Our planet was blessed with a wonderful human being, who was one of the most talented artists that spread the message of peace and love through qawwali. That may begin to sum up the entity that was Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. His life encompassed many lifetimes of talent and songs. In addition to his artistry, he broke down barriers between Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim communities. And he did all this while wearing a sweet attitude and simple humility.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was known in Pakistan, and became reversed as the Shahenshah-E-Qawwali or the “King of Kings.” Decades after his death, social media still loves Nusrat’s music and people love to watch his 3- and 4-hour performances. Countless artists and sites pay tribute to his work, and his work continued to be copied in Coke Studio Pakistan, Coke Studio India, Lollywood, and Bollywood.
To the uninitiated, qwali is a sect of devotional music derived from Sufi Islamic poems which originated in the northern parts of India and Pakistan. To South Asians, it is more than a genre of music. It is embedded in the soundscape of the streets of Hyderabad, Delhi, Lahore, and Karachi.
You may have been exposed to Sufis within music before in the West thanks to the 1970s songs (“Baba O’ Riley” and parts of his 1972 debut solo album “Who Came First”) that Pete Townshend (seminal member of The Who) wrote in the parlance of his Sufi Murshid Meher Baba. But in the 1970s, the Western world was taken by storm first by Sabri Brothers and then Nusrat’s qawwali party. Both artist ensembles had a major impact on qawwali spreading outside of South Asia.
To understand and digest the tremendous journey that is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s life and legacy, we must first start with his father, Fateh Ali Khan.
A Tradition of Sufi Singing from Fateh Ali Khan
Fateh Ali Khan was born in 1901 in British-occupied India during a time when the Empire was involved in China and South Africa. Even through this challenging time, Fateh Ali Khan was trained by his father (Maula Baksh Khan) in qawwali and classical music. He soon became a skilled vocalist and a versatile instrumentalist, playing sitar and the western violin. For his time, it is claimed that Fateh Ali Khan was quite famous.
With his qawwali, Fateh Ali Khan supposedly was continuing an unbroken 600-year tradition within his family of qawwals. This is especially true when he partnered with his brother, Mubarak Ali khan to perform traditional qawwali music for his family and countrymen.
The older son of Fateh Ali Khan, Nusrat was never supposed to be in music. His father hoped for him to become a doctor. Even with the wish that his sons not be burdened with the stressful life of a qawwal, Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and their father Fateh still were a family of musicians. So naturally, the brothers were trained by their father.
Tumultuous Indo-Pak Partition Births the King of Qawwali
In 1947, the British Raj’s rule over Colonial India came to an end with the independence of India from the British Empire. The Colony was split into two dominions, India and Pakistan with a portion of Pakistan later becoming East Pakistan and then renamed Bangladesh in 1971 after the Liberation War.
It was during this changing backdrop that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was born in (October) 1948 in Lyallpur (Faisalabad), Pakistan. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, like his father before him, was trained in qawwali devotion music and teachings from a young age.
Fateh Ali Khan wished for his son to become a doctor or an engineer due to the social status of such vocations. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s first public performance came at the age of 15 in 1964 at a solemn event, Fateh Ali Khan’s Chilum (funeral, also spelled chelum) but Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan proved his mettle and delivered a heart-wrenching performance.
The stunning performance at his father’s funeral left onlookers and senior musicians in awe of what they had just witnessed. It was from that moment on that others began to believe that Nusrat could carry forward his ancestral musical lineage.
After his father’s death, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s teachings in the qawwali tradition were assumed by his uncle, Salamat Ali khan. He continued the teachings of qawwali devotion music to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his brother Farrukh. Soon, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan joined his uncles in public performances to continue the family tradition.
Early Musical Journey and Broadcasts
At that time (1971), the party was called Mujahid Mubarak Fateh Ali Khan Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party. They recorded their first broadcast at Radio Pakistan, around the same time that he had his first hit song, Haq Ali Ali Ali Maula Ali Ali.
The 1970s brought more fame at home, as well as in North India. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan performed endlessly, continuously expanding his reach of qawwali to pushing the movement to new corners of the world. He felt an obligation to pass on his family’s long tradition in qawwali music to new converts, always proud to perform this ancestral legacy in front of an audience.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had a tenor singing voice, with the added gift to perform for long hours without straining his voice. He could perform 3-6 performances in a weekend without suffering the difficulty most singers face when taking on such a concert load. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s public performances could turn into a marathon of higher consciousness as his audiences were mesmerized by his voice.
The decade ended on a happy personal note as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan married his first cousin, Naheed in 1979. The next decade would bring new friends and new horizons as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s reputation spread to different parts of the world. It would also bring Nusrat a daughter, who is his only direct heir.
Qawwali at Womad 1985; Peter Gabriel and Nusrat
In July 1985, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party played the WOMAD festival in Essex, UK and amongst the crowd and stars backstage was one, Peter Gabriel. After witnessing the jaw-dropping set of music that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party delivered, Peter Gabriel was keen on signing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to a recording contract.
This was achieved shortly afterward and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was the newest recording artist for Peter Gabriel’s upstart Real World Records label. This was a great achievement as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was rewarded with a recording contract while introducing qawwali music to the west.
Peter Gabriel recorded Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party at his Real World Studios near Bath, UK and the fruits of that labor were delivered on the 1988 soundtrack album to the controversial movie “The Last Temptation of Christ”. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan went on to release five albums for Real World Records in the next seven years which include: Shahen-Shah (1988), Mustt Mustt (1990 which was an instant hit), Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party (1994), The Last Prophet (1994), and Night Song (1995).
Nusrat’s music/albums in Hollywood
Mainstream Hollywood in America also became fans of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music, including his compositions for the soundtrack to “Natural Born Killers” (1994) and teaming up with Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder on two songs for the “Dead Man Walking” soundtrack.
And Canadian musicians were no different than their US counterparts in their appreciation of Kahn saheb. Michael Brook collaborated with Nusrat in 1996 for the album Night Song.
Bollywood loved Nusrat as well
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan also had successful collaborations and composed music within the Bollywood industry in India, working with such luminaries as AR Rehman (an album titled gurus of peace on the 1997 “Vanda Mataram” album), Javed Akhtar (1996 album “Sangam”), and famously Madhuri Dixit danced to one of his songs (“Mera Piya Ghar Aya”) in the 1995 Bollywood movie “Yaarana”.
His recording with AR Rehman was his final recording before his untimely passing. Many years after Nusrat had died (in 2000), Bollywood released the movie Dhadkan with Shilpa Shetty and Akshay Kumar. The most famous track of the movie was Dulhe ka Sehra, sang by Nusrat and performed in the movie by the senior actor Kadar Khan.
Premature Death of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
In August 1997, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan passed away from a heart attack at the young age of 48 years old. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s death happened in the UK, where he was admitted to the hospital for complications regarding his diabetes. The death was a shock to his immediate relatives and his musicians. Given his stature in the music world and also his role as the true ambassador for Pakistan, he had a massive funeral in Pakistan.
To summarize how fellow musicians felt about Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the famous American musician Jeff Buckley (who also tragically died young) stated that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was “his Elvis”. Tributes poured in from around the world as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was the brightest star that touched everyone he met with his music.
The music was visceral, and it was radiant and alive and that is the way that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan lived his life and he was more than successful at spreading qawwali music around the world to showcase his family legacy which will live forever.