By Salman Ahmad
Long before 9/11 and the subsequent drum beat of a war on terror and talk of a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Pakistan’s greatest musical export, sang ecstatically about the Oneness of God and love for humanity.
Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu, all people with or without faith who tuned into the power and emotion of his voice were transported to another place, beyond the self-created ghettos of the mind and into a spiritual wonderland of joy and transcendence.
I was first introduced to Nusrat in 1990 by the Pakistani cricket captain, Imran Khan, for whose cancer hospital we did a fund-raising tour of concerts together. Having been born in Lahore and grown up in New York, my musical leanings were the blues and classic rock: John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Pink Floyd. As a result, I felt a little out of place arriving at Lahore’s Alhamra arts council carrying a stratocaster and a guitar amp to my first Qawwali rehearsal with the celebrated Nusrat.
He sat onstage, cross legged on a Persian carpet, looking like a Punjabi Buddha, while his qawwali group brought out the harmoniums, tablas, and cups full of Lahori chai. After the traditional greetings of “Salaamualeikum” (peace be upon you) I nervously asked Nusrat what he wanted me to play on the first song “Mustt,Mustt” (lost in you), he replied with a childlike innocence: “do whatever your heart tells you to do”. It turned out to be the strongest piece of career and personal advice anyone could’ve offered me.Nusrat’s voice and the songs performed that day and later on the tour had a profound impact on my music.
To modify a Nirvana lyric, his music is “addictive and contagious”. The poetry and the melodies opened doors inside my head, which allowed Rumi, Bulleh Shah and Iqbal to enter and coexist with John Lennon, Jimmy Page and John Lee Hooker. Nusrat also helped pave the way for my band, Junoon, to take the risks we did when we married electric guitars to bhangra drum and dhol grooves while chanting traditional sufi texts considered sacred by the orthodox. In fact it was Nusrat who broke the traditional mould of the Qawwali singer, when he collaborated with Peter Gabriel, Michael Brook and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam.
In one particular conversation I had with him about about his brilliant album “NIGHT SONG” with Michael Brook, he told me that he favored fusion because in the Qur’an it mentioned that God loves diversity, and Nusrat felt the most powerful way to celebrate and express diversity was through music.
Years later,in 1998, when Junoon’s song Sayonee raced up the pop charts in India to help us become South Asia’s biggest rock band, it was a special poignant moment for me because our album “Azadi (Freedom)” for EMI had been dedicated to the memory of Nusrat who had sadly passed on a year earlier while only 48 and with all the music still inside of him.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan left behind a universal DNA in his songs, for all people to share and celebrate the yearning, the joy and the timeless message of Oneness. Can music help build the bridge of Unity between East and West?
Nusrat certainly had no doubts.
“On Faith” panelist Salman Ahmad is a Pakistani-born rock star who started the wildly popular South Asian band known as Junoon.