Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died ten years ago, and has been said to have sold more records than Elvis Presley. There’s no mention in these reports of Pavarotti, still alive at the time the Elvis-centric comment was printed, but the differences between the three bear detailed consideration.
The very full Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Wikipedia entry indicates the existence of 125 other albums by this Pakistani qawwali singer, in a tradition strongly influenced by Sufi teachings and carried on for six centuries, thus far, by his family. He was the one whose father decided the tradition might have come to a natural end after all, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan should instead make his way as a solid member of what in some places used to be called one of the learned professions.
Perhaps the 20th century was uniquely notable for that sort of business — the offspring disappointing the parent’s expectations by following him or her in the footsteps of generations — and that is another mass psychological phenomenon worth study.
But as John Lee Hooker in 1948 credited his mother with telling his father (“Boogie Chillun”), the will toward the music was in him, and couldn’t be penned there. Once the elder Fateh Ali Khan’s will toward continuing the ancient genre of qawwal had got out and equipped itself in the not at all recently invented radition, the son took it to places where it had never before been heard. Indeed, in most of those places it had never been heard of before his personal appearances. He made it on to film soundtracks, and there’s plenty more I’m leaving out here.
The notes credit him with trying to help listeners to whom the music would be new, not by making changes in the music, but by studying the qawwal tradition to find things like the music these potential listeners knew already, searching within the vast ancient repertoire for material which wouldn’t demand of them an enormous leap from the familiar.
The present CD presents some unissued and apparently long-lost 1960s and 1970s recordings of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing, with some accompaniment including his own quiet harmonium. It’s not made clear quite what these tracks found in studio archives amounted to as found. The notes say that no names of original accompanists are known, and I can’t tell by listening what they played or how much they did. Except the it seems it may have been minimal.
Could the original recordings have been issued as they were? Would they have seemed a bit thin? What was their status? Demo-discs? Tracks which would anyway have been issued only with additions? Short of tracking down and asking the London-based arranger-composer Gaudi, responsible for the accompaniment dubbed here, I certainly can’t say.
If I’d tracked down this namesake of the brilliant-to-mad Barcelona architect, I would have told him that his use of electronic keyboards, tape echoes, bass and drums, Pakistani instruments — and not exactly un-Pakistani European strings — sounded nothing like the commercial souping-up which has gone on in too many places. The studied and sensitive application of reggae rhythms keeps the music very near to what the late lamented singer himself did when he performed qawwali songs deliberately chosen to not be too different from things audiences knew already.
The detail of the original singing comes out clearly, high praise given that it’s never loud and the voice isn’t penetrating in character. The blend here is exemplary, and who’s to say anything else could have worked better. It matters what you do, and how you do it. The performances are shapely, a cello introduction here, an instrumental passage here, suggestions of some operatic (Verdi?) orchestral playing (but quiet) in the intro to the penultimate number. The rhythm’s never in the least dominant, far less oppressive. Very often there’s a sense of bringing out implications, rather than adding from the outside. I would say more, but given the linguistic problem I can’t claim to understand a word he sings. He articulates clearly, but I don’t speak the language.
There’s ample variety among the songs and accompaniments. This resourceful set probably has less in common than some might guess with Fateh Ali Khan’s ventures in performing with musicians of other traditions that seem to have interested him so much. This one is truly unique.