The tempo rising steadily, the chorus matching up with the fast notes and then, Nusrat’s voice hits an ecstatic high. Inadvertently I close my eyes. “Allahoo hoo… Allahoo.. allah” slowly fading into background.
If it had not been for my father’s broad music taste, which I thought was a bit bizarre(even eccentric) during my childhood because he chose to hear Carnatic, Qawwali, Western classical, 80s English Rock and Blues and sometimes in random succession, I would have been totally unaware of the legendary singer Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan !
During my younger days when my peers hummed the latest film songs, I would smile and fake a nod in agreement. Surely because I’m either listening for the first time or that I haven’t listened it enough number of times for me to sing along. Our car stereo played Nusrat, Balamuralikrishna or John Denver by default, even if it was for the shortest duration. The cassette and cd shelves overflowed with the above names along with Sabri brothers, Aziz Miyan, Thyagaraja, Hariprasad Chaurasya, Bismillah Khan, Mozart, Beethoven to name a few. Visitors to our abode were treated with generous amount of food as well as a copious dose of music. I’ve been asked on several occasions by friends as to what that weird music is, in which a man is singing (screaming to many)on the top of his voice. My earliest memories had me looking through numerous cassette covers which had caricatures of someone who resembled laughing buddha but just that his hand opened out into the sky. It took years for my eardrums to get accustomed to Nusrat and few more years to appreciate the 13th century Sufi music.
Qawwali is one of the oldest music genre that have survived through hundreds of years to live up to 21st century. This legendary school of music characterized by repeating phrases and rhythmic clapping, is sung by a group of vocalists and instrumentalists along with a lead singer. Starting with rather calm and composed musical reciting, a qawwali leaps into a fast paced, highly energetic repetitive rhapsody moving both the performers and the audience equally into a state of blissful euphoria. Though pointing out the exact time frame of the birth of qawwali is difficult, Sufi masters of the old world is said to have practiced musical devotion which transports both the listeners and performer to an ecstatic trance. It is believed that Saint Hazrat left his physical body during one such musical trance. The qawwali that we hear today is an amalgamation of Samaa, a spiritual concert of 11th century with Tarana and Qaul. It is credited by historians that Amit Khusrov, a Sufi saint well versed in Persian and Hindustani, who mixed the traditional music with Persian and Hindustani elements. Qawwali performances typically last about 15-30 minutes and were traditionally performed in Sufi shrines. But later, when recognized as performing arts, qawwali nights were conducted on stages. There are several parts to this musical performance. A standard piece includes an instrumental prelude, followed by alap which is the part where the singers intone the notes in the raga to be played and we where we witness improvisation of verses by the lead and the second or the third singer. After the alap the lead qawwal(singer) starts reciting verses as a preface to the main song and then all the performers in unison begins the actual song. A qawwali party consists of two or three lead vocalists and a group of hand clapping qawwals who sings the chorus. Most of the qawwalis sing praises of the Sufi saints or Prophet Muhammed.
Qawwali and Sufism share the common belief that union with the supreme power can take place during life on earth through several medium and music is being one. Because of the stark ideology difference from the orthodox Muslim views, this mystical Sufi music suffered a lot of stigma and social castrations. In India, the Aurangazeb’s rule was one such time when most of the performing arts went into a relapse. After independence majority of the qawwal families migrated to Pakistan, from where qawwali had its rebirth through maestros like Sabri brothers and Aziz Mian. But it got its much deserved attention later in the 80s anf 90s, when Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan known as Shahensha-e-Qawwali(King of qawwali) brought it to mainstream music. Reigning from a background of proficient qawwals, Nusrat had a talent towards music from his early days. Although his father wanted him to pursue medicine, young Nusrat was given training in music and tabla after he accompanied Munawar Ali Khan, a famous classical singer, to a concert. Munawar Khan gave a positive remark about young Nusrat which made his father change his mind and started teaching his son the basics of qawwali. When his father died, he joined his uncle Mubarik’s qawwali party and then gave his first performance when he was 16 years old.
As years passed Nusrat’s emerged as one of the finest qawwals that history has seen. Nusrat’s vocal range was unsurpassed among his contemporaries’ and the mystic element in his music is nothing short of ethereal bliss. He could go on for hours at high pitch intensity and successive improvisation. It was only a matter of time, before he took this music out into the West. The popularization of qawwali became easier after Nusrat and party performed at the World of Music, Arts and Dance. Nusrat’s compositions, such as Sanson Ki Mala Pe says , “One lover was in the temple and another in the mosque but to me, immersed in the joy of love, both seemed the same.” transcends religion and ethnicity diversity. The maestro died at a young age of 48 years, leaving ever lasting music compositions for mankind.
I remember him just like the caricature on the cassette cover, a cherubic singing buddha with eyes closed, hands held to the sky, singing the surreal music of heavens.