Taking up a full-time career in singing at the age of 13, after the death of his father in 1964, qawwal extraordinaire Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has never had to look back. Under the musical aegis of his talented uncles, Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan and Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, the Faisalabad-born Nusrat developed a unique and successful style within the qawwali genre, with emphasis on haunting melody and hypnotic rhythm. Describing himself as an 'all-rounder' in his field, Nusrat has also dabbled in singing ghazals, in which he has attained a fair amount of recognition. A strong advocate for the revival of pure classical singing, the qawwal maestro intends to establish a music academy and a recording studio in Lahore.
In this exclusive interview with the Herald, Nusrat speaks about his recent European tour, of his collaboration with Peter Gabriel and other Western recording artists and of the evolution of the art of qawwali in which he has played an integral part ...
Zaman Khan. You have recently returned from a six-week tour of Italy, Spain, France and Germany. What kind of public response did you receive there?
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It was very good. People liked our performances very much, particularly in Germany where our programmes were extremely successful. We were playing to full houses, people could not get tickets to our programmes; many went away disappointed. And surprisingly, the audiences had a predominantly European complexion.
Zaman. What do the Europeans like about your art, given that they do not understand your language?
Nusrat. They do not understand our language, but we present our art in such a way ... we use rhythm and melody in such a way, that they need not understand our language. The Europeans say we do not care for words, we judge art.
Zaman. Have you tried to introduce Western music into your tunes?
Nusrat. No, but we are still experimenting with it. We have a number, Mast, Mast, which was recently released in the West. In that they have used Western music in the background with our voices. There is a famous musician, Peter Gabriel, who has used my voice in the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ. He used my song in the background.
Zaman. Who released your Western number?
Nusrat. A very large British company, Real World, which has a studio in Bath, England. They recorded it there.
Zaman. What was it like singing to Western music?
Nusrat. It was very good. There should be change — the West should understand our music and culture, and vice versa. With such collaboration, artists can come closer to each other and come to know each other.
Zaman. Who are your favourite artists in the West?
Nusrat. I like instrumentals most of all, but there are many good singers too, such as Michael Jackson and Tina Turner. Tina Turner is particularly good. She has expressed the desire to sing with me.
The present time is the time of all-rounders. As in cricket, Imran Khan is respected for being an all-rounder. In my opinion being an all-rounder is good.
Zaman. What do you like about these singers?
Nusrat. I like singers who freely use melody (leh). I like them because I am melodious too. There are also some very good African singers. I have a black singer friend, Yousaf Ali Farkha, who is from Zimbabwe.
Zaman. Did you start singing simply because you were born in a family of singers or did you have a natural talent?
Nusrat. It is not necessary that the scion of a singing family, even if he sings, can excel in it. In order to reach his peak he has to work very, very hard. If he is the son of a good artist, he will have to work even harder because he has to compete with his own father. In the case of my own family, there are many who do not sing, do not even know how to sing. Only someone who has a natural talent can become an artist.
Zaman. Who else sings in your family?
Nusrat. I have a younger brother, Farakh Fateh Ali Khan, who is a good singer. He has been singing with me since his childhood.
Zaman. How is it that there have been so many singers in your family?
Nusrat. My forefathers used to live in Ghazni in Afghanistan. During the era of Mahmud Ghaznavi, they migrated to India with a saint, Sheikh Darwesh. In India, they settled in Basti Sheikh in Jullundhar. My ancestors learnt music and singing there and adopted it as a profession.
Our gharana produced a number of great singers [such as] Sahibdad, Khaliqdad, Athardad, Jehangir, Mirdad, Kaloo Khan and others.
Then, in my parents' generation there were Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan. They were great classical singers of their time, as well as great qawwals. They worked so hard that there was no match for them. They learnt every form of music.
They could play all kinds of instruments. They were great masters of classical music — Ustad Baray Ghulam Ali Khan, Salamat Ali Khan, Nazakat Ali Khan, Ustad Sadiq Ali Khan, and many great singers were their pupils. They all learnt the art of singing from them. After them other scions of that family, by dint of hard work, attained a name in singing.
