A quick introduction to the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Now is the time to discover the driving rhythms and uplifting vocal stylings of this world famous Qawwali artist.

Photo courtesy Real World Records

I was very fortunate to first hear the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in the early 1990s. This was thanks to Garama Masala, a weekly radio show devoted to the music of South Asia, then hosted by Anastasia Tsioulcas on Columbia University’s WKCR. The show lives on under the new name Raag aur Taal, and Anastasia Tsioulcas is now a reporter for NPR Music. (Quoting Hecky Brown from The Front: “It’s nice when something nice happens to someone nice.”)

If you’re saying to yourself: “Qawwali? That’s all Greek to me…” don’t worry. This will be a quick and painless introduction, as easy as taking a bite out of a paratha to see if you have a taste for South Asian cuisine (or might like to acquire one). Without further ado, here’s one of the best pieces by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan readily available on the Internet:

Like anything new, it helps to open yourself to it, give it a chance, even embrace it. This piece has gotten about 4 million hits on YouTube. There’s definitely something going on, but what is it? To quote a classic line from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: “Who are these guys?”

A lot can be achieved by simply listening and feeling deeply, letting yourself marinate in the music. What do you feel? A sense of awe and wonder? A feeling of heat rising in your chest?

As discussed in my series on “Art and Hermeneutics” (Part 1, Part 2), we understand art by connecting with it and asking good questions. We try not to abuse art by approaching it with a wrong understanding or no understanding at all. If we don’t understand it, an honest question to ask is: have we engaged with it and taken in those things which are helpful to understanding? Or are we standing coldly aloof from it, and does this create a barrier to understanding?

Qawwali music really gets into your blood, and standing aloof from it would almost certainly guarantee that you don’t “get it.” Because of its driving rhythms, call-and-response format, and deep spiritual roots, Qawwali is sometimes thought of as Sufi gospel music. It is tribal, communal, and meant to inspire religious ecstasy. As in the example above, it may begin with a slow, deliberate tempo, and gradually build to a climax.

Discovering new music is like meeting new people. Of many people you might meet, some have a special depth that makes you want to know them better, develop a relationship with them. You can’t know everything at once. So, unabashedly putting my thumb on the scale, my recommendation is that you add Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to your list of music to develop a relationship with through repeated listening. Having done so myself, my reward is that I can’t listen to the above piece without tears coming to my eyes. That is my highest recommendation.

How much knowledge is too much knowledge? When does too much knowledge threaten to become a substitute for actually hearing what the artist is saying? This is an interesting problem in aesthetics which I’ve tackled in an article about the music of Sri Chinmoy:

As listeners, it is always our challenge to remain attentive. There is a regrettable human tendency to replace the actual experience of art with our mental attitudes toward it. The liner notes (or our knowledge of the musical devices employed) become a substitute for hearing the music itself.

– The author, from “Sri Chinmoy Birthday Music Mix, August 2019”

As regards Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, too much book-learning could detract from grasping the essence of his music. Still, this 2013 article in Pakistan’s Express Tribune is a good introduction, and will quickly get you up to speed:

“Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: The singing Buddha”

NFAK made a huge impression on the World Music scene in the 1990s. Already a legend in South Asia, he was “discovered” by Peter Gabriel in the mid-1980s, and brought to the wider attention of Western audiences. NFAK became one of the notable World Music artists Gabriel assembled for his 1989 soundtrack recording Passion (music for the film The Last Temptation of Christ):

This is a good example of how NFAK’s distinctive voice became a recognizable ingredient in different kinds of “fusion” experiments combining Eastern and Western styles and instruments. It’s worth noting that South Indian violinist L. Shankar (sometimes known simply as “Shankar”) also plays on the title track above. Shankar’s initial fame on the World Music scene was as a co-member of the original Shakti, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin’s mid-1970s acoustic group which successfully fused South Indian classical with jazz. (See again “Art and Hermeneutics Part 2.”)

