Chain of Light

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Released 20 September 2024

  1. Ya Allah Ya Rehman
  2. Aaj Sik Mitran Di
  3. Ya Gaus Ya Meeran
  4. Khabram Raseed Imshab

Liner notes

It all starts with the voice. At turns heavy and hulkingly powerful, yet agile and pointedly precise, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s vocal not only embodies the tradition of the Sufi qawwali but it is the emotive essence of singing itself.

Descended from a 600-year-old lineage of qawwali singers, Nusrat’s voice has been singularly responsible for spreading the devotional music of Sufism to the world, ever since he became the leader of his family’s musical group in 1971. It is a formidable heritage for an ancient song. Originating in 10th Century Iran, qawwali is the music of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam. Characterised by states of musical ecstasy and sophistication, qawwali singers are the mouthpiece of divine power, tasked with capturing the audience’s attention and heightening their consciousness to receive a spiritual message.

Although many of Nusrat’s listeners will not understand the Urdu and Punjabi languages that he sings in, his spiritual message is still communicated through the yearning vibrations of his voice. It is a capacity for musical translation that first transported his artistry from its religious settings to capture the attention of Real World’s Peter Gabriel in the early 1980s. On the legendary label, Nusrat would go on to release five albums of traditional qawwali music, as well as opening up his sound to reach a global audience, thanks to crossover collaborations with producer Michael Brook, which created the hit fusion records Mustt Mustt (1990) and Night Song (1996).  

Yet, just as he was at the peak of his creative powers and earning accolades from the likes of Jeff Buckley — who famously stated, “he’s my Elvis” — as well as composer A R Rahman and Mick Jagger, in 1997 Nusrat tragically died at the age of 48. He had exposed the mystical power of qawwali and its capacity for modern interpretations to the world, but his great voice was no more.

That is until the recent discovery of the four pristine recordings that make up this remarkable new release, Chain of Light. Buried deep in the warehouse space that comprises the Real World tape archives, these April 1990 sessions from the label’s infamous Wiltshire studios find Nusrat at a crossroads, on the cusp of global greatness.

“1990 was a key point in Nusrat’s career, it was the beginning of him crossing over into a western audience,” Nusrat’s longtime international manager, Rashid Ahmed Din, says. “Everything just clicked. He always wanted to experiment and not be limited to one sound and these tracks express that movement beyond.”

Indeed, the years leading to 1990 had been momentous ones for Nusrat. Already considered a master among the Sufi community and its qawwali listeners, his sprawling and often raw recordings of spiritual music had led to an invitation from Gabriel to perform at the 1985 edition of WOMAD Festival. Bringing his nine-person qawwali party of extended family musicians with him to the tiny Mersea Island in Essex, the festival audience witnessed a late night show that would make history.

Listeners were greeted with the 20-minute opening alap of ‘Allah Ho’, feeling the qawwal unfurl like one long crescendo and luring them into its softly accelerating, swung beat of tablas and hand claps before suddenly Nusrat’s voice arrived. Almost shocking in its force, Nusrat’s throaty, air-gulping yawp leapt into a high-register harmony and swapped phrases with child singer Rahat Ali before building to his signature sargam: a rapid-fire wordless vocalisation over chromatic scales. On the 2019 release of a recording of the show, you can hear the applause is loud and electric.

After 14 years spent as the head of his family’s qawwal troupe, building a reputation as a religious performer in India and Pakistan, Nusrat’s WOMAD set helped transform the powerful, devotional form of qawwali into an emblem of South Asian culture recognised around the world. It opened the door not only to traditional qawwali music but also marked the beginning of a new chapter in his career.

Emboldened by the UK and Europe’s growing love of his music, Nusrat felt free to experiment with the traditions of his sound. Improvising more freely between the spiritual phrases of his repertoire, Nusrat found space to invite new collaborators into his process. 1989 saw the first foray into this new era as Nusrat joined forces with Peter Gabriel to produce the vocals for ‘Passion’, the title track of his soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s film, The Last Temptation of Christ. It proved to be a fruitful and invigorating experience that then led Nusrat to being introduced to Canadian guitarist and producer Michael Brook. The pair holed up at Real World studios and the seeds of a formidable relationship were planted.

