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Qawwali Gospel: Where Muslims and Christians Worship As One

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"I am very hopeful about our Qawwali Gospel project," Pakistani singer Faiz Ali Faiz told me for a National Geographic interview recently. "It has potential. I think we had improvement since June 2008, when you auditioned us in Fes."

We chatted before Faiz's arrival in New York City, Brooklyn to be exact, for the ambitiously successful Muslim Voices Festival at BAM. Faiz, one of the strongest qawwali singers since Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan brought the centuries-old song form to global audiences, teamed up with New Orleans-based Craig Adams for Qawwali Gospel, their fourth show together in one year's time.

Faiz was not kidding when he spoke of improvement; their show at the Harvey Theater at BAM on June 13 was spectacular, light years from the excellent though slightly choppy performance at Bab El Makina in Morocco. This made sense: for Fes, they had only met four days before show time. Seasoned veterans of the stage both of them, their personal camaraderie and powerful stage presence brought the packed house to their feet numerous times during the course of their two-hour, fifteen-minute set.

Weaving these two seemingly disparate musical styles together was no easy task. Faiz had a much easier time with his Qawwali Flamenco project, in which he joined singers Duquende and Miguel Poveda earlier this decade. Sonically these forms are more similar: the gitano of the flamenkillo is close in tone to the praiseful wails of the qawwal. Hallelujah just does not have the same musical aesthetic as Allah Hu.

Yet in meaning, they could not be more similar: devotional music in homage to the divine. And in this Allah and Jesus meet and dance. Symbolically Qawwali Gospel is an important testament to the fact that our media deceives us, or at the very least, reveals only a fragment of the story. The problem with video cameras is that their lenses are a few inches wide and never appreciate the full landscape. The problem with journalists is that they assume their cultural nuances are the "correct" ones, an unfortunate syndrome shared by many of their readers. Qawwali Gospel touches something deeper, something more humane and global, something widely accessible and immediately pleasurable.

Which is why the Muslims in the BAM audience shouted Hallelujah and Christians took no issue with hearing praises of Allah woven into "Amazing Grace." They sung together. The man behind me, one octave deeper and two seconds behind every song Adams performed, may have danced for the first time to tablas and phonetically murmured Arabic. But dance he did, and smile he did not stop.

The styles merged without either needing to appropriate itself. Last year in Fes, it was more give-and-take--here's some gospel, ok now qawwali, return to piano and bass, switch to handclaps and shreds of Rumi woven into modern poetics. The evolution of this project saw the call and response, a feature of both styles, happening note for note, language for language. When Adams crooned "he's alright," pertaining to the Christ motif, Faiz responded with "Ali," perhaps the most controversial and relevant figure in Islam outside Muhammad. It worked beautifully.

Both artists and their crews--Faiz with seven others, Adams with six--were given a half-hour "warm up" to introduce the audience to their respective sound. Enough time, though barely, for three Faiz pieces, including his landmark "Allah Hu," as well as the classic qawwali, "Qalander." Adams performed a beautiful instrumental piece on the Rhodes piano, perhaps the most truly "gospel" moment, with African-American woman yelling "You go son" and that insistent man behind me yelping "Yes! That's right!" The second highlight of his set was an Aretha Franklin cover, whom he said he could have sworn was singing gospel with her use of the word "spirit."

The final hour-plus was devoted to the fusing of music pulled from two faiths that receive too much bad coverage on this planet. The day prior to the show, I read this passage in Swami Vivekananda's book, Karma-Yoga and Bhakti-Yoga: "No religion ever persecuted men, no religion ever burnt witches, no religion ever did any of these things. What then incited people to do these things? Politics, but never religion; and if such politics takes the name of religion, whose fault is that?"

To know the politics of your time is crucial. That goes unsaid. But to continue to confuse religion for it is the tragedy of modernity, one fostered by the weird cult of Jesus in America that sprung up in the nineteenth century, which appropriated this singular biblical figure to fit into their own individual aesthetic regardless of historical circumstances, as well as the fanatical religiosity in the Middle East that has its own political roots dating back to Pope Urban the Second's land-thirsty quests. Call it for what it is, but don't confuse the spirit for the greedy. In Brooklyn this early summer night, we experienced a genuine taste of the former.