Zaman. Did your elders make a name for themselves in qawwali?
Nusrat. As qawwals they were known all over the world, they had no equals. Those who really have knowledge of music know what great singers they were. Basically they were trained in classical singing. They moulded qawwali to a classical pattern. They would sing in two ways khayal and trubat — my father, Fateh Ali, would sing trubat and his brother, Mubarak, would sing khayal. So there were two shades within their qawwali.
Besides that, they would use gehra talafuz, gehra tazmin. Before them, nobody in Punjab used it. Nobody even knew of it in Punjab. My father used it for the first time. Their selection of lyrics was excellent. They introduced all this in Punjab because the Punjabis were ignorant of this in that period. So the credit goes to them.
Zaman. Where did you get your training in singing?
Nusrat. As a child I was trained to play the tabla. Melody played a dominant part in our singing. My father also used it. Melody plays a major part in our music. After that I learned singing Raag Vedia. I memorised it.
Zaman. Which is your favourite raga?
Nusrat. There are many ragas and I received training in classical music but I personally like Aiman Kolyoon, Gujjari, Desi Todi, Darbari, Lalit.
Zaman. How long do you do riaz and at what time of the day?
Nusrat. A good artist always does riaz to reach the zenith of art. Riaz is a must. But we have reached the stage where we only do mental riaz.
In the past, we would do riaz for 10 hours a day. My uncle, Ustad Mubarik Ali Khan, used to reside in the lower portion of this building. There was a baithak there and we would lose track of time. There was no concept of dusk and dawn.
Sometimes we would start riaz in the morning and end at 10 in the night, or we would start at night and end at 10 in the morning. Whenever I get the time, even now, I do mental riaz.
Zaman. Did you begin your career by singing qawwali?
Nusrat. Yes I started with qawwall.
Zaman. Your qawwalis have become the hallmark of Pakistan in many parts of the world. Why did you switch to singing ghazals?
Nusrat. You know how I started singing ghazals? It was pure chance. I sang in the classical style from the very beginning. On the death anniversary of my father, I always sing classical. On TV, radio and in the sittings of artists, big artists in Lahore, I always sing classical. They have recognised my talents as a classical singer.
The present time is the time of all-rounders. As in cricket, Imran Khan is respected for being an all-rounder. In my opinion being an all-rounder is good. It is not right that I should be content with qawwali and ignore other forms, since I am basically trained in classical singing. We should be masters of all forms of singing.
For a man who has technical knowledge and who has a command over art, who has a melodious voice, who has a taste for poetry and knowledge of all literature — the singing of ghazals poses no problems for him.
Zaman. Do you feel that singers switch ghazals because there is only a restricted audience for classical music?
Nusrat. To my understanding, people run away from the name of classical songs. We are responsible for this. We should present classical music in such a way that people enjoy listening to it. And the artist who has a command over his art should not find this difficult to do. He should make his art accessible to the common man. The problem today is that when there is a classical song on the radio or TV, people switch off. We should adopt a popular style in classical music, so that the people enjoy it.
Or people are morally confused about music. Those who want to learn or have learned are always confused and have guilt feelings. But to tell you the truth, classical music, sur or leh is not against Islam.
In qawwali, I have adopted such a popular style that I have set the standard. Anything with a strong melody can be enjoyed, even by those who may not understand classical music. Because it's in our nature, in the beat of the heart. There is a system to everything in the world. Melody is very close to human nature.
Zaman. Which classical singers do you like in India and Pakistan?
Nusrat. In India, Ustad Baray Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Hussain Khan sahib, Ustad Allah Rakha Khan. In Pakistan, Ustad Shaukat Ali Khan.
Zaman. In India there are female classical singers like Kishori Amonkar and others. What do you think about them?
Nusrat. They are not of such a high calibre. But I like Parveen Sultana.
Zaman. Does India have anyone of the calibre of Roshan Ara Begum?
