Obituary: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

At the Hackney Empire, East London in 1990, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, "Shahen-shah-e-qawwali" - "the brightest shining star of qawwali" - sat cross-legged and barefoot on the concert stage. To his left were the other members of his "party": an eight-man chorus, a tabla player, two hand- pumped harmonia, and furthest from him, the youngest member of the ensemble, his pupil. Over the drone of the harmonia the chorus set up a slow pattern of handclaps. As simple as that. The clapping initiated a rhythm of expectation, a yearning that cried out for the Voice which would become the medium of still greater yearning. As soon as you heard it - minutes into a performance which lasted for hours and left you dazed, ecstatic - you were held by the implacable power of the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

In our century there have been only one or two voices like this: voices that rend the soul even as they soothe it. A voice like this, like the voice of Callas or of the great Egyptian singer Om Calsoum, longs to be answered by something as beautiful as itself. And so it soars. Higher and further, until it consumes and destroys itself. Or until it finds God. That is why, on Peter Gabriel's soundtrack of Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), it is Nusrat's voice you hear in the climactic moments of the Passion. Oliver Stone, meretriciously, in Natural Born Killers (1994), and Tim Robbins, in Dead Man Walking (1995), also saw the potential in that voice for conveying a mood of, respectively, delirious excitement or unbearable pathos.

Appearing on a sound-track album alongside Bruce Springsteen and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam offers an indication of his popularity; the award of many honorary degrees and, in 1995 of a Unesco prize, show the extent to which he was esteemed; in his native Pakistan - and in neighbouring India - he was revered. The immense narrative propulsion of his music was enough to raise even the most secular listeners to a state of bewildered grace, irrespective of what they knew of the music's essential, religious connection with Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam founded in 10th-century Persia.

A version of its devotional music, qawwali (literally "utterance"), in something like its present form, was established in the Indian sub-continent at the end of the 13th century. Nusrat himself came from a line of qawwals stretching back over 600 years. He was born in Lyallpur - now Faisalbad - in Pakistan in 1948 and received informal lessons from his father Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, a qawwali master. When his father died in 1964 Nusrat began training with his father's eldest brothers. By 1971, with the death of his uncle, Mubarik Ali Khan, he was already established as one of the greatest living qawwals. Since then, especially in the last eight or nine years of his life, he brought this music to a world-wide audience.

Much of the credit for this popularity must go to the festival organisers Womad (he first performed at one of their festivals, in Britain, in 1985) and to Gabriel's record label Real World. Nusrat's greatest hits run to over 20 volumes and there are dozens of fine concert recordings, but the best-produced albums - like Skaken-shah (1989) and Shahbaaz (1991), were all on Gabriel's label. There are dozens of re- mixes and samples of Nusrat floating around the Asian dance circuit but, again, the most sensitive of these are found on Real World, on Mustt Mustt (1990) and Night Song (1996), both made in collaboration with the Canadian electronics maverick Michael Brook.

It was a dub-heavy Massive Attack remix of "Mustt Mustt" that brought Nusrat to the ears of a generation of clubbers who, at least initially, were interested in a different kind of ecstatic experience to the one offered by his traditional work. As qawwali developed so the devotion and love offered to saints and prophets came increasingly to resemble expressions of secular, sensual love. Not surprisingly, this, combined with Nusrat's willingness to embrace western electronic dance music, led to accusations from conservative elements in Pakistan that the devotional character of the music was being debased, cheapened.

There was no hint of compromise or sell-out in Nusrat's cross-over work, however, only of musical open-mindedness and boundary-pushing exploration. For many listeners Nusrat's east-west albums provided a way in to the recordings of traditional work which continued to appear on a bewildering variety of labels. By the robust standards of qawwali, his last traditional release on Real World, The Last Prophet (1994), was a relatively gentle album, consolidating the repertoire of dedications to prophets and saints, and only gradually attaining the sustained heights of "Jewleh-Lal", the 25-minute chant on Shahbaaz.

No recordings, though, quite convey the overwhelming experience of seeing Nusrat performing live. Especially since you always found yourself asking how long his voice could last? How long he could continue to soar?

There were signs of fatigue or restraint in his concerts of the last years, especially when he was playing in a setting like the Barbican where the staff, ignorant or indifferent to the etiquette of qawwali, were obliged to escort back to their seats any members of the audience who wanted to dance on or near the stage. In more relaxed venues, as the chants took hold, the audience would be in a state of near delirium, showering the master with money. Nusrat's hands which, initially, had been simply rising and falling, emphasising the rhythm, would begin tracing invisible dance scriptures in the air. Pitting himself against the massed power of the chorus, he would fling back elaborations of the main phrases, leading them, in surging, hypnotic repetitions, towards a series of rapturous crescendos.

By then Nusrat was no longer projecting his voice, he had become the physical incarnation of the Voice. Much western religious music seems clammy with death; by the gallop of handclaps and the dust-swirl of tabla, Nusrat's music exalted in and of itself: incandescent, burning. In the words of Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi mystic:

I am not a voice, I am the Fire singing

What you hear is crackling in you.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, singer: born Lyallpur, Pakistan 1948; married (one daughter); died London 16 August 1997.

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