Art & Entertainment

Mouthpiece For The Divine

Remembering Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on his 15th death anniversary

Mouthpiece For The Divine

"I do not sing to become famous or wealthy. All praise is to God that I lack nothing. But, when I sing, it's because I inherited this talent from my great heritage. I thank our ancestors many times, I only want to impart the message that they themselves imparted and be of service to you in making you aware of this message."

—Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, 1948-1997 

On August 16, 1997, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died and the world lost one of the most dynamic singers of the century. For six centuries, Nusrat's family have performed qawwali music at royal courts and Sufi centres. Nusrat’s father insisted that he become a physician. But after mastering the tabla at the age of 16 and visualizing dreams of himself performing at the famous Khwaja Mo'in ud-din Chishti's shrine in Ajmer, India, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan began a 33 year journey as the 'mouthpiece for the divine'.

At the old Mehfil-e-Sama grounds in front of Data Darbar in Lahore (now covered with ugly concrete as part of the new Data Darbar complex), we used to go to the all-night qawwali sessions during the annual Urs. It was there in 1972 that I heard Nusrat for the first time, a year after his father's death and was amazed by the virtuosity of this round young man. The energy, the passion, pushing the music to its limits with eyes squeezed shut, everything, the world would one day know him by, were already there. An enthusiastic Lahori crowd roared its approval, galvanizing the young qawwal to even more high-pitched and painfully powerful creations.

A couple of years later, as a homesick student in Germany during the 1970s, cassettes of Nusrat from the Rehmat Grammophone House in Faisalabad were all I asked for from home. It was Nusrat’s music that during those long years filled my little room with a power and freedom that made me proud of my identity. I still remember sophisticated Pakistanis turning up their noses at his music and saying, “Adam, do we really have to have this cacophony on so loud?" Yet they were the same ones, who ten years later used to ask me superciliously, “I'm sure you haven't heard Nusrat’s latest. Isn’t he great?" 

Nusrat had an answer for this when years after, I teased him about his rising popularity among the alienated elite of Pakistan: “You know this perfectly good cloth they make in Faisalabad. People won't buy it unless you stamp "Made in Japan" down the side. I'm just like that cloth for the ‘gentry’.”

After I returned to Pakistan in 1985, I met an excited travel-stained group working for Radio France (RFI): Qudsi, a Turkish musician; Bruno, a French producer and Soudi, a short, chain-smoking Iranian woman wearing gold earrings, Kenzo silks and a wicked smile. It was easy to strike up a friendship with this madcap trio, so we went to Bari Imam together and had dinner at the new Afghan restaurant at Peshawar Mor. I discovered that they shared my enthusiasm for Nusrat and were in the process of inviting him to Paris for a series of concerts. 

The Theatre de la Ville in the heart of Paris became a cult centre of Nusrat worshippers and Ocora, the traditional music-publishing arm of Radio France, was the first to produce LPs and audiocassettes of Nusrat outside Pakistan. Soudi was the driving force behind the whole initiative, with her ability to charm everyone from stiff bureaucrats to reticent Pathan musicians. Her courage, obstinacy and ability to ride on top of Pakistani buses swathed in her Japanese designer silks were unforgettable aspects of her personality. We were later to work together on a music documentary film Musiques du Pakistan, in which Nusrat featured prominently. The film won a silver medal in Italy.

At an UNESCO conference in Tokyo in 1986, I met people at a reception who were talking excitedly about a forthcoming festival of “Dance and Song in the Asian Spirit”, in which they were planning to bring qawwals from Ajmer in India. “Why don't you get qawwals from Pakistan? The city of Faisalabad is full of them. And while you're at it, get the whirling dervishes from Konya in Turkey." They promised they'd investigate and asked me to find the right qawwals. For me, the choice was clear.

Back in Islamabad, I discovered that Nusrat was in town for concerts at the President's house. Rumour had it that his performance was music therapy for the treatment of the disturbed daughter of the military ruler. This apparently turned out to be true, for both Nusrat and the psychiatrist treating the ruler's daughter were awarded the President's Pride of Performance medal shortly after. 

We invited Nusrat for an archival recording at Lok Virsa and the Executive Director Uxi Mufti agreed to a shoestring budget. I felt we needed someone of the highest possible calibre with a deep understanding of music and verbal articulation for the archival interview, so I desperately called Sarmad Sehbai to help us out. Sarmad agreed grudgingly and ambled in late, growling arrogantly, "Yaar Adam, do you really need me for these qawwals?" and I said, "Please, Sarmad." 

