Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali

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Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan


For the Record

Persian Poetry the Basis for Music

Metaphoric Wine, Women, and Song

Temptations of a Qawwal

Selected discography


Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, internationally recognized for his mastery of a form of Islamic devotional music known as qawwali (pronounced kah-wah-lee), first gained significant attention in the United States in 1989 when he performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Musics Next Wave Festival. Prior to that, the Sabri Brothers had been the United States significant import of traditional Pakistani music, appearing in the United States during the mid-1970s. Three years after Khans first U.S. appearance, the singer would spend a year as artist in residence at the University of Washingtons music department.

New York Times music critic Jon Pareles places qawwali in an ecstatic musical tradition alongside American gospel, Moroccan joujouka, and even techno music, which tends to create emotional highs through simple melodies and driving beats, gathering intensity through repetition and improvisational flights. Qawwali is believed to have originated among the Chisti order of Sufis in the tenth century.

Khans large, almost Buddha-esque body often moves in rapid motion to his musics emotional peaks; his hands jab outward, brushing, as if carving the images of divine spirit from the air. His rapt audienceat least those of Pakistani background, who comprise the greater portion of his listenersfollows with fevered shouts and dancing, afterwards gathering below the stage to shower their beloved singer with money and flowers. Khan seems to almost goad his listeners into musical intoxication, pleading in fierce cries, imitating the rhythmic insistence of the drums, and calling back and forth with other singers in his party, the favored term for the other singers (qawwalis ) and instrumentalists who sit in a group on the stage with the lead qawwal.

The World Music Institute, located in New York City, has been a chief promoter of Khans work in the West, along with many other important nonwestern folk and classical musicians. For example, in 1993 Khan opened and closed a five-hour Masters of India and Pakistan concert that featured music of his region, Hindustani, as well as the work of performers from southern Pakistan.

Khan was born in 1948 in the Punjab province of Pakistan, in the town of Lyallpurduring Pakistans 1979 decolonization, its name was changed to Faisalbad. As a young qawwal, Khan learned his art in the traditional manner, through his family. His father, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, as well as his uncles, were qawwalis, and they trained Khan in the family tradition of singing in a high register. Khan also received instruction on the tabla, a small hand drum.

For the Record

Born October 13, 1948, in Lyallpur (now Faisalbad), Pakistan; son of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan (a qawwal ).

Began performing Islamic devotional music as a qawwal in villages and religious shrines; first U.S. tour, 1989.

Addresses: Record company Real World/Caroline, 114 West 26th St., New York, NY 10001.

Khan began performing at shrines and in villages where he would sometimes sing through the whole day or night in religious celebration. When I had the stamina, Id sing for 10 hours, he once recalled. But, by age 45, the singer found himself limited to sessions of three or four hours. These shrines, or dargahs, are generally the tombssymbolic or otherwiseof saints where the faithful enter musically induced, trance-like states allowing communion with God. Traditionally, qawwalis sat opposite the saints tomb. In the intervening space would be the audience in a circle formation, and in its center a spiritual leader surrounded by prominent devotees. Such sites are the true home of qawwali, although the music has also been performed at important events such as weddings feasts.

Persian Poetry the Basis for Music

In his introduction to the program for Khans 1993 World Music Institute performance, Robert Browning wrote, The qawwal will dwell on certain words creating great depth in the apparently simple language of certain Sufi texts. He will often repeat a phrase or sentence indicating both the obvious and hidden content by emphasizing or ruminating upon particular words and syllables [so that, for example] a spinning wheel becomes the wheel of life. Qawwali texts are most commonly medieval Persian Sufi poetry, and Khan, like other qawwalis, learns each poem by heart. Although the verses are available in books, it is the manner of performing each text that must be learned from another qawwal. Thus, the music is basically an oral tradition.

Browning stated that rarely is a complete poem recitedrather the singer will join segments from different poems or add lines from another text. This free association from memorized poems is done to emphasize a certain meaning, or to try a new direction in the effort to move the audience to spiritual awakening. The qawwal must exhibit great sensitivity in noting when a listener is moved to divine ecstasy, and must repeat the same phrase over and over; according to Sufi belief, interruption would threaten the ecstatic with death.

