Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan - Biography

By J Poet

Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan is the most important qawwali (kah-wah-lee) singer to arise in the 20th century, maybe ever. Qawwali is the traditional devotional music of the Sufi sect of Islam. It’s a hypnotic, trace producing music based on sacred texts that are interpreted by a singer and his party. The party is a band consisting of harmonium [a small hand pumped organ], tabla, syncopated hand claps, and backing vocalists who respond to the lead singer’s improvisations in a manner similar to the call and response of African American gospel music. Khan was the Elvis of qawwali, the first to take it to an international audience and secularize it, but his popularity worldwide dwarfs even that of Presley. During his life he made countless recordings starting with the hundreds of traditional cassettes he made early in his career for labels in India and Pakistan. Later he produced the genre blending collaborations that made him a worldwide phenomenon like Mustt Mustt (1990, Real World) for Peter Gabriel’s world music logo; Ragas and Sagas (1992, ECM) with Norwegian sax man Jan Garbarek; Night Song (1995, Real World) a best selling effort with Canadian avant garde guitarist Michael Brook and Magic Touch (2000, Music Club) a remix album helmed by London based Indian composer/DJ Bally Sagoo. He toured internationally, especially after his Real World recordings made him an world music star. His duets with Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder on the soundtrack of Dead Man Walking (1996 Columbia) introduced him to the rock audience, and they embraced him too. He died due to complications of diabetes in LA in 1997, just as he was about to break big in the US.


Khan was in Pakistan in 1948, the son of Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, a famous musicologist, instrumentalist, and qawwali singer. The Khan family had been singing qawwali for 600 years, with songs passed down through countless generations. He grew up with four brothers and a sister in a small flat. Despite his father’s fame as a qawwal (singer of qawwali) the family was poor, and Ustad Khan hoped his son would become a professional, not a religious singer. Nusrat eventually convinced his father to train him, after a series of dreams in which he saw himself singing at the shrine of Hazratja Khawaja Moin-Ud-Din Chishtie at Ajmer in India, a Muslim shrine that had never let a Sufi sing inside its walls. While dubious about the dreams Nusrat’s father began training him starting with tabla lessons. When Ustad Khan died in 1964, his uncles Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan and Ustad Salamat Ali Khan continued training Nusrat. When Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan died, Nusrat took over his party and was soon famous throughout Pakistan and India. In 1979 he was invited to sing at the shrine of Hazratja Khawaja Moin-Ud-Din Chishtie fulfilling his prophetic dreams.


Early in his career he made hundreds of cassettes and LPs for EMI India, Gold Star (a London based Indian label) and other logos that have been endlessly repackaged and reissued. A selection: The Ultimate Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan, Volume 1, 1978 – 1982 (2005 EMI Arabia, 2005 Narada US), The Ultimate Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan, Volume 2, 1983 – 1984 (2005 EMI Arabia, 2005 Narada US), Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan, Vol. 51 Bandit Queen (2001 Oriental Star) the soundtrack for a notorious Indian film; The Day, The Night, The Dawn, The Dusk (1992 Shanachie); Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan, Vol. 14 Mast Qalander (1995 Oriental Star) which features a more traditional version of “Mustt Mustt,” the song that opened one of his popular Real World albums.


Peter Gabriel discovered Nusrat in the late 80s and drew upon his music for Passion (1989 Geffin), his soundtrack for Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. Nusrat’s first music to reach mainstream western ears was on Passion: Sources (1989 Real World) a compilation Gabriel put together to introduce audiences to the music that inspired his Last Temptation work. It only included one Nusrat performance “Shamas Ud Doha Bader Ud Doja,” but it created the buzz that led to Sahen Shah (1988 Real World). Khan’s larger than live vocals, especially his ululating improvisations and the party’s driving rhythms galvanized western listeners. The Last Prophet (1994, Real World), Shahbaaz (1995, Real World), Devotional Songs (1992 Real World), and Love Songs (1992 Real World) followed, all in a traditional mode before he took off with Mustt Mustt (1990, Real World). Mustt featured African and British musicians and Canadian guitarist Michael Brook who crafted arrangements that incorporated African, Brazilian, Caribbean and rock elements. It made Nusrat a “rock star.” Night Song (1995, Real World) followed, another strong effort with Michael Brook contributing contemporary arrangements. Magic Touch (2000, Music Club) a remix album helmed by Bally Sagoo, made him hot on the club scene. Traditional religious people criticized him, but he countered by telling them his music was bringing people closer to God. Star Rise (1997 Real World), another fine remix album, came out just before Nusrat’s tragic death.  


Since Nusrat’s death the market has been flooded with reissues and archival material that ranges for excellent to forgettable. Best bets are the more traditional albums like Dust to Gold (2000, Real World), Body and Soul (2002, Real World), En Concert a Paris (2002 Ocora) a five-disc set (also available as single discs En Concert a Paris, Vol 1, etc.) that contains almost six hours of music that shows Nusrat and his party at full throttle, and The Final Recordings (2001 American) produced with a light hand by Rick Rubin who gives the performances a sonic shine without diluting their spiritual purity.

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