ARC Music
1798, 2003
label website

Part of the all-singing, all-dancing Salamat Ali Khan family which includes legendary vocalist Nazakat Ali Khan and older brother Salamat, Shafqat is the youngest active member and thus the one most eager and compelled to embrace modernity and experimentation with hybrid styles. His winning debut album Shafqat Ali Khan on the Hearts of Space subsidiary WorldClass telegraphed great and exciting things, and this year's Sublime Sufi on the UK label ARC was a dead ringer for following up on Shafqat's artistic evolution.

A collaboration with producer Douglas McKeehan who participates on keyboards and programming, Sublime Sufi also features the soprano saxophone of George Brooks, tabla, dumbek, conga and various electronic percussion instruments, electric guitar on one track, mandolin on two others. The result is a mixed bag. Shafqat's stunningly inventive melodic work gets - er, mixed up with rather unimaginative electronic spaces that distract and diminish rather than expand and deepen as they did on his first US album. Traditionalists will cringe upon hearing Shafqat use a voice coder or vocalizing in parallel to wailing e-guitar but would still have to admit that this young Pakistani singer's gift for haunting melodies and suitable harmonic subtext is magical and cannot be defeated even by bad company.

Said company does, however, require one to listen beyond and around the arrangements to lick the sugar cube - and, truth be told, not all settings are equally objectionable. "Sakhi" works well enough and "Journey to Marwa", the only number based on a rag, is truly haunting and shackles-rasing. In fact, this 10-minute track is such a highlight that the appropriate listener will find it alone more than worth the weaker remainder and consider it the pure pearl inside the mud. Add the achingly romantic "Putah Butah" closer that communicates the fire of magnetic attraction regardless of language, and you could consider yourself well compensated.

Clearly, Shafqat Ali Khan's artistic maturation continues unimpeded. Still, he'd be well advised to surround himself next time with collaborators of his own caliber, rather than betting on lesser opportunities to get published. To be clear, Sublime Sufi is far less of a disappointment that Najma's ill-considered Indian Gothic misadventure and will get plenty of spin around here just because Shafqat's singing wins out no matter what. But he does deserve better, which, incidentally, holds true for production values as well. Why not return to Sausalito's WorldClass instead? I the end, that's what this vocalist from Lahore really deserves.