Very few music lovers, no matter how secular their views, would fail to be won over by legendary virtuosos providing a euphoric spiritual experience. The Saturday night of Llais Festival brought in devotees of the musical and spiritual kinds for a unique opportunity to hear the expert blending of two seemingly disparate genres: qawwali (Indo-Pakistani Sufi devotional music) and flamenco (Spanish-Roma traditional music).
The risk of becoming caught up in a passionate musical performance is of finding oneself inadvertently singing along to unfamiliar sentiments. So it was that some of the less religiously-oriented joined their fellow concertgoers in a chorus of “Allah hu”, an assertion of belief in the existence of Allah as the one and only god. After all, the Llais programme did promise “an evening that will transport you to a state of spiritual ecstasy”, traditionally the aim of Sufi musicians.
There are common roots in musical and expressive language between qawwali and flamenco, the latter a genre most associated with Andalusia – or, in Arabic Al-Andalus, once referring to the medieval Muslim-ruled area of the Iberian Peninsula. While the initial project back in 2006 was a triumph, the arrangements have had time to marinate, and in the WMC’s Hoddinott Hall they are treated to a freer improvisation that takes the musicality to spectacular heights.
Qawwali songs are given a flamenco flavour and vice versa, but each singer seems to have internalised the cross-pollinated lyrics even more deeply – showcased, for example, in the adaptation of a traditional flamenco song into a reflection on barriers to understanding, both between humans and towards the ungraspable essence of the divine.
This diverse ensemble appear to thrive on mutual understanding. In some places, there is a gradual shift between qawwali and flamenco styles, while, other times, a sudden rhythmic shift in the middle of a song, led by the tabla player and the general percussionist, provides another few minutes of fresh excitement. There are moments where it’s a challenge to distinguish which language we’re in, as the qawwali and flamenco musicians echo each other’s phrases and ornament Spanish words in a more eastern manner. Each “song” is around 20 minutes on average – although it’s difficult for a somewhat outsider listener to be sure there aren’t two or more songs co-existing and intermingling, from the beginning to each exhilarating, improvised end.
Eventually, Faiz Ali Faiz, Chicuelo and their world-class collaborators bring us back from ecstasy to a sombre, militaristic, almost a cappella closing, in what is surely a reference to the ongoing conflicts in culturally-neighbouring lands. They end with a Greek chant of “Kyrie eleison”, (“Lord have mercy”): a plea for forgiveness of the wrongdoings of humans, to which a good number of audience members ardently add their own voices.
Qawwali Flamenco, Llais @ Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff Bay, Sat 14 Oct
words ISABEL THOMAS photos POLLY THOMAS