Turning heavy and hulkingly powerful, yet also becoming nimble and pointedly precise - the vocalisations of the late Pakistani vocalist Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has come to epitomise not only the tradition of the Sufi Qawwali, but the art of singing itself.
Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is considered one of the greatest performers of Qawwali, a Sufi devotional music characterized by simple melodies, forceful rhythms, and energetic improvisations that encourage a state of euphoria in the listener. He is considered one of the greatest singers ever recorded - possessing a six-octave vocal range and he could perform at a high-level of intensity for several hours.
Widely credited with introducing Qawwali music to international audiences, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has popularly came to be known as "Shahenshah-e-Qawwali", meaning "The King of Kings of Qawwali". He was described as the fourth greatest singer of all time by LA Weekly in 2016.
October 13 marks Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's 72th birth anniversary. Born as Pervez Fateh Ali Khan in Faisalabad, Punjab, Kahn belonged to the Patiala Gharana. The tradition of Qawwali in Khan's family had passed down through successive generations for almost 600 years.
Khan's father - Fateh Ali Khan, did not want his son to follow the family's vocation. The senior Khan had his heart set on Nusrat choosing a much more respectable career path and becoming a doctor or engineer because he felt Qawwali artists had low social status. However, Khan showed such an aptitude for and interest in Qawwali, that his father finally relented.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had his first public performance at the age of 15, at his father's Chelum - the usual length of mourning after the death of a family member or loved one in some Muslim traditions. Khan became the head of the family Qawwali party in 1971.
He was signed by Oriental Star Agencies, Birmingham, England in the early 1980s. Khan went on to release movie scores and albums in Europe, India, Japan, Pakistan and the US He engaged in collaborations and experiments with Western artists, becoming a well-known world music artist. He toured extensively, performing in over 40 countries. In addition to popularising Qawwali music, he also had a big impact on contemporary South Asian popular music, including Pakistani pop, Indi-pop and Bollywood music.
In 1988, Khan teamed up with Peter Gabriel on the soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ, which led to Khan being signed to Gabriel's Real World label. He would go on to release five albums of traditional Qawwali through Real World, along with the more experimental albums Mustt Mustt (1990), Night Song (1996), and the posthumous remix album Star Rise (1997).
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's experimental collaborations with the Canadian guitarist Michael Brook, spurred on several further collaborations with a number of other Western composers and rock musicians. One of the most noteworthy of these collaborations came in 1995, when Khan grouped with Eddie Vedder on two songs for the soundtrack to Dead Man Walking.
Khan also provided vocals for The Prayer Cycle, which was put together by Jonathan Elias, but died before the tracks could be completed. Alanis Morissette was brought in to sing with his unfinished vocals. In 2002, Gabriel included Khan's vocals on the posthumously released track "Signal to Noise" on his album Up. Khan's album Intoxicated Spirit was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in 1997. That same year, his album Night Song was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album.
In August of 1997, Khan traveled to London to treat liver and kidney problems, he was rushed from the airport to Cromwell Hospital in London. He died of a sudden cardiac arrest at Cromwell Hospital on August 16, aged 48. His body was repatriated to Faisalabad, and his funeral was a public affair. Khan's musical legacy is now carried forward by his nephews, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Rizwan-Muazzam.
Before his untimely demise, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan gave the world a number of soulful compositions that have since became timeless. Below is a list of songs from the myriad musical pieces Khan performed that can only hope to succinctly summarise the great vocalist and the greater tale of philosophy behind the tunes and tone:
Dam Mast Qalandar
Dama Dam Mast Qalandar is a spiritual Sufi song written in the honour of the most revered Sufi saint of Sindh, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar (1177–1274). The original poem was initially written by the famous 13th-century Persian Sufi philosopher-poet Amir Khusrow, then further modified by Punjabi philosopher-poet Bulleh Shah in the 18th century.
With origins dating back 600 years,"Dama Dam Mast Qalandar" is a popular traditional Sufi Islamic folk song across the northern Indian subcontinent as well as Iran. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and M Arshad composed a new song inspired by "Dam Mast Qalandar", with a different melody and arrangement.
The Bollywood music director Viju Shah used Khan's version to produce the hit song "Tu Cheez Badi Hai Mast Mast" for the Bollywood film Mohra (1994).
