Legendary Figures: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the qawwali powerhouse

  • Author: Jameela Siddiqi

The last decade of the 20th century witnessed an amazing musical phenomenon in the art of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997), a hereditary qawwal (performer of qawwali) from Pakistan. The singer took what was essentially the mystic music of Sufi initiates – performed in sacred enclaves in India and Pakistan – and transported it to secular audiences around the world with astounding success.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is widely acknowledged as the greatest qawwali singer ever to be recorded and probably the busiest musician of his time. He toured extensively – some have said as if he realised time was running out – performing in more than 40 countries.

His fan base stretched from Trinidad to Korea and Norway to New Zealand - but many of his fans were also of Indian or Pakistani origin, and had not encountered authentic qawwali in the countries of their origin before. The music has largely remained the domain of a select few, although popular watered-down versions of the genre had featured in numerous Indian films.

In an ironic twist, many people first experience Indian classical raags (melodic structures) for the very first time solely via qawwali, whereas the classical music pecking order in India (as well as Pakistan) had traditionally given a low status to qawwali musicians. This made it unthinkable that where vocal music was concerned, a qawwal, rather than one of the many grand masters of khayal or Dhrupad would have such a meteoric rise internationally.

Additionally, qawwali is entirely text-driven, relying on a deep understanding of multiple layers of meaning drawn from the mystic verses of Asian and Persian poets. However it could still appeal at a core level to those who did not speak any of these languages and were largely unfamiliar with Sufi practices.

Nusrat largely followed his family style, dating back to the beginnings of qawwali, but also added a large body of his own compositions and perfected certain musical techniques - notably his unique hallmark of reciting sargam (solfege) at break-neck speed over several simultaneous and fiendishly complex rhythms.

He had a vast repertoire including not only the Khusrau songs in Hindi and Farsi from the original classical qawwali repertoire but also the vastly rich body of work left by Punjabi mystic poets of the past. His home audiences included Indian and Pakistani Punjabis, and this was the area in which he was unsurpassable singing, as he was in his mother tongue.

He was also the first qawwal to sing his personal favourites from the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh Holy Scriptures), albeit in qawwali format, raising a renewed awareness of the mystical verses of poets from within all religions. A great number of musicians from many cultures – in what was then defined as ‘world music,’ sought to collaborate with the great qawwali, resulting in many joint ventures featuring qawwali-style vocals in a myriad of music styles.

But Nusrat’s success mainly rested on the fact that while he was open to any kind of fusion, including tracks for easily forgettable Indian film music and a highly controversial ad for Coke, he never lost sight of the true meaning and purpose of qawwali. He said to me that the purpose was to "reduce the distance between the creator and the created", and even at the peak of a successful international career he continued to perform authentic qawwali for little or no money in the humblest of surroundings - qawwali’s natural home.


Listen to the music | Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sings qawwali with his group at Birmingham Town Hall in 1993.

Jameela Siddiqi is an author, linguist, and BBC cultural commentator, specialising in postcolonial fiction and the devotional music of South Asia.

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