Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on Qawwali

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is perhaps the world’s greatest living master of qawwali, a mystical Sufi music.

Dimitri Ehrlich
1 May 1997

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is a soft-spoken man. Despite his ability to sing, without a microphone, in a voice of such power and grace that he is now South Asia’s most popular musician, in person his words tumble out in whispers, disappearing into his ample chest.

The Pakistani singer is perhaps the world’s greatest living master of qawwali, a mystical Sufi music in which the voice coils upward like a snake being charmed out of a basket, raising listeners to a kind of spiritual ecstasy.

Qawwali is among those forms of music in which religion and sex seem most closely intertwined: for while Khan’s lyrics are all based on Islamic law, his voice, accompanied by a party of tabla drummers and harmonium players, has a quavering orgasmic quality that drives listeners wild, causing them to shower the stage with money and dance in a manner that would be considered most unbecoming by the ayatollahs of this world.

Although Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has recorded more than a hundred albums and enjoyed widespread popularity in Pakistani communities around the world for many years, it is only recently that Western audiences have begun to discover his work. His profile in the United States began to soar after Peter Gabriel performed live with him and helped distribute Khan’s albums in the West. More recently, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam sought Khan out for a collaboration that appeared on the soundtrack of the movie Dead Man Walking.

A few days after attending the MTV Video Music Awards with Peter Gabriel, Khan sat down with me in the dimly-lit lounge of a hotel in midtown Manhattan, attended by an interpreter and manager. Although he is not a particularly tall man, he weighs several hundred pounds, with a protuberant mid-section that’s difficult not to notice. But his hands look like they belong on a little girl, ending in wispy fingertips, and one finger is adorned by a jade ring the size of a grape. His watch, a sleek black and gold number from Cartier, would be at home on the wrist of an oil sheik. His eyebrows are barely existent, and he has a giant, smooth forehead with fiery eyes weirdly planted a bit higher in the skull than normal.

As his vast corpulence settled into the couch, his beige gown draping the floor, he seemed kingly, unearthly, and decidedly out of place in the middle of New York. Sitting there in the shadows, occasionally rubbing his eyes with evident exhaustion, Khan spoke softly and without any hint of his awesome lung power. His presence went largely unnoticed by passersby, who were unaware of the musical legend in their midst.

-Dimitri Ehrlich

Dimitri Ehrlich: I know that your music is based on the Sufi tradition, but what is your personal religious affiliation, if any? Do you meditate or pray?

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: I am not Sufi, but I spent a lot of time since my childhood with the Sufis, and I deeply studied them. Sufi music, especially, is a kind of prayer. If you sing in this manner, you will become closer to God, very close. That’s basically what I do.

What is your inner, mental experience when you are singing? What do you think about, or don’t you direct your mind in any specific way?

When I sing traditional spiritual songs, I always concentrate on who it is that I’m singing about. For instance, if I am inspired by the holy prophet, I concentrate on the prophet. In my mind, there are many things, but when I sing, I sing for God, and for holy prophets, for Sufi saints. When I sing, their personalities are in my mind. I feel like I am in front of them. I feel their personalities, and I pray. I feel like I am in another world when I sing. I am not in the material world while I am singing these traditional holy messages. I’m totally in another world. I am withdrawn from my materialistic senses; I am totally in my spiritual senses. And I am intoxicated by the holy prophet, God, and other Sufi saints.

Is there a different sort of prayer or meditative mode associated with songs concerned with Allah, Mohammed, and the Sufi saints, respectively?

When I sing for God, I feel myself in accord with God, and the house of God, Mecca, is right in front of me. And I worship. When I sing for Mohammed, peace be upon him, our prophet, I feel like I am sitting right next to his tomb, Medina, and paying him respect and admitting to myself that I accept his message. When I sing about the Sufi saints, I feel like the saints are in front of me, and as a student, I am accepting their teachings. And I repeat again and again that I accept it, that I am really their follower.

I know that Sufism is essentially a mystical sect of Islam, but are there also strains of other religious thought involved with the liturgy or philosophy of Sufism?

