Remembering Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
By Ras H. Siddiqui

The author with the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

August 14th is just around the corner. The approach of Pakistan’s Independence Day rekindles many pleasant memories for our community worldwide, especially here in Northern California where it is usually a very busy month for our journalists. But before that task approaches, a desire to contribute some personal writing remains strong even though a tinge of sadness is associated with this particular topic. The tragedy is that that this writer is always reminded of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Sahib during this time of the year for two main reasons.
First, his death anniversary on August 16 is also just around the corner, which makes it eight years now since he left this world at the young age of 49. And second, it was always a wish of some of us in this area to have him perform just once at the Pakistan Association of San Francisco’s annual Independence Day event, the second largest annual gathering of Pakistanis in this part of the world (it appears that Los Angeles has finally surpassed us). But like a meteor he spread the light of the qawwali throughout the world, and like a meteor he left, soon after we had begun to experience and appreciate a vocalist-genius, his death a tragedy of immense proportions for the Pakistani arts.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (NFAK) had just made his debut in the Western music world and slowly but surely he had begun to scale the heights of stardom here in America and Europe. Peter Gabriel, Joan Osborne and Eddy Vedder were some of the people that he cooperated with or became his fans. His voice had a unique magical quality and most of all it had range. As one notable described it best, his was “a voice from the heavens.”
The soundtrack of the movie “Dead Man Walking” still resonates in vague memory today like some other tidbits that can be shared.
A promoter of Pakistani music shows once said to this writer that there are really only two Pakistani singers whose shows could never lose money. The two were Madam Noor Jahan and Nusrat Sahib. Such was his following that it boggled the mind. There was a time when Pakistan Link and another newspaper would carry advertisements for Pakistani music shows to be held in Northern California, where the promoter would put my contact number along with a long list of several others for ticket information and purchases. And most of the time it would be us calling prominent members of our community and pleading with them to buy tickets to these shows. But with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Sahib it was a different ball game. People used to call us instead for the privilege to see him and sometimes we had to turn them away. I can distinctly recall one occasion when, for a show in Berkeley, California I received a call from a young lady from Saint Louis, Missouri, who wanted to travel almost 2000 miles to see NFAK’s live performance. Never before had we Pakistanis in the U.S. experienced such a phenomenon.
We have heard the term “Fire in Ice” and its relationship to singing before. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was that voice of fire that not only melted some icy hearts amongst the Pakistani diaspora but made many inroads into the musical and cultural corridors of the west. At one show I saw quite a few locals, American-born and bred, in various states of “Haal” (trance?) during Khan Sahib’s performance. Again the word that comes to mind here is “magic.”
Qawwali has its origins in the devotional expression of the Sufis. In the Western world it can be associated with Gospel singing but not without an inclusion of some Soul and The Blues. A musical pathway to spirituality, singing in Urdu and Punjabi, in praise of Allah (SWT) and his Prophet (SWW) is at the core of Qawwali.
In their own way, the singers of this art called Qawwals have developed quite a loyal following. And amongst them the king or master practitioner of this art to date, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, stands out. From his humble origins in Faisalabad in Pakistan, born into a family of vocalists and musicians in 1948, he learnt their art, excelled in it, and last but not least he shared it wonderfully with a worldwide audience. His death in 1997 ended a remarkable career.
Pakistanis who were fortunate enough to see and hear him perform cannot forget him.
His signature opening presentation “Allah Hoo” still resonates in our minds. And in closing let us use another one of his hits, this time a Punjabi song here, to assist in describing his memory. “Kina Sohna Tenu Rab Ne Banaya,” (How beautiful God made you) certainly comes to mind when we remember Nusrat, the most magical Pakistani singer of all times.

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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