“It’s totally soul music, and I think we can call it devotional music,” said Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. “It’s spiritual music from the soul.”
He was talking about Qawwali, the musical component of the mystical tradition of Islam known as Sufism. But for him, even more momentous than serving as a musical ambassador from Pakistan to the United States, there is the mantle he is now assuming.
The legacy of a great qawwali master is not a matter to inherit lightly. Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was personally groomed by his uncle, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, for most of his life. Nusrat, who died in 1997, was considered “the voice from heaven” and the greatest living practitioner of qawwali. But Nusrat had no sons and the qawwali tradition requires that a master choose a successor. Although Nusrat appointed Rahat as his successor during his lifetime, when Rahat was still very young, according to tradition, on the 40th day after the death of the qawwali master, there was an announcement, and most of the qawwali singers in Pakistan and India attended. The head of the master’s family came out and announced Rahat as Nusrat’s successor. When Rahat was born, his father (Nusrat’s younger brother, Farroukh Fateh Ali Khan) washed the baby and brought him to Nusrat who blessed him. Rahat began his vocal training at the age of three, “even with the baby bottle in his mouth, he would remove it to sing each syllable,” said Shafiq Saddiqui, who worked with Nusrat and now works closely with Rahat.
At the age of six he was officially entered into the training of qawwali with Nusrat teaching him ragas, classic vocal training, and at nine, Rahat appeared on stage for the first time, at the anniversary of his grandfather’s death.
With Nusrat’s permission, Rahat gave his first public performance in front of thousands of people. At the age of fifteen he made his first trip outside of Pakistan as Nusrat’s second singer, on a tour of England. From then on, he was with his uncle on all of Nusrat’s worldwide tours.
And so 40 days after Nusrat’s death, according to tradition, Nusrat’s wife recognized Rahat as Nusrat’s successor. Since then, Rahat has been leading the same 10-piece band that Nusrat made famous, and carrying on the family legacy, one that goes back 600 years in their family.
“I love qawwali, it’s in my spirit it’s in my soul,” Rahat said. “Qawwali is a music which stays forever, and it is food for the human spirit. Other music sounds good, but it doesn’t stay forever.”
After releasing a dozen solo albums in Pakistan, Rahat decided to bring his music to a western audience. He did not, however, in any way dilute or water down the qawwali tradition. “There is no twist in this traditional music,” he said firmly. “The only change you can say is that whoever is the singer has different vocal chords and that makes a difference and has an impact on the music, but basically it has been running for 700 years and no one ever changed it. Most of the poetry comes from Sufi saints like Rumi, who lived 600 years ago, but even if the works by newer Sufi poets are used, we do not stray far from tradition.”
“My family carried the tradition for 700 years and my mission is to explore qawwali and to give the message of peace and love and lovely brotherhood to the world, without regard to race and religion, and that comes through the traditional qawwali. I am also very interested in collaborating with other singers, as well as Western singers. I will definitely do it in the future.”
With two people playing harmoniums and one musician playing a pair of tablas, Rahat’s band conjures waves of ecstatic poetry, his voice rhythmically dancing with the tablas, spiraling ever upward in a gripping display of emotional and spiritual devotion. If you have never heard qawwali before, it is a powerful even life-changing experience, one in which the most sensual human impulses are perfectly united with the purest and most spiritual qualities.
Born and raised in Faisalbad, Pakistan, he could not recall when he was first inspired by qawwali because the music was such an integral part of his life. “When I first heard it, it was my wish to learn this music and become a qawwali singer. I did not go to any school, for there is no such school better than my house, which was a musical institute, I learned everything at home. We were living in a joint family all in one house.”
His relationship to his famous uncle remains a defining factor in Rahat’s life. Having toured with Nusrat from 1985 to 1997, he spent twelve years as a member of Nusrat’s touring band and as many years before that receiving instruction. “First of all, he was my great uncle, and second he adopted me at a very young age as his son and successor. Not only that he was my best friend and my great teacher and I learned from him, from day one until the end of his life. We had not only a father-son and uncle-nephew relationship but he was also a very good friend.”
Still, for Rahat, the burden of inheriting Nusrat’s legacy has been a two-sided sword. “The positive side is that it is an honor for me to be his successor and I enjoy that and I am carrying the message of Nusrat. No one is like Nusrat and even I am not like Nusrat. That voice might not come again for centuries, but I am fulfilling his mission because I learned from him. It really surprises me when expect that I will be doing the same thing he did. I have my own vocal sound and my own styleI learned from him and he also expected me to be a different singer who carries the same message. I hope people will understand this when they listen to me.”
The first glimpse that many Americans got of Rahat was in The Voice from Heaven, a film that explored Nusrat’s legacy. Immediately after his uncle’s death, in the spring of 1998, Rahat performed at his shrine in Lahore, Pakistan, at the largest festival in South Asia. Rahat was the youngest qawwali singer in the history of the 3-day festival and more than 200,000 attended the all-night performance. He performed at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1998, for the Dead Man Walking benefit concert, along with Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam.
He returned to the US in August 1999 for eleven concerts including appearances in Central Park and the Hollywood Bowl, as well as Chicago, and Washington, DC. The music remains a form of spiritual practice to Rahat. “I wake up early in the morning every day, around 6 a.m., and start singing special ragas that are very difficult to practice for five or six hours a day. Qawwali is basically a form of prayer. It is a way of explaining to the world the message of those Sufis, through their phrases and poetry, which qawwali expresses through devotional music, it is basically preaching peace and love, but it is also prayer.”
Working with Rick Rubin, who co-founded one of rap’s premier labels (Def Jam), might seem an odd move for a singer of devotional music. Despite the fact that Rick comes from the rock and roll world and Rahat comes from a religious world (he prays five times day, and at the age of 12 he went to Mecca for Haj, a pilgrimage) there was never a big gap to overcome between the two men. “I didn’t feel any gap between Rick and my music,” Rahat said. “I felt him approaching the music with a spiritual attitude. I like Rick very much. I feel like he understands the music in a way only someone who lived with Sufis could understand it. So I am very happy to work with him, because our approaches are so similar, where I go, his mind is always there before me. I am very pleased he produced my record.”
For now though, Rahat remains single-pointedly focused on the message of traditional qawwali. “The qawwali music is not only music, it is a message. It was created by Sufis, and when we compose and practice this music, it stays forever. Other music comes and goes, but qawwali never goes. Once you start listening, it goes in your soul, goes in your spirit, and you become more human. I feel that this music is my duty, to go and give the message of Sufism. My future is that one day I will fulfill the desire of Nusrat to give this message to the world.”
Janasheen (Sonic Enterprises, 1999)
Aaja Mere Yaar (Sonic Enterprises, 1999)
Rahat (American Recordings, 2001)
The Four Feathers (Sony Classical, 2002)
Kinna Sonna (How Beautiful) – A Live Tribute To Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Navras, 2010)
The Best Of Bollywood & More (Times Music, 2010)