“It was all seat of the pants stuff,” Brook says of their many sessions. “Nusrat carried a book of lyrics with him and he would be trying out new ideas all the time – when he settled on one he liked, he would head into the live room and launch right in. He’d only stop when we waved through the window and told him to, otherwise they’d go for as long as they wanted!”

Developing this fast-flowing shorthand, Brook began to write out his own sketches of non-traditional music for Nusrat to sing over, pushing the qawwals further into fusion. “It was amazing to see Nusrat gradually absorb the concept of the studio as an instrument, rather than just a place for live recording,” Brook says. “He was building a whole new creative outlet, with ideas for overdubs and production.”

It was around the time of these sessions that the music you hear on Chain of Light was recorded. Mixed by Craig Conard with Michael Brook for this release, the four traditional qawwal compositions find Nusrat’s voice in perhaps its finest form. Opening with one of Nusrat’s qawwal standards, ‘Ya Allah Ya Rehman’, an uptempo tabla and harmonium groove soon give way to the otherworldly cry of Nusrat’s first vocalisation, yearning in praise of Allah before the rest of the group joins him in a communal harmony. A slower tempo then takes hold of ‘Aaj Sik Mitran Di’, with Nusrat’s sargam finding the space between the languorous harmonium melody. Yet, just as we become accustomed to his phrasing, the hand claps increase to a double time and he soars in his spiritual adoration.

“There is an amazing clarity to these performances,” Brook says of the recordings. “They are more harmonically adventurous than the other songs that Nusrat was recording at the time and the whole group is playing incredibly well, firing on all cylinders!”

As well as these remarkably deft traditional qawwali compositions, Chain of Light features an even rarer find: an Urdu qawwal that Nusrat had never recorded before, ‘Ya Gaus Ya Meeran’. Rashid Ahmed Din explains its significance: “Nusrat would never say why he wanted to record what, since it all depended on his mood,” he says. “But ‘Ya Gaus Ya Meeran’ is a very difficult composition that changes patterns and isn’t easy for anyone to sing. Nusrat had the talent to compose over this music and it opened the song up for other people to sing in the future.”

Indeed, the complex melodies of ‘Ya Gaus Ya Meeran’ find the entire party tripping over an almost chromatic scale of close harmony and counterpoint. It is the epitome of Nusrat’s vocal dexterity, lending lightness to the switching rhythms while never shying from giving full voice to moments of rapturous praise, finally ascending to the line from which the album takes its enigmatic title: “Every breath of mine is related to his chain of light.”

Ultimately, all of the music on Chain of Light is a gift to its listeners – a crucial aspect of Nusrat’s astounding artistry rescued from obscurity, delivered from the darkness. Regardless of whether you can understand its lyrical content or traditions, this is music for music’s sake and a precious envoy from an inaccessible past. “It touches you,” Brook says. “It is a once in a lifetime experience.”

Like the immanent light of the record’s title, these songs are transformative and transcendent in a way that crosses languages and cultures. It draws you in, no matter your expectations. Thank God, or whatever you believe in: the voice has returned.

Words by Ammar Kalia

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party - Chain of Light (teaser)

Further Listening

  • Shahbaaz

    Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

    Released 27 May 1991

    Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan again displays his musical inventiveness blending the popular Qawwali (devotional Sufi) form with elements of the highly classical vocal tradition known as khyal (Persian for imagination), a style once enjoyed only by the elite. This musical fusion draws on a range of lyrical material, appealing to Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and even atheists.
  • Shahen Shah

    Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

    Released 05 June 1989

    The emotional intensity and soaring power of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice transcends all boundaries of language and religion, and has popularised Sufi music beyond Muslim peoples to audiences worldwide. Amongst Real World Records’ most emblematic artists, Nusrat was known as Shahen-Shah-e-Qawwali: The Brightest Shining Star in Qawwali.

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