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Memories of Qawwali – A Tribute to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

The following was a piece I wrote to commemorate the death of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Memories of Qawwali
A Tribute to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

August 16th 2007 marked the 10th death anniversary of one of the masters of the qawwali genre of Muslim devotional music. Putting aside all the fiqhi (jurisprudential) discussions about music and the permissibility or otherwise of it (although one finds that Imam al-Ghazali and Shaykh Abdal Ghani al-Nablusi make an exception for devotional music), on a personal note I am indebted to Nusrat for making accessible to me the poetry and kalam of the Sufis which I ordinarily would not have had easy access to.

I am a second generation (British) Pakistani, born and raised in the UK, my first language is English, I think in English, I write in English and most of the time I dream in English (although I have had dreams in Urdu as well). Growing up, the language we spoke at home was “Pahari” rather than Urdu or Punjabi. I only really learned to speak Urdu properly when I got married and have a pretty decent level of conversational Urdu now (although lacking in more advanced vocabulary). My Urdu reading is generally poor (as is my writing), so much so that I just don’t bother with reading or writing Urdu (apart from having a go at reading the headlines in the Daily Jang newspaper!). That being said, I love languages and linguistics and love to learn the origins of words and phrases and so I have an interest in Sufi inspired qawwalis and other spoken/recited Urdu poetry. So I feel indebted to Nusrat and other qawwali singers for helping me in accessing at least a small portion of the Sufi poetry tradition of the Indian sub-continent, this rich art-form that has coloured and inspired the Muslim tradition of the Indian sub-continent.

People will complain about the environment of modern qawwali performances and the ills of it, which is fair enough. The adab (etiquette) of the majlis (gatherings) is something that is not ideal anymore but this does not detract from the content and form of this devotional musical genre.

My first memories of qawwalis are as a three year old in Pakistan on a bus and singing “damma damm mustt qalandar” but what I was actually singing was “damma damm bus conductor” thinking the song was about the buses! I know my parents used to listen to qawwalis as I was growing up (and occasional Mohammad Rafi songs too) even though my parents were not into music as such and were and are devoted and religious people, all the old classics such as “Allah hu“, “Mustt Qalandar” and the Sabri Brothers and Aziz Mian featured heavily in tape collections. Additionally, as a family we used to wake up early on a Sunday mornings and tune into “Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan” (New Life, New Home) a BBC Urdu magazine style programme for early British Asian immigrants which covered current affairs, lifestyle and music. Quite often Nusrat and other qawwali performers were live in the studio performing some of their well known material, so all in all I suppose I am pre-disposed to this genre.

That said, my interest in qawwalis was rather patchy growing up through my early teens, college and university years in which my main music tastes were U2, Bruce Springsteen, Public Enemy, Stone Roses and all things Indie and Hip-Hop. I suppose I was switched on to qawwalis again when some well known western musicians started collaborating with Nusrat. Peter Gabriel, Eddi Vedder (Pearl Jam) and others. Whilst I was not a fan of either of these two musicians (although I had a vague appreciation of Peter Gabriel), it interested me to see western musicians take an interest in something from “my” cultural background. I must say that most of Nusrat’s collaborative stuff with western musicians was, for me, entirely forgettable and in some ways I considered it a dishonour and disrespect for the genre considering that the qawwali, in essence, is a devotional genre. So to taint this spiritual music with the decadence of western music disconcerted me somewhat, even though I was well into a lot of western music at the time and not a very observant as a Muslim! So Nusrat, in the context of western music, just didn’t do it for me and quite frankly most of it was dross and out of place as were all the “funky” remixes of the classic qawwalis.

My latent interest in qawwali was further piqued by the death of Nusrat in 1997 when Channel 4 aired a concert of his shortly after his death. One of the qawwalis particularly captured me with its power, majesty and poetry it was “Saray Nabiyon deh NabiThe Prophet of All the Prophets. Being married to an Urdu speaking wife, I had reached a fairly decent level of Urdu and Punjabi and my interest in the Seerah of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) and Sufi literature also helped me in accessing the meanings of this amazing qawwali. It was the first time that I saw past the music and accessed the words, that feeling of grasping something for the first time was just amazing, no longer did I have to have someone translate the meanings (although parts of the qawwali I had to have explained) I understood! The entire qawwali was in honour of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) and expressed every emotion of awe, honour, respect and love that all Muslims hold the for the Messenger of Allah. I found this particular qawwali so powerful it literally moved me to tears. For me it is the single most powerful expression of my love for the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace). I love the Burdah of Imam al-Busairi but as it is in Arabic I can’t access the meanings directly and so am reliant on translations, I can experience the sound and the singing (which I love!) but the meaning can’t permeate into my mind, heart and being as words from languages I understand.

So, a big thank you to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for enriching my life through his qawwalis, may Allah forgive him his shortcomings and raise him in the akhira (afterlife). Amin.