On the whole, Washington's museums are livelier places than our athletic stadiums and arenas; they attract more visitors each year, create fewer traffic problems and, through their special exhibits and performing arts programs, demonstrate what a cosmopolitan city this former sleepy Southern town has become.
A recent example of the color and variety museums bring into our lives--if we are ready to take advantage of our opportunities--occurred last Friday at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery. Not in the gallery, which has an excellent auditorium, but on the broad flight of steps leading up to it, where 10 musicians sat and performed.
In the little plaza in front of the museum, an enthusiastic audience sat--mostly on the grass, curbs or pavement, though a few early birds were able to perch on benches and a few people who planned ahead brought their own lawn chairs.
When I say the audience sat, I mean most of the audience most of the time. A few stood to get a better view of the singers, Mehr Ali and Sher Ali, and the eight colleagues who constituted their orchestra (harmoniums and percussion) and chorus (not only with vocals, but with rhythmic clapping that gave the music much of its unique flavor).
Quite a few in the audience got up at one time or another during the performance, climbed the stairs to where the musicians sat and threw or handed money to them (crisp, green bills; no coins) when they had been impressed by a particularly beautiful bit of singing.
Above all, members of the audience danced, at first only occasionally but in growing numbers as the evening went on and almost en masse at the end.
The music was Qawwali, a style dating back many centuries, worked into its modern forms by the Persian composer, poet and mystic Amir Khusrau (1254-1325) and still vigorous and popular in South Asia. It became identified with Islamic piety, particularly with the Sufi form of Islamic mysticism, and it became a medium for Islamic missionary activity. But it won popular acceptance among people of many other religions or no religion, and enthusiasm for it is one point on which many people of India and Pakistan see eye to eye.
The songs that make up the Qawwali repertoire have texts in many languages, and sometimes include words that do not exist in any language but may have secret, symbolic meanings. No matter; as the program notes by ethnomusicologist Adam Nayyar put it: "The impact of vigorous, repetitious hand clapping can produce a trance-like state among some audience members. Individuals experiencing such a trance often speak of an experience of flying. . . . The music can lift an audience to exaltation even if they do not understand the words."
It is even better if you know the words, of course, but I sat entranced for nearly two hours without understanding a single word. Some music (perhaps the best kind) needs to be experienced more than it needs to be understood. Qawwali is that kind of music--alien to the traditions in which I was educated but intensely communicative, and the Ali brothers and their ensemble are extraordinary musicians, able to communicate eloquently across barriers of language and culture.
Their songs deal with basic emotions and situations--love, separation, longing and the joy of being together, subjects that can have both a spiritual and an earthly dimension.
They sing outside the limitations of Western music (which can sometimes sound thin and rigid in comparison); they can find an endless variety of pitches between, let us say, B and B-flat, their hand gestures are eloquent, their rhythms both subtle and powerful. They enlarged the dimensions of musical experience in this city.
Upcoming concerts at the Freer Gallery (in the Eugene and Agnes Meyer Auditorium, not outdoors) will include Musicians from Marlboro, Oct. 27, and sitar virtuoso Vilayat Khan, Nov. 5.