Nusrat. Artists like Roshan Ara Begum are only born once in a century. The present batch of artists does not work that hard and does not put in much effort. But there are very good singers, both male and female, on the other side of the border.
Zaman. Do you think classical music has a future in Pakistan?
Nusrat. We are not realists. In Pakistan, people have an indifferent attitude towards music. There are no institutions to teach music and singing.
Or people are morally confused about music. Those who want to learn or have learnt are always confused and feel guilt. But to tell you the truth, classical music, sur or leh is not against Islam. It is not haram. After listening to sur, a man does not go astray. I do not think it is bad. Our people are still confused about halal and haram. Besides, our government does not patronise art.
In contrast, the Indian government has opened academies, institutions. People formally learn art there. Here, people learn it through their own efforts, on their own initiative, but there is no patronage by the government.
Zaman. Which Pakistani ghazal singer do you like?
Nusrat. I like Farida Khanum, Ghulam Ali and Noor Jehan. They are good singers. In classical, I like Ustad Salamat Ali.
Zaman. We have had three wars with India. Relations have always been bad. You have performed in India. How did people react to your shows?
Nusrat. Artists do not have enmities with anyone. Artists do not like war. War is not good for any country. We should have an intellectual competition with Indian artists, like we have cricket matches. We may not have cultural exchange programmes, but the fact remains that we should still continue competing with Indian artists. That is the only country besides Pakistan where songs are sung in a classical style. We have the same culture and the same civilisation. So we have a mental competition with Indian artists. Our good artists, singers, musicians may not be popular, but artists across the border do know each other.
In 1980, we went to India on the invitation of Raj Kapoor. We were given an enthusiastic reception. We have received many invitations but have not been able to visit India again. But we have now become a household name in India because of our cassettes.
Zaman. You have released almost 150 cassettes. Are you paid royalty for your releases?
Nusrat. They do give us money in the beginning, the artistes have to make do with less money to earn a reputation. Radio and TV do not give enough money to artists. We have 12 to 13 members in our group and we spend many times more on travel and lodging than we get from working on TV.
Zaman. You say there are no institutions in the country. What do you intend to do for the promotion of music in this country? How do you intend to transmit your art to the next generation?
Nusrat. We intend to establish an academy in the name of my father, Fateh Ali Khan, and my uncle, Ustad Mubarik Ali Khan, in Faisalabad. For the last 26 years, we have also organised a programme every year on the death anniversary of my father. Our programme is so popular that all the leading artists participate in this function every year. We spend our own money on this function, to keep the flame burning. We do it because ultimately we intend to establish an academy bearing our elders' names.
We give training to our children in classical music, but it is good if someone learns modern music. We appreciate every form of music.
Zaman. Are all the members of your singing group your relatives?
Nusrat. Yes, they are cousins and relatives.
Zaman. Recently, Noor Jehan's show was banned in Faisalabad. What are your views on that?
Nusrat. If Noor Jehan's show could be held at Lahore, then why could it not be held in Faisalabad?
Zaman. These days youngsters like Adnan Sami Khan and others are playing modern instruments. How do you feel about this trend?
Nusrat. It is a very good thing. Every form of music is welcome. I think we are coming nearer to the masses. Adnan Sami is young and he inspires other youngsters.
Zaman. Do you educate your children in modern music?
Nusrat. We give training to our children in classical music, but it is good if someone learns modern music. We appreciate every form of music.
Zaman. From what age did you begin training your children?
Nusrat. From the age of 12. I was seven when my father started giving me training, but I formally started singing at the age of 13.
Zaman. Do you give musical training to other children?
Nusrat.No. We have to see who has a natural talent for it.
Zaman. What is the future of classical music?
Nusrat. It is not bright — in my opinion — in Pakistan. Individually, artists do impart training to their children in classical music. But the future appears bleak.
Classical singers have now started giving training to their children in light music, because classical music has no future. Sham Chaurasi gharana and other classical gharanas are training their children in light music.
This article was originally published in the Herald's March 1991 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.