The Muslim That Music Found: Pakistani Singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

by Anisa Benmoktar on August 24, 2009

Singing with Nusrat was pretty heavy, There was definitely a spiritual element. I saw him warm up once, and I walked out of the room and just broke down. I mean, God, what amazing power and energy.” – Eddie Vedder

That’s a fairly mild introduction to this extraordinary Emperor of Qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music. His voice permeated cast, creed, culture, religion, persuasion and language. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a Pakistani guy to whom Allah whispered the words “go and sing” and who then stepped out into the world to become a legend and bring ancient Sufi music to the masses around the globe.

A 600-year head start in the art of Qawwali

The Fateh Ali Khan family has an unbroken tradition of performing Qawwali for approximately 600 years. Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, Nusrat’s father was a distinguished Qawwal but felt the profession led to low social status and instead tried to convince his son it would be better in the long run if he were to become a doctor or an engineer. Nusrat’s enthusiasm for Qawwali won his father over and Nusrat began by learning to play tabla alongside him before progressing to learn Raag Vidya and Bolbandish. Sadly, Nusrat’s first real performance was at a traditional graveside ceremony for his father in 1964.

Nusrat’s uncles continued his training, and following the death of his uncle Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan in 1971, Nusrat became the official leader of the family Qawwali party, which became known as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan & Party.

A turning point and a guiding hand

As Nusrat revealed in several interviews, it wasn’t until the late seventies that he really turned his passion into a career. He claimed that Allah himself pointed him in the right direction, which even in those early days was west.

Nusrat was signed by Oriental Star Agencies [OSA] of Birmingham UK to their Star Cassette Label and the singer was sponsored to perform in Britain from the early 80’s. Many of Nusrat’s live Qawwali performances that are available on video today come from these OSA-sponsored concert tours.

It was all go from that moment on. Nusrat’s collaborations with Eddie Vedder and Tim Robbins on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, Michael Brook, Massive Attack, and Peter Gabriel on the Last Temptation of Christ soundtrack brought his music to the global stage, which he endorsed with various tours and albums released in The US and Europe. In 1997, his album Intoxicated Spirit was nominated for a Grammy  for best traditional folk album.

Back in his native Pakistan, he performed for and in Pakistani and Bollywood films, including the popular theme song of the film, Dhadkan. His song ‘Gurus of Peace’ featured on the the album ‘Vande Mataram’, by A.R. Rahman, which was released to celebrate the 50th anniversary of India’s independence.

Driven by passion until the bitter-sweet end.

Nusrat possessed a six-octave vocal range and could perform at a high-level of intensity for several hours.  He would allegedly watch TV ads as a way of identifying the melodies and chord progressions popular in the country in which he wanted to perform and would choose similar sounding songs from his repertoire for his performances.

He is accredited with the modern evolution of Qawwali, by popularizing the blending of khayal singing and techniques with Qawwali, lending improvised solos to the songs using the sargam technique, in which the performer sings the names of the notes he is singing. Nusrat also fused Qawwali music with more western styles such as electronic music.

Sadly his passion for life, touring and fine food finally got the better of him, and he went down with kidney and liver failure on 1997 in London, where he suffered a heart attack aged 48, at the height of his career. Thousands attended his funeral in Pakistan.

Immortal sounds

After his death, the song “Solemn Prayer”, on which Nusrat provided vocals, was used by Peter Gabriel on his album Up and in the soundtrack to the film Blood Diamond.

Keeping the family tradition alive, Nusrat’s nephew Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, sings Qawwali, ghazals and other light music. He has toured extensively and performed in Pakistan, India and all around the world.

Did you know?

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan holds the world record for the largest recorded output by a Qawwali artist – a total of 125 albums as of 2001. Since then, many posthumous albums have been released.

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