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Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Emperor of Qawwali

The voice of Pakistan.

See, Sufism isn’t just about the poetry of Rumi or Hafiz, or spinning around in circles, it’s also about droning harmoniums, hand clapping and bunches of guys in shalwal Kameez singing 20 minute long devotional songs to God with plenty of vibrato and bending of the vocal chords.

At least, that’s what Qawwali singers do and the greatest of them was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who brought the Pakistani devotional music to the West. Whilst a pioneer of modern Qawwali back home, Nusrat’s fusion projects did much to educate Western audiences to the magnificence of Qawwali, much as Ravi Shankar did for classical Indian music.

In fact, you’ve probably already heard Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn sing without knowing it – his singing featured in the soundtrack to movies like The Last Temptation of Christ, Blood Diamond and Natural Born Killers. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan also worked with the likes of Michael Brook that culminated in fusion albums like Night Song in 1996, a year before he died at the early age of 39.

But pure Qawwali is a joy in itself, even if it is an acquired taste. At its purest it can invite the divine, hence the rapture of a fan talking about the singing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan:

Nusrat’s music invites us to eavesdrop on a man communing with his God, ever so eloquently. He makes the act of singing a passionate offering to God. But we do not merely eavesdrop. The deepest part of Nusrat’s magic lies in the fact that he is able to bring our hearts to resonate with the music, so deeply, that we ourselves become full partners in that offering. He sings to God, and by listening, we also sing to God’.


Nusrat, we miss you.