Tribute to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Saab the maestro of qawwali and sufi music on his 20th death anniversary.

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Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (13 October 1948–16 August 1997), was a Pakistani musician, primarily a singer of Qawwali, the devotional music of the Sufis. He possessed an extraordinary range of vocal abilities and could perform at a high level of intensity for several hours. Extending the 600-year old Qawwali tradition of his family, Khan is widely credited with introducing Qawwali music to international audiences. He is popularly known as “Shahenshah-e-Qawwali”, meaning “The King of Kings of Qawwali”.

Born in Faisalabad, Khan had his first public performance at the age of 16, at his father’s chelum. He 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.

Khan is often credited as one of the progenitors of “world music”. Widely acclaimed for his spiritual charisma and distinctive exuberance, he was one of the first and most important artists to popularise Qawwali, then considered an “arcane religious tradition”, to Western audiences. His powerful vocal presentations, which could last up to 10 hours, brought forth a craze for his music all over Europe. Alexandra A. Seno of Asiaweek wrote:

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice was otherworldly. For 25 years, his mystical songs transfixed millions. It was not long enough … He performed qawwali, which means wise or philosophical utterance, as nobody else of his generation did. His vocal range, talent for improvisation and sheer intensity were unsurpassed.

Jeff Buckley cited Khan as a major influence, saying of him “He’s my Elvis”, and performing the first few minutes of Khan’s hit “Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor Hai” (including vocals) at live concerts. Many other artists have also cited Khan as an influence, such as Grammy-nominated Pakistani-American Nadia Ali, Zayn Malik, Peter Gabriel, A. R. Rahman, Sheila Chandra, and Alim Qasimov. Author and neuroscientist Sam Harris cited Khan as one of his favourite musicians of all time.

Paul Williams picked a concert performance by Khan for inclusion in his 2000 book The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits: a ‘top-40’ list, in which he devotes a chapter each to what he considers the top 40 artistic achievements of the 20th century in any field (including art, movies, music, fiction, non-fiction, science-fiction). The Derek Trucks Band covers Khan’s songs on two of their studio albums. Their 2002 album Joyful Noise includes a cover of “Maki Madni”, which features a guest performance by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s nephew. 2005’s Songlines includes a medley of two of Khan’s songs, “Sahib Teri Bandi” and “Maki Madni”. This medley first appeared on the band’s live album Live at Georgia Theatre, which was released in 2004.

In 2004, a tribute band called Brooklyn Qawwali Party (formerly Brook’s Qawwali Party) was formed in New York City by percussionist Brook Martinez to perform the music of Khan. The 13-piece group still performs mostly instrumental jazz versions of Khan’s qawwalis, using the instruments conventionally associated with jazz rather than those associated with qawwali.

In 2004, a tribute band called Brooklyn Qawwali Party (formerly Brook’s Qawwali Party) was formed in New York City by percussionist Brook Martinez to perform the music of Khan. The 13-piece group still performs mostly instrumental jazz versions of Khan’s qawwalis, using the instruments conventionally associated with jazz rather than those associated with qawwali.

In 2007, electronic music producer and performer Gaudi, after being granted access to back catalogue recordings from Rehmat Gramophone House (Khan’s former label in Pakistan), released an album of entirely new songs composed around existing vocals. The album, ‘Dub Qawwali’, was released by Six Degrees Records. It received huge critical acclaim internationally, reaching no. 2 in the iTunes US Chart, no. 4 in the UK and was the no. 1 seller in Amazon.com’s Electronic Music section for a period. It also earned Gaudi a nomination for the BBC’s World Music Awards 2008.

On 13 October 2015, Google celebrated Khan’s 67th birthday with a doodle on its homepage for India, Pakistan, Japan among other countries calling him the person “who opened the world’s ears to the rich, hypnotic sounds of the Sufis”. “Thanks to his legendary voice, Khan helped bring “world music” to the world,” said Google.

In February 2016, a rough mix of song recorded by Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1998 called “Circle of the Noose” was leaked to the internet. Guitarist Dave Navarro described the song saying “It’s pop in the sense of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, hook. I really love it and we use a loop of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It’s really nice. The best way I can describe it is it’s like pepped- up ’60s folk with ’90s ideals, but I would hate to label it as folk because it’s not, it moves.”

Photo Courtesy- Imprints and Images of Indian Film Music

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