SUNSHINE SUPERMEN: Mehr & Sher Ali, Painted Bride, 5:34 PM
BY JONATHAN VALANIA Sufi is the mystical arm of Islam, and Quawwali — a 700-year-old tradition of droning, kaleidoscopic incantations rendered hypnotic and ecstatic by a maze of tabla beats and hand claps — is the devotional music of Sufism. In Pakistan, Quawwali singers are part rock star, part holy man and spend years studying Sufi texts in preparation. Mehr & Sher (they are the two balding gentlemen on the stage) were taught by their father, a court classical singer in the Sikh principality of Patiala, now part of India. Their father was a disciple of Fateh Ali Khan, father of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who is arguably the most well-known Quawwali singer in the West. But enough with the lessons, how did it sound, you ask? In a word: Holy. I have since concluded that the tabla is second most pleasing drum sound in the world after the piccolo snare — it sounds like someone playing a drum submerged in a jar of honey. I have not a clue what they were singing, but the intensity of their vocalizations — alone and in tandem, ululating solo or in droney tonal clusters and shape-shifting rounds of call-and-response — was the closest I’ve felt to old time religion since the last time I was at Al Green’s church, and that was right before 9/11. It was around that time that I concluded that religion was not, as Marx so famously said, the opium of the people. Rather, it was the crack cocaine. And the last thing the world needs now is more crack cocaine. Which is why I am happy to report that Mehr & Sher were more like a fine opium — exotic and alluring in its promise of the unknown and the unknowable, endlessly mesmerizing, and utterly transcendent. That’s my idea of getting right with God.