Shahen-Shah

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, 1989

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a man of impressive, even daunting, stature. The emotional intensity and soaring power of his voice transcend all boundaries of language and religion and have popularised this beautiful and inspirational music beyond Muslim peoples to audiences worldwide.

Qawwali

Qawwali means literally utterance and the Qawwal is the mouthpiece of Divine Power: We do not sing, we are made to sing. This is the devotional music of the Sufis the mystical sect of Islam, intended to elevate the spirit and bring both performer and listener closer to God.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was considered the greatest living exponent of Qawwali. A man of impressive, even daunting stature, the emotional intensity and soaring power of his voice transcends all boundaries of language and religion and has popularised this beautiful and inspirational music beyond Muslim people to audiences world-wide.

The strength and power of Qawwali as a form is used to convey a mystic, religious message. The best Qawwal draws and holds the audiences attention, altering the listeners state of consciousness to make it intensely receptive of the content.

At the heart of Sufism is the heart itself: devotional love of God (Allah), His profit (Mohammed) and His friend (Ali). Music is the vehicle to reach the heart and attain a state of Grace or enlightenment, a stateless state or Marifat the inner knowledge.

The music provides an intangible interplay between form and content, dwelling upoin particular works to create a wider context, allowing simple language to attain greater depths. The trance-inducing repetition of a sentence or phrase indicates both the obvious and hidden context, taking the audience into a discover of new meanings, sudden revelations, new significances, new departures.

Both performer and listener are drawn into this heightened experience words are repeated until all meaning is exhausted and only the purity of the form remains a universal understanding transcending even linguistic barriers.

In the lyric of one Qawwali song we are warned Do not accept the heart that is the slave to reason embrace the uninhibited release of energy, the pleasure of ecstasy beyond the rational plane. In the communal, ritualised setting of the a Qawwali session members of the audience are often brought to a state of trance chanting, swaying and clapping, even falling into physical convulsions. This is the state of mind or hal reached at the climax of the music and the point where money is showered onto the stage by the ecstatic audience.

Qawwali originated with the foundation of the Christi order of Sufis in Khorosan in the early 10th century and was brought to the Indian Sub-Continent in the 12th century. Traditionally, a Qawwali performance is heard at the shrine of a saint or a gathering of the brotherhood. Today the Qawwal will sing at all major events such as marriages and religious feasts, and even in an increasing number of secular contexts, remaining still the most popular form of musical expression in Pakistan.

The performers sit in a close group. Small hand-pumped harmoniums provide the melody, whilst the rhythm is maintained by tabla or dholak and the hand-clapping of the chorus. The music builds from the opening alap to increasingly louder and higher crescendos. The chorus, highlighting salient parts in the form of a refrain, echo the melodies sung by Nusrat. Over the solid rhythmic foundation the singer elaborates subtle vocal lines, accompanied by dramatic gestures of the hands and arms.

The lyrics are generally in Urdu (Persian), drawing upon the symbolic richness and beauty of the language and its ancient mystic traditions.

For the Sufis, spiritual advancement through music comes to both performer and audience, for there are two forms of Grace, neither greater than the other Those with a melodious voice and those endowed with the faculties to appreciate them.

THE PARTY

The illustrious Khan family of classical music masters have been developing the art of Qawwali for over six centuries. Nusrat himself, however, did not initially intend to become a Qawwal. He decided to sing only after recurring dreams convinced him it was the path to follow.

He dreams he was singing at the famous shrine of Hazratja Khawaja Moin-Ud-Din Chishtie at Ajmer in India. At first he believed it to be absurd no Qawwal had ever been allowed to sing inside this most famous of Muslim shrines. It convinced him sufficiently, however, that he should follow in his fathers footsteps and become the leader of the Party in 1971.

Astonishingly enough, Nusrats dream proved to be true. In 1979 when the singer and his Party were visited the famous shrine as pilgrims, Nusrat was invited to perform the first Qawwal to have received the honour.

The sophistication and complexity of Qawwali music requires years of dedicated training and absolute co-ordination within the Party as a whole. Nusrats rise to fame in such a short time was phenomenal. Touring world wide and receiving prizes and recognition as the worlds greatest Qawwal in its purest form, he is known Shahen-Shah-e-Qawwali; The Brightest Shining Star in Qawwali.

Reviews

  • '...transcendentally mystical but with all the visceral presence of rock; ancient forms renewed with tremendous energy and immediacy.' City Paper (USA)