An introduction to music by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

This post was written in 2018 and has been sitting in my Drafts for over 3 years. I decided to write this after realizing it’s going to get deleted if I don’t get to it.

When I discover new music, I love to go the extra few steps of finding out more about the musician, songs I like, albums by the musician, and even related artists. I also love sharing music with people. In this post, I’ll talk about Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the greatest qawwal ever recorded.

But before we get into Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, I’d like to introduce you to the art of “qawwali”. It’s the form of music that’s devotional and emotionally powerful, it has elements of religious worship, love, praise for Sufism, and many other explorations of the human condition. An important part of a qawwali is the repetitive but slightly altered parts of the lyrics. Qawwali originates from South Asia and Central Asia (India to Turkey) and each region has practiced qawwali in slightly different forms. When listening to qawwali, it’s important to remember that the musician or qawwal might be singing their own song or they might be reciting a poem, song, or ghazal from another qawwal. A qawwali will also include a group of musicians known as the party, thus it’s usually called a qawwali party. The main qawwal is considered the leader of the qawwali party, in this post that person is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. A qawwali is often longer than a typical song, anywhere between 10-15 minutes for a short one and there are some that have gone up to an hour. You can read more about qawwalis on Wikipedia.

Since qawwalis are a type of a song, I will interchangeably use the words “song” and “qawwali” to mean the same thing. Once you listen to some qawwalis in this post and elsewhere, you’ll notice that there are some that will let you get lost within them and whether you’re listening to it while relaxing, driving, working, or emotionally trying to connect to the meaning of the qawwali, it’ll be easy to get lost within one.

I don’t remember the first song I heard by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (NFAK), it must’ve been before I could even walk or talk. I do remember there would always be some sort of music being played around the house that included NFAK’s music. As time went on, I noticed some songs and remembered their names and would occasionally look them up. When Youtube came around, I would look up just his name and listen to some music. When Spotify finally came to the US, that was one of the first time where I started collecting his songs I liked.

Over his career, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan recorded 125+ albums and released 30+ concert recordings. This is amazing but at the same time, it makes it a bit tough to find the greatest amongst the great. I’ll list some of my favorites below.

By the time I was able to remember songs I liked, a subculture of remixing NFAK’s music became popularized after his death and due to this phenomenon, I discovered one of my favorite songs, Jhoole Jhoole Lal:

When you listen to this song, you can hear a lot of post-editing and mixing to make the song sound modern, I didn’t have any options when I first heard this song to know that there were other versions of it and I became a fan. Eventually I discovered the original version:

The original features NFAK’s voice as the most important part of the song, it doesn’t have any additional sounds added on. This is an example of a song that’s poetic in a sense that a simple listen once in awhile will not let you hear the words and their meaning as easily. It’s a song about praising the savior who is unnamed in the song but there are many interpretations of who the savior is being referenced.

Next checkout one of the shorter songs on this list:

In this song, it’s a lamenting cry for a long lost lover. A story about a lover who might’ve died or gone away, but the world knows not the pain felt by the narrative’s subject. In this qawwali, the perspective from which the song is sang is unclear and that makes it so much better because it’s letting the listener determine who it’s for or from. The song is also a prayer in a form to say that nobody else should lose their love as the narrator has.

Below are some songs that I think you’ll just enjoy, not much description needed:

And if you’d really like to go deep on more of NFAK’s music, here’s a Spotify playlist you can listen to:

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Discography)