Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan drives people wild with his music, which is an unbelievable combination of rich, soaring, complex sounds including something that is hard to describe but reminds us of yodeling. His music has been featured on movie soundtracks and in concert halls around the world, and his ecstatic voice haunts all who hear it. Here, the sensational singer Jeff Buckley talks with the man who has, for so long, inspired him
Born in a region where music is as much of a birthright as breathing, singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is held to be the brightest star in Qawwali, a form of Islamic devotional music, in all of Pakistan – “bright,” that is, as in blinding. A vocal art over seven centuries old, Qawwali is passed down orally from father to son (in rare cases to daughters) by Sufi masters. Sufism is a Muslim philosophical and literary movement dating back to the tenth century. Borrowing tenets from other world religions, including Buddhism and Christianity, this mystical order stresses the personal union of the soul with God through poetry and symbolism. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has single-handedly transformed this art from a static antique into a brilliant explosion of light. Through his ecstatic performances, Khan’s Qawwali acts as a living testament to music’s power to link all humans, unashamed of emotion, to the divine. At once soaring and penetrating, these sounds seem to rip open the sky, slowly revealing the radiant face of the beloved. Qawwals don’t sing, they are born to sing, and the men who accompany Khan in his ensemble do not just play music, they become music itself. Every Qawwali performer is excellent, mind you, for they all, by definition, must sing from a heart burning with a passionate love for Allah (God), the Prophet Muhammad, and the saints, and must be totally open to the divine. For them, there is nothing else. Six years after first discovering his music, I was able to meet the man whose voice has healed the fuck out of me. We talked in a vast hotel room in New York City, through his interpreter, Rashid Ahmed Din, who knows Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s story better than anyone. I wouldn’t lie to you, this is the man.
JEFF BUCKLEY: The first real Qawwali I ever heard was called “Yeh Jo Halka Halka,” from the album The Day, the Night, the Dawn, the Dusk on Shanachie Records.
NUSRAT FATEH ALl KHAN: You liked it?
JB: It saved my life. I was in a very bad place.
NFAK: Where were you?
JB: Just depressed.
NFAK: I see.
JB: Like many people in America, I was first introduced to Qawwali through you. I didn’t understand any of the words, but your voice carried the message to my heart, which is all that most Western listeners can rely on because we don’t know the language. For Instance, few people know that halka means “drunkenness.”
NFAK: It is not drunkenness in terms of alcohol. It is like when somebody is in love and is drunk in the eyes.
RASHID AHMED DIN: He’s not talking about the whiskey bottle, he’s talking about . . . the beauty.
JB: Yes, but it’s impossible for English speakers to tell this from the translations of the Sufi poetry, which are always very dry. If one has any sense of Urdu [an official language of Pakistan], one knows that the English translations lack a little soul, they’re like wood. But the Qawwalis [the ceremonial songs] aren’t written, they’re sung by heart.
NFAK: Yes, you’ve got to sing from the depths of the heart. Without heart you cannot be a Qawwal. You sing the songs every day, so even though there is quite a lot, you remember it.
JB: It must be hard to withstand the feeling you need in order to inhabit the poetry properly.
NFAK: That’s right.
JB: You once had a dream that is now very famous. Can you describe it to me?
NFAK: My father [the Qawwali singer Ustad Fateh Ali Khan] died in 1964, and ten days later, I dreamed that he came to me and asked me to sing. I said I could not, but he told me to try. He touched my throat, I started to sing, and then I woke up singing. I had dreamed that my first live performance would be at my father’s chilla [funeral ceremony], where we would all sit together again and read prayers from the Koran and so on. On the fortieth day after his death, we held the ceremony, and I performed for the very first time.
JB: How old were you?
NFAK: About sixteen.
JB: What was life like before the dream?
NFAK: I was just studying with my father, a very difficult task for me since he was a great, great Qawwali singer. He didn’t want me to become a musician; he wanted me to be a doctor, because he said singing was too hard. You see, many people can sing without any basic background. But this [improvisational] style of Qawwali is what my family does, and to do it well, we have to go through many difficulties.
RAD: Nusrat was the most beloved child in the family. The whole town used to take him around, and play with him and so forth; in other words, spoil him. His father thought, “He will not be able to concentrate.” They wanted him to carry on studying to be a doctor. But he used to listen to his father teaching his students and secretly, he would go and practice, hiding his gift. One day, his father discovered him while he was practicing and he got a bit cross, but he found out that Nusrat had a talent, and then he started teaching him, too. Unfortunately, his father died not long after that. After he did though, he said to Nusrat in the dream, “This world will hear a new voice, which will surprise them all.” But he didn’t know whose voice it would be.
JB: Until it happened.
RAD: That’s right. Can you imagine? He started so late and picked up so quick.
