by Sam Buntz
If one man can lay claim to being the Elvis of Pakistani Music, that man is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. August 16th marked the 20th anniversary of his death, provoking tributes in the Indian and Pakistani press but little to no reaction in Europe and America. Yet Khan’s impact on Western music is significant. He was the crucial influence on Jeff Buckley, whose album Grace is one of the milestones of ’90s alternative rock. Nusrat collaborated with Peter Gabriel and Eddie Vedder, while Massive Attack remixed his songs and The Red Hot Chili Peppers sampled them. When Thom Yorke sings “My fake pla-a-stic love!” on “Fake Plastic Trees” from Radiohead’s The Bends, Nusrat is fully present within that italicized “a.”
Buckley paid one of the highest possible tributes to Nusrat’s group, writing, “I’ve seen Nusrat and his party repeatedly melt New Yorkers into human beings… These men do not play music, they are music itself.” Not only have Nusrat’s wildly liberated yet somehow perfectly controlled vocals left their mark on American and European rock and pop, they still bear revolutionary and subversive potential in Nusrat’s home country, Pakistan. In recent years, singers in Nusrat’s tradition—Sufism, the mystical side of Islam—have been assassinated and shrines to Sufi saints have been bombed. Spiritual love songs apparently seem threatening to the purveyors of rigid dogma.
Nusrat was a Qawwali performer, the unchallenged master in an incredibly popular genre of South Asian music. His albums are still a perfect discovery for the solitary, collegiate music geek, to be encountered during late night Apple Music perusals or filed under a bent “World Music” card in a used record store. (This was my experience). When listening to music in other languages, you often sense a cognitive gap. While you intuitively grasp certain dimensions of it, your lack of immediate lyrical comprehension blocks your ability to fully investigate its inner texture. While that gap still exists, Nusrat’s music gives you the illusion that it does not. Qawwali has a direct, driving, and thunderous emotional force, the capacity to convey extremities of joy that are simultaneously stormy and gentle. It’s a feeling distinct from and superior to mere happiness. The songs are effectively hymns: they whirl the listener out of a set sense of individuality and into a state of being called wajd, or mystical ecstasy. Through this transformation, the goal of Qawwali is ultimately to unite the soul with God.
The Khan family has a six hundred year history in Qawwali. Young Nusrat’s father, Fateh Khan, did not want him to follow in his footsteps—he wanted him to become a doctor. Fortunately, he gradually loosened up after realizing Nusrat’s potential. After the elder Khan’s death, his son had a dream: his father appeared and touched him on the throat. Nusrat began singing, struck with divine inspiration, and then awoke singing. In the afterlife, Khan senior had changed his mind about his son’s career choices.
It did prove to be a lucrative career choice. Within the next thirty years, Khan and his Qawwali party traveled the globe, from the United States to France to Japan, where the rotund Nusrat became known as “Singing Buddha.” He worked with Buckley (who wrote an essay on Khan and also interviewed him) and became a visiting professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Yet cultural exchange was not always a smooth process. When Nusrat’s music featured during a jail riot sequence in Oliver Stone’s ultra-violent Natural Born Killers, Khan registered his displeasure: “When someone uses something religious in that way, it reflects badly on my reputation.” (The incident is but a paragraph in the annals of the West’s insensitive treatment of the cultural traditions of others.) Notably overweight, Khan died of a heart attack in 1997. His nephew, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, carries on the Khan family legacy and continues performing throughout the world.
The reader may find all of this confusing: if you listen to news reports about Islam, you often hear the generalization, “Islam is against music.” After all, Cat Stevens stopped performing once he converted (though in recent years, he’s been willing to pick up the guitar and play “Peace Train” again). The authority making this statement can range from a conservative American pundit to an ultra-orthodox imam. Regardless of who says it, it is not actually true. There are Islamic musical traditions, often associated with Sufism, throughout the world, from West Africa to Central Asia. Qawwali is the South Asian version, invented 700 years ago by the great Indian poet and musician, Amir Khusro. (Certain Indian sources state that Khusro based Qawwali on inner melodies heard during mystical communion with God). Typically using tabla and harmonium (an addition brought by Christian missionaries), Qawwali singers perform songs that praise God, Muhammad, and other saintly figures, like the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali.