Every religion has its own way of describing God. For instance, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhs-they all have their own way of following God. Sufism basically describes God and teaches how to come closer to God. So basically, I follow the Islamic form of Sufism to find my way to God.

I know that when you were sixteen you had a visionary dream in which your father, a great qawwali singer who had recently died, came to you and told you that you had been given his musical gift and should devote your life to qawwali. Since that dream, how has your understanding of your music changed?

Since the age of sixteen, when I started singing, I have had the same message to deliver to people about Sufism. But some changes have come accordingly as I grew and my experiences grew. Of course you really go to greater depths as time passes, more and more and more, and you grow and grow with the songs.

So how would you define your message?

My message is the message of humanity, love and peace. The goal of this message that I bring to people is to bring them toward brotherhood, to bring them closer to each other, without hatred, without any concern for race, religion or color. I try to bring people, through spirituality, to a position in which they’ll be more honest with each other, and live a truer life, less concerned with the materialistic world where they cannot find themselves. I try to bring them to a place where they can at least recognize themselves.

Other than your musical practice, which clearly has a very powerful spiritual dimension, do you have any formal religious practice?

I pray five times a day. And I pray before I eat, giving thanks to my God for the opportunity to eat this food. And after eating, I pray and give thanks again. And after all of my practices of my music, I always pray and give thanks to my God and say, God, I am your slave, and thanks to you I have this opportunity to give my message to the world.

For many performers, the gulf between the ecstatic experience of being in the spotlight and the “coming down” that inevitably accompanies going offstage draws them into drug addiction and other self-destructive behavior. Obviously you’ve avoided that pitfall, but do you ever feel any kind of emotional depression from coming down from the high of being on stage?

During the time I am singing traditional qawwali songs, I feel that I am in a prayer position in front of God. When I finish my prayers, whether is it my singing or the formal prayers I do, I feel deeply peaceful. I feel that I have had some success in accomplishing the mission that God has given to me. I have no difficulty making a transition from that frame of mind to my normal daily activities because prayer is a routine part of my life and I do it all the time.

In Buddhist psychology, there is a vast pharmacopia of different meditative antidotes that can be applied to various mental afflictions. So, for example, there are certain practices you can do if you are very angry, and different meditations if you are greedy, or jealous, or hateful or whatever. Do you have any kinds of specific prayers that are designed to deal with specific problems, such as anger, jealousy and greed?

Because of this music and because of this message which we have in our hearts and our minds all the time, it is extremely rare to feel anger toward anybody. This is the basic medication that controls us, preventing us from getting angry and keeps us happy.

What did you learn from your father, other than the specific musical training that you got as a singer of qawwali?

From my parents I learned my religion, how to live and follow Islamic rules. When I was young I went to the mosque and read the Koran and learned all the Islamic rules. From my teachers I got a basic education in science, mathematics, geography, English, Urdu, all the common subjects. And from Sufis I learned about Sufism. I try to learn and integrate the teachings from these three sources-from the saints, from school, and from my father. Of course when I was a child, before I turned sixteen, I was just a regular young person. I got angry, I argued, I lived like a boy. But since I saw the dream and became a follower of Sufism, and began singing the traditional qawwali, it really gave me peace in my heart. Since then my life has been totally changed. Since then I control everything that comes to my brain and to my heart.

Let’s talk a little about motivation. For some pop musicians, there is a desire for success that is equal to or even greater than the desire for excellence. Your music is so transcendentally spiritual, I wonder whether you ever think about making money and being a star as a motive behind what you do.

When I started singing, of course, I had in my mind the desire for success. I was always thinking that the people should listen to me, that the crowd should pay me respect as the artist. Of course, I wanted applause and felt that the singer should get some reward in the shape of appreciation from the public. But as time went by, I found myself in a situation where all I wanted was to give a lesson, the purpose of which was to give more happiness to people. My sleeping, my waking, my talking, my eating, everything in my life, the music is always with me in my mind. I’m always thinking about new tunes, new discoveries, and new music.

Dimitri Ehrlich

Dimitri Ehrlich

Dimitri Ehrlich writes for Interview, The New York Times, and other publications. He is a multi-platinum songwriter based in New York City.