Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Pakistani singer who introduced the world to the mystical singing style known as Qawwali, died Saturday in London of a heart attack arising from kidney problems. He was 49.
News of Khan’s problems related to diabetes began fiiltering out early last fall and those close to the singer expressed concern for his failing health. He had been admitted to the hospital a few days earlier.
Khan was heralded in the Pakistani and Indian press the day after his death for his role in maintaining peace between the two countries. “It is not just Pakistan’s loss, it is the subcontinent’s loss, music’s loss,” Indian lyricist Javed Akhtar told the Pioneer newspaper; the Indian Express carried Khan’s death as its lead story.
The son of Qawwali singer Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, Nusrat began singing at 16 with his uncle Ustad Salamat. In 1971, Nusrat took over as leader of the ensemble — a collection of relatives and other musicians usually numbering around 12 — which later took on the name the Family. A devotional Sufi festival in 1972 lifted Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to the forefront of the genre; in 1987 he received the Pakistani President’s Pride of Performance award and was known the world over as “voice of the century.”
Khan was well-known for his musical work in film, particularly those from India. Western audiences were introduced to his trance-inducing singing in Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ” and, most significantly, on two duets with Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder for Tim Robbins’ 1995 pic “Dead Man Walking.”
His most recent work was for the Indian pics “Aur Pyar Ho Gaya”‘ (And Then There was Love), released last week, and “Bandit Queen,” which was released internationally earlier this year. His music was also popular with club djs in London and New York who would mix his vocals with modern dance beats.
Earlier this year he received two Grammy Award nominations — in the world music and traditional folk categories. Khan’s many recordings were available on an assortment of labels, among them the Real World imprint begun by Peter Gabriel, whose WOMAD org started presenting Khan outside Pakistan in 1985, and the world music/folk label Shanachie. An album recorded for Rick Rubin’s American label has been long delayed while Rubin has sorted out a deal with a distributor.
But Khan was at his most impressive on the stage, seated and singing. A Daily Variety review of his Aug. 14, 1996 perf stated: “It’s unlikely his spellbinding concert a year ago at the 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.”
Among his survivors is his nephew Rahat Ali Khan, a member of the Party and a solo recording artist.