The sales blurb for Sufi starts with these words, “passionate and ecstatic,” but it is difficult for a wide-ranging compilation like this to seem ecstatic. The diversity of the selections works against the idea of a rising ecstatic cry, the through-thrust is always being cut off and altered from track to track, and the structured marshalling of different effects (“Instrumental items over here, and let’s tuck Cheikh Lô in over there…he doesn’t fit? Well he’s got to fit somewhere, for god’s sake find a spot”) militates against the development of squalor and ugliness, which are elements of ecstasy, of people forgetting themselves, becoming devout, and submitting to, in this case, the Divine.
Someone who is ecstatic is not thinking about you, or about how they appear, and so they are frightening, but also objects of awe. They can move you to tears with their hysterics. Self-forgetting is the go here; absolute love, the mystic apprehension of god, and yet there’s no self-forgetting on Transglobal Underground’s mixture of Natacha Atlas and Musafir, or on Gaudi’s reworking on Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
If a listener wants to get an overview of modern Sufi music then these reworkings and reimaginings absolutely belong, because music, once it goes out into the world, becomes a tool, presenting itself for usage, for grasping, and what do you do with a tool? You manipulate it, you use it to pry open a door, or fasten one thing to another thing, or fill a gap. So the DJs work on the job of filling a gap, the gap that was the absence of this particular Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan remix. Other remixes had been done, but not this one. Now here it is.
Some songs work towards ecstasy more directly than others. Sain Zahoor’s “Allah Hoo” switches back and forth between Zahoor’s voice and a flute, and after each burst of flute the man returns, higher and stronger than he was when we left him. But when “The Saint” carries out a similar interplay between two different groups of singers then the groups seem to be cutting one another short. One group begins to rise, then the other group comes in, then the first group again, but now they’ve taken a step back. They’re not picking up from the place they left off and continuing to rise, they’ve been reset, and the song stirs around in a whirlpool.
The search for ecstasy goes in different directions: calm rumination in Cheikh Lô‘s “Zikr”, a stiff chant in “Manzil-e-Sufi”, with Sanam Marvi’s voice shading off into gruffness. A deep guitar in Modou Gaye’s “Sindidi” goes down into introversion with the singer. There is a vintage track from the Pakistani singer Reshma, who winds through her song at the confident pace of a woman penetrating a hedge labyrinth in a huge garden. She can see the exit but there’s no rush getting there; the garden is flourishing, she’ll stop to look at a leaf. Her countrywoman Abida Parveen appeared on the first edition of Sufi but not this one, and as I listened to Reshma I wondered if she was taking up Parveen’s spot. “Only room for one vintage Pakistani woman here,” muses the compiler in my imagination, “and Parveen’s had her turn ...”
All of the recent Rough Guides have come with a second album, usually a solo set from one of the artists on the main disc, usually an album that has already been released or will be released soon. This time the additional album is a more focused version of the primary album. It’s a compilation of acoustic recordings from an Indian collective called the Sufi Fakirs Of Bengal. “The music on this album has not been released outside of India until now,” explains World Music Network. Harsher than the Rough Guide to Sufi, it complements its parent by providing the consistency, the constant reaching-up, that the other compilation had to put aside so that it could concentrate on the Rough Guides’ constant goal: a medley, a mix, as inclusive as possible.