AUSTIN, Tex. — What may have been the oldest music at SXSW rocked as hard (if not as loudly) as anything newer. It had deep, unstoppable beats, instantly grasped melodies and vocals with a fervent bite. It was a Wednesday night set by Mai Dhai, a singer from rural Pakistan performing ancient songs she learned from her mother. She drummed as she sang, along with two more drummers and a harmonium player whose counter-melodies darted constantly around her voice. Ms. Dhai is a member of the Manganiyar tribe from the Tharparkar desert, with an Islamic culture that has a long tradition of female musicians performing at shrines and festivities.
The music, like the Pakistani qawwali music that has been more widely heard in the West, harnesses the visceral to the devotional. The drumbeats galloped and pushed harder as she sang verse after verse, her voice swooping toward notes that she lingered over with a quavering insistence. Each song built and built, only to be followed by another that was faster, higher, more syncopated. It wasn’t long before handclaps started in the audience, and it was soon obvious that songs about Sufi mystics could be dance music, too.