Mesmerising: Abida Parveen at the Bridgewater Hall

The biannual Manchester International Festival’s reputation for putting on original, new, unique and unusual performances has grown since its inaugural year in 2007. The festival covers all of the arts and includes theatre, visual arts, dance, music, food and family events. Many of the works premiered in Manchester have gone on to tour the world including one of last festival’s highlights, Bjork’s Biophilia. This year’s festival boasts a Massive Attack and Adam Curtis collaboration, Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth and a solo performance of Shelley’s Masque of Anarchy by local actress, Maxine Peake.

When the programme was first released, one of the events that most intrigued me was a concert by a 59-year-old Pakistani Sufi singer called Abida Parveen.She was described as one of the greatest spiritual singers alive and her appearance in Manchester would be a rare opportunity to see her perform. As a singer myself, and someone interested in music’s ability to transform and touch people, I was eager to hear Abida Parveen, despite having never heard her music before.

The utter rapturous applause and standing ovation that she receives on her arrival on stage – before she has even done anything – can only be generated by people who love and know an artist

I am no expert on Sufi music although I do own some Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and have seen his nephews perform some years ago at WOMAD. Before the gig, I worried about how qualified I would be to review Abida Parveen, especially as I wouldn’t be able to understand a word of her singing. However, if any music can transcend language, this kind of music can, and Abida Parveen has too great a reputation as a singer for me to have her sing in my home city and let it pass me by.

As it turns out, I arrive at the Bridgewater Hall before the concert to find it buzzing with people dressed up for the Saturday night occasion. Reading about Parveen in the programme, I’m intrigued to learn that she has recently appeared as a judging panellist on Coke Studio, a sponsored TV programme, huge in India and Pakistan where performers from each country compete against each other.

Reading further, I find myself annoyed by the piece written by Songlines’ editor, Simon Broughton. According to him, Parveen should be “better known” and in his article, he questions why it is that she isn’t. Yet she regularly sells out huge venues wherever she performs around the world and the utter rapturous applause and standing ovation that she receives on her arrival on stage – before she has even done anything – can only be generated by people who love and know an artist, rather than those who are just here out of curiosity. I imagine that what he actually means is “why isn’t she better known by a white, ‘world music’ loving audience?” Is the success of an international artist only measured by whether or not they have reached a mainstream European or US audience, however many thousands of people see them around the rest of the world?

Abida Parveen 04_ credit Jon Super.JPG

Resplendent in purple, Parveen finally arrives on stage a little late, accompanied by only three musicians – two tabla players and a harmonium player – while the audience continues their applause. I’m emotional already and she hasn’t even started.

The concert itself is a mesmerising experience and an intriguing one. I am blown away by her beautiful rich voice and incredible breath control, sustaining some notes for so long that I wonder whether she has an extra lung. Each song is received by the sort of audience response that one might expect more at a rock or pop concert, than a classical one. Parveen sorts through her papers before each song, making me wonder how much of the set list was fixed. She’s also beautiful to watch, not just delivering the songs, but really feeling them, dancing with her hands (she remains seated throughout the concert) and putting her whole body into the music. Each segment lasts about 20 minutes, starting slow and relatively sedate, but gathering in speed and intensity to a crescendo, with the audience joining in, their responses matching the intensity of the musicians.

The young men next to me are dancing in the aisles, and everywhere I look there are people of all ages dancing, whooping and clapping along

Sometimes, the interaction between Parveen, the musicians and the audience is a little reminiscent of a religious sermon or political speech. A young and enthusiastic man on the front row is frequently moved to stand, arms raised high, as if he’s opening his whole body to receive her music and it’s clearly a spiritual and ecstatic experience for him. It’s fascinating to be here amongst it, and yet I can’t fully immerse myself in this experience as much as I’d like to; I find myself questioning the idea that this kind of music can transcend the boundaries of language. In an interview with the Daily Telegraph in 2001, Parveen said that the point was to “experience the songs, rather than to merely understand them” and I do my best. But the audience’s fevered reactions to certain phrases – spoken or sung – does make me feel as if I’m missing out on some meaning that I can’t grasp or feel just from her phrasing or delivery. With no intellectual understanding of the songs, my enjoyment of the first 20 minutes is also hindered by a dodgy speaker and its interference, but even once it is sorted out, I remain more detached than I would like.

During the last 20 minutes, the audience, not exactly sedate in the first place, begin to rise from their seats, to a track clearly known by many of them. It’s more rhythmic and mesmerising than the previous numbers and I find myself finally swept up with the emotion and enthusiasm around me. The young men next to me are dancing in the aisles, and everywhere I look there are people of all ages dancing, whooping and clapping along. I’m finally caught up in this frenzy, clapping enthusiastically, feeling emotionally and physically lifted by the experience. But how much is purely generated from Abida Parveen and her music and how much by the audience’s response, it’s difficult to tell.

The roar of the audience after this final display of spirituality was almost overwhelming, with many people overcome with emotion. Yet while I’m glad to have seen this legendary singer and heard her beautiful voice, there is a part of me that feels as missed out by not being able to understand the meaning of it all. But perhaps I’m looking too hard for something that I’ll never find. Perhaps it’s enough that for the last half of the show, I was uplifted and touched; the presence of a gifted inspirational singer, and the audience’s own spiritual experiences creating something unique, special and communal.

Images of Abida Parveen by Jon Super. Provided courtesy of Manchester International Festival and used with thanks

Ruth Rosselson is a Manchester-based writer and music lover who has been going to gigs for as long as she can remember, and has been singing since she was able to talk. She particularly enjoys singing in harmony with others and goes to a weekly acappella singing group run by Faith Watson from Singing for Larks and occasionally at folk singarounds in her local pub.