There are very few singers who just come and click to the audience right on their solo appearance. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was one such person, who came and conquered not only the local audience of Pakistan, but soon he was the darling of the music lovers, specially the “qawwali” style, throughout the world. Some labeled him as the Bob Marley of Pakistan, while others called him the Elvis of the East. No doubt, in a very short span of his career, he made a great impression on the music scene with his mix of Eastern poetic music with that of the West.
Born on 13th October 1948 in the industrial city of Faisalabad, Khan soon became a distinguished musicologist, vocalist, instrumentalist, and skilled Qawwali performer. Nusrat despite his father’s rejection, chose to be a singer, specially in the eastern style of “qawwali”, which in fact is a music attributed to praising the last Holy Prophet, Muhammad (may peace be upon him). His initial training school was his elder brother Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan. The training came to a crucial stage when Ustad Fateh Ali Khan died in 1964. From here on, Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan one of his uncles took over the training the little maestro. It is said that ten days after his father’s death, Nusrat had a dream where his father came to him and told him to sing, touching his throat. Nusrat woke up singing, and was moved by the dream to decide that he would make Qawwali his career. And he did not wait to begin his music career and sang for the first time publicly on the 40th day of the deat of his father. Under the patronage of Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, he formed a qawwali group in 1965, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan & Others (“others” is the term used in qawwali for the supporting members of the group) – no doubt Nusrat was the leader. It took him several tough years more to polish his craft, but once he sang, there was no looking back. Very soon he overtook many small groups and became one of the leading qawwals of the 20th century. Nusrat’s powerful tenor voice makes his music simply awe-inspiring. Although it’s a highly religious and devotional form of expression, outsiders and lay persons alike nonetheless can appreciate qawwali music.
What made him an instant celebrity? Many attribute his incredible voice but mostly it was the mixture of Eastern and Western music and instruments that made the difference. While most leading qawwals of Pakistan and India cling to the Eastern style of singing Qawwali, he popularized the blending of khayal singing and techniques with qawwali and his novel style soon won over a large audience in the Western countries. He reached out to Western audiences with a couple of fusion records produced by Canadian guitarist Michael Brook. His first British performance was in Birmingham in 1980, organized by Oriental Star Agencies, from then on he toured the country almost every year. In 1989, Ali Khan and his ensemble gave a unique performance at the Kufa Gallery, in London. In 1995, he collaborated with Eddie Vedder on the soundtrack to film “Dead Man Walking”. His contribution to that and several other soundtracks and albums (including The Last Temptation of Christ), as well as his friendship with Peter Gabriel, helped to increase his popularity in Europe and the United States. Peter Gabriel’s “Real World” label released five albums of Nusrat’s traditional qawwali performances in the West. He also performed traditional Qawwali live to Western audiences at several WOMAD world music festivals. 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 total of 125 albums.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s last live performance was in Karachi, Pakistan. That concert was then released as the Swan Song album. Visit the link above to listen to songs from that album. He was then a very seriously man with almost kidney and liver failure and was admitted on Monday, August 11, 1997 in London, while on the way to Los Angeles from Lahore to receive a kidney transplant. While still at Cromwell Hospital, Nusrat died of a sudden cardiac arrest on Saturday, August 16, 1997, aged 48. His body was then transported back to Faisalabad, Pakistan where thousands of distraught people attended his funeral and burial procession. Khan left behind a legacy of his very own, which would remain matchless till eternity.
“Singing with Nusrat was pretty heavy,” says Eddie Vedder. “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.” The late American rock singer Jeff Buckley paid tribute to Nusrat on the album “Live at Sin-Ã© (Legacy Edition).” In his introduction, he states, “Nusrat, he’s my Elvis,” before performing the song “Yeh Jo Halka Halka Saroor Hai”. This recording generated interest in Nusrat among an audience that was previously unaware of his music. He also stated in an interview, “I idolize Nusrat, he is a god to me”. Buckley died in May 1997 in Memphis, Tennessee, three months before Nusrat. In addition, Nusrat’s posthumously released The Supreme Collection, Vol. 1 has liner notes written by Buckley, to whom the album is dedicated.
While it is undoubtedly difficult to put into words what makes Nusrat’s music appeal so deeply to so many listeners, many of whom do not understand a single word of the languages he sings in, here is one fan’s attempt to explain: “Nusrat’s music invites us to eavesdrop on a man communing with his God, ever so eloquently. He makes the act of singing a passionate offering to God. But we do not merely eavesdrop. The deepest part of Nusrat’s magic lies in the fact that he is able to bring our hearts to resonate with the music, so deeply, that we ourselves become full partners in that offering. He sings to God, and by listening, we also sing to God.”
In 2005, a tribute band called Brook’s Qawwali Party was formed in New York City by percussionist Brook Martinez to perform the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The 11+ piece group performs (mostly instrumental) jazz versions of Nusrat’s traditional qawwali songs, using the instruments conventionally associated with jazz (saxophones, brass, electric guitar, double bass, djembe, drum set, and percussion) rather than those associated with qawwali.