Sanford Allen

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It was an odd event: A well-traveled group of Sufi devotional musicians playing a hastily publicized show at a Catholic school. My wife learned of the Sabri Brothers’ gig at St. Mary’s Hall  only a few days prior, having heard an announcement about it at a Bollywood movie screening.

For the uninitiated, the Sabri Brothers perform qawwali, the devotional music of the Sufi Muslims of India and Pakistan. The late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was the highest-profile practitioner of the art, but the venerable Sabris run a close second.

The earthy yet divine songs of the qawwali tradition tend to begin with slow, meditative passages then wind into an uptempo frenzy of handclaps and fervent vocal improvisations, the singers’ voices sometimes darting several octaves in a single passage.

Even on record, it’s stirring, emotionally charged music. But live, in the hands of the Sabri Brothers, it was more raw and intense than I could have imagined. Completely hypnotic. Consuming.

Though elderly and somewhat frail, the two brothers (a third passed away long ago) unleashed a masterful performance that had the smallish crowd beaming with smiles, crying out after favorite verses, throwing money onstage in appreciation.

Like our culture’s Blind Willie Johnson, Mahalia Jackson, or the Stanley Brothers, this was church music of the best kind: Music that casts aside dogma and brings people together over a common sense of spiritual longing. I didn’t understand a word, but I didn’t need to. Sometimes the music is the message.


Sanford Allen is the singer-guitarist for blues-punk trio Boxcar Satan.  


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