Remembering Nusrat 1948-1997

By Salman Ahmad Long before 9/11 and the subsequent drum beat of a war on terror and talk of a … Continued

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.

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  • Gaby

    Hey, Jacob, how’s it going?

  • Xrys

    I really enjoy Nusrat’s work. Though, I have no idea what he’s singing (lyrically) – but the strength and beauty of his voice leave no questions as to what he’s singing about (emotionally).

  • andy carvin

    During college I got to meet Nusrat in the winter of 1993, when I was invited to interview him at a Chicago concert. Before the show and during the intermission, I got to sit with him and a number of translators while drinking tea and eating plates of samosas. Nusrat spoke English, but clearly was more comfortable speaking in Urdu. I remember him as being very soft-spoken, ironic given his booming voice on stage. “I cannot allow the fame to go to my head,” he told me. “Many have said I have compromised my faith by coming to the West. But this is not so. To travel the world and open the hearts of those whose were previously closed is a joy worth the other sacrifices…. To be a qawwal is more than being a performer, more than being an artist. One must be willing to release one’s mind and soul from one’s body to achieve ecstasy through music. Qawwali is enlightenment itself.”

  • DC resident

    I saw Nusrat in concert in Chicago in the mid-90s and he was amazing. Never having heard of him or his genre of music, I had to be dragged there, but it was an extremely powerful experience listening to his voice and the rhythms of the devotional long songs. So much joy in the room with people were all ages and undoubtedly many faiths. Hearing him sing live is like watching Michael Jordan play basketball live. I will no doubt be describing the experience to my grandchildren one day.

  • mason c

    Right on brother! And to think i gave up tickets to a nusrat concert in 97 in order to go to a frat party; using the logic that nusrat would be back on tour soon enough…man, was that stupid!

  • ben

    I was introduced to Nusrat’s music through Peter Gabriel, on songs called “Taboo” and “Signal To Noise.” Wow, what a transcendent voice.

  • Joel Easton

    There is no doubt that Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his music are infinitely more pure and godly than any Imam, preacher, rabbi, priest, or religious politician of equal fame.Why?HE HAD NO HATE IN HIS BODY, MIND, OR SPIRIT.Peace be upon you. Love your neighbor and thyself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.Why can’t religious leaders live up to such simplicity? Because they are often harbor HATE for SOMEONE. Most often, someone not of their religion. Thus they disgust God almighty with their hate processions, their TV broadcasts seeking money, their domination of the minds of the poor, and the ruining of our civil societies as they seek their own power and wealth by dividing God’s children and keeping his children away from him through indoctrination with hateful, evil, and exclusionary ideas.

  • Janet

    You ask: “Can music help build the bridge of Unity between East and West?”Yes, music can do this. I love Nusrat’s music.

  • Aurorasmith

    To Joel, Jacob, and Janet:You got it folks! Music, and Nusrat’s in particular, transcends time and space, and betokens the spirit that can transform the world. The three T’s, Tone, Tempo and Transitions are the vibrations that connect our souls through music. There aren’t six degrees of separation between all of us, only ONE. “God is closer to us than our own hearts” and “Look not for God in the temple, It is within you, and without you.” Religions are resisters in the electrical current of spirit. The perfect amplifier is “straight wire, with gain.” That was Nusrat: the perfect amplifier, with no resistors in the signal path.

  • Aamir Ali

    Nice to hear some Americans and non-Muslims who enjoy Nusrat Fateh ali Khan’s work. It is a pity he died at the young age of 48.

  • Anonymous

    Oppps! Ya Ya.

  • M SINGH

    Bahi saab

  • inderpal singh

    Nusrat,He was a Saint and his Music was food for the Soul and his voice could melt the hearts of detractors. he preached the love for humanity and in his Kwalis he expressed his heart and soul for all peoples of this universe.He touched my hearts and I met him once in at his musical renditions in Granville and met him this latger then life personality , his warmth, his heartfelt words has left only memories. Mai Jaana yogee dheh naal.

  • Concerned The Christian Now Liberated

    Nusrat would have been perfect had he only realized the flaws in his religion. Please recognize the flaws in your own religion and then proceed with your life.

  • Aamir Ali

    Concerned The Christian Now Liberated:Our religion is perfect and we don’t need your meddling. Our problems are mis-use of religion. Thank you.

  • victoria

    well thats the nicest concerned has ever been- i really have to go and listen to this fellow- it sure has jacob excited too-

  • Joe

    The panelist talks about diversity in Nusrat and Junoon’s music. That must be a joke. Where is diversity in Pakistan and 52 Islamic nations? Where are the minorities? Did you kill them or they don’t want to live with you?Why does a nation need to declare itself a religious country if it respects all religions?

  • halozcel

    Aamir Ali,If your religion/cult is perfect(you know very well it is NOT),nobody would misuse.Could you write any *perfect islamic country* ?

  • GongZhang

    Jovez,What is Eclatarianity?

  • anticlimacus

    “Mustt, mustt” means ‘drunk.’ It’s a common Sufi theme that love (of God) equals drunkenness. But then, it’s also been a convenient way for mischievous skeptics to highlight more wordly joys.

  • anticlimacus

    “Mustt, mustt” means ‘drunk.’ It’s a common Sufi theme that love (of God) equals drunkenness. But then, it’s also been a convenient way for mischievous skeptics to highlight more wordly joys.

  • alejandro

    som todos ustedes bien estupidos y vallan a pegarse un tiro y dejen de publicar estupideses porque sino va ha ver un atentado en los estados unidos peor que el de las torres

  • alejandro

    som todos ustedes bien estupidos y vallan a pegarse un tiro y dejen de publicar estupideses porque sino va ha ver un atentado en los estados unidos peor que el de las torres

  • alejandro

    som todos ustedes bien estupidos y vallan a pegarse un tiro y dejen de publicar estupideses porque sino va ha ver un atentado en los estados unidos peor que el de las torres

  • alejandro

    som todos ustedes bien estupidos y vallan a pegarse un tiro y dejen de publicar estupideses porque sino va ha ver un atentado en los estados unidos peor que el de las torres

  • alejandro

    som todos ustedes bien estupidos y vallan a pegarse un tiro y dejen de publicar estupideses porque sino va ha ver un atentado en los estados unidos peor que el de las torres

  • alejandro

    som todos ustedes bien estupidos y vallan a pegarse un tiro y dejen de publicar estupideses porque sino va ha ver un atentado en los estados unidos peor que el de las torres

  • alejandro

    som todos ustedes bien estupidos y vallan a pegarse un tiro y dejen de publicar estupideses porque sino va ha ver un atentado en los estados unidos peor que el de las torres

  • alejandro

    som todos ustedes bien estupidos y vallan a pegarse un tiro y dejen de publicar estupideses porque sino va ha ver un atentado en los estados unidos peor que el de las torres

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  • fokj wlsidhb

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  • fokj wlsidhb

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  • Tajendra Singh

    No doubt Nusrat Fateh Ali khan was a legand of Sufi qlam and always remenber for his great contribution in sufi music .Could you pls help me to search about collection of ailbum with international Band Pearl JamI am waiting if some one can repllay.Regards

  • Tajendra Singh

    No doubt Nusrat Fateh Ali khan was a legand of Sufi qlam and always remenber for his great contribution in sufi music .Could you pls help me to search about collection of ailbum with international Band Pearl JamI am waiting if some one can repllay.Regards