Some forms of cultural expression defy the need for translation. So it is for the traditional South Asian music qawwali, according to its fans and adherents.
Most commonly played at Sufi shrines in India and Pakistan, qawwali has only ventured over into Western cultural consciousness in recent decades.
A new step in that gradual musical crossover comes with the first extended United States tour by Asif Ali Khan, a Pakistani native making his Boston debut at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center on Sunday.
“This is a very traditional music, and this is coming from nation to nation. That’s why, whatever language someone speaks, it leaves a very good impact and a very powerful impact, because this is a real form of music,” Asif says in a telephone interview, as translated by his brother Raza Hussain, also a member of the nine-member ensemble.
Based around hypnotic rhythms and swirling vocals — offering ecstatic incantations of ancient verse — the music is known to provoke a trance state among dedicated listeners. Robert Browning, an influential promoter of world music concerts, remembers one of his first exposures to qawwali at a sold-out concert by the Sabri Brothers of Pakistan at Carnegie Hall in 1978.
“I thought it was one of the most exciting concerts I had ever been to, outside of a black church service in Harlem. It was something that gave to you viscerally and it just gets right inside you. It’s like going to see the Rolling Stones or something back in the ’60s and ’70s. It really hits you right there in the gut,” Browning says.
The style’s roots go back to eighth-century Persian communities, before being synthesized a few hundred years later into qawwali by Indian practitioners of Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Vocals are at the forefront, underpinned (in Asif’s group) by steady rhythms on tabla, hand claps, and some musical color on harmonium. Each selection may last about 15 to 20 minutes.
Lyrics are adapted from centuries-old Sufi and Punjabi writings of religious praise, sung in languages indigenous to the region — Urdu, Punjabi, and Farsi. (“Qawwali” is an Urdu word meaning “utterance,” derived from an Arabic term for a religious axiom.)
Asif first emerged in this scene as a leading disciple of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, probably the most important ambassador of qawwali to the West before his death in 1997. (“Khan” is a title of respect offered to qawwali masters.) Nusrat’s 1989 performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, followed by other stateside concerts in subsequent years, marked a major introduction of qawwali to American listeners. Asif has performed in the United States only in 2002, for a benefit concert aimed at the Pakistani community, Hussain says.
Both Nusrat and Asif have been tapped by pop artists to provide a dose of authentic South Asian vocal stylings; Nusrat appeared on Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack for “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Asif is heard on one song (“Worlds Apart”) from Bruce Springsteen’s post-9/11 album “The Rising.” More recently, Asif represented the music of Pakistan at the London Olympics. His current tour follows another in New Zealand.
A more commercialized version of qawwali is also making its way onto Bollywood film soundtracks, according to Browning, who organized a 1993 US tour for Nusrat as well as Asif’s current visit. He draws parallels with gospel in America, which began as religious expression but fueled the development of various secular styles. “There are groups,’’ Browning says, “that still perform almost entirely for religious purposes at the sacred sites of saints. But more and more it’s become a secular form that is played for all kinds of audiences.”
Asif’s style, like that of his late teacher, merges Sufi religious and folk traditions with elements from vocal-based classical music of the Indian subcontinent. It’s very much a family tradition; among Asif’s ensemble are seven brothers and their father, who was once the leader of the group.
“This is not only our profession but our passion as well. There is a great dedication to the music. My father sang qawwali, my grandfather sang qawwali, my great-grandfather sang qawwali,” Hussain says.
These songs come from a specifically Sufi viewpoint. But Hussain says there’s a message of love at the heart of it that comes across for audiences of various nationalities and religious backgrounds. Even for listeners who don’t speak the language — surely a sizable chunk of Asif’s international audiences — there’s a communal energy that communicates the essential message, Hussain attests.
“As the people like our qawwali, it gives us more and more and more energy. It’s a great combination. We are very happy that the people who don’t understand our language still understand our music and they respect it,” he says.
Taking qawwali from the religious shrine to the concert hall is one thing. But given its roots as sacred music, is it disrespectful to dance?
“Some people think qawwali is very strict, that nobody can even move. But this is a message of love and joy and calmness and peace,” Hussain says, “so they can move, they can dance, they can jump. At our last concert in New Zealand there were so many young girls standing just in front of the stage, and they were jumping and dancing from the first song to the last song.”