Sarmad opened the interview very nonchalantly, but after the first item, his eyes opened with wonder and he said, "He really knows all about classical music!” At the end of the archival recording, Sarmad had unbent enough to realize that he was facing a momentous phenomenon. I met Nusrat for the first time physically that night; I met his temperamental and volatile brother Farrukh ("Farkhi"), his lead harmonium player Rehmat Ali ("Bhai Rehmat") and his mercurial and generous secretary Iqbal Kasuri (now Haji Iqbal). I asked them whether they'd like to perform in Japan, and Iqbal said, “Let’s talk to these people first."

"These people" were two young Japanese women, Yuki Minegishi and Ritsuko Takahata, who arrived in Islamabad with clockwork precision in Spring, 1987. We flew to Faisalabad and went straight to Mohalla Lasuri Shah, where Nusrat, Iqbal and Farkhi met us. Negotiations began, with the Japanese constantly increasing the money they were offering, converting yen into rupees with their ubiquitous calculators, the amount rose to a hundred thousand rupees. Nusrat turned to Iqbal and said, “Iqbal, it’s a lakh rupee.” That magic South Asian figure was agreed upon and the deal was clinched. The ladies flew onto Turkey and I began to write the concert brochure.

When we reached Tokyo in September 1987, we were taken to the prestigious National Theatre where the performance was scheduled for the following night. This was the first time (and so far the last) that a Pakistani musician was ever invited to perform at the National Theatre. A sense of Asian familiarity suffused the atmosphere of the theatre, where we took our shoes off and put on slippers. 

We were met affably by Mochida, the chief designer of the theatre, who asked us whether the lighting was adequate. Nusrat said, “We want more light on the audience”. Attempting to hide his surprise and commenting that it would be very difficult, Mochida asked why. “Because if I don't see the audience, how can we have a qawwali?" Nusrat replied.

I quickly explained to Mochida-san that audience feedback was an integral part of qawwali and some light on the audience to gauge their reaction was essential. He conceded and he and Nusrat finally agreed on a gentle and soft lighting on the audience after a great deal of experimentation.

After we had checked into our hotel, the first thing Nusrat did was take his harmonium out and sit in front of the television, listening to all the advertising jingles. “It's five”, he muttered immediately. When I asked what was five, he told me patiently that the music being used was based on a pentatonic (five-note) scale. 

That night, Farkhi, Iqbal and I decided and see the lights of the city and we asked Nusrat to come with us. "You go", he said smiling his usual angelic smile, and “I’ll stay here”. We returned very late in high spirits and found him still listening to the television music, but now playing tunes on the harmonium. Farkhi changed, showered and sat down with him on a second harmonium and they started to sing and play. He drank sips of water constantly (“To moisten my throat”) in between. 

As they squeezed the bellows of their harmoniums shut and prepared to sleep, I asked what the television had to do with qawwali. “The music you hear on the television contains the foundations of what the people of this area are familiar with. If they weren’t familiar with this music, it wouldn’t be used in advertising. In tomorrow’s performance, I'm going to blend in raags with five notes, like Bhopali and Pahari, into the qawwali, so that everything doesn’t sound too different to the audience at first. That way we can draw the people to our music and make them listen more attentively. Let us never forget that qawwals are missionaries of the Sufi faith of unity and this is how we can unite (people) musically.”

And that’s exactly what happened on the following day: from the normally conservative audience of the National Theatre, Nusrat got a standing ovation. The crown prince (now the emperor of Japan) invited him for an audience. The prince complimented Nusrat, saying, “Your music is very strong”.

Nusrat was enchanted with the discipline, hospitality, good manners and aesthetics of the Japanese people. The only problem that he and his group had was the food. They just couldn't bring themselves to eat Japanese food. When they saw me eating salmon sashimi, they were shocked: “Doctor Sahib, how can you eat raw fish and kira-makora with these sticks?”

The harried hosts tried their best to bring in food from Indian restaurants in Tokyo, but Nusrat and his group toyed with it, yearning for the dhania-gosht of Faisalabad and for roti. They hated the rice (normal Japonica "sticky rice" — rice imports were banned in those days) and asked in vain for basmati or sela.

The Festival of Pakistan at Avignon in August 1988 was the first time Nusrat performed outside in a public concert as a classical singer. The Sabri Brothers were to open the performance. I was sipping a drink during the rehearsals, when Ghulam Farid Sabri came up to me and said, “I'm a little confused. I see Nusrat with his brother and the tabla player, but I don’t see his hamnavah (chorus). How is he going to do a qawwali?"