Metaphoric Wine, Women, and Song

Often, qawwali poetrys apparent subject is romantic love, or even wine intoxicationthough liquor is shunned by Islam. These are symbolic subjects, however: romantic love serves as an allegory and facet of divine love, while intoxication refers to the joyous trance induced by qawwali. The oft mentioned tavern, as in the famous Persian poem In the Tavern of Ruin, refers to ones spiritual master who houses Gods love.

The melodic sources for performing qawwali poems are usually set by tradition. The tunes are North Indian in nature, meaning the octave has seven degrees and the various scales come from light classical ragas. Ragas are a traditional form of Hindu music, calling for improvisation on a theme evoking religious belief, the improvisation generally following prescribed patterns and progressions. Modern qawwali represents a spectrum of influences and geographic territories.

Generally associated with the Sufi religion, qawwali also has Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim followers. Currently, Urdu is the musics first language, as Ken Hunt noted in his profile of Khan for Folk Roots. However, qawwalis also sing in Hindi, Sindhi, Punjabi, and classical Persian, not to mention local tongues. The literary sources of qawwali range too, though texts are chiefly medieval Persian Sufi poetry. The program for Khans 1993 tour included, for example, a thirteenth-century Persian poem by the famed Amir Khusrau.

Temptations of a Qawwal

In his article for Folk Roots, Hunt described the scowl that comes over Khans face when discussing the depiction of qawwali in films. For several years a debased form of qawwali has formed the soundtrack of many movies generated by a prolific Indian film industry. Khan understandably decries this long-standing commercialization of a sacred art form.

Yet, as an artist himself, Khan has embraced nontraditional elements since his 1989 U.S. visit. Western instruments and such big-name musicians as Jan Garbarek and Peter Gabriel have strongly influenced Khans output in recent years. This Western flavor is evident in the singers recording Mustt Mustt and numerous remixes, including those by Bally Sagoo in Magic Touch.

Khan defends such breaks with tradition as experiments and seems to feel that attracting an audience is important to make people aware of qawwali. The pressures on this revered singer to widen his audience echo those placed on performers of any type of traditional folk music. The artist is pulled in two directions: As a traditionalist, he is entrusted with preserving the musics form, and yet as a musician, he feels the need to discover new forms of self-expression. Noting that many qawwalis have abandoned shrine performance for financial reasons, Khan has expressed that he cannot forego his spiritual and personal links to such sites. Each year, he returns to perform at two dargahs, one in Lahore and one in Pak Patan.

Khan has made numerous recordings over the years, with titles now numbering more than 100. While his works of the early 1990s disappoint some fans of the traditional sound who find in the modern output a weakening of musical and spiritual integrity, such early classical recordings as En Concerta Paris and Traditional Sufi Qawwalis Volumes 1 and 2 form a timeless buffer against loss of the past.

Selected discography

Devotional and Love Songs, Real World, 1988.

Traditional Sufi Qawwals Live in London 89, Navras, 1989.

Shahen-Shah, Real World, 1989.

Day, Night, Dawn, Dusk, Shanachie Records, 1991.

Mustt Mustt, Real World, 1991.

Shahbaaz, Real World, 1991.

Revelation llham, Audiorec, 1993.

The Last Prophet, Real World/Caroline, 1994.

Greatest Hits of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sirocco/EMI.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party Live in New York, Rhythms of the East.

Magic Touch, Oriental Star.

Paris Concert Live, Ocora.

Jan Garbarek & Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, ECM.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & His Qawwali PartyVol. 1, JVC.

Nusrat Fateh Ali KhanThe Ecstatic QawwalVol. 2, JVC.


Folk Roots, November 1993.

New York Times, October 13, 1992; March 24, 1993; August 17, 1993.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from The Art of Qawwal, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (concert program), World Music Institute, 1993.