Fast forward to 1997. Sadly, that was the year of the great Qawwal’s death. I remember vividly that the weekend of his death, Anastasia Tsioulcas interviewed his brother Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan on WKCR. In 2019, she penned an outstanding article on the occasion of the first official release of the 1985 concert which introduced NFAK to London concertgoers:

“Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Voice Offers A Sonic Refuge”

1997 was also the year in which NFAK collaborated with Indian music producer A. R. Rahman on the song “Gurus of Peace,” which drums up (or pipes up) support for the cause of Hindu-Muslim tolerance — a cause often honoured in the breach:

Although parts are quite poppish, with a hard metronomic beat, the last two minutes are where the song really opens up musically, shifting into a minor key and showcasing NFAK’s well-known proficiency in sargam, a Hindustani vocal technique in which the syllables which stand for notes are sung. (The term “sargam” comes from the first four notes in the Indian system, which are Sa, Re, Ga, Ma.) Someone has thoughtfully uploaded a clip stringing together examples of NFAK’s sargam style, which Western audiences sometimes liken to “scat” singing in jazz:

But why should now be an especially good time to discover the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan? Two reasons: First, the present world pandemic may mean you have some time away from work or school. This translates into time to explore long forms like Qawwali. Second, if you’re in quarantine or self-isolation, you might feel listless or depressed, and long for a sense of connectedness with other people. Qawwali music has a way of raising your spirits and bringing you into a universal communal space of shared love and joy. It’s a natural anti-depressant! So (to coin a phrase): What are you waiting for?

Sidebar 1: Qawwali, Sufism, and Religious Tolerance

Perhaps another (more reflective) reason for re-examining Qawwali is an ironical one: During the 1990s, there was increasing Western awareness of (and interest in) Sufi-inspired musicians like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Sabri Brothers, and Abida Parveen. This was a period of (relative) peace in which hopes grew for a more tolerant world. That all changed with the 9/11 terrorist attack, which led to greater world polarization. At the populist level, Western nations became increasingly distrustful of anything even tangentially related to Islam, and Islamic nations were also forced to question which strains of Islam truly represented their beliefs as expressed on the international stage.

Looked at in broad terms, there are really two opposite (but related) phenomena which we see emerging over the past fifty or sixty years. On the one hand, modern technology has reduced the world to a global village, bringing nations and cultures into closer proximity than ever before, inviting a greater degree of universal understanding — even love. On the other hand, this very proximity threatens some aspects of the old order, and at times elicits a counter-reaction by religious fundamentalists who reject pluralism and multiculturalism, and want to put up borders rather than relax them.

Without getting lost in the weeds of comparative religion, some texts claim that Sufis are not Muslims. Still, it’s easy to understand Sufism as “the mystical branch of Islam that emphasizes a personal connection to God, and embraces the qualities of tolerance, peace, and equality as core principles. Sufi shrines and gatherings have been targeted for violence by Muslim extremists, both in South Asia and elsewhere.” (Tsioulcas, 2019)

The key point about Sufi musicians is that in the great tug-of-war which is going on, they are firmly on the side of tolerance, love, and universal understanding. This makes them potential targets, as in the case of Amjad Sabri, who was assassinated by the Pakistani Taliban in 2015. (See this NPR piece by Anastasia Tsioulcas.)

“Why do the Islamic jihadis hate the Sufis so much?” asks Kuldeep Kumar in an article on FirstPost.com. “The simplest explanation is that while the Islamic zealots are inspired by sectarian hatred and glorify divine retribution, the Sufis glorify divine love and compassion. The jihadis accentuate religious differences and rely on violence, but the Sufis spread the message of wahdut al-wajood (unity of being) and bring comfort to people. They are as different from each other as chalk is from cheese.”

In the rich strands of history embedded in the Indian subcontinent, Qawwali is itself a kind of fusion, influenced in part by the ragas and vocal techniques of North India, and the Hindu practice of kirtan (devotional singing). But the jihadis are obsessed with purging Islam of any influence which they perceive as “foreign.” Bumping off Sufi musicians is apparently part of the programme.

If we are, in a sense, all victims of the Tower of Babel (or the babble that comes from politicos on one side of the fence or another), music saves us. It teaches us how to live together in peace and harmony. Then we understand that each person can live within their own faith, practice their faith, but also have respect and tolerance for those of a different faith. Gradually, we can move a step forward to oneness. Then we see that from the highest point of view, God is appearing to different peoples, different cultures, at different times in different forms; but it is always the same God.

Sidebar 2: Being a discriminating listener of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

There’s an old joke that there are two kinds of people: Those who divide things into categories. Likewise, there are two broad categories into which we can divide NFAK’s musical output: traditional and experimental. It’s possible to appreciate both in different ways.

This forms an analogue to the art of Ravi Shankar appreciation, a phenomenon which emerged about two decades earlier, in the 1960s. We can appreciate Pandit Shankar’s ragas performed in traditional style, and in a different vein, his many alliances with Western jazz, classical, and rock musicians — from Bud Shank to Yehudi Menuhin to George Harrison. I think that embracing World Music entails shifting gears between traditional forms and newer experiments. One doesn’t listen to each in quite the same way, nor judge one according to the standards of the other.

