TX:Presented by Baba and Rick Rubin. Reviewed Aug. 14, 1996. The unlikeliest overnight sensation, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan concedes nothing in the battle of secular vs. spiritual. Making the leap the past three years from the college circuit to small halls and now theaters with 3,000-plus seats, Khan sticks to traditional songs and improvisations with nary a nod to the soundtrack work (“Dead Man Walking,””Bandit Queen,””Last Temptation of Christ”) that has ignited his ever-increasing profile. The spaciousness of the Universal Amphitheatre did limit the transcendent qualities of his perf — and it’s unlikely his spellbinding concert a year ago at House of Blues could ever be duplicated — but the magic of his vocals paired with the exact and multihued backing of his Party make for spectacular life-affirming music. Khan, 47, who began performing outside his native Pakistan 11 years ago in Peter Gabriel’s WOMAD, seemingly suffered from a slight pitch problem, buthad no trouble with his range or dexterity. The most stunning vocal explosions of the evening, however, came from Khan’s nephew, 21-year-old Rahat Ali Khan, who has been performing in the Party since age 8, and has, for what it’s worth, superstar potential in the Qawwali singing universe. Rahat Ali Khan has been fully integrated into the group as a potent force; obviously Nusrat Khan recognizes the young man’s spectacular high-pitched vocal skills, supplying him with ample room to soar in solos and duets with the master.
Beginning with the traditional opener “Allah Hoo Allah Hoo,” Khan and his 10 -member troupe started the 25-minute number with dirgelike solemnity, building the song with a subtle call and response that summoned a torrent from the tablas. Singers found their places within the improvised passages, fueling the tempo and intensity, opening passageways for the tablas and two harmoniums to galvanize in a festive chant — a feat that was repeated over and over, most emphatically with an energized version of Khan’s best-known song, “Mustt Mustt.”
The ensuing partylike atmosphere never dissipated over the two sets of more than an hour each; here, the devotional love songs sung to God from men’s and women’s perspectives in Urdu lingo are organic calls to celebrate, dance, clap and chant. At one point, an oversize Pakistan flag was raced through the hall to cheers, its significance not lost on Khan’s many Indian fans concerned about the bans that have halted musical exchanges between the two countries.
Khan’s connection, along with most music from northern India and Pakistan, with U.S. audiences stems from its easily digestible melodies and improvisation that often finds its way into snug scales. At one moment, it not only seemed logical but inevitable that Khan would segue into Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side”; the melodicism of Khan’s two duets with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder from “Dead Man Walking” poked its head out here and there, an audio welcome mat for Western ears.
Visually, the seated band (family in front, musicians in back) offers little beyond Khan’s arm movements and the amazingly deft one-handed drumming of Dildar Hussain: The appeal is strictly musical. It’s what has attracted American Recordings prexy Rick Rubin, who’s producing Khan’s debut for the imprint, and the widely divergent audience that included celebs Madonna, Michael Stipe, Flea, Beastie Boy Mike D., Rosanna Arquette and Stephen Dorff.
Anyone who questions the joy of this music need only look at the smiles of the children dancing in the last row.