The beguiling and sui generis Ghazal-Qawwali - Mere Rashke Qamar (Oh Envy of the Moon) was written by Urdu poet Fana Buland Shehri and composed by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It was first performed in 1988 by Khan, and popularized by him and his nephew Rahat Fateh Ali Khan several times in different concerts.
This song sees a lover coparing his beloved not with the moon as most often tend to, rather saying that his beloved is the envy of the moon itself.
Tumhe Dil Lagi Bhool Jani Paregi
This Ghazal was written by lyricist Purnam Allahabadi and composed by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
It sees one drawing comparisons between love and infatuation.
Yeh Joh Halka Halka Suroor Hian
Released in 1992, this song was composed by the king of Qawwali himself. The soulful composition and the lyrics tells of love - or rather the pleasantly intoxicating nature of it as one gradually falls more into it.
Face of Love
Face of Love is a musical piece from the soundtrack album to the t=famous film Dead Man Walking (1995).
The harrowing and powerful performance was delivered by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan collaborating with Eddie Vedder.
Tu Mera Dil Tu Meri Jaan
This very soothing and soulful song is about a lover expressing his love for the beloved.
The Punjabi lyrics conveying the feeling of want, paired with Khan's craftiness with vocals makes this song our de force.
This Qawwali is one of the finest example of religious musical pieces - where Khan succinctly delivers the story of Prophet Muhammad and creation of the world through his masterful chants and singing.
Na Man Behooda Girde
Based on a poem by the famous mystique Rumi, this Persian song saw Khan conveying the Sufi philosophy and mysticism through his strong performance.
Sochta Hoon Ki Woh Kitne Masoom Thhay
A good example of Urdu-Farsi poetry with its penchant for allegories, this one tells of a person wondering how their dear one has become a different person than they used to be. But it also serves as a symbolism for the philosophy of deity and worship.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan delivered a marvelous performance along his Qawwali party conveying that thought.
Ussay Bhool Jaa
A heartbreaking song about forgetting a loved one, with themes revolving around the monsoon and the rain. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's voice gave the sadness in the song a soliloquy.
Gham Hain Ya Kushi Hai Tu
The dilemma of glee and grief in the journey of life, and corner of love is entailed through this song. Khan delivers a powerful performance, as was his forte - in conveying the juxtaposing emotions, and covet for love.
Ishq Da Rutba
This song was featured in the 1999 Bollywood movie Kartoos. The title of the song, Ishq Da Rutba (Value of love) is the recurrent theme of this passionate musical piece that Khan performed with utmost eloquence and vocal vigor.
Zindagi Jhoom Kar
Another one of the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's works in Bollywood, this hope evoking love-song was featured in the 1997 Bollywood movie Aur Payar Ho Geya.
The musical chorus, timely flute tune highlighted Khan's vocal prowess.
Perhaps one of the most popular of Khan's musical works, Afreen Afreen is based on a Ghazal by the legendary Javed Akter.
The fiery elements of one's beloved that allures is told here.
Piya Re Piya Re
Khan's take on this Punjabi song is the vehemence of missing one's loved one and the feeling of unsettlement it brings. The mood of the song is jovial.
This Qawwali is based on another poem written by Amir Khusro in Persian and Brij Bhasha. The Sufi take on misery and sadness is rendered through this one.
Dulhe Ka Sehra
Featured in the 2000 Bollywood movie Dhadkan, this song is set with a traditional Indian wedding in the background, and mostly from the bride's view. It tells of how amid the celebrations and colours, her heart still beats with nervousness, feeling being distant and the plights of memories.
Bujhi Hui Shama Ka Dhuwan Hoon
Indian poet from the Vanarasi, Jigar Muradabadi penned this very succinct poem about existential philosophy, love, lamentations, separation and religion.
Nit Kahir Manga
This folk song is based on a poem about love, written from a woman's perspective who is seeking the well-being of her beloved. Penned by poet Badar Ali Ansari.
Khan, yet again being the epitome of vocal art, bought out the emotions through his singing.
Akhiyan Udeek Dian
Penned by prominent Pakistani film composer, lyricist Khawaja Pervez, this is a song about longing and the want to have the beloved by one's side.
The mention of nature's elements, such as the noise that birds make, or the change of seasons is given life through the finesse of Khan's singing and command over the musical chants.