If you’re familiar with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan at all, you’ve probably heard him sing alongside Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder in a rendition of Neil Young’s “The Long Road” in the 1995 Tim Robbins film of the same name. Or, like me, you grew up with parents who practically worshipped the man. Either way, you’re familiar with a voice that is stunningly beautiful and haunting, one of those voices that makes you believe in the existence of a special muse inhabiting a lucky few because surely such a gift cannot be human.
Born in Faisalbad, Pakistan, Khan came from a musically-inclined family. Several of his family members were skilled in the art of Qawwali music, a form of devotional music linked to Sufi Islam, a mystical sect of Islam. The genre was invented in 12th-century Persia and can be compared with Gospel music in the sense that it combines devotional and religious themes with a complex musical tradition as well. Qawwali songs are typically sung in groups of eight to nine men accompanied by instruments such as the harmonium (comparable to a portable pipe organ) and tabla (a type of drum). Often long and sprawling in length and scope, a Qawwali song aims to induce a trance-like state in its listeners.
Following a strict structure dedicated to various topics of both religious and secular concepts, Qawwali compositions nonetheless feature several moments of vocal and instrumental improvisation around a central theme. They are sung in South Asian languages such as Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi or Bengali. As noted before, they can be both secular and religious in nature, with the implicit assumption that even the secular can be interpreted in the context of religion and the common themes of love and devotion. Qawwali is deeply related to a similar but separate genre of poetry and music known as Ghazal, which usually juxtaposes the pain and beauty of love in a form somewhat reminiscent of a sonnet. Khan’s nephew, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, as well as the Indian singer Jagjit Singh, were also influential in introducing and briding these traditional forms of music to a modern audience, guiding the music heard in movies in India and Pakistan.
Ali Khan was a sight to behold in more ways than one. Zareena Grewal, a professor of religion at Yale, mentions in an NPR piece that he was “morbidly obese, (had) crazy hair, (and had) these intense facial expressions as he’s singing,” as one can see in any of his performances. The man seemed to extract every possible ounce of power and emotion out of his body during his performances: He was blessed with an unreal vocal range. Despite his wild gesticulations, he had an impressive control over his voice down to the tightest vibrato. It carried an inherent throatiness and roughness which he somehow utilized perfectly even with the most delicate of lyrics.
Khan was not the most likely of international South Asian superstars, yet he cultivated an extremely successful international career. He performed in concert venues across the world and collaborated with artists from Peter Gabriel to the aforementioned Vedder. He received a host of awards, from a UNESCO Music Prize to his own country’s Pride of Performance award. While he was never entirely comfortable with the fact that most of his modern audience could not understand his lyrics, he also felt that “whatever spiritual component that was in the lyrics, it was also in the way he sang it,” according to guitarist Michael Brooks.
Unfortunately, his career was cut short at the early age of 48 in 1997. Ever since, his influence on both Qawwali as well as South Asian music in general has spread all over the world, bringing the characteristics of a relatively niche, spiritual form of music to an international audience. While not “easy listening” by any means, it is not difficult to listen to that legendary voice and appreciate the talent behind it.