JB: There are no recordings of your father available in America.
NFAK: No, he never made records. We have some recordings off the radio in Pakistan, but no commercial releases. He said, “I don’t want people to pay a little money and listen to my voice.” [laughs]
RAD: His father was a man of dignity. He won many awards. Once the Shah of Iran came to Pakistan and his father performed in fluent Persian. The Shah was so stunned he gave him his car, a Chevrolet. You see, his father brought Qawwali music from the shrines into everyday life, like to weddings, parties, and to the high people in the government.
JB: I had a similar struggle, because I started very late.
NFAK: When did you start?
JB: My first performance was at about age fourteen. And I also hid from my father [the late singer Tim Buckley]. He had died by the time I started, but I hid from him a gift that I was born with. There was a period when I was frozen for about three or four years, starting when I was eighteen. In my dream at that time, the ghost of my father came smashing through the window. It doesn’t take a dream to make a singer, but yours was a beautiful gift. When did your own style begin?
RAD: He was well known from very early, but when he recorded a song called “Haq Ali Ali Maula Ali Ali” he became even more famous. What was required was turning the style and making it a little bit softer for the audience.
JB: You made the rhythm softer? Impossible, that rhythm is hard.
NFAK: I made it softer than my father used to do. In his day, the audience was well aware of the music, of the classical beat. Everyone used to listen to the real music. But as the times change, people change, and so do their tastes, so I try to understand what the public wants, what they require. I have tried to make the music a bit easier for them to understand.
JB: Did you make it less complex?
NFAK: Yes, I tried to change the classical style in a way that people who don’t understand it can enjoy.
JB: It’s also very Sufic to do something unseen. To reveal a deeper meaning.
NFAK: Yes, but Qawwals cannot change the form. Slight variations can be made but you cannot change the whole performance ritual. You must sing the Hamd [praise to Allah], the N’at-i-sharif [praise to Muhammad], and the Manqabat [praise to the saints]. These three elements are called Qawwali, and they’ve got to be there. Only minor technical changes can be done and improvisation all depends on the artist.
JB: I’ve never heard anything like what you produce.
RAD: With other Qawwals, whatever they perform today, they will perform the same way tomorrow. But with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, what he performs today will be completely different tomorrow.
JB: It surprises me that those other Qawwals are so static. Nusrat is wild, I mean wild.
RAD: But I haven’t heard anyone say, “This is unorthodox.” Whatever work he does, nobody can go against it, because of the number of recordings [over 100] that he has done. He doesn’t look like a major star when you come to meet him. He’s a natural man. It’s very unusual for a Qawwal to be a classical singer, or for a classical singer to be a Qawwal. It is particularly different to be commercial, like a pop star. He can do anything you ask him to do.
JB: Are you a Sufi?
NFAK: I am not a Sufi, but I follow the Sufi [tradition]. I will tell you one very famous story that will show you something about Sufis. A man came to my father and said, “I want you to perform for me.” The man said, “I only have one rupee, that’s all I’m going to give you.” And my father said, “O.K., fine.” So they went to an open field, just him and the old man, and when they started singing, suddenly there were people everywhere. They never knew where they all came from. That is a Sufi. He wasn’t in love with his money, he was in love with the music and was totally lost to it.
JB: Do you have a family?
NFAK: I have a daughter, she’s twenty years old.
JB: I don’t know If that’s important, but I like to know that you’re happy.
NFAK: Yes, I’m very happy.
JB: In America, sometimes there is no dancing allowed at the live shows. At the last one I attended, the cops came and took away anyone who danced. It seems that when American people go to these concerts they are bothered by people basically losing their shit.
NFAK: Yes, the audience goes crazy. In qawwali we have this effect, even back home. When people start dancing, they dance like they don’t know they are doing it. So they just get lost in it and it is very difficult to calm people down. It’s like something inside them is pushing them.
JB: The same thing happens in gospel churches here. Have you ever thought to perform, not only with accompanists from other places, but with singers?
NFAK: Yes, I have sung with Peter Gabriel, Shankar, and Yossou N’Dour. There is no recording, it was live, onstage.
JB: What do you listen to? What music do you love most?
NFAK: Indian classical music. I also like Western classical music and jazz.
JB: There seem to be parallels between Qawwali and African-American forms of music. Your styles are so close to jazz. Do you listen to any rock music?
NFAK: We don’t have such things in our country. I do listen to other music though, and try to pick up what is good.
JB: I heard a story about you, and I would like to ask if it is true. When you were in England, you were having some problems, so you went to see a doctor. The doctor said, “What does this man do?” And the assistant said, “He is a famous Qawwali singer in Pakistan.” The doctor said that if you stopped singing your heart would stop.
RAD: No, no, Nusrat is good. He’s still got the same force.