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Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party: The Supreme Collection, Volume 1

It was a sad day when the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan passed away, of heart failure at the far-too-young age of 48 on August 16. The reigning king of the ancient Pakistani tradition of qawwali, had, in just the last several years, attained the sort of global reverence reserved for precious few outside the western world. By the end, he was a superstar on the order of Ravi Shankar, revered in his homeland of Pakistan, and admired by a growing and diverse contingent of listeners, including young rock fans who may have been introduced through his exchanges with Eddie Vedder.

Hearing Khan live, in the throes of passionate musical devotion, may have been one of the most startling “new” pleasures in music for many in the past decade. I remember a transcendent show by Khan and Party at Town Hall in New York two years ago, where the line separating musicians and audience seemed to evaporate, even though it was obvious who was corralling the spiritual energy in the house-it was the large, Buddha-like presence on stage. Khan’s inspired vocal flourishes and ordered sense of improvisational abandon, led the ensemble charge of harmoniums, antiphonal voices and hypnotic clapping patterns. The power of music was hard at work. By concert’s end, the venue seemed more like a conduit towards a higher consciousness, a shared experience.

Officially, Khan worked in the tradition of religious music, qawwali being a devotional expression in the Sufi faith dating back to the 13th century. The texts are poetic appeals to Allah and Muhammad, as well as odes to mortal love, but one of the tacit messages in Khan’s work may have been that all great music has religious connections.

Khan’s experiments and cameos in westernized musical contexts were sometimes intriguing, but they pale by comparison to the real thing, his real calling. History will forget about his gigs singing for films, Last Temptation of Christ, his meeting with Eddie Vedder et. al. on the soundtrack of Dead Man Walking, and his mild lark of a collaboration with Michael Brook, Night Song. It won’t be these detours that last, but his qawwali recordings.

Concurrent with Khan’s untimely death, Caroline has released The Supreme Collection, Vol. 1 (Caroline 7552; 73:23; 75:11), a recording made in England in 1988, just before Peter Gabriel engaged Khan to perform on the Last Temptation soundtrack. On a pair of CDs, packed with close to two and a half hours of qawwali music, Khan delivers his trademarked, nimble phrasings and interacts with his ensemble in ways that follows a lineage to classical Indian music and quivers with that sort of universal soulfulness that he commanded.

By a strange stroke of irony, the recently-belated young rocker Jeff Buckley, penned the liner notes for the album. He sums up the liberating, liberated effect of Khan’s group: “These men do not play music. They are music itself.”

Originally Published