Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Pakistan’s esteemed Singing Buddha

The maestro, Pakistan’s greatest music icon, is known for having one of the greatest voices ever recorded and his tunes globally influenced the face of music.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: Pakistan’s esteemed Singing Buddha

There may not be any name more significant in Sufi music than that of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The Faisalabadi singer’s mark on Qawwali is so great that he is still remembered as the “The King of Kings of Qawwali.”

His real name was Pervez Peji Fateh Ali Khan but chose to be known simply by, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on the suggestion by Pir Ghulam Ghaus Samadani, his father’s close friend.

Qawwal family’s Super Star

Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had the honor of being born, on October 13, 1948, into a family where Qawwali had been practiced for almost six hundred years. His father, Fateh Ali Khan (a capable classical singer in his own right), wished for his son to go into the field of sciences rather than face the struggles of an artist.

But Nusrat Ali Khan’s talent was so great that it compelled his father to teach him all he knew. After the death of his father, he fell under the tutelage of his two uncles, who continued his musical education.

Khan’s prowess as a Qawwal was apparent from his first performance at the age of sixteen, at his father’s funeral, so it was no surprise that after the untimely death of his uncle in 1971, he was made the head of his family’s Qawwal group. Khan garnered attention after his song ‘Haq Ali’ became a hit.

The song invited much public scrutiny over his considerable talents both from within Pakistan and abroad. First came his hits in Pakistan, and very soon he was lending his voice to Bollywood films.

After ‘Haq Ali’ made the cut in Dilip Naik’s 1981 dramatic feature ‘Nakhuda,’ Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s voice appeared in 1994’s ‘Bandit Queen’ where he sang a Rajasthani folk song. A.R. Rahman, a famous Indian composer, included ‘Allah Hoo,’ a song sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in his album, ‘Gurus Of Peace’ and Nusrat himself, also featured on an album by the renowned composer.

The ‘Greatest Musician’ had the world at his feet

His performance at the WOMAD (World of Music, Arts, and Dance festival) in 1985 in London, introduced him to a much wider audience and garnered support for Pakistani music at large and was pivotal in establishing his position as the foremost authority of classical music in South Asia.

Among his many laurels is his UNESCO prize in 1995 for being the “Greatest Musician.” He was awarded the President of Pakistan’s Award in 1987, for Pride of Performance (Tamġa-ē Ḥusn-e Kārkardagī), for his contribution to Pakistani music and the worldwide popularity it had gained. In 1997 ‘Intoxicated Spirit’ an album by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.

That same year, his album Night Song was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best World Music Album. Indeed his influence in Japan was so strong that he was termed the ‘Singing Buddha,’ alluding to his soulful music.

In 2006, Time magazine’s issue of “60 Years of Asian Heroes”, places him on the list amongst the top 12 artists and thinkers. He also managed to clinch the 14th position in the UGO’s list of best singers of all time.

‘He’s my Elvis’

His voice was so compelling that many Hollywood A-listers were drawn to his work and decided to use his vocals in film and music. He collaborated on a studio album “Night Song” with Canadian composer Michael Brook and went on to contribute to film soundtracks in the US.

From his work with Peter Gabriel on Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ to his inclusion in the Tarantino penned Natural Born Killers (1994), it was apparent to Hollywood that the magic in Khan’s voice transcended the boundaries of East and West.

He appeared in top form in his collaborations with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen, who made it a point to ensure that the potency of the lyrics in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s songs couldn’t be ignored by placing them at pivotal moments in films like ‘Face of Love’ and ‘Dead Man Walking’.

Many artists over the years have credited Khan as a major influence over their work, such as Mick Jagger, Nadia Ali, Sheila Chandra, Zayn Malik, Joan Osborn including actors like Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon. Jeff Buckley is famously quoted saying ‘He’s my Elvis,’ which emphasizes how big an influence he had on the western world.

Khan’s ability to sing in different languages ⁠—ranging from Urdu and Punjabi to Persian, Bhaj Bhasra and Hindi ⁠— as well as being able to exercise his strong vocal abilities for long periods, became part of his appeal to listeners, young and old. A large allure of the artiste was that he could continue to sing high notes for up to ten hours.

Amongst his kaleidoscope of talents was his infamous Sargam, which showed his limitless mastery over music, and has continued to entrance listeners decades after his demise. Google played it to commemorate him on his 67th  birthday on October 13, 2015, on its homepage, citing him as someone ‘who opened the world’s ears to the rich, hypnotic sounds of the Sufis.’

Read more: Shahenshah-e-Qawwali: Reminiscing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

With 125 albums and numerous hits such as ‘Ali Mola Ali,’ ‘Yeh Jo Halka Halka’ and ‘Mere Rakshe Qamar’ to his credit, Ustaad Khan is known for inspiring many musicians after him to continue to bring classical music to the forefront.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan held the world record for the longest album by a Qawwali singer ever recorded. His sensational spiritualism and harmonic melodies are still remembered to this day, and will likely continue to inspire new generations for decades to come.

Tragically his life was cut short due to kidney and liver failure, which rendered him severely ill and eventually in London, on August 11, 1997, he died of a cardiac arrest at the age of 48. He is survived by Nida Khan, his daughter and his nephews, including Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Rizwan-Muazzam.