In 1993, a winter performance at the Gateway Theater in
displayed all the ingredients of a typical rock concert: an endless,
almost hypnotizing beat; hundreds of mesmerized individuals slavishly
clap to the beat while dozens more dance in the aisles. But unlike a
U2 or Pearl Jam show, this was a concert with a higher purpose --
rejoicing in the grace of Allah.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a name which is neither well-known
well-pronounced by most Americans, is a pinnacle of success in
southern Asia and many other parts of the world. Hailed by many
as the Pavarotti of Pakistan, Khan is the world's most celebrated
qawwal. A qawwal is a specially-trained male vocalist who performs
qawwali, a musical expression of devotional poetry practiced by
the Sufis. The Sufis, an ancient mystical sect of Islam, achieve
spiritual enlightenment through music, much like a Whirling
Dervish achieves a higher state of consciousness through dancing.
In performing qawwali, the main vocalist sits with three
vocalists, two of which are playing harmonium pump organs.
Behind them sit five other men: four who clap and sing as a
chorus, and one who plays the tabla, the traditional drum of
the Subcontinent. As the harmonium players begin to solo in
the chosen key, the chorus and tabla player keep a steady beat.
The qawwal and his other singers then sustain a passionate
cry, calling the audience to order. Once the qawwal is ready,
he begins the lyrics -- often a praising of Muhammad or a tale
Qawwali is performed in a simple verse-and-chorus format.
qawwal will continue each verse, trading off lines with the other
singers. As each verse builds to a climax, they passionately return
to the chorus, over and over again, for up to twenty minutes.
Words are repeated until they lose meaning, leaving only the
music and the spirit behind.
While traditional Qawwal is performed at Sufi shrines
Khan has brought the style to the West with wild abandon.
Though other vocalists may have a stronger voice or greater
range, it can be easily argued than Khan has the most passionate
voice in the modern musical world.
To be in the presence of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is a mystical
experience in itself. A short, heavy man, Khan sits on the stage
with his party, made up of his younger brother Farukh, his nephew
Rahat and half a dozen cousins. Waiting for the right moment to
sing, he stares intently at the floor. His eyes close as he slowly
gestures his hand in front of him, as if to say "The song is about
to begin. Please join me and listen." As the spirit of the music
grows, his excitement grows -- ever so slightly. Khan, now swaying
his large, majestic torso back and forth, winces while his left hand
flails in front of him. The hypnotized audience rests on each
syllable of his words. Adoring fans dance to the stage and throw
handfuls of dollars over him -- over forty times last Friday
alone -- and he does not even acknowledge him. The music is
too important to be distracted by several hundred dollars
showering from above.
It is no surprise that Khan decided to become a qawwal,
his family has performed traditional Sufi music for over twenty
generations. As he explained to me through a translator, "My
family has been raising qawwals for over 600 years. I have been
trained with it since I was very young. My father, who was also
a qawwal, actually would have wanted wanted me to become
an engineer or a doctor. Instead, I chose to follow the tradition
under the apprenticeship of my father and uncle."
By choosing to follow the Qawwal tradition, Khan commits
to more than the music -- he commits himself to Sufism itself. His
fans praise him like a gift, calling him The Master. He is known
throughout the world as Shahen-Shah, the Shining Star. To
compare his stature to even the greatest performers in the
West would still be an understatement. Yet, he remains a humble
servant to God, never allowing his fame to defeat his purpose.
When I went backstage to interview him during the intermission,
he was sitting in a chair, surrounded by fans as they knelt on the
floor. Not knowing how to act or how to address him, I also knelt
before him in awe, looking up at the great Shahen-Shah. Before he
addressed me, I turned to one of my translators and asked, "What
should I call him?" fearing that there must be a proper term in his
native Urdu. A young moustached man smiled and says, "Mr. Khan
will do. He is, alas, only a man like you or I."
Suddenly relaxed by this poetic, if not rehearsed response,
myself. Khan, with an overwhelming smile planted on his baby face,
shook my hand vigorously and offered me tea. As we conversed
through three tag-teaming translators, Khan listened intently to
my every word. He tried his best to understand my English --
having recently moved to America as Artist-In-Residence of the
University of Washington, Khan used our meeting as a chance
to analyze his language skills. While he patiently worked his way
through every word, I noticed a small case of lazy eye. As we
finished, I am once again offered tea and a small somosa. I had
feared an uncomfortable conversation with a saint. I enjoyed a
conversation with an old friend instead.
"I cannot allow the fame to go to my head," explains Khan.
have said I have compromised my faith by coming to the West. But
this is not so. To travel the world and open the hearts of those whose
were previously closed is a joy worth the other sacrifices."
To live the life of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is by no means
addition to his teaching duties at the University of Washington,
Khan performs as often as possible. The Chicago concert, in fact,
was literally a last minute affair, planned from start to finish in two
weeks alone. The concerts themselves add to the toll; unlike most
western concerts, qawwali performance continue until spiritual
elevation is achieved. His recent appearance, which started around
nine p.m., continued past one in the morning. "The touring is
intense, but enlightening," he admits. But the humble Khan refuses
to complain: "Qawwal can never be seen as a chore."
Though popular in Europe since the early seventies, Nusrat
Ali Khan has only recently reached the ears of Americans. Much
of this new-found success is due to his friendship with Peter
Gabriel, who produced his last album, appropriately entitled
Shahen-Shah, on Gabriel's Real World label.
"I was first introduced to Peter Gabriel several years
remembers Khan. "He had recently heard my voice and asked
if we could meet. In 1987, he used my voice on his album Passion
and the movie The Last Temptation of Christ in the scene where
the Christ was raised unto the cross. Working with Peter is
a great joy."
Wrapped within a lifestyle of fanatical fans, never-ending
tours and teaching the tradition, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan lives
in a spiritual fast lane, not that unlike an American rock
sensation. But for Khan, this is the only way he would have
ever wanted. The Sufi credo teaches an ascetic lifestyle, achieving
Allah through music and experience. From this life a paradise is
"To be a qawwal is more than being a performer, more than
being an artist," he notes with a stern, but wise smile. "One
must be willing to release one's mind and soul from one's body
to achieve ecstasy through music. Qawwali is enlightenment itself."
Enlightenment, indeed, for all those who listen