Strictly speaking, a “qawal” is a saying of the Prophet, but the songs can take forms other than the lyrical recitation of such sayings, often cloaking mystical yearning for God in the form of romantic love (as on certain George Harrison tracks). In a religious culture where alcohol is strictly forbidden, the lyrics of many qawals at first seem to be about debauchery: odes to drunkenness and hashish smoking. But, in the context of Sufi poetry, the vocabulary of these songs actually refers to transcendent, divine intoxication—being drunk on love, in other words. The Qawwali attitude towards religious orthodoxy was best expressed by the 18th Century Sufi, Bulleh Shah, who wrote these lyrics, still sung in Pakistan and India today: “Burn the mosque, burn the temple, but do not burn the human heart, for there God is residing.”
The music is paradoxical, both deeply traditional (using the verses of Shah, Khusro, and other poetic giants) and extremely improvisatory. Adherence to poetic discipline unexpectedly sets the soul free. Nusrat’s “Tumhen Dil Lagi Bhool” (included on the greatest hits collection, Rapture) is a prime example, both full of longing and apocalyptic. We feel a sense of love reaching consummation and of revelatory destruction, the rending of the veil. Buckley’s description is accurate: “I heard the clarion call of harmoniums dancing the antique melody around like giant, singing wooden spiders… Then came the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Part Buddha, part demon, part mad angel… his voice is velvet fire, simply incomparable.” When Nusrat sings solo at the climactic point of the song, he sounds utterly possessed, transported beyond the human world. He generates moments of musical splendor and sacred fear without needing to think about them first—they delight in their own happening. At such moments, Buckley’s observation that Nusrat has become music is indisputable.
Unfortunately, in Pakistan, Sufism and its musical traditions are under attack. An assassin murdered one of Nusrat’s contemporaries, Amjad Sabri of The Sabri Brothers (after Nusrat’s, probably the most famous Qawwali group in Pakistan). The historic Shahbaz Qalandar Shrine, site of numerous Sufi musical gatherings, was also bombed, killing over 100 people. To feel threatened by music—especially music that is wholly religious—seems bizarre. But Sufism, in many of its forms, destabilizes intolerance.
When listeners are swept into wajd, that state of ecstasy, their gender doesn’t matter: women, caught up in the spirit, will dance publicly at Qawwali performances. The Shahbaz Qalandar Shrine featured Lal Peri, a club-wielding female individualist who made her home on the premises. With its basis in a direct experience of God, Sufism threatens the rule-oriented imams, who are more concerned with the proper length of one’s trousers (ideally, they should imitate the length of Muhammad’s trousers) than with actually getting to know God. A gathering where both the musicians and the audience attain transcendence—without the permission of the imams—renders legalistic orthodoxy superfluous.
At the same time, the legacy of Sufism is so deep in Pakistan that it can’t be destroyed. Even today, one of the most popular TV programs in the country is Coke Studio, which showcases Sufi music (and, yes, it’s produced by Coca Cola—cultural imperialism has a sunny side, it seems). Also, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead recently performed with a Qawwali group in India, led by the Israeli-Sufi Shye Ben Tzur. The experience was captured by Paul Thomas Anderson’s documentary Junoon. Despite the tremendous indifference of the secular and Christian West, these traditions soldier on as best they can and still gain some degree of acknowledgment.
Of course, the United States hasn’t helped bring tranquility and human-heartedness to this state of affairs. Support for the Pakistani authoritarian, General Zia ul-Haq, during the Cold War did not leave the most beautiful legacy. Zia adopted stoning as the punishment for adultery and shored up fundamentalism, even if he did contribute to defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan. The drone policy hasn’t done much to tamp down the lure of extremism either: flying death robots tend not to evoke the most cuddly feelings. Someone like Nusrat, representing the “better angels” of Pakistani culture, actually does demonstrate a more enlightened way. A path of ecstasy and divine love, Sufism is, in the words of Rumi, “no caravan of despair.” Despite violence and persecution, the Qawwali performers who succeeded Nusrat still continue to offer free passage on their caravan of hope.