Born October 13, 1948, in Lyallpur (now Faisalbad), Pakistan; son of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan (a qawwal). Addresses: Record company--Real World/Caroline, 114 West 26th St., New York, NY 10001.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, internationally recognized for his mastery of a form of Islamic devotional music known as qawwali (pronounced kah-wah-lee), first gained significant attention in the United States in 1989 when he performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. Prior to that, the Sabri Brothers had been the United States' significant import of traditional Pakistani music, appearing in the United States during the mid-1970s. Three years after Khan's first U.S. appearance, the singer would spend a year as artist in residence at the University of Washington's music department.

New York Times music critic Jon Pareles places qawwali in an ecstatic musical tradition alongside American gospel, Moroccan joujouka, and even techno music, which tends to create emotional highs through simple melodies and driving beats, gathering "intensity through repetition and improvisational flights." Qawwali is believed to have originated among the Chisti order of Sufis in the tenth century.

Khan's large, almost Buddha-esque body often moves in rapid motion to his music's emotional peaks; his hands jab outward, brushing, as if carving the images of divine spirit from the air. His rapt audience--at least those of Pakistani background, who comprise the greater portion of his listeners--follows with fevered shouts and dancing, afterwards gathering below the stage to shower their beloved singer with money and flowers. Khan seems to almost goad his listeners into musical intoxication, pleading in fierce cries, imitating the rhythmic insistence of the drums, and calling back and forth with other singers in his "party," the favored term for the other singers (qawwalis) and instrumentalists who sit in a group on the stage with the lead qawwal.

The World Music Institute, located in New York City, has been a chief promoter of Khan's work in the West, along with many other important nonwestern folk and classical musicians. For example, in 1993 Khan opened and closed a five-hour "Masters of India and Pakistan" concert that featured music of his region, Hindustani, as well as the work of performers from southern Pakisan.

Khan was born in 1948 in the Punjab province of Pakistan, in the town of Lyallpur--during Pakistan's 1979 decolonization, its name was changed to Faisalbad. As a young qawwal, Khan learned his art in the traditional manner, through his family. His father, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, as well as his uncles, were qawwalis, and they trained Khan in the family tradition of singing in a high register. Khan also received instruction on the tabla, a small hand drum.

sing through the whole day or night in religious celebration. "When I had the stamina, I'd sing for 10 hours," he once recalled. But, by age 45, the singer found himself limited to sessions of three or four hours. These shrines, or dargahs, are generally the tombs-- symbolic or otherwise--of saints where the faithful enter musically induced, trance-like states allowing communion with God. Traditionally, qawwalis sat opposite the saint's tomb. In the intervening space would be the audience in a circle formation, and in its center a spiritual leader surrounded by prominent devotees. Such sites are the true home of qawwali, although the music has also been performed at important events such as weddings feasts.

In his introduction to the program for Khan's 1993 World Music Institute performance, Robert Browning wrote, "The qawwal will dwell on certain words ... creating great depth in the apparently simple language of certain Sufi texts. He will often repeat a phrase or sentence indicating both the obvious and hidden content by emphasizing or ruminating upon particular words and syllables ... [so that, for example] a spinning wheel becomes the wheel of life." Qawwali texts are most commonly medieval Persian Sufi poetry, and Khan, like other qawwalis, learns each poem by heart. Although the verses are available in books, it is the manner of performing each text that must be learned from another qawwal. Thus, the music is basically an oral tradition.

Browning stated that "rarely is a complete poem recited--rather the singer will join segments from different poems or add lines from another text." This free association from memorized poems is done to emphasize a certain meaning, or to try a new direction in the effort to move the audience to spiritual awakening. The qawwal must exhibit great sensitivity in noting when a listener is moved to divine ecstasy, and must repeat the same phrase over and over; according to Sufi belief, interruption would threaten the ecstatic with death.

Often, qawwali poetry's apparent subject is romantic love, or even wine intoxication--though liquor is shunned by Islam. These are symbolic subjects, however: romantic love serves as an allegory and facet of divine love, while intoxication refers to the joyous trance induced by qawwali. The oft mentioned "tavern," as in the famous Persian poem "In the Tavern of Ruin," refers to one's spiritual master who houses God's love.

The melodic sources for performing qawwali poems are usually set by trdition. The tunes are North Indian in nature, meaning the octave has seven degrees and the various scales come from light classical ragas. Ragas are a traditional form of Hindu music, calling for improvisation on a theme evoking religious belief, the improvisation generally following prescribed patterns and progressions. Modern qawwali represents a spectrum of influences and geographic territories.

Generally associated with the Sufi religion, qawwali also has Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim followers. Currently, Urdu is the music's "first language," as Ken Hunt noted in his profile of Khan for Folk Roots. However, qawwalis also sing in Hindi, Sindhi, Punjabi, and classical Persian, not to mention local tongues. The literary sources of qawwali range too, though texts are chiefly medieval Persian Sufi poetry. The program for Khan's 1993 tour included, for example, a thirteenth-century Persian poem by the famed Amir Khusrau.

In his article for Folk Roots, Hunt described the scowl that comes over Khan's face when discussing the depiction of qawwali in films. For several years a debased form of qawwali has formed the soundtrack of many movies generated by a prolific Indian film industry. Khan understandably decries this long-standing commercialization of a sacred art form.

Yet, as an artist himself, Khan has embraced nontraditional elements since his 1989 U.S. visit. Western instruments and such big-name musicians as Jan Garbarek and Peter Gabriel have strongly influenced Khan's output in recent years. This Western flavor is evident in the singer's recording Mustt Mustt and numerous remixes, including those by Bally Sagoo in Magic Touch.

Khan defends such breaks with tradition as "experiments" and seems to feel that attracting an audience is important to make people aware of qawwali. The pressures on this revered singer to widen his audience echo those placed on performers of any type of traditional folk music. The artist is pulled in two directions: As a traditionalist, he is entrusted with preserving the music's form, and yet as a musician, he feels the need to discover new forms of self-expression. Noting that many qawwalis have abandoned shrine performance for financial reasons, Khan has expressed that he cannot forego his spiritual and personal links to such sites. Each year, he returns to perform at two dargahs, one in Lahore and one in Pak Patan.

Khan has made numerous recordings over the years, with titles now numbering more than 100. While his works of the early 1990s disappoint some fans of the traditional sound who find in the modern output a weakening of musical and spiritual integrity, such early classical recordings as En Concert a Paris and Traditional Sufi Qawwalis Volumes 1 and 2 form a timeless buffer against loss of the past.

by Joseph M. Reiner

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Career

Began performing Islamic devotional music as a qawwal in villages and religious shrines; first U.S. tour, 1989.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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