The Missionary Musician Par Excellence – Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: The Legendary Qawwal

Born on 13th October 1948; Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan became the torch-bearer of Qawwali; the one who popularized the art form that was little known in the West and took it to a whole new level. He was the greatest Qawwal the world had ever seen and did everything in his power to spread the message of spirituality, love and peace. Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan said

Sufi music tries to banish the hatred living within all human beings. It does not belong to any one culture, but to all of us. It stands for bhai-chara (brotherhood). The great Sufis have said that there is no value in namaz if your soul is not clean, no value of bathing in the Ganga, if your thoughts are impure. God is to be achieved through love. Mohabbat (love) is the ultimate reality.

But it had been his true-calling to follow the customs of his father Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and his uncle Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, who were the most celebrated qawwals in the entire subcontinent especially because of the innovation they brought to Qawwali. Also they propagated Islam through it, and inspired devotion even amongst the ignorant Muslims. One major way they did this was by singing the poetry of Allama Iqbal, which is how it became easily understandable and immensely popular among the masses.

Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Journey Towards Stardom…

  • At a national level Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s started gaining fame during the early 1970s and it was his performance at the Amir Khusro Festival held in 1975, which told everyone that a superstar had been born.
  • Then he was signed by ‘Oriental Star Agencies’ based in the UK (he recorded all his music for the Asian market with them till his demise), and he first performed at Birmingham in 1980.
  • He then started visiting frequently, but it was his appearance at WOMAD (World of Music, Art & Dance) Festival at London in 1985, that was the turning point.
  • After that he began touring far and wide; to countries such as Japan, France, Australia, Spain, Canada, South Africa, USA, India etc. anywhere he got the opportunity to go and especially took part in international festivals.

He possessed a dynamic combination of mind, melody and expression which had allowed him to understand and master all that embodied classical music.

Thereby he earned himself titles such as Shahenshah-e-Qawwali, Power of Pakistan, Pavarotti of the East, A Voice from Heaven, A Man called Qawwali, Singing Buddha, Shining Star of Music among many others. Ahmed Aqeel Rubi who wrote the biography ‘Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – A Living Legend’ said

Unlike many musicians or individuals who consider music as something that is part-time, Nusrat was the complete artist, from top to bottom. His index finger would move in a rhythmic motion even when he was asleep. That was his genius, he was always lost in composition and music consumed his life.

Mass Popularity of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Wherever he went he mesmerized and inspired his audiences. At the WOMAD Festival in 1988, what was supposed to be a 20 minute act turned into a 5 hours long performance because people from all sections had come to listen to him and wanted him to continue.

The Queen of Spain especially had the Alhambra Palace opened for him to perform as she along with other ladies of the court admired his singing/music very much. This was a matter of great prestige as the palace was only opened for VIPs and statesmen.

Furthermore his performances at the Adelaide Music Festival made him the most anticipated artist and he was awarded the title of ‘Most Popular Singer’ in 1992.

Collaboration With World Renowned Artistes

Then his collaborations with world renowned artistes such as Peter Gabriel, Eddie Vedder and Michael Brook brought him unprecedented international fame, though initially he faced criticism back home for compromising on traditions, but he said:

The musical instruments may be western but my voice never wavers away from my own ragas. It is good to make experiments and I do a lot of them but my thoughts always round the center and that center is the tradition of my elders and it is classical music.

This fact was also acknowledged by all those who had seen him perform. For instance Dr. Paul Lashmar (an award winning British journalist, wrote an article about him in The Observer (Sydney) in the 90s, entitled ‘The Popular Voice of Islam’ in which he expressed that Nusrat Fateh Ali khan was preaching Islam through his pure and spiritual singing, and was spreading its message throughout the world.

He also accepted the six month Ethnomusicology Program at the School of Music (University of Washington) from September 1992 – March 1993, which was a grand success, because not only was it attended by students and faculty members within but from other universities as well as artists from all over the USA. This resulted in a huge fan following, and he gave an extremely memorable performance at the university’s Meany Theatre in January 1993, which is remembered even today. Moreover it motivated musician Brook Martinez to form the ‘Brooklyn Qawwali Party’ in 2004, an eleven member Jazz band from New York, which is propagating his music throughout the USA.

Dr. Pierre Alain Baud, who spent several years working with him and has written a lot about Sufisim & Pakistani music said:

A man of deep simplicity. His all-consuming mission was to spread a message — the kind and beautiful words of the Sufi poets, mystics, permeated by an Islam reflecting love and union. A man outside of time, bewitching us with the madness of his declarations of love addressed to the Divine. A man truly of his times too, open to all kinds of experiments, all kinds of fusion. Rooted and universal. Committed and free.

While Muhammad Ayub, director of Oriental Star Agencies once said

In Japan, young people listen to his music. They say, ‘We don’t understand the words, but it goes into our hearts.’ No one can do what he does.” He also added “He has transformed [qawwali] greatly. Now it belongs to the entire world.

World Recognition of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Last year Google commemorated his 67th birthday and honored him by a doodle. But of course he has received massive accolades posthumously. Following are the international listings which include this great singer:

  1. In the October 1998 issue of MOJO (a very popular music magazine), a list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Times was published. He was ranked no. 31.
  2. In the August 1999 issue of Q Magazine (UK’s largest music magazine) a list of “The 100 Greatest Stars of the 20th Century” was published. He was ranked no. 93.
  3. In the book, ‘The 20th Century’s Greatest Hits: A Top 40 List, by Paul Williams,’ published in 2000, his concert performance in September 1995 is listed at no.19.
  4. He is mentioned in the book, ‘Artists, writers, and musicians: an encyclopedia of people who changed the world’ by Michel-André Bossy, Thomas Brothers & John C. McEnroe published in 2001.
  5. In the November 6, 2006 Asian edition of TIME magazine entitled ‘60 Years of Asian Heroes’ he was listed in the Top 12 Artists and Thinkers in the last 60 years.
  6. He was nominated, selected and featured in the ‘50 Great Voices’, a series done by the National Public Radio, USA in 2010.
  7. In 2010 CNN’s show ‘Icon’ in collaboration with ‘Songlines’ (which is a music magazine) created a list of the ‘20 Most Iconic Musicians from the Past 50 Years’, which included him.
  8. In the article ‘100 Minorities who changed the World’ posted on May 15 2011, he was ranked no 2.

So there is no doubt that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was very successful in his mission and achieved what no other Asian artist has been able to do so, because in a very short period of time he had become the leading celebrity from South Asia; an extraordinary cultural ambassador of Pakistan and one of the pioneers of World Music. And even though 19 years have passed since his demise he still has a profound influence on people all over the world irrespective of race, religion or culture. And that indeed; is rare and a constant source of pride…

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Hajra Saeed

Hajra Saeed has been writing for the past 19 years. During her career she has contributed to various leading newspapers and magazines, but currently writes for the special supplements of ‘The Nation’. She has written on a wide array of topics; however areas of interest are social issues, religion, philosophy and presenting a positive image of Pakistan. Has experience in copy writing, content writing, technical writing, screenwriting and teaching. Likes to read, do online courses as well as charity work.