Riding a wave of emotion: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan at WOMAD 1985

It’s hard to put “The Moment” into words, but everybody knows it when they feel it. With a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan concert, you’d be sitting on the ground, wrapped up in the interplay between the chorus, musicians and the big man at the front of his group. There was an intricate melody, tablas and clapping adding a rhythmic complexity and the singers, sometimes in harmony, often seemingly lost in their own raptures, keeping everything moving forward.

Suddenly, the spirit would move through Nusrat, the music would drop, he’d change intensity and switch gear —The Moment— and all around you people would leap to their feet, lost in the passion, simultaneously experiencing the same feeling. You didn’t need to believe in a higher power or understand the singer’s dexterity with ancient sacred poetry to realise you were witnessing rare genius at work.

A superstar in Pakistan yet relatively unknown abroad beyond expat communities, Nusrat was fourth on the bill at the 1985 WOMAD, below New Order, The Fall and Toots and the Maytals. A week earlier, Live Aid had suggested rock music would be the catalyst for a better world if we simply handed the reins over to Bono, Freddie and Bob. But there is an argument to be made that the 7,000 who had their first experience of qawwali at Mersea Island were changed far more than the 170,000 in Wembley and the JFK Stadium in Philadelphia.

Suddenly, the spirit would move through Nusrat, the music would drop, he’d change intensity and switch gear —The Moment— and all around you people would leap to their feet, lost in the passion, simultaneously experiencing the same feeling.
Photo credit: Andrew Catlin
 

When he took the stage, a little after midnight on Sunday morning, Nusrat had been leading his ensemble for 15 years, the latest in a dynasty that stretched back six centuries. His father had been one of the acknowledged greats of his generation, now Nusrat ran the family business, singing of love and faith, and devoting himself to the Divine.

Yet, for most at Mersea, he might as well have won a competition offering a late-night slot for unsigned talent: it was his debut in front of an audience where few would understand a word he sang, or have any prior knowledge of Sufism or its devotional music. Yet, as WOMAD co-founder Thomas Brooman remembered in his book My Festival Romance: “Anyone who saw Nusrat sing knew somehow that they were in the presence of something deeply mystical. A transcendental experience of inarticulate spiritual power.”

The concert that night ran almost four hours: while organisers worried about a rising tide that would cut off the island, Nusrat was inspired to keep singing by the audience’s reaction— it was only the pre-dawn cold that brought the show to a close. Moments came in thick waves. Folk Roots’ David Ambrose recalled “the most extraordinary experience” in his review of the festival. “A sort of a cappella Persian jazz that moved many of the audience to tears of joy. Breathtaking and one of the most wonderful sounds I’ve heard in my life.”

Looking back on the legendary concert, and the impact it had on Nusrat's career, and the popularisation of Qawwali music.
"Breathtaking and one of the most wonderful sounds I’ve heard in my life." David Ambrose, Folk Roots

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Michael Brook album Night Song to get a vinyl release

The 1996 Grammy-nominated album has never been available on vinyl before

 

The appreciation went two ways. Nusrat left the festival convinced he could hold this audience’s attention beyond that performance and immediately booked himself into an Essex studio to record with modified instrumentation —guitars and mandolins featured— hoping this would provide his new fans with a route into his music. Released in 1986, Best Of Qawwal And Party Vol 1 was the fourth album on the nascent WOMAD record label. It was the start of a fruitful relationship with WOMAD, Real World and Peter Gabriel that lasted until the singer’s untimely death in 1997.

“It was instantly obvious the significance he was going to have for us,” says Amanda Jones of Real World Records. “And he quickly realised that Peter Gabriel was an artist of serious significance in the West and internationally, and understood that this could open doors.”

Very soon, Nusrat had three parallel career paths. In Pakistan, there was a constant stream of cassettes for longterm fans. At the state-of-the-art Real World Studios, however, he was simultaneously recording traditional qawwali and experimenting with other forms of music. “We wanted him to record qawwali albums such as Shahen Shah as he chose to perform them,” explains Jones. “We wouldn’t influence his repertoire on those at all but, at the same time, Peter was guiding him through Passion and Michael Brook was working with him on Mustt Mustt, which Massive Attack remixed for the clubs.”

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his brother Farrukh recording at Real World Studios.

From the vantage point of 2019, it is clear the Mersea Island performance —recorded by the National Sound Archives and held in the British Library ever since— was the turning point. Nusrat knew all along that he had a scarcely credible ability to communicate with an audience that had no background in or knowledge of qawwali’s traditions and language, yet both he and those listening were stunned by what happened that night. “There’s a timeless quality to what we heard on those tapes,” says Jones, speaking of the moment the Real World team began work on restoring them after rescuing them from the shelf on which they had sat, unheard for almost 35 years. “It felt extraordinary in 1985, and it still does.”

Live at WOMAD 1985 (CD/Vinyl/Digital) is out on Real World Records on 26 July 2019.

PURCHASE/STREAM the album

Featured release

  • Live at WOMAD 1985

    Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

    Released 26 July 2019

    A remarkable record of a magical event that changed the perception of Sufi music to a wider audience and set Nusrat on a path to international recognition of his genius. The power and beauty of Nusrat’s voice comes rushing back through the years and lifts us up to the ecstatic heights of Sufi expression.

By David Hutcheon

David Hutcheon is a regular music contributor for the Sunday Times, Mojo, and London's Time Out.

Main image: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party at WOMAD 1985. Photo credit: Andrew Caitlin.

Published on Wed, 31 July 19

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