Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Urdu: استاد نصرت فتح على خاں) (October 13, 1948 – August 16, 1997), was a Pakistani musician, idolized internationally as a prodigy of Qawwali, the devotional Sufi musical art form that dates back some 700 years. Known as the Bob Marley of Pakistan, or the Elvis of the East, Ustad Nusrat is credited with taking the tradition to the international stage and garnering the respect of a new generation of Qawwali lovers that has reached far beyond the Islamic world. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan holds the title for the largest recorded output by a Qawwali artist: A total of 125 albums.
Qawwali is traditionally an artistry passed down through a lineage, as is the case with Nusrat whose family (originally from Afghanistan) has an unbroken tradition of performing Qawwali for the last 600 years. Ustad Nusrat became the leader of his family Qawwali party in 1971, a position that was then inherited by his nephew, Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the son of Nusrat's younger brother Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan, after his untimely death in 1997.
Dubbed by the community, "Shahenshah-e-Qawwali," meaning "The Emperor of Qawwals," Nusrat's legacy, and that of his ancestors, continues to enchant the world today through his 50-plus albums in circulation, as well as his gifted progeny who seem fated to carry the torch for many years to come.
Nusrat and his only brother Farrukh were born in Faisalabad, Punjab to Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, a distinguished musicologist, vocalist, instrumentalist, and skilled Qawwali performer. Initially, his father did not want his sons to follow him into the Qawwali business. He had his heart set on them choosing much more respectable career paths, such as doctors, because he was concerned about the low social status that most Qawwali artists held at the time. However, Nusrat showed such an aptitude for, and interest in, the tradition that his father eventually relented and began to train him in the technique.
Unexpectedly, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan died in 1964, while Nusrat was still in school, and so the training was continued by Nusrat's paternal uncle, Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan. Ten days after his father's death, Nusrat had a dream where his father came to him and told him to sing, touching his throat. Nusrat woke up singing, and was so moved by the dream that he decided then that he would make Qawwali music his career. His first public performance was at his father's funeral ceremony forty days later.
Under the guidance of his uncle, Nusrat soon advanced to become the leader of his family's party, and so in 1971 the covey Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan & Party was born. Nusrat's first public performance as leader of the family Qawwali group was in March 1971, at an annual music festival organized by Radio Pakistan. Though off to a promising start, it would still take Nusrat several more years to perfect his craft and emerge from the shadow of the leading rival Qawwals at that time.
Around this time, Nusrat eventually scored his first hit with the song "Haq Ali Ali." The track was performed in a traditional style and with the standard instrumentation, and featured only sparse use of Nusrat's innovative sargam improvisations. Nevertheless the song became a major hit, as many listeners were immediately impressed by Nusrat's accomplished timbre and the ethereal quality of his voice.
From there, it was an inevitable progression into the airwaves of the greater Indian subcontinent. His incredible voice and total mastery of the genre exalted him to superstar status over the next decade within the region, and by the 1980s Nusrat was on constant tour establishing a global presence.
In the 1990s, Nusrat began reaching out more to Western audiences with a couple of fusion records produced by Canadian guitarist 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 Europe and the United States. Peter Gabriel's Real World label released five albums of Nusrat's traditional Qawwali performances in the West, as well as albums of his experimental work, including Mustt Mustt and Star Rise. He also performed traditional Qawwali live to Western audiences during this time at several WOMAD world music festivals.
As his success continued to grow, Nusrat was sometimes criticized for working too hard, as he traveled unceasingly and was always busy recording new material. He was also chided by family and friends for not taking good care of his health. He had a diabetic condition that worsened through the late 90s and so it was advised that Nusrat from then on travel with an accompanying physician to keep his diet and workload in check.
