Music expresses feeling and thought, without language; it was below and before speech, and it is above and beyond all words.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (13 October 1948 – 16 August 1997), a world-renowned Pakistani musician, was primarily a singer of Qawwali, the devotional music of the Sufis. Considered one of the greatest singers ever recorded, he possessed extraordinary vocal abilities and could perform at a high level of intensity for several hours. Extending the 600-year old Qawwali tradition of his family, Khan is widely credited with introducing Qawwali music to international audiences. He is popularly known as “Shahenshah-e-Qawwali”, meaning “The King of Kings of Qawwali”.
Born in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad), Pakistan, Khan had his first public performance at age of 16, at his father’s chelum. He became the head of the family qawwali party in 1971. He was signed by Oriental Star Agencies, Birmingham, England, in the early 1980s. Khan went on to release movie scores and albums in Europe, India, Japan, Pakistan, and the U.S. He engaged in collaborations and experiments with Western artists, becoming a well-known world music artist. He toured extensively, performing in over 40 countries.
The composition of Khan’s ensemble, called a “party” (or “Humnawa” in Urdu), changed over its 26 years. Listed below is a snapshot of the party, circa 1983:
The one significant member of the party who does not appear on this list is Atta Fareed. For many years, he alternated with Rehmat Ali on vocals and second harmonium. He is easily identifiable in videos since he plays the harmonium left-handed.
This snapshot is non-representative in one respect: harmoniums were usually the only instruments. Only rarely were instruments like mandolin or guitar used.
Khan is widely considered to be the most important qawwal in history. In 1987, Khan received the President of Pakistan’s Award for Pride of Performance for his contribution to Pakistani music. In 1995 he received the UNESCO Music Prize. In 1996 he was awarded Grand Prix des Amériques at Montreal World Film Festival for exceptional contribution to the art of cinema. In the same year, Khan received the Arts and Culture Prize of the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prizes. In 2005, Khan received the “Legends” award at the UK Asian Music Awards. Time magazine’s issue of 6 November 2006, “60 Years of Asian Heroes”, lists him as one of the top 12 artists and thinkers in the last 60 years. He also appeared on NPR’s 50 Great Voices list in 2010. In August 2010 he was included in CNN’s list of the twenty most iconic musicians from the past fifty years.
Many honorary titles were bestowed upon Khan during his 25-year music career. He was given the title of Ustad after performing classical music at a function in Lahore on his father’s death anniversary.