Concert: The Sabri Troupe

(Article from the New York Times Archives – dated April 17, 1978, Page 22)

Concert: The Sabri Troupe

Ghulam Farid Sabri and his brother, Maqbool Ahmed Sabri, are not what one might call household names in this country. But in 1975 they drove their audience to ecstatic frenzies—one man became so excited that he bloodied his head hanging it on the edge of the Carnegie stage—and on Saturday the packed house’s response, while not quite so lurid, was still marvelously enthusiastic.

This is in part a tribute to the excellence of the Sabri Brothers, but it is also an indication of this area’s large and well‐organized Pakistani and Indian communities. And the intensity of the response owes much to the musical and religious tradition of which the Sabris are leading exponents. The brothers are qawwals, meaning they are practitioners of qawwali, which is both the music and the ceremonial occasion of performance of Sufism. Sufism is the mystical extension of Islam; whereas orthodox Islamic religion proscribes music, Sufism, which believes in bridging the gulf between God and man through mystical love, exalts it.

The Sabri troupe consisted of the two brothers singing and playing a form of harmonium, two ancillary singers and five instrumentalists—percussion, clapping and a tamhoura for the drone—who also pitched in on the choruses. Qawwali music consists of settings of poetry, which are mostly in Urdu and sometimes in Persian or Hindi, generally glorifying Mohammad or the Moslem saints.

The singers chant the verses, improvising freely in response to the audience’s mood by bringing in other poems or translating non‐Urdu into Urdu or lapsing into wordless ecstasy. And on the choruses the whole troupe erupts in a flurry of percussion and earthy unison singing, which invariably drives members of the audience into running up to the stage and hurling paper money at the performers.

The Sabris come from Pakistan, and the scales, the rhythms and the instruments owe a good deal to north Indian tradition, and particularly to light classical ragas. Yet the style is distinct from and more popular than the refined expositions of North Indian virtuosos. This is music of the heart, and it was greeted with heartfelt rapture.

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