‘Velvet Fire’ – the Legacy of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan


“Then came the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Part Buddha, part demon, part mad angel….his voice is velvet fire, simply incomparable. His every enunciation went straight into me. I knew not one word of Urdu, and somehow it still hooked me into the story that he weaved with his wordless voice. Nusrat’s upper register painting a melody that made my heart long to fly. I felt a rush of adrenaline in my chest, like I was on the edge of a cliff, wondering when I would jump and how well the ocean would catch me: two questions that would never be answered until I experienced the first leap.Jeff Buckley1

In a powerful scene from Martin Scorsese’s (controversial) 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ, we see Jesus carrying his cross for the first time. He is surrounded by people but we know that he is alone in both his suffering and his devotion – two qualities film composer Peter Gabriel sought to capture in a voice that he could place in the music underscoring the scene. Over an almost-static sonic landscape in the form of a drone and some synthesizer harmonies, we hear a lone male voice that begins in its low register and gradually thrusts itself upwards, not entirely effortlessly, but nevertheless with a quiet confidence. Soon, it is soaring. The musical metaphor is right there: something that was once desolate in an unforgiving environment has flown away to a more peaceful place.

Gabriel considered many singers world-wide who would somehow express ‘the spiritual agony of Christ in a scream’2, yet still do so in a formalistic way, in the best sense of the word. He passed on many singers before deciding on Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose improvisatory approach was rooted deeply in a classical tradition. Over Gabriel’s backing track, Nusrat ad-libs within the context of the Indian Classical raga Darbari.

It is ironic but perhaps a wonderful testament to the universality of art that Christ’s agony and passion are represented here by an Islamic voice. But we simply hear the quality of the voice itself (no doubt what communicates beyond language and culture): its huskiness, its nuanced and volatile expression soaked in life experience, always betraying the herculean effort it takes to get somewhere worth getting to. If you are not familiar with Nusrat’s unique combination of technique, musicality and personality, scroll to 36’30” on the following clip, just one example of many:

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-97) was born into a Pakistani family whose distinguished vocal lineage stretched back no less than six centuries. They were Qawwals, professional musicians and exponents of Qawwali, a recognized South-Asian musical genre which serves as an essential vehicle for followers of the region’s Sufi Islam to express their religious and spiritual devotion. Through Qawwali music, Sufis seek to connect with God; to attain and sustain a state of religious ecstasy (ḥāl)3. Nusrat (or Khan-Sahib, to use the respectful suffix) is remembered as the most famous Qawwal to have lived. He was also the most recognizable of Qawwals, his immortalized in 125 albums, the largest recorded output by a Qawwali artist according to the Guiness book of World Records 20014But Khan-sahib’s legacy extends beyond the domain of Qawwali.



I am continually fascinated by the complex interplay of tradition and innovation. The great pioneers who take art forward do so nevertheless while standing on the shoulders of their heroes, and their heroes before them. While I discovered Nusrat as a late teen through recordings, it wasn’t until I became a professional musician myself that I started ruminating seriously on how he and my other artistic heroes straddle the tradition-innovation line.

Nusrat was certainly steeped in Qawwali tradition – one might even say ‘well before he was even born’ – if you consider his family’s musical history. But there is more to him that made him unique. Nusrat’s artistry had breadth too, in that he had also achieved a complete mastery of the Hindustani (North Indian) classical ragas, as well as ‘light classical’ South Asian vocal forms such as thumri, khayal, ghazal, and geet2. The raga tradition, unlike the similarly rigourous performance tradition of Western Classical music, has never relegated improvisation as a key element. According to Peter Gabriel, who coincidentally went on to play a significant role in Nusrat’s career in the capacity of founder of Real World Records and the WOMAD festival: “….there was amazing improvising, to me of the standard of Hendrix. He [Nusrat] could take a theme and just it explode it outwards….make it much more than it was originally.”4

One such Real World release was MUSTT MUSTT, the ‘seminal 1990 fusion’ album (the Austin Chronicle, 2001). While Nusrat’s first release on the Real World label was the purely traditional 1988 album SHAHEN-SHAH (literally ‘king of kings’), in 1990 he took a surprising turn. MUSTT MUSTT, produced by Canadian Michael Brook, is indeed a true ‘fusion’ album, featuring musicians and instruments from different continents. Below is the title track, one of the album’s catchiest. Surely the last thing fans of Nusrat’s traditional output must have expected, after the brief reggae-ish intro, were age-old Qawwali lyrics set to Nusrat’s music:

Dum mustt Qallandar mustt mustt (Each breath is bliss for the one who is in love), Mera vird hai dum dum Ali Ali (My whole being is infused with the love of Ali)5

The ‘hook’ is the opening refrain, a chant that is memorable at the outset. With what sounds like a verse and chorus established (from a Western perspective), we hear a few phrases of alaap at 1’06”. The chant has now receded into the background, serving almost as a rhythmic drone in the absence of a traditional drone. Beginning at 1’40”, and for the middle portion of this song, we hear a virtuosic display of Nusrat’s improv in sargam (vocal syllables as text), punctuated occasionally by the ‘mustt mustt’ refrain. Leaving lyrics aside in this manner, it is essentially the same as an instrumental solo, with a tight arc and well-placed climaxes, lyrical phrases juxtaposed mercurially with flashes of complex sax-like lines. The solo certainly bears scrutiny for student improvisors who might wish to transcribe it. My favourite moments are at 2’00”, when he briefly hints at a triple meter with an elaborate sequential passage (executed with some real bravura!), and at 3’03” when the climax of his rhythmically intricate build-up is simply a descending phrase that, at long last, ‘locks in’ with the groove of the band. It is one of those spontaneous moments that seems so inevitable in hindsight.

