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Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Pakistan’s ‘fearless’ musical icon

Grammy winner and Pakistani singer Arooj Aftab stated she has been a fan of qawwali maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music since she was eight years previous, as her dad and mom would blast Khan’s songs within the automobile when she was living 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 advised Al Jazeera by way of e mail.

Qawwali, which implies “utterance”, is a type of Sufi devotional music with lyrics largely specializing in praising God, and the Muslim Prophet Muhammad and his son-in-law Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib.

Primarily sung in Urdu and Punjabi, and infrequently in Farsi, the style dates again to the 13th century within the Indian subcontinent.

Salman Ahmad of Sufi rock band Junoon stated the singing of the “Shahenshah-e-Qawwali” [King of Kings of Qawwali] “transported the listener to higher dimensions of mystical ecstasy and a yearning for the divine”.

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

Ahmad stated Khan had nice stamina and will go into the small hours of the evening performing with out comprising the standard of his singing.

Pakistani Singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Performs At The 'Pakistan 4 U', A Live Concert In The Port City Of Karachi May 4
Khan performs on the ‘Pakistan 4 U’ reside live performance within the port metropolis of Karachi [File: Reuters]

Twenty-five years since his premature dying on the age of 48, Khan continues to encourage musicians in his home nation and past. Songs like Dam Mast Qalandar and Ali Da Malang have been coated quite a few instances by artists throughout the subcontinent.

Rising qawwali stars and brothers Zain and Zohaib Ali say regardless of the place they travel to carry out, audiences regularly ask them to play Khan’s songs.

“There are maybe two or three of our songs that people want to hear … mostly they are pleading with us to play their favourite Nusrat sahib [sir] qawwali,” Zain stated from Lahore, Pakistan.

‘So creative and fearless’

Born in Faisalabad, Pakistan in 1948, and hailing from a household of well-known qawwali singers, Khan additionally sang ghazals – a type of romantic love and loss-themed poetry.

Khan started performing within the late 1960s. He acquired quite a few awards worldwide, together with the President of Pakistan’s Award for Pride of Performance in 1987 for his musical contributions to the nation.

Junoon’s Ahmad believes what made Khan stand out amongst different qawwals was his willingness to experiment with types of music.

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

“He could jam with anyone … whether it was me or Jeff Buckley. He had no boundaries,” Ahmad stated, including that Khan took dangers in contrast to the “purist” qawwals – citing the late singer’s collaborations with Indian and Western song-makers.

Renowned Indian lyricist and songwriter Javed Akhtar and Grammy-winning composer AR Rahman each labored with the Pakistani icon.

Pakistani Musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948 - 1997) (Left) Shares A Laugh With American Musician Jeff Buckley
Khan with late American musician Jeff Buckley in New York City. Buckley as soon as stated the Pakistani qawwal was his ‘Elvis’ [File: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images]

The 1996 ghazal Afreen, Afreen, written by Akhtar, stays one among Khan’s most well-known songs. The 2017 Coke Studio model of the observe carried out by Momina Muhtesan and Khan’s nephew Rahat has greater than 370 million views up to now on YouTube.

Rahat, Khan’s protege and musical inheritor, has had large success in India as a playback singer – together with for his improvisations of Khan’s qawwalis, tailor-made to swimsuit musical preferences of Bollywood followers by utilizing devices akin to guitars, synthesisers and saxophones to provide a poppier sound.

In the West, Khan first got here to prominence in July 1985 when he carried out on the World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) competition, co-founded by British singer-songwriter Peter Gabriel.

The live performance, which was launched as a reside album in 2019 by Gabriel’s Real World Records, served as a stepping stone for Khan’s recognition the world over – and his future collaborations with Western musicians.

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

The New York Times known as the fusion album a “Westerner’s dream of mysticism”, whereas Billboard USA known as it “an album for the ages, solidifying Khan’s stature as one of the world’s pre-eminent singers”.

Pakistani Musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Khan performing along with his band at a World Music Institute live performance at Town Hall, New York, New York [File: Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images]

Speaking from Los Angeles, Brook advised Al Jazeera that Khan was one of many “best singers” of the 20th century. “He is definitely in my top 10,” Brook stated.

Having labored with him and watched him carry out a number of instances, Brook stated Khan had a “magic stardust” high quality whose ardour and charisma “transcended both language and musical style … in a way that deeply connected with people”. Khan was chosen by National Public Radio as a part of their 50 Great Voices collection.

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

Musical affect

Brothers Zain and Zohaib Ali stated Khan took a centuries-old artwork type and “made it easy” for at present’s qawwals to maintain the custom alive within the 21st century.

“The qawwals who came before Khan Sahib would perform one qawwali for more than an hour, with whole shows going on for more than eight or nine hours a day. When Khan took up the mantle in the 80s and 90s, he figured that was not feasible – as most people didn’t have that much time to spare,” Zain stated.

According to the 31 yr previous, Khan helped “modernise” the style – whereas maintaining intact its primary construction – by shortening qawwalis to 15-25 minutes, making them extra accessible to a wider viewers.

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

Salman Ahmad (Far Left) On Stage With Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Far Right) Performing At A Fundraiser
Salman Ahmad, left, on stage with Khan, proper, acting at a fundraiser in 1990 for former cricketer and ex-Pakistani PM Imran Khan’s most cancers hospital in Lahore [Courtesy: Salman Ahmad]

Moreover, Zohaib famous that Khan’s massive physique of labor has offered “more than enough material” for him and others to proceed studying the Sufism-inspired artwork type for generations.

“Even today, despite being in this profession for over a decade, I’ll come across a Nusrat song or qawwali that I have never heard before,” Zohaib, 26, stated. According to Guinness World Records 2001, Khan had launched 125 albums – probably the most by any qawwali artist.

Junoon’s Ahmad, who was launched to Khan by former cricketer and ex-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, stated he owed the qawwal a “debt of gratitude” for the success in his musical profession over the previous three a long time.

The band’s fourth studio album, Azadi, was “inspired by what I learned performing with Ustad [master] Nusrat”, Ahmad stated, together with the choice to make use of no Western drum units within the 13-track playlist, and relying closely on tablas and dholaks – native hand drums used extensively in qawwalis.

‘Timeless, ageless’

A month or so earlier than Khan’s dying, Ahmad stated he attended a non-public efficiency of his and recalled how he was “not looking well at all”.

“He had been undergoing kidney dialysis … and I remember telling my wife that I wish he would take a break. He was doing too much.”

Not lengthy afterwards, Khan fell gravely unwell and was flown to London for remedy on the Cromwell Hospital, the place he was pronounced useless on August 16, 1997 after struggling a coronary heart assault.

Canadian composer Brook advised Al Jazeera Khan was “cut down in his prime” – a time he personally felt the qawwal was beginning to turn into “very intriguing” with the fusion song-making course of the 2 musicians had launched into.

Nevertheless, musicians like Ahmad and Aftab are sure that Khan’s physique of labor will stay related for many years to come back.

“In the West, just like rock bands continue to reference the likes of The Beatles and Led Zeppelin, Ustad Nusrat’s songs will continue to be consciously or unconsciously sampled by the Indian and Pakistani singers,” Ahmad stated. “His music is timeless and ageless. It will never die.”

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

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

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


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