Khan's qawwali music leaves Americans enraptured

August 19, 1996|By Neil Strauss | Neil Strauss,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- He is one of the world's biggest stars. Weighing 350 pounds, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has spent three decades turning an esoteric form of music -- qawwali, the singing style of Pakistan's Sufi Muslim mystics -- into an international buzzword. He has been interviewed on MTV and VH1 and collaborated with Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Peter Gabriel.

Joan Osborne went to Pakistan to ask for singing tips, and in Los Angeles last week, Madonna and Michael Stipe of REM, in addition to actors Stephen Dorff and Rosanna Arquette showed up at a concert to watch Kahn sit cross-legged on the stage and let loose some of the world's most entrancing vocal pyrotechnics. The superstar has sold out a performance scheduled for Wednesday at Radio City Music Hall.

Within the last year, Khan has released five very different albums on various record labels. And as if that were not enough, he recently signed a deal with Rick Rubin's American Recordings label (best known for its rock and rap releases), which next month will put out his latest album, with the uncharacteristically punning title "Holy Profit."

On a New York afternoon, Kahn arrived, unapologetically, more than two hours late for a lunch interview at Akbar, a midtown restaurant, proving that sleeping the day away is a universal trait among musicians.

Despite his weight, which he carried comfortably under a loose-fitting gown, he glowed with a magnetic sheen that let even those who were not familiar with him know that he is a star.

In Pakistan, Khan remains unchallenged as the greatest living qawwali singer, attracting more than 10,000 fans to some concerts.

At shows in both Lahore, Pakistan, where Khan lives with his wife and his daughter, 20, and in Manhattan, the music sends spectators into trances, leading to tireless fits of dancing, in which inspired audience members renounce their worldly possessions -- money, watches, jewelry -- by showering Khan with them.

"A lot of people damage themselves," Khan said about his entranced audiences, letting his manager translate from Urdu into English. "Sometimes they break their knees or legs, but they don't realize it at the time. They only know when they are out of the trance."

The artist seemed slightly frustrated by his inability to have a one-on-one conversation, trying to communicate by forcing out a few words of English or speaking with a smile or a twinkle of his eyes. His manager, Rashid Ahmed Din, who accompanied him, served as more than a translator. A faithful acolyte of Khan and his father, who was also a renowned qawwal (a singer of qawwali), Din often embellished Khan's answers with commentary.

When talking about the reputed power of certain legendary singers to bring about rainstorms and fires with their voices and PTC ragas, Din wondered if Khan didn't have a little of that magic.

"A few years ago, Nusrat was in Toronto, and it was a sunny day, very hot, and when he started singing, it started raining," Din said. "And it has happened other places so many times."

Indeed, at Khan's last Manhattan performance at Town Hall late last year, it was raining outside. Inside, where Vedder, Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins were in attendance, sparks flew. An aspiring dramatist could have learned a thing or two from the way Khan and his eight-member ensemble kept the audience enthralled.

Each song began with a slow, quiet introductory section (or alap), a foreshadowing of the music to come. From there, a rhythmic pulse began on the tabla, a reference point for the audience as Khan brought them into his web of vocal acrobatics and devotional lyrics.

Most of these are Sufi poems renouncing the self and praising God with lines like, "Uniting with Him, I have drowned myself."

Khan would slowly bring the music up to a fever pitch of ecstatically repeated phrases (each, like snowflakes, slightly different from the others) and then lower the intensity for a breather before taking the wailing music up to an even higher peak.

Gesturing slowly and expansively with his hands, he seemed to be outlining the shapes of the sounds he made as he conducted his improvising ensemble. When the music was at its best, the effect was catharsis.

Pakistanis in the audience leaped out of their seats, dancing down the aisles to throw money at Khan.

When asked what he does with this money, Khan said he gives it to charity or to singers who used to perform with his father.

For a nonmaterialist, Khan seems to fend well for himself in business.

His albums include one of traditional qawwali on the Shanachie label, "Intoxicated Spirit"; a more pop-oriented project, "Night Song," recorded with Canadian producer and composer Michael Brook on Peter Gabriel's Real World label; a soundtrack he composed to the film "Bandit Queen" on BMG/Milan, and he appears on two Columbia albums of music from and inspired by the movie "Dead Man Walking.

At American Recordings, Rick Rubin hopes to team up Khan with some of his fans (Mick Jagger, Sting, Boy George and Jeff Buckley have all wanted to sing with him) for a recording of duets.

Pub Date: 8/19/96

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