You didn’t have to understand the language or know the tenets of Sufi Islam to feel the power of Faiz Ali Faiz’s singing Thursday evening (June 18) at the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park. This was, quite simply, an amazing vocal performance. by a Pakistani singer making his Chicago debut and touring the United States for the first time. More often than not, Faiz Ali Faiz sang with such full-on force that his face contorted and turned red with exertion. As he sang, his hands were in constant motion, making gestures that seemed almost like a game of pantomime.
Accompanied by tabla percussion and the droning chords of harmoniums, Faiz Ali Faiz engaged in a sort of call and response with the three other singers in his group — he was dressed in a shiny blue sort of tunic, while all of the other members of the ensemble were in matching gold-brown outfits. Most impressive of all was the way the music’s rhythms ticked and clicked into delightful and unexpected patterns. That was when Faiz seemed to take his vocals to even higher levels, singing in percussive, cycling series of notes that sounded like musical tongue twisters. The crowd broke out into applause at these moments and fans rushed forward, tossing dollar bills onto the stage.
Faiz paid tribute to the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the most famous artist in this style of singing, which is known as Qawwali and is based on the inspirational verse of Sufi poets. Near the end of the concert, Faiz performed “Mustt Mustt,” Khan’s best-known song, which generated another big round of applause. (Massive Attack’s remix of the song was once used in a Coca-Cola commercial.) By the time Faiz finished his encore, the stage was littered with money.