The sounds of world music reverbereated through the crowded pews of Unitarian Universalist Church in Savannah Tuesday as Asif Ali Khan and his nine-member ensemble enchanted audiences with South Asian spirituals.
Lead singer Khan chanted with eyes closed and raised his arms upward as his ensemble backed him with trance-inducing harmonies and percussive hand claps.
The church was a fitting venue for the group, which sings devotional Sufi music known as qawwali.
The 700-year-old musical art form typically consists of religious poetry sung in Urdu or Punjabi. Khan is a prominent qawwali figure on the international music scene and is hugely popular in his native Pakistan.
Thursday's Savannah Music Festival performance was the first time Khan and his ensemble have visited the Hostess City and the first time the the festival has had qawwali music, SMF director Rob Gibson said.
Khan was a student of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a qawwali singer who is widely credited for bringing Sufi soul music to Western audiences.
Hilton Head Island resident Misha Giric knew of Asif Ali Khan and his mentor, and brought his friend Tom Biondo along to see the show.
"It was enchanting music," Giric said.
For Biondo, it was his first time hearing qawwali. "It's beyond understanding," he said. "It opens up your heart."
Qawwali music is often characterized by its transcendental quality, which can be especially mesmerizing for those who have not heard it before. But the way Khan and his ensemble layered sounds with their call-and-response chants and unified singing didn't need to be understood. It was felt.
Barbara McCullough, chair of the visual effects department at Savannah College of Art and Design, was thankful that the festival had brought such an acclaimed international group to the area. "I'm a lover of world music and we just don't have enough of it in Savannah. This is an incredible event (for the city)," she said.
The audience responded enthusiastically to Khan and his group, standing and clapping along for the second half of the show and even trying to sing along with the chorus.
"You look around the room and everyone is smiling," Biondo said. "It's a sober room that looks drunk. That's how I'd describe it."