Gathered around a makeshift stage of comforters, pillows and tapestries, 25 friends and family members collect to share a most intimate gathering. For eons the mephil is the preferred space to perform Ghazal, a Persian song form literally meaning “to hold conversation with the divine.” A tabla player sits besides a cello player; not the most classical situation, but this is not a traditional performance. At the center of the stage sits Vishal Vaid, ready to fuse a 700-year old style with modernity.
A London native, Vaid moved to America at age four, reared in a panoramic culture split between delving into this beautiful 13th century art form and playing sports and watching MTV. While this sounds like the seeds of identity crisis, Vaid has taken both worlds – the atmospheric elegance of his vocal training mixed with unforgiving New York streets – and created music at once inspiring, gorgeous, evolutionary. Originating in Iran, ghazal arrived in India through the Moghuls and eventually became the most important devotional art form as singers like Aurangabad- born Wali Deccani fused the two predominant languages, Persian and Urdu, and made one song. Vishal is now doing the same for America.
Trained by his parents, Vishal’s first live concert was at three, performing in front of hundreds. He trained throughout youth, falling in love with both identities, Eastern and Western, ancient and future. “When I!m singing ghazal, sometimes, just sometimes, I!m transported back to a time that I was never a part of, like I!m walking the streets of 13th century Lucknow. But most of the times I!m walking down 2nd Ave., hearing the sounds of New York.”
Like the classical Indian music traditions, ghazal is a strictly governed art form whose artists only find freedom upon mastering lyrical specificities. The performance depends upon approach more than lyrical content. The words are certainly important; translations of poets like Rumi and Hafiz set into a repetitive sequence of, most often, a dozen lines or less, comprise the discipline. How a vocalist speaks them – the timber of voice, dynamic note changes, facial and bodily expressions – are all part of the exchange.
Treating ghazal with utmost respect, maintaining tradition is important to Vishal Touching upon universal subjects (philosophy, love, love lost, love for one!s deity and partner), he translates for modern ears. Swinging from classical concerts sung in Urdu and Hindi to fusion experiments with Moroccan Gnawa and electronic renderings, his voice is the ecstatic infusion of diverse sounds.
In 1994 Vishal formed Jai Ambe, a touring trio that included a percussionist/tabla player and acoustic guitarist. Singing in English with Urdu/Hindi flavorings, the soft musical dynamic meshed brilliantly with his soaring vocals as the band’s international tours left audiences breathless. Releasing Mehfil-E-Ghazal (a collection of live performances in and around Vancouver) on Ansun Enterprises in 1996, the seeds of his cross-cultural interconnections were sown.
It was with the rise of DJ/tabla player Karsh Kale’s Realize Live that Vishal began carving a more definitive style. A featured vocalist’s on the 2001 breakthrough Realize, the album (and subsequent tours) catapulted Vishal into the spotlight as the voice leading the attack. Working alongside Kale, Bill Laswell, Hassan Hakmoun, Talvin Singh and Alex Kirschner, his ever-growing catalog of influences and co-conspirators are making this sonic journey of epic proportions.
Today America is searching for something new. Turned off by predictable generic pop offerings, the sounds of India are a hot commodity. Spurred by the timeless qawwali sounds Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan exposed the West to, Vishal is poised to start his own re-evolution. “The ghazal is another art form I!m just waiting to reinvent,” he says. “I feel it coming out of world instrumentation; be it an Arabic violin, an Italian cellist, a saxophone, what have you. These are all different concepts you have to be open to.”
Beyond music and marketing lies Vishal’s greatest strength: his weaving of many cultures, in much the same way as ghazal was born of both Hindu and Muslim influence. Constantly meditating on his parent’s advice, to “experience it as it comes through you,” he is doing just that: offering future vision with a voice as mighty as the divine he surrenders to.“I was so used to keeping these worlds separate, then eventually you have the courage to say “Well, that!s not who I am.! It!s such a beautiful people around you.”