Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan ( born October 13, 1948, died August 16, 1997), was a Pakistani musician, primarily a singer of Qawwali, the devotional music of the Sufis (a mystical tradition within Islam). He featured in Time magazine's 2006 list of 'Asian Heroes'.
Traditionally, Qawwali has been a family affair, passed down through the generations. Nusrat's family has an unbroken tradition of performing qawwali for the last 600 years. Among other honorary titles bestowed upon him, Nusrat was called Shahenshah-e-Qawwali, meaning The Emperor of Qawwali.
BiographyEarly life and career
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was born in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad), Pakistan on October 13, 1948. He was the fifth child and first son of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan , a distinguished and legendary musicologist, vocalist, instrumentalist, and Qawwal. Nusrat had four elder sisters and one younger brother, Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan. They grew up on Regal Road in central Lyallpur, in a small flat that was rented from a local successful businessman, Naseeruddin Mian.
Initially, Nusrat's father did not want him to enter the family business. He had his heart set on Nusrat choosing a more respectable career path by becoming a doctor or an engineer, because he felt Qawwals had a low social status. However, Nusrat showed such an aptitude for and interest in Qawwali that his father finally relented and started to train him in the art. At first, he was taught to play tabla, playing alongside his father. He then learnt Raag Vidya and bolbandish. Once he had mastered such arts, he was taught to sing within the classical framework of khayal in the Qawwal Bachchon Gharana and learnt dhrupad from the Dagar family. This training was left incomplete when Ustad Fateh Ali Khan died in 1964, while Nusrat was still in school. However, the training was continued by Nusrat's paternal uncles, Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan and Ustad Salamat Ali Khan.
His first performance was at a traditional graveside ceremony for his father (chehlum), forty days after his father's death. In 1971, after the death of Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, Nusrat became the official leader of the family Qawwali party and the party became known as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan & Party. Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan was Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan's son. Though considerably older than Nusrat, the leadership of the party still went to Nusrat.
Nusrat's first public performance as the leader of the Qawwali party was in March of 1965 at a studio recording broadcast as part of an annual music festival, Jashn-e-Baharan, organized by Radio Pakistan. Nusrat took several years to perfect his craft and emerge from the shadow of other groups that were regarded as the leading contemporary Qawwals. Once he did, however, there was no looking back. He firmly established himself as the leading Qawwal of the 20th century. His incredible voice and complete mastery of the genre made him a superstar in the Indian subcontinent and the Islamic world. He sang mainly in Urdu and Punjabi, but also in Persian, Brajbhasha and Hindi. His Qawwali output is almost evenly divided between Urdu and Punjabi, with a smattering of songs in the other languages. Nusrat was also one of the first Pakistani vocalists to perform before Western audiences.
In Pakistan, his first major hit was the song Haq Ali Ali. This was performed in a traditional style and with traditional instrumentation, and featured only sparse use of Nusrat's innovative sargam improvisations. Nevertheless, it became a major hit as many listeners were attracted to the timbre and other qualities of Nusrat's voice.
Success in the West
He reached out to Western audiences with a couple of fusion records produced by Canadian musician, Michael Brook. In 1995, he collaborated with Eddie Vedder on the soundtrack to Dead Man Walking. His contribution to that and several other soundtracks and albums (including The Last Temptation of Christ and Natural Born Killers), as well as his friendship with Peter Gabriel, helped to increase his popularity in the West. Nusrat has said that his music was illegitimately used in Natural Born Killers. He said that he did not approve its use, and that by using his music in that film, the image of Sufi music could be tarnished. Basically, the movie runs contrary to the beliefs conveyed in Nusrat's music. Peter Gabriel's Real World label released five albums of Nusrat's traditional Qawwali. Real World also released albums of his experimental work, including Mustt Mustt (which features a slap bass technique) and Star Rise. He also performed traditional Qawwali before international audiences at several WOMAD world music festivals. The single Mustt Mustt, the title track off Khan's 1990 album, was remixed by downtempo electronic group Massive Attack in 1998.
Nusrat provided vocals for The Prayer Cycle put together by Jonathan Elias, but died before the vocals could be completed. Alanis Morissette was brought in to sing with his unfinished vocals.
When Nusrat toured in foreign countries, he would watch television commercials in order to identify the melodies and chord progressions popular in that country. He would then try to choose similar sounding songs from his repertoire for his performances.
Nusrat contributed songs to, and performed in, several Pakistani films. Shortly before his death, he recorded a song each for two Bollywood films, Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya (in which he also appeared) and Kachche Dhaage. He also sang the immensely-popular title song of the film, Dhadkan.
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.
Nusrat was taken ill with kidney and liver failure on August 11, 1997 in London, England while on the way to Los Angeles in order to receive a kidney transplant. Nusrat died of a sudden cardiac arrest at Cromwell Hospital, London, on Saturday, August 16, 1997, aged 48, at the height of his career. His body was returned to Faisalabad, Pakistan and his funeral was attended by thousands of people.
Nusrat's style of Qawwali
Nusrat is responsible for the modern evolution of Qawwali. Though not the first to do so, he popularized the blending of khayal singing and techniques with Qawwali. This, in short, took the form of improvised solos during the songs using the sargam technique, in which the performer sings the names of the notes he is singing. He also attempted to blend Qawwali music with more western styles such as techno.
Nusrat's Qawwali usually follows the standard form. A song begins with a short instrumental prelude played on the harmonium, accompanied by percussion. Then the instruments refrain, and the main singers launch into the alap, which establishes the raag, the tonal structure of the music. At this point, introductory poetic verses are sung. These are usually drawn not from the main song, but from thematically related songs. The melody is improvised within the structure of the raag.
After the introductory verses, the main song starts, and the rhythmic portion of the song begins. The tabla and dholak begin to play, and the chorus aids and abets percussion by clapping their hands. The song proceeds in a "call and response" format. The same song may be sung quite differently by different groups. The lyrics will be essentially the same, but the melody can differ depending on which gharana or lineage the group belongs to. As is traditional in Qawwali, Nusrat and the side-singers will interject alap solos, and fragments of other poems or even improvised lyrics. A song usually has two or three sets of refrains, which can be compared to the verse chorus structure found in western music. Songs last about twenty minutes on average, with a few lasting an hour or more.
Nusrat was noted for introducing other forms of improvisation into the style. From his classical music training, he would interject much more complex alap improvisations, with more vibrato and note bending. He would also interject sargam improvisations.
While it is undoubtedly difficult to put into words what makes Nusrat's music so deeply appealing 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".
Composition of Nusrat's Qawwali Party
The composition of Nusrat's party changed over the twenty-six years that he led the party. Listed below is a snapshot of the party, circa 1983:
1. Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan: Nusrat's first cousin, vocals
2. Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan: Nusrat's brother, vocals and lead harmonium
3. Rehmat Ali: vocals and second harmonium
4. Maqsood Hussain: vocals
5. Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Nusrat's nephew & pupil, vocals
6. Dildar Hussain: percussion
7. Majawar Abbas: mandolin and guitar/chorus, handclapping
8. Mohammed Iqbal Naqbi: secretary of the party, chorus, handclapping
9. Asad Ali: chorus, handclapping
10. Ghulam Farid: chorus, handclapping
11. Kaukab Ali: chorus, handclapping
The one significant member of the party who does not appear on this list is Atta Fareed. For many years, he alternated with Rehmat Ali on vocals and second harmonium. He is easily identifiable in videos since he plays the harmonium left-handed.
This snapshot is non-representative in one respect: harmoniums were usually the only instruments. Only rarely were instruments like mandolin or guitar used.