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Night Song review
from Rolling Stone
by Susan Richardson, 1996
[archived here without permission]

Night SongIt's fallacious to say that music is a universal language; music's cultural roots run far too deep for that kind of simplistic equation. But if it's not a universal language, there are still a hell of a lot of cognates -- sounds and techniques that cross cultural lines. And the Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has not only the stylistic qualities that appeal to Western ears but also the talent necessary to tear through the scrim of exoticism that often cloaks world music, delivering a consuming musical experience.

Fateh Ali Khan has been described as having the most beautiful voice in the world and is looked to as a musical sage by artists ranging from Eddie Vedder to Jeff Buckley to U2. Night Song reinforces Fateh Ali Khan's relationship to pop music. It was co-written with the ambient guitarist Michael Brook, whose performance on the album provides a framework for Fateh Ali Khan that is open and flexible, accommodating his improvisational technique. A solid rhythm section sets his style into a Western pop groove. And although Fateh Ali Khan -- who is a master of qawwali, the religious music of Sufi Muslims -- sings in Urdu, you don't have to know that language to make musical sense of it.

Fateh Ali Khan's phrases are a perfect balance of repetition and elaboration, both grounded in a meditative sameness and soaring into something higher than themselves. His melodies are often poignantly modal, as in the songs "Lament" and "Crest," both of which riff on the same melodic idea. The rhythmic persistence of "Intoxicated" and "Longing," which evolves into a sort of spiritual eroticism, is a deep part of Fateh Ali Khan's natural musicality and easily satisfies the definitive pop criterion: It's got a good beat, and I can dance to it.

In its translation into a Western pop idiom, Fateh Ali Khan's music loses its religious import but at the same time retains a visceral, sexy spirituality; the song titles alone reveal the ethereal emotions to which he gravitates. The aspects of "Night Song" that come from his native traditions do not distance him from pop but rather provide segues into a music that is immediately accessible to our Western ears. Not knowing the language and just listening to the sounds, one wonders, "Is he speaking? Orating? Singing?" And the answer is that he's doing it all -- he is a rare artist tapping into music's deepest potential and making good on its most seductive promises.