Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


KHAN, Nusrat Fateh Ali

(b 13 Oct. '48, Faisalabad, formerly Lyallpur, Pakistan; d 16 Aug. '97, London) The most famous and perhaps the finest qawwali singer; the title 'ustad' or teacher is often added before his name. Also an accomplished ghazal (Persian, later Islamic sphere, poetic song genre) and classical raga singer and harmonium player. Dubbed 'Shahen- Shah-e-Qawwali' ('The Brightest Star in Qawwali'), his family tradition stretches back more than six centuries. Both his father, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, and his uncles Mubarak Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan were qawwals (qawwali singers). The assembly of qawwals that he led was generally referred to as 'the Party' in English (but the term is not exclusive to him or to qawwali ensembles). He dreamed that he was ordained to sing at the shrine of Hazratja Khawaja Moin-Ud-Din Chishtie at Ajmer in India, a Muslim shrine where no qawwal had ever been permitted to sing, and decided to become a qawwal though that had not been his intention; he took over leadership of the Party from his father '71 and on a pilgrimage to the shrine '79 he and the Party were invited to sing, thereby fulfilling the prophecy in the dream. He has made over 40 cassette albums for the Indian subcontinent market, his first made in Pakistan '73; a number of early EMI Pakistan albums had him jointly billed with his uncle Mujahid Mubariak Ali Khan.

Two concert recordings from '85, Live In Paris Volumes 1 And 2 on Ocora, were released '88, capturing him in full flight and in better than usual recordings. In '85 he was recorded at the WOMAD Festival in Britain '85 (see entry for Peter Gabriel) for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Qawwali And Party Volume 1 and Volume 2, both on the WOMAD label, the first concentrating on devotional themes, the second on ghazal; Shahen-Shah '88 on Real World further raised his profile and incl. four songs sung in Urdu and Punjabi. The Party by this stage consisted of his cousin Mujahid Mubariak Ali Khan and his brother Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan (b 25 Dec. '52, Faisalbad) as the main vocalists (in addition to Nusrat himself), Iqbal Naqbi, Asad Ali Khan, Atta Fareed, Ghulam Fareed and Mohammed Maskeen on chorus vocals, Dildar Hussain on tabla and pupil singer Kaukab Ali; the Party's lineup has been too flexible to list comprehensively although primary vocalists have tended to remain for years. Khan's skills as a classical vocalist are barely known outside Pakistan but his brothers perform with equal distinction in that area. Shahen-Shah-e-Qawwali '89 in the BBC television series Rhythms Of The World captured the vocal pyrotechnics of the Party; a multi-volume series of recordings was appearing on Oriental Star, Yadon Ke Sayeay, Vol. 6 in the series, had him presenting geet (songs) and ghazals. He recorded with South Indian violinist L. Shankar '90 for Real World; Ocora released a triple-CD set of breathtaking music entitled En Concert A Paris recorded in March '88. Khan's light classical output graces a bewildering complexity of labels including Audiorec, Long Distance, Navras (whose four-vol. live set from '89 is especially fine), Oriental Star, Real World, Shanachie, Sirocco. He has contributed to several anthologies including An Introduction To World Music Volume 1 on WOMAD, Passion -- Sources on Real World '89, and Rhythms Of The World on Mango '90.

Khan set up his own management agency and label Silverspace International '94 to try to keep recordings under control. Mustt Mustt on Real World '90, prod. by Michael Brook, mixed qawwali with Western instrumentation to flawed effect, the arrangements diluting the essence of the music, as misbegotten as similar treatment of Youssou N'Dour's late-'80s work on Virgin. A remix of 'Mustt Mustt' released in Oct. '90 by Massive Attack was a pointless and tasteless exercise in marketing. Khan's defence of Westernized recordings was that it was popularizing qawwali outside its traditional audience, but a little market research would have shown how few were bothering to delve into the devotional. Commercializing qawwali has tended merely to inflame views, but film work began to play an important role: work on Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ '88 introduced his name and music to a new Western audience; he contributed to the soundtracks to two controversial films '94, Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers and Shekharr Kapur's The Bandit Queen, both marked by violence. The Bandit Queen proved especially controversial, telling a fictionalized story of the bandit Phoolan Devi, sensationalizing her humiliation to an unbalanced degree and provoking debate (placing her at the scene of a crime which she maintained she had not been party to or anywhere near, while her case was sub judice at the time). He performed at the '94 Nobel Peace Prize Gala in Oslo. For the 'Music from and Inspired by the Motion Picture' Dead Man Walking on Sony '96 Khan collaborated with Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder to produce 'The Face Of Love' and 'The Long Road'; same year saw release of The Bandit Queen soundtrack on Oriental Star Agencies (although copyright dated '96) with music jointly credited to Khan and Roger White; also contributed to soundtracks for Sunny Deol's Indian and Rahul Rawail's Champion in India. Khan by now was working more and more in popular contexts at the expense, many felt, of the devotional component of his repertoire; Sangam '96 on EMI India looked to collaborations more acceptable to a conservative Indian audience: co-billed with poet and lyricist Javed Akhtar, he sang lyrics in a contemporary vein but of high calibre; the traditional 'Afreen Afreen' a stand-out track (immediately picturized -- the Indian term -- by video-maker Ken Ghosh). Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's prestige would be hard to rival in the Islamic world yet he remained a modest and approachable man, one for whom his music is only a way of praising God and His works. The problem with his music has arisen through the way in which releases have proliferated, the often dubious nature of the recordings and the courting of wider, popular audiences through remixes, dance mixes etc. Rapture '97 on Music City was a compilation from the Oriental Star recordings which made no concessions, while Star Rise '97 on Real World remixed nine tracks from Peter Gabriel's label for the dance floor.