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Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: His maestro’s voice

Updated Aug 17, 2016 04:31am

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| Nusrat: The Voice of Faith | Pierre-Alain Baud | HarperCollins India, 2015

Book cover of Nusrat: The Voice of Faith by Pierre-Alain Baud
Book cover of Nusrat: The Voice of Faith by Pierre-Alain Baud

Pierre-Alain Baud’s Nusrat: The Voice of Faith is an account of the life and times of one of Pakistan’s most celebrated and loved musicians. Through a variety of poetic verses, quotes from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, his relatives and admirers, and through colourful illustrations, the author vividly captures the persona, life and contributions to the world of music and South Asian culture by the legendary musician, fondly remembered as Shahenshah-e-Qawwali (the Emperor of Qawwali).

The book is divided into nine chapters. Each of these begins with Persian, Urdu and Punjabi verses coupled with translations in English and written by such revered saints and poets as Bulleh Shah, Khwaja Ghulam Farid and Allama Iqbal. Nusrat would fondly sing these verses in his performances and recordings.

Baud groups the chapters into three sections. The first three cover a concise history of qawwali and Nusrat’s ancestral background; the second section, comprising four chapters, focuses on the musician’s life, singing career and musical contributions; and the third section, consisting of the last two chapters, discusses his music released posthumously, his impact on the tradition of qawwali, his successors, disciples and the other musicians he worked with across the world.

In the introduction, Baud provides the reader with a brief history of the formation of Pakistan and how its “ambivalence and its continuities, its coherence and its raw emotions, its old wise men and its young generations desperate for recognition” establish the Pakistani “texture” upon which ’s music is based. The first two chapters explain the context and ideology behind Nusrat’s music which is deeply entrenched in Sufism. Baud traces the historical evolution of Sufism in South Asia and notes the vital contributions made by saints and poets such as Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, Amir Khusrau, and Jalaludin Rumi.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with Salman Ahmed | Arif Mahmood, White Sar
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with Salman Ahmed | Arif Mahmood, White Sar

The author then describes the structural and spiritual elements of a qawwali performance in its religious and musical context, along with an account of the links between qawwali, secular society and platforms/outlets created by modern technology such as cinema, radio and cassettes that greatly influenced the way this genre has been perceived and practised in the current era. A key point mentioned by Baud is the creation of Pakistani qawwali following Partition, with organisations such as Radio Pakistan and EMI (Pakistan’s biggest gramophone company) taking the responsibility to popularise it during the second half of the 20th Century.

The book also reveals that Khan was a descendant of 12th Century saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti who is buried in Ajmer, India. His father, Fateh Ali Khan, was an established qawwal and performed along with his brother, Mubarik Ali Khan, during the final years of colonial India. Baud mentions how their particular style of singing was deeply influenced by dhrupad, one of the main classical traditions of North Indian music.

In 1985, Nusrat’s international career formally began when he performed at the World of Music, Arts and Dance festival at Mersea Island in England. After that, he performed at all of the major world music festivals.

The author devotes the next part of the book to Khan's life; his musical training, his career and his global influence. Born on October 13, 1948, he would have never become a musician had his father succeeded in making him study medicine. The turning point for Nusrat’s career path came when he was asked to accompany Munawar Ali Khan, son of legendary classical vocalist Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, on tabla. Munawar Ali Khan’s favourable response to Nusrat’s playing made his father decide against forcing him to become a doctor, says Baud.

Fateh Ali Khan, then, started teaching his son the subtleties and nuances of his family’s musical style. Baud tells the readers that Nusrat’s resolve to become a qawwali performer was strengthened by a dream he had a few days after his father’s death. There was no looking back thereafter; Nusrat’s reputation as one of the most exciting, innovative and inspiring qawwali performers in Pakistan continued to soar during the next four decades.

Tassawar Khanum sits alongside Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan | White Star
Tassawar Khanum sits alongside Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan | White Star

In 1985, Nusrat’s international career formally began when he performed at the World of Music, Arts and Dance festival at Mersea Island in England. After that, he performed at all of the major world music festivals, sometimes with the support of such organisations as the Theatre de la Ville in France. Due to Nusrat’s ability to blend qawwali’s musical tradition with a plethora of modern and traditional musical styles of both the East and the West, Baud explains, many established Western artists – such as Peter Gabriel, Michael Brook and Eddie Vedder – collaborated with him on a number of albums and records that received critical acclaim worldwide. This earned Nusrat global success and his title as a musical genius who could adapt qawwali to any genre of music and, at times, even to a commercial jingle.

In the final chapters, Baud covers the era after Nusrat’s death in 1997. Since then, he has been the subject of documentaries, remixed recordings of his songs have been done and many Internet sites have been created to consolidate his musical works. Baud also mentions how Nusrat’s successors, such as Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Rizwan and Muazzam, are currently in high demand both in the national and international circuits. He, however, argues that the major difference between Nusrat and his successors is that “he had forged a musical personality for himself” even “before he was discovered by the dazzled world” while his successors are under pressure to “…carry forward the torch” and evidently are thrust into international limelight before they could create that kind of personality for themselves.

Nusrat’s reputation as one of the most exciting, innovative and inspiring qawwali performers in Pakistan continued to soar during the next four decades.

"He had forged a musical personality for himself” even “before he was discovered by the dazzled world" | White Star
"He had forged a musical personality for himself” even “before he was discovered by the dazzled world" | White Star

Included in the book is a CD of three qawwali recordings by the maestro. The first recording is of his most appreciated piece titled Allah hu. What is most striking is the distinct and potent expression of each and every word that Nusrat sings. The second track is based on Bulleh Shah’s Ni mein jaana jogi di naal, also a favourite among his fans. The third track, Mein ki karan, is slow in comparison to the other two, but full of vocal and rhythmic embellishments true to Nusrat’s signature style of singing.

Even though Nusrat’s contributions and impact on music are known globally, this book, and its accompanying CD, gives us a comprehensive look into the extent of his influence, genius and humility.