I quite intentionally opened this article with a 30-minute YouTube of “Haq Ali Ali Mola Ali Ali” — a fine example of NFAK performing traditional Qawwali with a traditional ensemble. This is the Full Monty version most likely to satisfy purists. But his collaborations with Peter Gabriel and A. R. Rahman are also beautiful in their own way, and may be more accessible to some listeners.

NFAK received almost universal acclaim (well-deserved!); but there are two minor criticisms to which he is subject: First, not all of his experiments were equally successful. While some achieve genuine fusion, others are more like graft — taking one musical genre and somewhat artificially grafting it onto a different genre. At its worst, this can produce something akin to The Thing with Two Heads, a 1972 sci-fi comedy in which Ray Milland and Rosey Grier are depicted as disagreeable heads sharing the same body:

I have yet to warm to so-called “dance remix” versions of NFAK’s work, with thumping bass and rigid, computerlike tempo. But as they say: Chacun à son groove. The broader point is that you can be a discriminating listener who seeks out the best of NFAK’s musical legacy.

The second (related) criticism is that he didn’t have a “head” for business, and didn’t exercise much control over what was released or circulated. There are arguably more bootlegs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan than there are of Charlie Parker, The Grateful Dead, and Bob Dylan put together (and they were never put together like him!). So if cultivating an appreciation for Nusrat Sahib, it helps to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Real World Records has very generously uploaded a great concert video from 1992 which has a traditional sound and instruments, but weighs in at a mere 6:14:

It features a vocal duet in which NFAK again demonstrates his style of sargam, while another singer responds with taan, a different type of cantillation found in North Indian classical music. While sargam uses the Sa-Re-Ga-Ma syllables, taan is done on an open vowel sound like aaaaah. NFAK’s sargam might be described as vigorous and declamatory. For a contrasting example, please enjoy Lakshmi Shankar performing “Khyal: Raga Dhani”:

Her style has always been calm and meditative; her demonstrations of sargam and taan from within the North Indian classical tradition are extremely beautiful. This is from a 1989 CD released by Ocora Radio France (which was also an early adopter of NFAK’s music) titled Les Heures et les Saisons (The Hours and the Seasons). Like Nusrat Sahib, Lakshmi Shankar has been very successful at distilling the essence of the music into a shorter format for Western audiences.

Believe it or not, North Indian classical music sports another vocal style called tarana, which is a particular type of composition using syllables based on Persian and Arabic phonemes:

Taranas tend to be short, light, inventive pieces with lots of rhythmic play. This one is from Ravi Shankar: Inside the Kremlin, a live recording first released in 1988. The piece uses not just the tarana syllables, but also tabla syllables (bol), and some sargam as well. If you’d like help telling the difference:

Tarana syllables: 0:52-2:07
Tabla syllables (Bol): 2:08-2:20
Sargam: 2:31-3:02

This happens to be a great little piece for learning to count Indian music. The entire piece can be counted in what we would call 4/4 time, but the musicians run rings around it, playing lines of different metric lengths, then arriving together on a strong “one” beat. This is known as the sum. If you relax, concentrate, and continue to count out 4/4 time no matter what the musicians do, then if you arrive together with them on the sum, now you know how exciting Indian music can be! Here, the tabla provides the rhythmic drive, just as it does in Qawwali music.

Closing Thoughts

I intended this to be a quick introduction to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Maybe it wasn’t as quick as I expected, but at least give me credit for putting the music up front! I do think the examples of North Indian vocal stylings add something special to the mix.

I’ve made ample use of YouTubes to teach and share in a way that’s quite immediate; but musicians and labels get hardly any income from YouTube plays. So I hope you will support those labels like Real World Records and Ocora Radio France (distributed by Naxos) who’ve shown a strong committment to bringing world class artists from South Asia (and around the globe) to the attention of Western audiences.

My early acquaintance with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was from the 1992 Real World CD Devotional and Love Songs, which got tons of airplay on WKCR. It was a stroke of genius to present 10 tracks all under 8 minutes each, chosen from two earlier releases. This CD seemed to hit the sweet spot between preserving as much of the traditional sound as possible, while accurately gauging what Western audiences would respond to. Devotional and Love Songs has since been reissued by Real World as part of the 2-CD set Love & Devotion. It remains an excellent starting point for those wishing to delve deeper into the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Happy listening and stay safe!

Michael Howard

More posts about World Music

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