Joseph M. Reiner

Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali

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Born: Lyllapur (now Faisalabad), Pakistan, 13 October 1948; died London, England, 16 August 1997

Genre: World

Best-selling album since 1990: Mustt Mustt (1991)

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, son of the revered qawwali (a professional singer of mystical Sufi poetry) Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, took over his father's Party (male-only ensemble) in 1971, and by the end of his life he had popularized a specifically spiritual genre as a music of ecstatic release among non-Sufi Westerners, even adapting the style's ancient tenets to pop-oriented song forms and arrangements.

Qawwali is a modal music performed by one or two improvising vocalists over and in alternation with a vocal chorus, supported by vigorous percussion, handclapping, and a harmonium (portable pump-organ) that underscores the melody. Sung in Farsi, Hindi, and Urdu, the lyrics of qawwali draw on both Islamic and Hindu poetic traditions, usually repeating a few lines that employ subjects such as romantic love and alcoholic intoxication as metaphors for the adoration of God and inner enlightenment. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, an overweight, heavily sweating performer with a beaklike nose, was not conventionally charismatic but sang with enormous drive and passion in a slightly hoarse voice that was capable of elaborate, seemingly inspired phrases. The late singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley likened Khan's voice to "a velvet fire," and his utterances do indeed seem to rise and singe the air like flame.

Khan first performed to a predominantly Western audience in 1985, at Peter Gabriel's WOMAD (World of Music, Arts, and Dance) festival at Mersea Island, Essex, England. Besides introducing qawwali to young white audiences in Great Britain and the United States, he deemphasized the music's devotional content (but not its inherent energy) to establish it as a soundtrack staple in the Bollywood Indian and Pakistani film industries and as a feature of soundtracks for some American-made movies, including Dead Man Walking (1995), in which he duetted in qawwali style with Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam; Passion, the Peter Gabriel-produced soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ (1988); and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1995).

Ustad Fateh Ali Khan discouraged his son's interest in qawwali despite their family's six-century heritage of musicianship, urging him to study medicine, but as a child Khan eavesdropped on music lessons his father gave to gain an understanding of the fundamentals of the genre. Shortly after his father's death in 1964, Khan sang for the first time in public and then commenced serious study of the qawwali form with his uncle Ustad Salamat Ali Khan. He joined his uncle Ustad Marbarik Ali Khan's qawwali party. He gained personal recognition and popularity upon speeding up the tempo of the music, and when Ustad Marbarik fell ill in 1971, Khan claimed leadership of his group. In 1979 he realized his recurring vision to become the first qawwali to sing at the Muslim shrine Hazrat Khwaja Moinud-Din Chisti in Ajmer, India, where neither qawwalis nor Pakistanis had previously been welcome.

First recording in 1973, Khan became prolific, recording more than fifty albums for Pakistani, British, American, European, and Japanese labels by 1993. Don Heckman, a music journalist for the Los Angeles Times, has proposed that Khan's "Western reputation was built through live performance." Nonetheless, Khan actively courted a crossover audience by recording the album Musst Musst (1991) with the experimental composer Michael Brook. Khan and Brook cut typically expansive qawwali performances to pop-song length, employed vocal exercises rather than words as the basis of the vocals, and underscored everything with Western rhythms. Massive Attack's remix of the title track was a surprise club hit throughout the United Kingdom.

Khan died of natural causes accelerated by general ill health and exhaustion brought on by continuous world touring. Lacking a male heir, he passed his musical legacy on to a nephew, Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Posthumously, his own voice continues to burn in remix collections, especially by Asian-British musicians such as those in the Asian Dub Foundation.


Rough Guide to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (World Music Network, 2002); The Final Studio Recordings (American Recording Company, 2001); Bandit Queen (Milan, 2000); The Supreme Collection Vol. 1 (Caroline, 1997); Greatest Hits Vol. 2 (Shanchie Records, 1998); Greatest Hits Vol. 1 (Shanachie, 1997); Mustt Mustt (Real-World/CEMA 1991); The Day, the Night, the Dawn, the Dusk (Shanchie, 1991). With Peter Gabriel: Passion (Universal Music, 2002). With Eddie Vedder: Dead Man Walking Soundtrack (Columbia, 1996); Natural Born Killers Soundtrack (Interscope, 1994); Asian Dub Foundation remix: Community Music (London, 2001).

howard mandel