Despite his efforts to restore his failing health, Nusrat was taken ill with kidney and liver failure on Monday, August 11, 1997 in London, England while on the way to Los Angeles from Lahore to receive a kidney transplant. While still at Cromwell Hospital, Nusrat died of a sudden cardiac arrest on Saturday, August 16, 1997, at the age of 48. His body was then transported back to Faisalabad, Pakistan where thousands of distraught people attended his funeral and burial procession.
Singing in Urdu and his native Punjabi, as well as Persian, and blending traditional stylings with a vast array of outside textures, Nusrat is much credited for the modern evolution of Qawwali. Although 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.
Despite Nusrat's unique style, his songs usually did not deviate too far from the art form's standard template. The normal structure of a Qawwali song begins with a short instrumental prelude played on the harmonium and tabla. Then the instruments stop, and the main singers (but not the chorus) launch into the alap, which establishes the raga, or the tonal structure of the song. At this point, introductory poetic verses are sung. These are usually drawn not from the main song, but from other thematically related songs. The melody is then improvised within the structure of the raga. This improvisation has been explained as the improviser acting as a direct vessel, or channel, of the spiritual realm.
After the introductory verses, the rhythmic portion of the song begins. The tabla and dholak begin to play, and the chorus aids and abets the percussion by clapping their hands. From there, the song proceeds in a call-and-response format. This loose, though structured format explains why the same song may be sung quite differently by different groups though still maintain its basic essence. The lyrics will be essentially the same, but the melody can differ depending on which gharana or lineage the group belongs to. As is the custom in the Qawwali form, 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 20 minutes on average, with some lasting an hour or even more.
Nusrat was noted for introducing other forms of improvisation into the standard style. From his classical music training, he would interject much more complex alap improvisations, with more vibrato and note bending. His interjection of sargam improvisations was also quite unique.
Eddie Vedder, of Pearl Jam, is quoted as saying, "I was lucky to work with Nusrat, a true musician who won't be replaced in my life. There was definitely a spiritual element in his music." Vedder also incorporated the words "Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan" into the lyrics of his song "Wishlist" during the '98 Yield tour in Melbourne, Australia.
The late American rock singer Jeff Buckley paid tribute to Nusrat on his album, Live at Sin-é. In his introduction, he states, "Nusrat, he's my Elvis," before performing the song "Yeh Jo Halka Halka Saroor Hai." The recording generated interest among the audience who were previously unaware of Nusrat's music. He also stated in an interview, "I idolize Nusrat; he's a god, too." Buckley died in May 1997 in Memphis, Tennessee, three months before Nusrat. In addition, Nusrat's posthumously released The Supreme Collection Vol. 1 has liner notes written by Buckley, to whom the album was dedicated.
In 2005, a tribute band called Brook's Qawwali Party was formed in New York by percussionist Brook Martinez. The 11-piece outfit still performs mostly instrumental jazz versions of Nusrat's pieces using the instruments conventionally associated with jazz, such as the saxophone, trombone, trumpet, electric guitar, double bass, djembe, drum set, and percussion rather than those used with traditional Qawwali.
SPIN magazine listed Nusrat as one of the 50 most influential artists in music for the year of 1998.
TIME magazine's issue of November 6, 2006, "60 Years of Asian Heroes," lists Nusrat as one of the top 12 artists and thinkers in the last 60 years.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers wrote a tribute song for Nusrat, called "Circle of the Noose," though it has never been released.
Justin Timberlake, of 'N Sync, also wrote an unreleased tribute song for Nusrat, called "You're Gone."
The composition of Nusrat's party changed many times over the 26 years that he led the party. Two members who remained from the beginning to the end were Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan and Dildar Hussain. Listed below are members of the party on an unknown date, but probably 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 singer
6) Dildar Hussain: Tabla
7) Majawar Abbas: Mandolin, Guitar
8) Mohammed Iqbal Naqbi: Chorus, secretary of the party
9) Asad Ali: Chorus
10) Ghulam Farid: Chorus
11) Kaukab Ali: Chorus
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.
All links retrieved December 14, 2018.
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