MUSTT MUSTT went on to be remixed by Massive Attack, the British experimental dance music group, who were seminal in the trip-hop movement. The remix was a major seller in Pakistan and India, becoming a UK club hit and the first Urdu song to reach the charts in the UK6. It even proved so popular that it was transformed into a Coca-Cola commercial for Indian audiences with Nusrat’s blessing. According to Nitin Sawhney: “It’s astonishing how a Qawwali singer from Faisalabad, whose music has been around for centuries, can work so well with a modern band from Bristol. It truly epitomizes the universality of music.”4

And so it was that after decades of performing traditional Qawwali for traditional audiences, Nusrat’s work was now reaching new audiences both in the West and back at home. More opportunities for collaboration arose, and so did his exposure in a variety of arenas: MAGIC TOUCH (1991, w/British-Indian producer Bally Sagoo); DEAD MAN WALKING (1995, two songs in collaboration with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder for the Hollywood film directed by Tim Robbins); BANDIT QUEEN (soundtrack for 1996 film directed by Shekhar Kapur); NIGHT SONG (1996, w/Michael Brook); to name a few. At the time of Khan-sahib’s untimely death at the age of 49, he was involved in a project that would reveal the significance and scope of his influence on a whole host of well-known younger-generation contemporary British-Asian artists: for STAR RISE (1997), again produced by Brook, Real World commissioned the leading lights of the UK’s so-called ‘Asian Underground’ movement to remix and reshape Nusrat’s back catalogue: Nitin Sawhney, Aki Nawaz, Black Star Liner, Asian Dub Foundation, the Dhol Foundation, Talvin Singh, among others.

As Rehan Hyder observes in ‘Brimful of Asia‘: “many of the young Asian performers who have emerged during the 1990s have cited the singer as a source of inspiration. Through their interpretation of Nusrat’s work, [they] highlight the importance of both continuity and change in the expression of diasporic identity. Each band included written tributes to the great Qawwali maestro, praising his role in inspiring their own contemporary musical styles which have, in turn, been used to radically interpret a selection of [Nusrat’s] work on the album.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, indie rock idol Jeff Buckley referred to Nusrat as ‘my Elvis, I listen to him every day’. And consequently, and perhaps ironically, Nusrat’s collaborations were raising awareness for traditional Qawwali back home in Pakistan. In allowing his renditions of Qawwali material to be placed in such unfamiliar contexts, there were those who, according to Michael Brook, saw MUSTT MUSTT as ‘defiling a sacred and traditional music’.6 I often wondered what the purists thought of his other (more questionable) collaborations. More importantly, I wondered what Khan-sahib himself thought. It wasn’t until I began my research for this particular blog post that I came across comments that are very revealing about his views (personally instructive for me I might add) on the progressive-conservative divide:

“Our young generation which was brought up abroad is totally ignorant of our culture. They listen to Western music, adopt Western fashions. With my ‘awaaz’ (voice) I wanted to appeal to them – in our own language in their form…”Frontline

“I cherish the tradition of classical music more than my life. I consider its protection and preservation as my spiritual duty. As an experiment, I do not mind the use of Western musical instruments. But it will [be a] great injustice to introduce any change in the Classical music. I use Western musical instruments because I believe that you can dress-up a pretty child in any clothes [and] it will still [be] pretty. But the more important thing is that the child should not get injured while putting on those clothes.” – in an interview to Italian journalist Enzo Gentile2

What I find personally instructive and inspiring is the notion that Nusrat endorsed any collaboration in which the essence of the traditional material was preserved. Like a flower in a foreign garden, our perception of the purity of a single entity is changed, perhaps even enhanced, provided that it continues to bloom untouched in a different environment to what it is used to. Nusrat’s renditions of Qawwali were able to do so regardless of their immediate contexts.  – © DINUK WIJERATNE, 2013

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1. Buckley, Jeff – CD liner notes to ‘Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party: the Supreme Collection’ (Caroline 1997)

2. Ahmed Aqeel Ruby (trans. Malik) – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: A Living Legend (Words of Wisdom 1992)

4. BBC Radio – Guru of Peace: An Introduction to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

5. Ahluwahlia, Khiran – artist’s website

6. Brook, Michael – Official Website as of Oct 2013

Qureshi, Regula – Sufi Music of India & Pakistan (Oxford University Press 2006)

Potter, John (ed.) – The Cambridge Companion to Singing (Cambridge University Press 2000)

Hyder, Rehan – Brimful of Asia: Negotiating Ethnicity on the UK Music Scene (Ashgate 2004)

Brooks, Daphne – Jeff Buckley’s Grace (Continuum Books 2005)

Lynch, David – CD review (Austin Chronicle July 27th 2001)

Tarte, Bob – DVD review (Miami New Times, Feb 19th 2004)

Baruah, Amit; Padmanabhan, R – The Stilled Voice, Frontline (The Hindu vol.14/no.18 Sept 6-19, 1997)