Nusrat was born in Faisalabad, Pakistan on October 13, 1948 to Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, a distinguished musicologist, vocalist,
instrumentalist, and Qawwali performer. He had one brother, Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan. Initially, his father did not want him
to follow him into the family business. He had his heart set on Nusrat choosing a more respectable career path and becoming
a doctor, because he felt Qawwals had low social status. However, Nusrat showed such an aptitude for, and interest in, Qawwali
that his father finally relented and started to train him in the art of Qawwali and he was also taught to sing within the
classical framework of Khayal. This training was still incomplete when Ustad Fateh Ali Khan died in 1964 while Nusrat was
still in school, and the training was continued by Nusrat's paternal uncle, Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan. Ten days after his father's
death, Nusrat had a dream where his father came to him and told him to sing, touching his throat. Nusrat woke up singing,
and was moved by the dream to decide that he would make Qawwali his career. His first public performance was at his father's
funeral ceremony forty days later. Under the guidance of Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, he became the group's leader in 1965 and
the group was called Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan & Party. ("Party" is the term used in Qawwali
for the supporting members of the group.)
Nusrat's first public performance as leader of the family Qawwali group was in March 1965, at a studio recording broadcast
as part of an annual music festival called Jashn-e-Baharan organized by Radio Pakistan. It took Nusrat several years more
to perfect his craft and emerge from the shadow of the groups that were regarded as the leading contemporary Qawwals. But
once he did, there was no looking back. He firmly established himself as the leading qawwal of the 20th century. His incredible
voice and his complete mastery of the genre made him a superstar in the Indian subcontinent and the Islamic world. He sang
mostly in Urdu and his native Punjabi, but also in Persian, Brajbhasha and Hindi. His qawwali output is almost evenly divided
between Urdu and Punjabi, with a smattering of songs in the other languages. Nusrat was also one of the first South Asian
singers to perform before large Western audiences.
Nusrat took over his family's qawwali party in 1971 after the death of his father and his uncle. In Pakistan, his first
major hit was the song "Haq Ali Ali". This was performed in a traditional style and with traditional instrumentation,
and featured only sparse use of Nusrat's innovative sargam improvisations. Nevertheless the song became a major hit, as many
listeners were attracted to the timbre and other qualities of Nusrat's voice.
He reached out to Western audiences with a couple of fusion records produced by Canadian guitarist Michael Brook. In 1995,
he collaborated with Eddie Vedder on the soundtrack to Dead Man Walking. His contribution to that and several other soundtracks
and albums (including The Last Temptation of Christ and Natural Born Killers), as well as his friendship with Peter Gabriel,
helped to increase his popularity in Europe and the United States. Peter Gabriel's Real World label released five albums of
Nusrat's traditional Qawwali performances in the West. Real World also released albums of his experimental work, including
Mustt Mustt (which features a slap bass technique) and Star Rise. He also performed traditional Qawwali live to Western audiences
at several WOMAD world music festivals.
Nusrat provided vocals for The Prayer Cycle put together by Jonathan Elias, but died before the vocals could be completed.
Alanis Morissette was brought in to sing with his unfinished vocals.
Apparently, when Nusrat toured in foreign countries, he would watch television commercials in order to identify the melodies
and chord progressions popular in that country. He would then try to choose similar sounding songs from his repertoire for
Nusrat contributed songs to, and performed in, several Pakistani movies. Shortly before his death, he also recorded two
songs for a Bollywood movie, Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya, in which he also appeared.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan holds the world record for the largest recorded
output by a Qawwali artist—a total of 125 albums.
Nusrat was taken ill with kidney and liver failure on Monday, August 11, 1997 in London, England while on the way to Los
Angeles from Lahore to receive a kidney transplant. He was due to perform in a live concert later in August. While still at
Cromwell Hospital, Nusrat died of a sudden cardiac arrest on Saturday, August 16, 1997, aged 48. His body was then transported
back to Faisalabad, Pakistan where thousands of distraught people attended his funeral and burial procession.
Nusrat's style of Qawwali :
Nusrat is responsible for the modern evolution of qawwali. Although not the first to do so, he popularized the blending
of khayal singing and techniques with qawwali. This in short took the form of improvised solos during the songs using the
sargam technique, in which the performer sings the names of the notes he is singing (for example, in western notation it would
be "do re mi"). He also attempted to blend qawwali music with more western styles such as techno.
Nusrat's qawwali songs usually follow the standard form. A song begins with a short instrumental prelude played on the
harmonium and tabla. Then the instruments stop, and the main singers (but not the chorus) launch into the alap, which establishes
the raga, the tonal structure of the song. At this point, introductory poetic verses are sung. These are usually drawn not
from the main song, but from other thematically related songs. The melody is improvised within the structure of the raga.
After the introductory verses, the main song starts, and the rhythmic portion of the song begins. The tabla and dholak
begin to play, and the chorus aids and abets percussion by clapping their hands. The song proceeds in a call and response
format. The same song may be sung quite differently by different groups. The lyrics will be essentially the same, but the
melody can differ depending on which gharana or lineage the group belongs to. As is traditional in qawwali, Nusrat and the
side-singers will interject alap solos, and fragments of other poems or even improvised lyrics. A song usually has two or
three sets of refrains, which can be compared to the verse chorus structure found in western music. Songs last about 20 minutes
on average, with a few lasting an hour or more.
