Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Pakistan’s ‘intrepid’ musical icon | arts and culture

Grammy winner and Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab said she had been a fan of Qawwali maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music since she was eight years old, as her parents blasted Khan’s songs in the car when she lived in Saudi Arabia.

“I can never forget those versions of Nusrat’s qawwalis, and how they resonated in my little body,” the 37-year-old Brooklyn-based artist told Al Jazeera via email.

Qawwali, meaning “utterance”, is a form of Sufi devotional music whose lyrics largely focus on the praise of God, the Muslim prophet Muhammad and his son-in-law Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib.

Primarily sung in Urdu and Punjabi, and occasionally in Farsi, the genre dates back to the 13th century in the Indian subcontinent.

Salman Ahmad of the Sufi rock band Junoon said that the chanting of “Shahenshah-e-Qawwali” [King of Kings of Qawwali] “transported the listener into higher dimensions of mystical ecstasy and yearning for the divine”.

“His Pavarotti-like low-to-high vocal range would just give me goosebumps…his impeccable rhythm, pitch and emotional tenor in his voice…it was moving,” Ahmad, 58, told Al Jazeera from the Pakistani capital. , Islamabad.

Ahmad said Khan had great stamina and could perform well into the wee hours of the night without compromising on the quality of his singing.

Khan performs at the ‘Pakistan 4 U’ live concert in the port city of Karachi [File: Reuters]

Twenty-five years after his untimely death at the age of 48, Khan continues to inspire musicians in his home country and beyond. Songs like Dam Mast Qalandar and Ali Da Malang have been covered numerous times by artists across the subcontinent.

Rising qawwali stars and brothers Zain and Zohaib Ali say no matter where they travel to perform, audiences frequently ask them to perform Khan’s songs.

“There are maybe two or three of our songs that people want to hear…most of the time they beg us to play their favorite Nusrat sahib. [sir] qawwali,” Zain said from Lahore, Pakistan.

“So creative and fearless”

Born in Faisalabad, Pakistan in 1948 to a family of well-known qawwali singers, Khan also sang ghazals – a form of romantic love and loss-themed poetry.

Khan began performing in the late 1960s. He has received numerous awards around the world, including the President of Pakistan’s Award for Pride in Performance in 1987 for his musical contributions to the country.

Ahmad from Junoon thinks what made Khan stand out from other qawwals was his willingness to experiment with music styles.

“Khan was so creative and fearless,” he told Al Jazeera from Islamabad, Pakistan.

“He could jam with anybody…whether it was me or Jeff Buckley. He had no boundaries,” Ahmad said, adding that Khan took risks unlike “purist” qawwals – citing the late singer’s collaborations with Indian and Western composers.

Acclaimed Indian lyricist and songwriter Javed Akhtar and Grammy-winning composer AR Rahman have both worked with the Pakistani icon.

Pakistani musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948 - 1997) (left) shares a laugh with American musician Jeff Buckley
Khan with the late American musician Jeff Buckley in New York. Buckley once said the Pakistani qawwal was his “Elvis” [File: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images]

The 1996 ghazal Afreen, Afreen, written by Akhtar, remains one of Khan’s best-known songs. The 2017 Coke Studio The version of the track performed by Momina Muhtesan and Khan’s nephew Rahat has over 370 million views so far on YouTube.

Rahat, Khan’s protege and musical heir, enjoyed huge success in India as a playback singer – notably for his improvisations of Khan’s qawwalis, adapted to the musical preferences of Bollywood fans using instruments such as guitars, synthesizers and saxophones to produce a more pop sound. .

In the West, Khan first rose to prominence in July 1985 when he executed at the World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festival, co-founded by British singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel.

The concert, which was released as a live album in 2019 by Gabriel’s Real World Records, served as a springboard for Khan’s popularity around the world — and his future collaborations with Western musicians.

In 1990, Real World Records released Khan Mustt’s first fusion album, Mustt in collaboration with Canadian guitarist and songwriter Michael Brook. Six years later, Khan and Brook’s second album, Night Song, was released., earning a Grammy nomination for Best World Music Album.

The New York Times called the fusion album a “Western dream of mysticism”, while United States billboard called it “an album for the ages, solidifying Khan’s stature as one of the world’s most eminent singers”.

Pakistani musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Khan performing with his band at a World Music Institute concert at New York City Hall, New York [File: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images]

Speaking from Los Angeles, Brook told Al Jazeera that Khan was one of the “finest singers” of the 20th century. “He’s definitely in my top 10,” Brook said.

After working with him and seeing him perform several times, Brook said Khan had a “magical stardust” quality whose passion and charisma “transcended both language and musical style. . in a way that is deeply connected to people”. Khan was selected by National Public Radio as part of their 50 great voices series.

Khan has also contributed his voice to Western films, notably for the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ composed by Gabriel, and Dead Man Walking with Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder.

musical influence

Brothers Zain and Zohaib Ali Khan said took an age-old art form and “made it easy” for today’s qawwals to keep the tradition alive in the 21st century.

“The qawwals that came before Khan Sahib performed a qawwali for over an hour, with entire performances lasting over eight or nine hours a day. When Khan took over the mantle in the 80s and 90s, he became said it wasn’t doable because most people didn’t have a lot of time to waste,” Zain said.

According to the 31-year-old, Khan helped “modernize” the genre – while keeping its basic structure intact – by shortening qawwalis to 15-25 minutes, making them more accessible to a wider audience.

“Much of the qawwali played today is derived from the work of Khan Sahib,” Zain said.

Salman Ahmad (far left) on stage with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (far right) at a fundraiser
Salman Ahmad, left, on stage with Khan, right, performing at a 1990 fundraiser for former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan’s former cricketer and cancer hospital in Lahore [Courtesy: Salman Ahmad]

Additionally, Zohaib noted that Khan’s vast body of work provided “more than enough material” for him and others to continue learning the Sufism-inspired art form for generations.

“Even today, although I have been in this profession for more than a decade, I come across a Nusrat song or a qawwali that I have never heard before,” Zohaib, 26, said. According Guinness World Records 2001Khan had released 125 albums – the most of any Qawwali artist.

Junoon’s Ahmad, who was introduced to Khan by former cricketer and former Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan, said he owed the qawwal a “debt of gratitude” for his successful musical career over the past three last decades.

The band’s fourth studio album, Azadi, was “inspired by what I learned playing with Ustad [master] Nusrat,” Ahmad said, including the decision not to use Western drums in the 13-track playlist and to rely heavily on tablas and dholaks – local hand drums widely used in qawwalis.

“Timeless, timeless”

About a month before Khan’s death, Ahmad said he had attended one of his private performances and recalled that he “didn’t look well at all”.

“He had undergone kidney dialysis… and I remember telling my wife that I wish he had taken a break. He was doing too much. »

Shortly after, Khan fell seriously ill and was flown to London for treatment at Cromwell Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on August 16, 1997 after suffering a heart attack.

Canadian composer Brook told Al Jazeera Khan he was “reduced to his prime” – a time when he personally felt qawwal was starting to get “very intriguing” with the process of creating fusion songs in which the two musicians had started.

Nonetheless, musicians like Ahmad and Aftab are certain that Khan’s work will remain relevant for decades to come.

“In the West, just as rock bands continue to reference the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, Ustad Nusrat songs will continue to be consciously or unconsciously sampled by Indian and Pakistani singers,” Ahmad said. “His music is timeless and timeless. He will never die.

For Aftab, Khan’s music was “a kind of once-in-a-lifetime sound”.

“The command he had over the hour-long pieces was not only arresting, but also invoked and invited a freedom for the listener,” she said. ”

“He liberated a lot of voices…and he continues to do so, unprecedented.”

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