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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story


Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's voice was otherworldly. For 25 years, his mystical songs transfixed millions. It was not long enough

By Alexandra A. Seno

THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE death of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on Saturday, August 16 interrupted regular programming on the BBC and the Indian state-run network. For days after, the Pakistani singer's demise filled the pages of the subcontinent's newspapers. Nusrat had dreamed of helping forge peace between India and Pakistan. His passing, coming just after the 50th anniversary of Indian and Pakistani Independence, brought people on both sides of the border together. In sorrow.

Nusrat, 48, suffered from diabetes and was en route to the U.S. for a kidney transplant. On his deathbed in a London hospital suite, the singer had told his doctor: "Take care of my throat." His voice was one that made audiences weep, tremble, dance wildly and sometimes throw money on stage. When Peter Gabriel heard Nusrat perform, the thoroughly impressed British artist said: "It's a wailing sound coming from the depth of the heart." It was the source of Nusrat's genius that took his life. He succumbed to a coronary.

He performed qawali, which means wise or philosophical utterance, as nobody else of his generation did. His vocal range, talent for improvisation and sheer intensity were unsurpassed. Qawali songs are based on the devotional poetry of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam which believes it is possible to encounter God in the impassioned throes of music. Nusrat used his voice to reach for Allah. And with his songs, he enraptured millions in the Muslim world, and outside it. Imran Khan, Pakistani cricket hero and a friend of the singer, said: "Our team used to pray to God and listen to a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan cassette to derive strength."

The qawali singer would sit cross-legged on a carpet surrounded by his party -- an ensemble of chorus singers and musicians playing drums, harmoniums and stringed instruments. The songs, performed in Persian, Urdu and Punjabi, start slowly and gradually gather intensity. The high point of any singer's performance, and of Nusrat's in particular, is when he improvises. Songs often continue for 30 minutes, and concerts for several hours. In his early years, Nusrat could perform for 10 hours. Even later, when his weight (some 160 kg) and health troubled him, Nusrat would sing for three to four hours.

Nusrat's qawali was a blend of the ancient and the modern. "He was rooted in tradition, but he was forward looking," says Javed Akhtar, an Indian lyricist who recently collaborated with Nusrat. "He had a very unusual voice and introduced a new style of qawali, fusing folk tunes and western beats," says Anup Jalota, an Indian singer who has performed with him. Nusrat was as comfortable giving concerts in Pakistan's small shrines as he was in New York's Radio City Music Hall.

For six centuries, the men of Nusrat's family performed qawali at royal courts and shrines. (Only males are allowed to sing the devotional music.) Qawali had been good to the family. They were well known and well off. But Nusrat's father wanted his son to devote himself to medicine instead of music. It seems almost natural that Nusrat's different destiny revealed itself to him in a recurring dream. He would see himself singing at the shrine of the Muslim saint Nazrat Khawaja Moinuddin Chishtie in Ajmer, a town in the Indian state of Rajasthan.

For a while, he listened to logic. It could never happen: Qawalis were not performed there, Pakistanis were not welcome in India, and Nusrat was a shy boy. In 1964, 40 days after his father's death, the 16-year-old Nusrat gave in to his destiny and sang for the first time in public. Recalling that day, he told an interviewer: "All the best, acclaimed singers were there together. They said: 'This child has talent.'" The family trained him and in 1971, when his uncle became ill, Nusrat took over as leader of the group. He was 23. Eight years later, he became the first qawali singer to perform at the Chishtie shrine.

Over the years Nusrat recorded some 125 albums. Millions of copies were sold in India and Pakistan, and hundreds of thousands outside of the subcontinent. His concerts drew large crowds in Japan, France and the U.S. He performed on such movie soundtracks as Martin Scorcese's The Last Temptation of Christ and Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking. Nusrat was also planning projects with the Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti and pop star Madonna.

Nusrat traveled widely, and earned international acclaim, but his primary concerns were at home, and across the border. He often held concerts promoting cultural and religious tolerance. He had performed in India, and hoped to do so again. "Music belongs to everybody," he told Asiaweek last year. "My music is about love and peace." Nusrat provided the soundtrack for the controversial Indian movie Bandit Queen and for Aur Pyar Ho Gaya (And They Fell in Love), which was released just the day before his death. A year ago he had put out his first Indian collaboration, an album with lyricist Akhtar to commemorate the 50th anniversaries of Independence. His wife, Nahid Nusrat Ali Khan, told Asiaweek that Nusrat had planned to invite Indian and Pakistani film stars to a gala in Lahore.

Nusrat had been grooming a cousin (Nusrat and his wife have one daughter). But it is hard to imagine anyone else being able to reach people as Nusrat did. "He brought laurels for his country and in his passing away, the country has been deprived of an artist who had no match," said Pakistani president Farooq Leghari. On August 17, thousands attended funeral services in Nusrat's home town of Faisalabad. Some made the journey from India, and for that brief time, bitterness seemed pointless.

-- Reported by Shahid-Ur Rehman / Islamabad and Swapna Ghosh / Bombay

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

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Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

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COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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