Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the “World Beat Dilemma”

By: Joshua Kalin Busman (University of North Carolina, Pembroke) //

“Here’s a world beat dilemma for you: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is one of the world’s great singers, but his qawwali music is intended for Sufi Muslim religious ceremonies in Pakistan. How can Khan … be made palatable to the general listener?”

—Ron Givens, Entertainment Weekly

In the spring of 1991, it was perhaps surprising to readers of Entertainment Weekly to find a review of the most recent album by qawwali artist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. As the review notes, qawwali is a devotional style of music associated with Sufi Islam, and Khan, a Pakistani singer and composer, is the world’s foremost proponent of the style. Born in Faisalabad, Pakistan in 1948, Khan first came to the attention of Western audiences as one of the original acts to participate in Peter Gabriel’s World of Music, Arts and Dance festivals in 1982. Following his popular exposure through the festival, Khan was signed to Gabriel’s newly formed Real World Records label and collaborated with Gabriel on the 1989 soundtrack to Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. The album being reviewed is Mustt Mustt, Khan’s first collaboration with Canadian guitarist and producer Michael Brooks and his second release for the Real World imprint.

The reviewer, Ron Givens, seems to anticipate his reader’s confusion by presenting the album as a “world beat dilemma.” How could music intended for Muslim religious ceremonies in Pakistan possibly be made interesting to the readers of Entertainment Weekly? The review continues:

Mustt Mustt shows one way [to make qawwali palatable]: “sweetening” the sound of Khan’s music very gently with synthesizers, electric guitar, and electric bass. Purists will object, but this album, using mildly funky bass and atmospheric rockish tendrils of sound, creates a cool rhythmic context for the hot-blooded Khan. When the spirit moves him, this plump, cherub-faced Pakistani erupts into long arcing gasps of passion, punctuated with rapid chattering and corkscrew swoops. Here that spirit seems more relaxed and secular than on Khan’s other albums. Mustt Mustt is a good appetizer for those meatier entrees.

According to Givens—and almost every other review of this album I could find—Mustt Mustt represents a sonic compromise between East and West. And by this standard, the album was wildly successful. The title track was used as the backdrop to a hugely successful Coca-Cola commercial (featured above) for Indian audiences, and a remix of the track by British trip-hop group Massive Attack was the first song in Urdu to appear on the UK pop charts. But reviewers do not present this meeting of Eastern and Western elements as mutual or value-neutral. By describing Khan’s fusion style as “sweetening” the normally unpalatable sounds of qawwali or as “a good appetizer” for the “meatier entrees” in his catalog, reviewers consistently present Mustt Mustt as a less substantial version of the “real thing.” While Khan still sings with the traditional qawwali fervor, he capitulates to market forces and Western influences by including rock-styled synthesizers, electric guitar, and electric bass in the mix. In short, the reviewer sees the music on Mustt Mustt as qawwali-lite.

This presentation of qawwali as musically “watered down” is almost always paired with an observation that it has also been “secularized” in some way. In his review for Entertainment Weekly, Givens observes that the spirit that moves Khan on this album is “more relaxed and secular” than on his other albums. Another reviewer observed in the Miami New Times that Brooks was able to make Khan into a star by “combining a folk-based yet secularized qawwali with Euro dance beats.” The assumption seems to be that the religious content of the music is contained within the voices of the male chorus, ecstatic clapping, and the reedy sounds of the harmonium. The electric guitars and synthesizers are not only non-Eastern instruments, they also appear to be non-Muslim.

The question of music and its place in Islam is a much larger and more complicated theological issue, but Khan himself was always adamant that his music was faithful to a Sufi vision of religiosity. In an interview for the 1996 biopic film Le Dernier Prophète, Khan discussed his love for collaborations with Western musicians and filmmakers, but quickly added, “I’ve always been faithful to qawwali; I chant and sing Sufi texts.” In this respect, Khan has a point. Even the title track of Mustt Mustt, which Massive Attack famously remixed for play in British nightclubs, contains a clearly devotional text that makes specific reference to the Sufi saint Jhulelal as well as to the ecstatic love of Allah. Because of its musical and textual roots in the qawwali tradition, Khan asserts that even his most experimental music is an act of religious piety. But does this mean that anyone dancing in London nightclubs in 1991 was unknowingly participating in the Sufi devotion of samā?

In another interview for the film, Khan’s manager Mian Mohammad Arshad noted: “Qawwali has evolved over time. Before him, qawwali was cold. He has rearranged it and given it a lift. But he has not deviated from the tradition.” This too seems to be a valid point. Qawwali music (and Sufi Islam more broadly) has always been expanding and expansive, absorbing and incorporating new elements from outside of themselves. Even when it began more than 700 years ago, the qawwali tradition was already an amalgamation of Persian, Indian, and Arabic influences. The qawwali format continues to grow and adapt to include elements of regional culture in all of the countries in which there are practicing Sufi Muslims, so it seems to make sense that one way the tradition might “evolve” would include the introduction of synthesizers and guitars. But what, then, are the sonic boundaries of qawwali as a style? Could qawwali be played on any instruments at all?

These and other provocative questions raised by Khan’s career help to explain why Givens presented him as a “world beat dilemma” in Entertainment Weekly, but these issues are present within so many different musical traditions. J.S. Bach wrote music specifically for Christian church services, but is the performance of a Bach cantata in a symphony hall necessarily a  “Christian” religious performance? Most Muslims do not consider recitation of the adhān or “call to prayer” to be music, but does this stop a Western listener from experiencing it as such? Did encounters between klezmer musicians and jazz musicians in the early twentieth century compromise the distinctively Jewish qualities of klezmer music? Questions such as these raise complicated issues of globalization, commercialization, and colonialism, and they don’t have easy answers. But asking them opens up new horizons of possibility for what and how music means in the lives of religious people.

For Discussion

  1. What makes a particular style of music sacred or secular? Who is responsible for making this determination? How do your answers to both of these questions change based on the context?
  2. Could the same music be considered sacred in one context and secular in another? If so, how does this change happen? If not, why not?
  3. Can you think of any other musicians who have faced similar criticisms to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan about “watering down” the content of their religious music? How are these other cases similar to Khan’s case explored above? How are they different?

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