I said half-jokingly, “you could lend him your chorus for the performance." He was aghast and said with some heat, “This has never happened before and it's not going to happen now!”

Sensing that I had upset him, I explained to him that Nusrat had come for raagdari (classical music) and didn't really need a chorus. "Oh, classical music, you mean he’s going to sing classical here?" he said, and shuffled away, quite perplexed. An already committed French audience was swept away by Nusrat’s performance that night.

Among the many "academic refugees" from the United States who streamed into Pakistan in the early 1980’s because they could no longer work in Afghanistan or Iran was my friend Hiromi Lorraine Sakata, Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Washington. Unlike the other academics, who clung as close to the border as possible, she evinced an interest in the music of the Punjab. When she heard qawwali for the first time, she fell in love with the genre. 

Nusrat liked her and took her into his circle of friends. Every year for six years, she came faithfully to the Urs of Data Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore, to record scores of qawwals for the University archives. Nusrat agreed to have her at the Urs to listen to him, but getting her physically into the hallowed all male mehfil-e-sama area was a masterpiece of diplomacy by Iqbal, Nusrat's manager. The entire Mehfil-e-sama Committee met on this weighty issue and finally agreed to let her in because she was “Asian, elderly and moving towards Islam.”

At the avant-garde Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, I joined Nusrat in 1989 from Philadelphia before the concerts. Lorraine Sakata flew in from Seattle just for the performance. She decided to take the qawwals to the Museum of Natural History, which was close to the hotel where we were all staying. The look of childlike wonder and pleasure on Nusrat’s face as he saw the huge replicas of pterodactyls and dinosaurs has always stayed with me. 

In New York, I rode in a taxi with him along with his nephew (Farkhi's son, who is now the leader of the group). They both listened intently to the music in the taxi's radio and Nusrat began to classify different bits of songs into ‘raag’ schemes for Rahat’s benefit, explaining how the full raag would sound. Rahat echoed him in song, and I had a free concert in the taxi. 

Before the concert, Nusrat auditioned all the music channels in New York in his hotel room and during the performance the next night, won the hearts of the New Yorkers by synthesizing their music with his. “Pakistani Musicians Who Deal in Ecstasy" screamed the New York Times.

Lorraine Sakata finally asked Nusrat if he'd like a short-term teaching post at her university. Under this particular visiting musician program, free medical facilities from hi-tech diagnostics to surgery were part of the package. He was delighted with the offer, but rumblings from his group became apparent. I finally realized that Nusrat's presence fed over a hundred people (musicians have a larger family size than Pakistan’s average of eight) and his departure would mean destitution for the accompanists’ families. 

She repeated the invitation every year, and on the third year, Nusrat agreed, partially because his health had begun to deteriorate. Diagnostics in Seattle revealed that he had diabetes and had suffered several heart attacks that he knew nothing about. He also had enormous gallstones that had to be removed immediately. He was successfully operated upon for the gallstones, but the doctors cautioned that he would have to change his lifestyle and go on a strict diet. These were two things be never did.

During the entire period, Nusrat’s fame grew in another sector, which I as a traditionalist studiously ignored. I completely missed out on Peter Gabriel, Phoolan Devi, Imran Khan, and Eddie Vedder, believing that he could bring qawwali even further. Nevertheless, it was delightful to behold a chorus of ladies from the Shahi Mohalla singing for the Lahore remix of "Must, Must" at Nusrat's studio with Farooq Pal at the mixer.

My friendship with Nusrat grew over the years and he always visited me whenever he came to Rawalpindi or Islamabad. I asked him which the best languages for qawwali were: "Farsi (Persian) is of course the best and all other languages are all right, but the Punjabi Sufi poets are very special." I remember asking him what he would like most in the world: "An open free concert for as many people as possible!' He never got the chance.

I was at Faisalabad for his "qul" (post-burial rites). The grief-stricken family was looking after solemn men sitting in rows counting out roast chickpeas with each prayer. None of the beautiful people of Lahore had deigned to attend, nor did all the fans in the world have time to react to the superfast Muslim burial.

His grave is a small mound of earth to the right of his father Fateh Ali Khan, covered with a solitary chaadar.

This obituary was written for the Newsline, Lahore and graciously made available to us by Professor Hiromi Lorraine Sakata from her personal collection


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