The Man Who Came to Dinner

Ali Khan Band

"I'm glad you enjoy it," nodded Ali Khan.

"Except the pickles," I admitted. Talk about hot and sour. Yow.

Everyone chuckled at my discomfort.

After my second and third trips to the buffet, Ali Khan left the room to retrieve an unusual instrument: a large, laptop piano box with an accordionlike bellow on the back. "This is the harmonium," he explained, before proceeding to demonstrate the basic techniques of playing it. Motioning up to the ceiling, Riffat cautioned him about the noise.

"It's still early," he said. "Not 10 o'clock." Looking back to me he shrugged, "New neighbors."

Before long, Ali Khan had the harmonium going full speed as deep tonal sounds began to escape from inside him. Richard grabbed his acoustic guitar and added some modern accompaniment. Then Rami produced an hourglass-shaped steel drum, adding complex rhythms with his fingertips and palms.

The clacking of the wooden harmonium keys, the whining of the bellow, and all the other musical elements were merely a backdrop for the mesmerizing sounds of Ali Khan's voice. When he sang he entered what was clearly a trancelike state. His head turned and his fingers pointed, seemingly apart from his own will, as the room filled with music. Richard and Rami played along as the pace quickened until the music finally spun out of control into a frenzied crescendo.

It was like musical aerobics. Extraordinary.

Rami, a native of Jordan, explained, "This music, because it's devotional, every time they pray it's different. So there is a form, but within the context of the form you can make the song what you want to. They can go for an hour, basically, and go from a really slow beginning, into like a frenzy, and it gets faster and faster and faster."

The group celebrated as Riffat once again reminded Ali Khan about the neighbors. Attempting to stay the inevitable, she served up mugs of cardamom-laced tea and glasses filled with a creamy rice-pudding-style dessert studded with whole blanched almonds.

"This is delicious. What do you call this?" I asked, ready to write down the name.

"Rice pudding," she answered. And the music continued.

This time Riffat decided to forget about the neighbors, and gave in to the group's urgings to sing one of her popular songs. Once again the pace of the music started slow before building to an all-consuming rhythm. Riffat sat casually on the sofa, a bright, flowered nose ring setting off her face. The sounds she produced were magical. In the end she raised her head toward the ceiling and seemed to simply let the music come out of her, filling the entire room (as well as the neighbors' upstairs) with pure vocal joy.

"It's like the Pakistani folk blues," joked Jody.

"You know what that song means?" Richard asked. "You better enjoy every minute of your life, because you never know when your last breath could come."

"Yeah, so get together and love each other," added Riffat.

We all settled back to enjoy the calming silence that followed the song, before Ali Khan interrupted to sum up his 500 years of history. "You sing with heart," he explained, while smiling at his sister. "If you don't put heart into it? Nothing. Just a piece of noise."

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