it doesn’t matter on what side of the fence one happens to reside. The effects of cultural homogenization are evident everywhere as traditional societies collapse under the weight of Western economic pressure and its accompanying values.
Nowhere is this metaphor for rapid change more perceptible than in music. For starters, in less than a generation’s time, the delivery systems that once brought songs and albums to people have changed from LPs to CDs and from cassettes to digital downloads. This expedient rate of evolution can’t help but to impact the concerns of the works themselves. While some artists — such as the Rolling Stones, a band that continues to do well on the road as aging rock fans seek comfort in the familiar — have clung desperately to tried-and-true formulas, a huge shakeup is taking place outside the classic rock pantheon, and it threatens to alter the course of popular music significantly.
Bob Marley’s transference from the third-world ghettos of Kingston, Jamaica to stages around the globe was one of the first indications that big changes were afoot. Rock ’n‘ roll, which had taken so many aesthetic and stylistic leaps in the 1960s, had begun to stagnate. By the following decade, the cultures of North America and England had become overfamiliar and overridden, and the emergence of artists like Marley and Nigeria’s Fela Kuti gave popular music a huge shot in the arm.
As the ’70s rolled into the ’80s, cutting-edge artists like Brian Eno, the Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, and Paul Simon began incorporating aspects of African and South American traditional forms into their work. This, in turn, greatly expanded the palette of colors that was available to mainstream artists. Since then, these cross-cultural collaborations and appropriations have continued at a rapid pace, and performers like Ry Cooder have led the way by working with musicians such as Mali’s Ali Farka Toure and the Cuban stars of the Buena Vista Social Club.
One of the most interesting trends to emerge in the new millennium is the remix. This essentially is a reimagining of an existing song in a different form. Usually, the bass and drums or beats are recalibrated so that they make a bigger impact on the dance floor. With the rise of DJ culture, live remixing has become an art form, and the more avant-garde elements in the genre have begun searching further afield for interesting, fresh sounds to reinterpret.
The first breakthrough remix album was Moby’s unexpectedly popular 1999 effort Play. Through his plundering of the "Great American Songbook," traditional blues and gospel tunes from the early 20th Century were given a brand-new life as dance hits. There’s no question that Moby lacks the depth of an artist such as Tangle Eye. (On its exquisite 2004 outing Alan Lomax’s Southern Journey Remixed, Tangle Eye wonderfully remixed and augmented selections from the notable musicologist’s collected works). Nevertheless, Moby clearly had the commercial savvy to create a trend that has continued to gain momentum every year since Play was released.
While many of these sorts of albums simply represent an attempt to cash in and wring additional mileage from material that already is popular, some of the remixes that have come from Asia and Africa as well as from the immigrant populations in North America and Europe are among the most challenging music being produced anywhere today. Of the current crop of remix efforts, none is more audacious and genre bending than British DJ Gaudi’s Dub Qawwali. It is the perfect starting point for understanding the appeal and potential of this style and approach to recording.
On paper, the idea of a British DJ remixing the sacred music of Pakistani Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in a Jamaican, dub style seems absurd or, at least, doomed to failure. It was with considerable trepidation that I opened the disc and finally decided to play it. Against all expectations, the album is, from its beginning to its end, an unqualified success. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been this much of a surprise. Indian expatriates such as England’s Bally Sagoo and Asian Dub Foundation have been incorporating aspects of reggae music into their compositions for years. The drums and harmonium, which define a lot of Punjabi and Northern Indian recordings, nestle easily alongside the echoing effects and staggered guitar and synthesizers that characterize the classic dub sound from the King Tubby-era. The pairing feels natural enough in a dancehall, but what is so surprising is how Gaudi’s dub arrangements maintain and respect the sense of sacredness that pervades Qawwali music.
Released to mark the 10-year anniversary of his death, Khan couldn’t have asked for a better tribute to his life than Dub Qawwali offers. To put it in perspective, though, Khan was a traditionalist who strived to protect the integrity of his musical form from dilution in the modern world. His famous collaborations with Canadian guitarist Michael Brook — which were issued by Peter Gabriel’s Real World record label — represent Khan’s only forays outside the traditional structure of Qawwali song. Yet, even these two albums essentially boiled down to being a replication of Pakistani musical accompaniments that were played on Western instruments. With Dub Qawwali, Gaudi has tried something completely different, which he may not have been able to release if Khan were still alive.
Initially, Gaudi, along with several other producers, was given only one track from Khan’s archives with which to work. However, The Lemon Group, which owns the publishing rights to everything Khan made between 1968 and 1974, was so pleased with what Gaudi had accomplished that it offered him full access to Khan’s recordings. The result is Dub Qawwali. Rather than recreating actual songs, Gaudi instead chose fragments from a number of different compositions and fused them into musical soundscapes that incorporate aspects of both dub and Qawwali styles. While the cultural divide might seem to be insurmountable, the music is bound together by the common notions of love, peace, and understanding that typically flow through both reggae and Sufi songs.
The music that was recorded, sampled, and mixed for the realization of Dub Qawwali represents a high-water mark of cross-cultural integration. By using period instruments such Hammond B-3 organ, Moog synthesizer, and Fender Rhodes piano alongside Pakistani flutes, drums, and other supporting instruments, Gaudi forged a sound quite unlike anything else that can be heard today. He credits the confidence he had in undertaking such a project to working with legendary dub producer Lee "Scratch" Perry in 2005. From Perry, Gaudi realized that the most important aspect of being a creative musician was to be faithful in always following your own sound. In this respect, Gaudi has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
It is a shame that Dub Qawwali likely will never reach the kind of audience that Moby found for Play. Dub Qawwali is a far more creative and exciting album, and — when it is approached with an open mind — it is no more difficult to access. One doesn’t need to speak Farsi or Urdu to enjoy this music. The voice assumes a textured relationship that is on par with the other instruments, and the 10 wonderful compositions on the effort take the listener through a delightful sonic journey of the spirit. Outings such as this are the only thing that will save music from the mediocrity and torpor that currently dominate the industry. Dub Qawwali is a significant release, and its repercussions will be felt for years to come. ½
Of Further Interest...
Dub Qawwali is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box