Nusrat was noted for introducing other forms of improvisation into the style. From his classical music training, he would
interject much more complex alap improvisations, with more vibrato and note bending. He would also interject sargam improvisations.
While it is undoubtedly difficult to put into words what makes Nusrat's music appeal so deeply to so many listeners, many
of whom do not understand a single word of the languages he sings in, here is one fan's attempt to explain: "Nusrat's
music invites us to eavesdrop on a man communing with his God, ever so eloquently. He makes the act of singing a passionate
offering to God. But we do not merely eavesdrop. The deepest part of Nusrat's magic lies in the fact that he is able to bring
our hearts to resonate with the music, so deeply, that we ourselves become full partners in that offering. He sings to God,
and by listening, we also sing to God."
During his lifetime, Khan agreed to all kinds of projects and collaborations, overlooked unauthorized releases—and
even sang into personal tape recorders for just about anyone who would ask, though he knew that those bits would probably
soon be pirated—with the justification that any recording, "legitimate" or not, would help spread the
Sufi word of universal peace and love. However, he probably reached his biggest non-South Asian audience through a celebrated
series of recordings made for the Real World label, several of which mixed traditional qawwali and ghazals with largely tasteful
forays into Western instrumentation in order to attract European and American listeners. Some highlights from that discography
include Devotional Songs, Love Songs, Shahen-Shah and The Last Prophet. The French label Ocora also has an excellent five-CD
set of recordings Khan and his "party" made live in Paris for Radio France in the 1980s.
Composition of Nusrat's Qawwali Party :
The composition of Nusrat's party changed many times over the 26 years that he led the party. Two members who remained
from the beginning to the end were Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan and Dildar Hussain. Listed below is a snapshot of the party on an
unknown date, but probably circa 1983:
1. Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan: Nusrat's first cousin, Vocals
2. Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan: Nusrat's brother, Vocals and Lead Harmonium
3. Rehmat Ali: Vocals and Second Harmonium
4. Maqsood Hussain: Vocals
5. Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Nusrat's nephew, pupil singer
6. Dildar Hussain: Tabla
7. Majawar Abbas: Mandolin, Guitar
8. Mohammed Iqbal Naqbi: Chorus, secretary of the party
9. Asad Ali: Chorus
10. Ghulam Farid: Chorus
11. Kaukab Ali: Chorus
The one significant member of the party who does not appear on this list is Atta Fareed. For many years, he alternated
with Rehmat Ali on Vocals and Second Harmonium. He is easily identifiable in videos since he plays the harmonium left-handed.
Eddie Vedder said, "I was lucky to work with Nusrat, a true musician who won't be replaced in my life. There was
definitely a spiritual element in his music." Eddie Vedder also incorporated 'Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan' into the lyrics
of 'Wishlist' during the 98' Yield tour in Melbourne, Australia.
The late American rock singer Jeff Buckley paid his tribute to Nusrat on the album, Live at Sin-é. In his introduction,
he states, "Nusrat, he's my Elvis," before performing the song "Yeh Jo Halka Halka Saroor Hai." The recording
generated interest among the audience who were previously unaware of his music. He also stated in an interview, "I idolize
Nusrat, he's a god too." Buckley died in May 1997 in Memphis, Tennessee, 3 months before Nusrat. In addition, Nusrat's
posthumously released The Supreme Collection Vol. 1 has liner notes written by Buckley, to whom this album is dedicated.
In 2004, a tribute band called Brooklyn Qawwali Party (formerly Brook's Qawwali Party) was formed in New York City by
percussionist Brook Martinez to perform the music of Nusrat. The 13-piece group still performs mostly instrumental jazz versions
of Nusrat's qawwalis, using the instruments conventionally associated with jazz rather than those associated with qawwali.
SPIN magazine listed Nusrat as one of the 50 most influential artists of music in 1998.
TIME magazine's issue of November 6, 2006, "60 Years of Asian Heroes", lists Nusrat as one of the top 12 Artists
and Thinkers in the last 60 years (see article).
The Red Hot Chili Peppers wrote a tribute song about Nusrat, called "Circle of the Noose". It has never been
In 2007, London-based producer Gaudi released Dub Qawwali, featuring dub reggae with Nusrat's vocals. See NPR article.
Concert films :
* The JVC Video Anthology of World Music and Dance (1990). Video 14 (of 30) (South Asia IV). Produced by Ichikawa
Katsumori; directed by Nakagawa Kunikiko and Ichihashi Yuji; in collaboration with the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka.
[Tokyo]: JVC, Victor Company of Japan; Cambridge, Massachusetts: distributed by Rounder Records. Features a studio performance
by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party (two Urdu-language songs: a Hamd (song in praise of Allah), and a Manqabat for Khwaja Mu`inuddin
Chishti, a 13th century Sufi saint. Filmed in Tokyo, Japan, September 20, 1987, for Asian Traditional Performing Arts).
* Nusrat! Live at Meany (1998). Produced by the University of Washington. (87-minute document of a January 23, 1993
concert at Meany Hall, University of Washington in Seattle, during Nusrat's residency at the Ethnomusicology Program there.)
Nusrat in popular culture :
* A hero in the novel "Chapayev and Void" by Viktor Pelevin is listening to a tape by an imaginary band
Crimson Jihad which is described as a duo of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Robert Fripp from King Crimson.
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