I first discovered Pakistani sufi maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in 1982 on one of Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) Festival benefit collection LPs, titled Music and Rhythm. It was the beginning of a 1980s phenomenon that would come to be known popularly as world music, right around the same time that King Sunny Ade would gain fame outside of Nigeria.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. His sound was powerful and utterly transfixing, unlike anything else I’d ever heard, except maybe for Coltrane. And this mesmerizing cut was only an excerpt. I contacted the WOMAD people in England, and they told me that his concerts were typically were two to three hours long. I remember thinking, “OMG! At that point, you’d be transported to another realm—a sufi realm.”
Naturally, I began featuring his music on Morning Becomes Eclectic until one day, the 80-something-year-old mother of our general manager (then Ruth Hirschman), called the station and was put on hold. When Ruth picked up, her mother asked about the hold music, saying that it sounded “like somebody was getting his toenails pulled out!” Clearly, this was not music for everybody. But for me it is totally transporting, which is really the point of it all.
I first heard Nusrat perform live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York City a year or so later. His Qawwali music is Pakistani sufi gospel, sung by multiple voices (usually men) to the accompaniment of a harmonium, a small pump-organ played in seated position. The word Qawwali means “wise or philosophical utterance,” as the spirit of Qawwali is meant to bring the listener closer to the divine. I remember John Lurie (of Lounge Lizards and Jim Jarmusch films) sitting behind me, muttering exultant “oh’s” and “ahh’s.” I don’t know if he got closer to the divine that night, but he was really feeling it!
The next time I saw Nusrat and his Qawwali group was at the LAX Hilton for a benefit to construct a cancer hospital in Lahore, Pakistan. The celebrity M.C. was Imran Khan, the former cricketeer turned politician. Despite having the stomach flu, Nusrat somehow managed to perform. Each round had a designee to exhort those of us seated at the tables to raise $5000. I thought, “Me, raise $5,000 when my friends and I were trying to make rent each month?”
I also saw Nusrat perform at a concert hall in Buena Park. In contrast to the Nigerian habit of ‘spraying’ or ‘pasting’ famous musicians, where you’d place a dollar bill on the sweating forehead of, say, King Sunny Ade or your favorite talking drummer, for Qawwali shows, the audience would wad up five, ten, and/or twenty dollar bills and hurl them at the performers. A lot of money was swept off the stage that night. I noticed that the attendees (very few were Anglos like me) all drove Mercedes Benz’s. BMW’s were considered playboy cars, not the solid, respectable ride that the Pakistanis preferred.
In 1992, I interviewed Nusrat at KCRW. It’s in my taped archives, and I included the interview in my book, Rhythm Planet: The Great Music Makers (Rizzoli, 1998). In his entry is the book’s only mistake: Khan is misspelled as “Kahn,” as if Nusrat had suddenly become Jewish instead of Muslim.
In addition to his numerous great albums of devotional music on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label, Nusrat was open to working with a lot of other producers outside of the Qawwali tradition. This was part of what made him so great, and why he should be remembered. One of Nusrat’s most famous collaborations was with the UK group Massive Attack on the song “Mustt Mustt” (A Man and His Work). This was his first project with composer/producer Michael Brook. The second, Night Song, is also brilliant. They also collaborated on a third album, Remixed: Star Rise.
Other more “clubby-poppy” CDs include Mast Qalander, Vol. 14 (the title of a famous Pakistani song) and Magic Touch. These are testament to Nusrat’s ability to break out of his Qawwali comfort zone to try new and even crazy, fun things.
Nusrat’s career started with a dream: in it he was singing in Pakistan’s most famous mosque. He did live to realize this dream before his untimely death in 1997. The late, great sufi singer’s story always brings to mind the 20th century poet Delmore Schwartz’s autobiography, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.