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Pakistani's Sufi singing has Western audiences enthralled


Every now and then, we hear of singers who can move a audience to tears or bring a crowd to its feet. But what of a singer whose performance is so commanding that it actually induces a state of ecstasy among listeners -- even those who can't understand a word he sings?

Sounds incredible, doesn't it? Yet that's typical of the kind of response Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan engenders. In fact, the 45-year-old Pakistani has become a legend among world-music enthusiasts, inciting such fervor among listeners around the globe.

It's not hard to understand why. A typical performance will find him sitting cross-legged on the stage, surrounded by a dozen singers and instrumentalists. He usually starts slowly, with what seems like simple declamation, but as the selection progresses, his voice flutters and soars, sometimes leading the ensemble in song, at other times darting away in virtuosic improvisation. And as the phrases rise and fall in statement and elaboration, the crowd is drawn closer.

Eventually, the music builds in intensity and the listeners begin to react. Some sing, some shout, some pound their heads on the floor. Others are on their feet, dancing or showering the stage with money. Seeing it, you might think you've stumbled onto a gospel revival.

In a sense, you have. Because the music Khan makes is from a Sufi tradition called qawwali -- literally, "utterance" in Urdu -- and its purpose, as anthropologist Regula Qureshi wrote, "is to induce in the audience a state of devotion culminating in divine ecstasy." Furthermore, the qawwal himself takes that task as a sacred duty, one that helps make people aware of what Khan has called "the splendors of the Quran."

Considering that Qawwali performances are built around devotional texts, with lyrics in Urdu, Farsi, Punjabi and Hindi, you might think it would be near-impossible for Khan to impart that message to foreign audiences, but that hardly seems the case.

"There's no need for them to understand the words," he explains, through an interpreter, over the phone from Seattle. "When they hear my voice, they understand what I'm singing. It's not necessary to know the words. The depth of the Sufi message is available to these people. I've never felt that the audience didn't understand."

He admits that he was surprised this would be the case, but he's gotten used to it. "Now there's so much demand that I hardly have time to sing in my own country," he says.

Khan was virtually born to sing qawwali. His father, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, was a renowned qawwal, and Nusrat sang in his qawwal party as a boy. His father hoped young Nusrat would end up a doctor or engineer, but after the elder Khan's death in 1964, the young man dreamt he was singing at the shrine of Chisti in Amjer, India -- a dream he took as prophecy.

Since then, he has made dozens of recordings, becoming the most popular singer in Pakistan. Khan credits his popularity to having melded classical and folk elements in the music, "thereby facilitating an easier understanding of these things. Easier for the modern audience," he says.

Khan has even recorded with Western musicians, appearing on Peter Gabriel's "Passion" album, recording with jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek, and even releasing a "qawwali fusion" album with dance remixes by the group Massive Attack. "It is a new approach, and if I feel it necessary, I will do something like that again," he says.

Regardless of the form his performances take, Khan remains true to the essence of qawwali. "The music has changed, but the goal is the same," he says. "The message and the purpose is the same."


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