22 Nov 2020


He’s an artist that put Pakistan and qawwali music on the international map. Decades after his death, he continues to influence popular art and music, not only in Pakistan but among desi communities around the world.

This year has seen several tributes to the Late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. First there were the incredibly talented and versatile Leo Twins with their creative instrumental cover of Saanson ki Maala, where the violin replaced the vocalisation of the lyrics in the song.

Then there was Feroze Faisal, one half of the Pakistani electronic dance music duo Somewhat Super, who took a risk and mixed parts of Nusrat’s vocals over progressive house music in JTKWMK. The song title is an abbreviation for “Jo Teri Khushi Who Meri Khushi” a line extracted from NFAK’s legendary number, Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor Hai. JTKWMK is the shallowest of tributes (if it can be called that) that is sure to anger the most ardent Nusrat fans but, oh well.

And now, as the year comes to an end, we have a third tribute, simply titled Nusrat, by a qawwal group of two brothers called Zain Zohaib Qawwal. One wondered what songs by Nusrat they’d have picked. Upon playing the track I was pleasantly surprised: this was an original.

‘Tis the season for tributes to the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The latest is an original qawwali paean to the master

A whole song written and composed in that good ol’ fashioned qawwali style, exclusively as a customised tribute to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. A quick search into Zain Zohaib reveals what motivated the duo. It wasn’t just Nusrat’s music that influenced them, the late qawwal as a person was an important presence in their life growing up. Their father, Ustad Haji Rehmat Ali Khan, played the second harmonium with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for over 40 years.

As a qawwal group, they have adapted their singing and performing style, evident especially on Nusrat where they can be heard often singing in falsetto reminiscent of the late qawwal. They released the song on what would’ve been Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s 72nd birthday.

The song is a whopping eight minutes and 40 seconds long. That’s just the length of an intro by qawwali standards but, by current pop song standards, that’s the length of a modern-day EP. While the group has experimented by introducing more western and electronic instrumentation in some of their other songs, in Nusrat, they have stuck to a very traditional style that takes you back to the 1990s and those PTV recordings of the late qawwal that played often on our television screens.

The main chorus line goes, Hum ko maula ki thee ataa Nusrat, while the rest of the lyrics follow in accordance to this. Nusrat is easy to follow and the main chorus line stays in your head long after the song is over. The lyrics, however, in my opinion are excessively flattering at times. They don’t point or speak about any specific quality or attribute or narrate any incident, they’re just about his greatness.

The song ends with the lines: Yoon to laakhon hain jis ke deewane/ Yash bhi adna hai khaak-e-paa Nusrat [The hundreds of thousands of devotees/ Don’t come close to the dust under Nusrat’s feet]. Clearly fan boy-ism has reached its peak here.

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 22nd, 2020