Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Few artists in any genre could claim the popularity or influence that Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan held in his lifetime or even since his 1997 passing. Almost single-handedly, Khan introduced the great Sufi musical tradition of qawwalia style unique to Pakistan and Indiato audiences around the world.
Popularly known as the shahen-shah-e-qawwali ("qawwali's brightest-shining star"), he was born in October 1948 in Pakistan's Punjab province to a family whose tradition as qawwali performers stretches back some 600 years. His father, Fateh Ali Khan, was a well-regarded performer and musicologist who gave Nusrat his initial training in qawwali and the classical khyal style. Nusrat's brother, the wonderful Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan, sang and played harmonium for decades in his sibling's "party" (the traditional qawwali appellation for musical group). Indeed, many of Khan's initial recordings from EMI Pakistan in the early 1970s feature him performing alongside his uncle, the renowned qawwal Mubarak Ali Khan.
In the following decades, Khan released scores of albums for various labels in Pakistan, Europe, Japan and the U.S. Even today in India and Pakistan, vendor stalls and music stores offer dozens upon dozens of Khan cassettes and CDs from which to choose, from the most traditional and unadorned sessions to heavily produced albums and remix projects aimed at every conceivable musical taste (or lack thereof).
During his lifetime, Khan agreed to all kinds of projects and collaborations, overlooked unauthorized releasesand even sang into personal tape recorders for just about anyone who would ask, though he knew that those bits would probably soon be piratedwith 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.
Khan, who was long plagued by health issues, died in August 1997 in London. Several younger relatives have tried to claim his mantle since, including a nephew, Rahat, who was given official designation as successor and has led Nusrat's party since his uncle's death. But none has yet captured anything close to his elder's nearly superhuman vocal abilities, extraordinary improvisational skills or the enduring love that millions of fans lavished upon Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Anastasia Tsioulcas