Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Shahen-Shah-e-Q_awwali (The Brightest Star in Qawwali) is a title reserved for the leading voice and spirit of qawwali, the devotional music of Sufi Islam. No other term better describes the late Qawwali master.
There are great singers, and then there are those few voices that transcend time. The late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan could not only transcend time, but also language and religion. There was magic when he opened his mouth, a sense of holy ecstasy that was exciting and emotional. It wasn’t uncommon even for Western listeners, who didn’t understand a word he was singing or follow his Sufi traditions, to be moved to tears upon hearing him.
Ali Khan, who died in 1997 at the age of 48, was a Qawwali, a singer of devotional music of the Sufi sect of Islam. Trained by his father, the master singer Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, he kept up a 600-year family tradition by taking over leadership of the “party” (the general term for a Qawwali group, comprising singer, harmonium and tablas) in 1971, following recurring dreams that he was singing at the Muslim shrine of Hazratja Khawaja Moid-Ud-Din Christie in Ajmer, India (which he would eventually do).
In his improvisations, his voice would soar skyward to heaven, carrying his audience with him. While the core of his work and his life was the Sufi texts, the mystic holy poetry of the spirit, Ali Khan didn’t limit himself to that in his career. He was happy to sing the love poems known as ghazals, to perform vocal exercises, and even lend his talents to Bollywood and Hollywood, to range into ambient and dance music. But none of it was at the expense of his soul.
Throughout the ’70s and early ’80s he released literally hundreds of cassettes—trying to make order of his entire discography would be a nightmare—and his reputation grew, not only in his native Pakistan, but also internationally. The year 1985 proved to be the turning point for him, as he appeared not only at the WOMAD festival in England, but also had his performances in France recorded for an epic five-CD set that perfectly illustrated the qualities of his art. The songs stretched out, allowing Ali Khan to show his genius for extemporization, turning a sound, word or phrase over and over, examining it, flying with it, before releasing it and moving to another, using them all as enlightenment for the soul, a prayer and devotion. At his best, and his best seemed to occur often, he was like a bird, swooping and rising, his voice as free as the sky.
After Paris, the momentum gathered. He signed with Real World Records, which meant that for the first time his records would have high-profile international distribution, and released Shahen Shah, whose title came from his nickname. It wasn’t hardcore Ali Khan, but lighter and more melodic, a disc that seduced those who hadn’t heard him before.
01. Shamas-ud-doha, Badar-ud-doja
02. Allah, Mohammed, Char, Yaar
03. Kali Kali Zulfon Ke Phande Nah Dalo
04. Meri Ankhon Ko Bakhshe Hain Aansoo
05. Nit Khair Mansan Sohnia Main Teri
06. Kehna Ghalat Ghalat To Chhupana Sahi Sahi
Lead Vocals: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Chorus: Asad Ali Khan, Ghulam Fareed, Iqbal Naqbi, Mohammad Maskeen
Tabla: Dildar Hussain
Vocals: Mujahid Mubarik Ali Khan
Vocals [Pupil]: Atta Fareed
Vocals, Harmonium, Leader [Musical Director]: Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan