Casting a musical spell

Published : Sep 06, 1997 00:00 IST

Down the ages, the subcontinent has delighted in the qawwali; what Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a classicist who adapted himself to meet current tastes, did was to popularise it among an entirely new generation.

STANDING at Bhit Shah, the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittal, the great Sufi poet of Sindh, Shehzad lets out an occasional shout - and breaks into song and dance. A group of folk musicians at the shrine move the spirit; one of them plays the dhol, a percussion instrument much in use by Pakistani folk musicians. The beat of the dhol bestirs Shehzad and he begins to sway.

Such public displays of emotion are totally out of character for Shehzad. In the middle-class circles of urban Pakistan in which he moves, he is considered a "serious-minded, philosophical intellectual", but this, it appears, isn't the same man. It is almost as if while standing at Bhit Shah, Shehzad has transcended onto another, mystic plane.

Every year, millions of people from all over South

Asia visit the shrines of Sufi saints. Most of them come from villages and small towns, where the shackles of a feudal order deprive them of all hope. They come to the Sufi shrines to seek hope and to pray; their wishes are small and insubstantial, and their prayers are sincere and conventional.

Shehzad is not one of them. He does not pray at any of the shrines, although he does visit Bhit Shah, Sehwan Sharif and Data Darbar fairly regularly. Shehzad has come to Bhit Shah to break free of all that binds him, to be himself and to be what he is deep inside: a free man. For him, the atmosphere at the shrines is soothing, and the music is a lullaby. Every time he visits a shrine, his mind is at ease.

Such is the appeal of Pakistani popular music, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, one of the greatest qawwali singers Pakistan has ever produced, had just such an appeal for millions of people, in Pakistan and India and elsewhere in the world. Using Western musical instruments and fusing the traditional with the modern, he held concert audiences around the world in thrall. The rhythm in Khan sahib's musical renditions seemed to weave a spell around them. The spell was called sama. Qawwali has the effect of entrancing listeners and relaxing tension, and qawwals were masters at casting musical spells over their audiences. Few did it more successfully and enchantingly than Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Down the ages, from the times of Hazrat Amir Khusrau, the subcontinent has delighted in this form of music; what Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a classicist who adapted himself to meet more current tastes, did was to popularise it among an entirely new generation - at home and in the West - that now sways and dances to a new beat.

PAKISTAN'S urban society still retains its rural traditions and feudal values. Opportunities for material advance exist only for a privileged few; for those who suffer, there is little prospect of better times. For a generation of have-nots who have suffered at the hands of those who are well off, one way out is to revolt.

When during the 1980s, Gen. Zia ul-Haq started to preach his own brand of Islam, the Sufism of the saint-poets emerged as an expression of defiance and revolt for this generation. This was the era when Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Perveen, Pathaney Khan and many other folk singers began to attract public attention in Pakistan. Nusrat, of course, was well-known abroad even earlier. Pakistan, regrettably, recognises the genius of its sons and daughters only after others do so.

Nusrat had by then been performing for audiences abroad. He had worked with the Indian Hindi film industry and had staged concerts in the West. It was during one such concert in 1990, organised to raise funds for cricketer Imran Khan's cancer hospital, that Nusrat was "spotted" by Peter Gabriel.

Nusrat had just finished singing one of his favourite pieces. Gabriel went backstage and without even formally introducing himself asked Nusrat: "What was that you were singing?"

"That," explained Nusrat, "was Noha. We sing it during our Muharram processions to remember the martyrdom of Imam Hussein." Its haunting melody had apparently transfixed Gabriel, who was looking for just that kind of music for an upcoming movie, The Last Temptation of Christ. The two paired up for the movie; it was to be the beginning of a flourishing partnership.

IN neighbouring India, which he visited frequently, Nusrat's music was much in demand, and those who remember the Ustad from his pre-Gabriel days recall that he had attained celebrity status even two decades ago. His first performance in India was at the wedding of one of film-maker Raj Kapoor's sons.

Not every musician with prodigious talent has been lucky to win instant recognition from audiences. Nusrat's genius, however, was universally acknowledged. He was then a traditional qawwal, not given to experimentation. And even after he began to make musical innovations, his work always remained qawwali-based.

Qawwali is a derivative of the word qol - the saying. Essentially devotional music, qawwali is rhythm-oriented and has a distinctive style. Small taans are repeated over and over again, taking audiences to peaks of musical pleasure and keeping them spellbound.

Qawwals, who sing the praise and message of the saint-poets, are regarded as mystics in their own right. Nusrat too was considered one. And his music knew no international borders. Once, while singing for a French audience, he offered to have the lyrics translated for them. The audience declined, saying they could well understand the spirit of his music and the intensity of his work. Material words were, for them, largely immaterial. Kenyan audiences, mostly third-generation Africans of Indian origin, took instantaneously to his soul-stirring beats. And some Japanese even considered him a reincarnation of the Buddha; they always attended his concerts barefoot.

This Sufi from Faisalabad was not allowed by his father, himself a great singer, to sing until the age of 10. "Bubloo", as he was called by family and friends, was being raised to become a doctor. His love for music forced his father to change his mind.

Before long, Nusrat was sing "Raati jalawan dya hanjwan de tale da, cheti kar rabba merey sajnan de male da" at the Data Darbar.

In 1965, he performed for the first time for the electronic media: on Radio Pakistan, Lahore. That was a programme on the spring festival, and there sat, among others, maestros like Roshan Ara Begum, Ustad Salamat Ali, Ustad Waheed Ali Khan, Ustad Ghulam Ali Khan, Iqbal Bano and Fareeda Khanum. Even amidst such renowned musicians, Nusrat's performance stood out. With his vocal range and elasticity he could switch octaves almost at will, something that South Asian classical singing does not rely on.

Nusrat forever sought to inject new elements into his music. In this respect, he was much like his father, who wanted to add something new to the Punjabi Sufi works he had brought into the otherwise strictly Arabo-Persianised qawwali.

Many people believe that Nusrat's main achievement was his popularising the use of Western instruments in Eastern music, especially qawwali. Such fusion had, however, been attempted in the past, even by qawwals. What Nusrat succeeded in doing was in creating a new kind of music that an entirely new generation could instantly take to and understand. This he accomplished principally because, given his classical moorings, his songs were effectively an intelligent discussion, not meaningless vocal renditions. And the rhythm he chose was the heartbeat of a younger generation.

Unlike some others who were busy cashing in on the electronic media revolution of the 1980s, Nusrat attempted to give the people something of value. Pakistan's music industry had earlier depended a lot on films and television; subsequently, audio cassettes and music videos became the primary vehicles of popular music. Music, however, was a commercial proposition. Pop bands with little or no musical education held sway. These rootless imitators of Western pop music were exploited by the ruling elite to promote its own brand of a 21st-century Pakistan.

Nusrat remained one glorious exception. True to his simple spirit, he always presented what he considered the best. And he was indisputably the best.

Imran Shirvanee is a Karachi-based theatre director and writer on cultural affairs.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment