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In Memoriam: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (1948-1997)
by Banning Eyre
from Salon
[reprinted here without permission]

The death of Pakistan's most renowned singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, is many stories in one. First and foremost, it is a national tragedy for Pakistani people everywhere. Nusrat was a qawwal, a devotional singer whose religious texts came from Sufiism, a mystical sect of Islam that goes back six centuries. He also sang romantic texts, but whatever material he worked from, Nusrat produced mass ecstasy at his frequent concerts. Entranced listeners rose and whirled, gasped with pleasure, flung handfuls of money at the stage and were even known to pound their heads against the stage until they bled. No mosh pit ever produced more passion.

Nusrat was also a great humanitarian. From humble beginnings, he went on to accrue enormous wealth from his concerts and his nearly 200 recordings, and he used much of his money to build schools and hospitals in his country. He was, by any standard, a national treasure.

Outside Pakistan, Nusrat became widely known only in the past decade or so, after he appeared at Peter Gabriel's early WOMAD festivals in the U.K. Nusrat's 1989 release "Shahen-Shah" ("The Brightest Star") launched Gabriel's RealWorld label and became the first of six recordings the great qawwal would make for the label. Nusrat became a symbol of the commercial possibilities of "world music." Without departing from his traditional music by one iota, he created music with rock 'n' roll intensity and universal appeal. Celebrated European and American concert tours followed, and as the larger world embraced him, Nusrat did begin to experiment. His first crossover record, "Mustt Mustt" (RealWorld, 1991), bolstered his global renown, and it electrified Pakistani youth, drawing them to the deeply spiritual art of the qawwals. Working again with British producers and with musicians from around the world, Nusrat followed up in 1995 with "Night Song" (RealWorld), a landmark in the history of cross-cultural pop music, both aesthetically and commercially. That same year, Nusrat teamed up with Seattle grunge rockers Pearl Jam to make music for the film "Dead Man Walking."

Just 48 when he died of a heart attack in London on Aug. 16, Nusrat should have had many productive years ahead of him, and perhaps that's the saddest story of all. He lived life to the fullest, and burned through his share of it quickly. At some 350 pounds, Nusrat had to struggle to take his place on stage, where he would sit cross-legged and Buddha-like among his nine-man "party," gesticulating with a raised hand as he sang, and occasionally mopping his brow with a white handkerchief. Nusrat sang with a voice that seemed to flow from beyond him, a voice that could fill any hall in the world, a voice that cast spells. There are more technically accomplished singers among the greats of Indian and Pakistani classical music, but none could move a crowd the way Nusrat did. I personally will never forget the spectacle of Boston police officers gingerly wandering onstage at Symphony Hall to remove tranced-out dancers as they swayed around Nusrat and party. I'm sure those officers haven't forgotten either. Anyone lucky enough to see Nusrat perform experienced one of the stage wonders of the 20th century.