Qawwali Vocalist Khan Continues Uncle's Tradition

Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's first U.S. recording -- an eponymous American/Legacy set released March 13 -- was recorded in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1997. It was the same year that his uncle and

Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's first U.S. recording -- an eponymous American/Legacy set released March 13 -- was recorded in Santa Monica, Calif., in 1997. It was the same year that his uncle and <I>qawwali</I> teacher, the world-renowned master Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, died.

The younger Khan toured and performed with his uncle from 1985 to 1997, having trained with him since age 3. Now 25, Khan, who has released a dozen solo albums in his native Pakistan, is ready to continue his legendary uncle's legacy.

"I cannot be Nusrat in my lifetime," Khan says, translated by his manager Shafiq Saddiqui in a phone call following a concert in Karachi, Pakistan, that ended at four in the morning. "But Nusrat chose me as his successor. He taught me from day one, and we lived in the same house. I'm trying to bring the best performance to the world to explore Nusrat's message to the world -- and this is my message."

Qawwali is the impassioned, spiritual South Asian vocal style derived from ancient Sufi religious poets, with accompaniment by harmonium, tabla drums, and backup singers. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was the greatest modern practitioner of this ecstatic vocal art, influencing not only Pakistani and Indian singers but such American pop artists as Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and the late Jeff Buckley. Peter Gabriel's RealWorld label issued a popular series of traditional and experimental Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan albums, adding to the scores of live recordings put out by a host of companies, East and West.

On "Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan," the younger Khan says, he is taking care to bring the "original version of the qawwali" to the American audience. "In Pakistan, we sometimes add piano and other instruments, according to the time frame. At the moment, the demand of the public is for some beats and mixing -- but [only] without hurting the basic qawwali, which is based on the classic music."

For his first U.S. album, though, Khan has tried to stick as close as possible to the basics. "The basic qawwali is a pure message of peace, love, and harmony from God through the Sufis to the world," he says, citing the album's lead track "Allah Jallay Shan" (Allah Is Great and Glorious). "It's the most powerful poetry-praising God and explaining the role of God in our life-and using a raga [style] that is not often used in qawwali. So it's traditional in the sense of being religious, devotional, and powerful."

But the fourth track, "Khaban Wich Meray Toon Na Aa" (Don't Come Into My Dreams), is more "contemporary," says Khan, in that it can be interpreted as either sacred or secular. "It's a folk song that you can take from the side of either a lover or God."

Khan's new album was produced by American Records president Rick Rubin, who saw him perform with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in 1995 at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. Rubin also produced the elder Khan's two-disc set "The Final Recordings," which American/Legacy released simultaneously with his nephew's U.S. album debut.

"I'd been a fan of Nusrat for some time, and when I had the opportunity to work with him, I met Rahat -- his nephew and sort of counterpart singer," Rubin says. "It was Nusrat's wish that Rahat carry on the tradition, so he's next in the lineage, though he has a higher-pitched voice."

The relationship between the two Khans and its reflection of tradition and culture make for a "compelling story on lots of levels," says Adam Block, VP/GM of Sony Music's Legacy Recordings. "Rahat was selected by Nusrat as a boy to succeed him when that day came -- and that day has come. It's the passing of the torch from the greatest qawwali/Sufi singer of all time to his designated successor."

"Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan" is the first of two albums by the artist produced by Rubin. "The first is more stripped-down than the Nusrat sound, with a smaller band that's more intimate and punchy," Rubin says. "The second has a bigger sound, like the full Nusrat band. The first one has a certain power to it, that 'less is more' thing, like a jazz combo, but it really rocks."

Rubin hopes that Khan's first U.S. album gets a chance to be widely heard, setting the stage for the next. "It's inspirational music," he says, "and the fact that we can't understand the [Urdu] lyrics really doesn't matter. You can hear the longing and devotion in the voice that anyone who hears it can connect to."

Khan also notes that "the language of the music crosses borders." Western listeners "don't need any understanding of the poetry, [because] the shape of the tone and the beat tells the audience what we're really saying. That's why qawwali is so popular in the West, because through the music is the understanding of the message.