The world became acquainted with Pakistan’s qawwali music tradition through Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a renowned performer of the devotional music of the Sufis.
Popularly known as “Shahenshah-e-Qawwali,” meaning “The King of Kings of Qawwali,” Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had extraordinary vocal abilities that made him one of the greatest singers ever recorded. After he passed away in 1997, leaving behind an impressive legacy of more than 100 albums, lovers of qawwali were curious about who would continue his legacy.
Asif Ali Khan, one of the present-day qawwali artists who remain the most loyal to the tradition, seems to be the one to fill Nusrat Fateh’s shoes, for the master qawwali singer also used to call him his “best student.”
Asif Ali Khan was in Turkey last week for a concert in İstanbul. He spoke to Sunday’s Zaman about qawwali music in an interview ahead of his performance on Nov. 24 at the Cemal Reşit Rey Concert Hall (CRRKS).
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan used to call you his best student. How did it feel to become his student?
I became his student when I was very young; I was only 13. This is a huge source of pride for me. Of course we were very close … and there are probably thousands of qawwali musicians in Pakistan, but being the student of someone who was known the world over, and earning the title “Khan” is a great honor.
How did you manage to become his student?
There’s a very old bond between my family and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. My grandfather used to be a very close friend of his. But beyond this relationship, his talent and his style have influenced me. Qawwali music is a tradition whose history dates back some 700 years in Pakistan. This tradition has produced some very important musicians but no one in the contemporary period managed to come up with a unique style like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan did. The varieties he created using the classical style have inspired many young musicians like myself. His main criterion [in selecting his students] was of course himself. My father took to me to him one day and asked him to listen to my voice. Being able to qualify to become his student from among many children my age was the greatest happiness for me. Being one of his students is of course due to my talent, which is God-given thing.
“Khan” is frequently used with Pakistani names -- both in the form of a title and as a family name. What does it refer to? Is it a title intended for qawwali musicians?
Yes it’s widely used in Pakistan, as well as being a title inherited from one generation to another in families whose members make qawwali music. In addition, Pakistanis used to call Sufis “Khan Saab” in the past. This is presently a title given to people who make qawwali music. It is something like the English title “Sir.”
Historical sources say qawwali music was at first used to spread Islam in Pakistan but in time it turned into a sort of musical show, a type of entertainment. What would you say about this?
Yes, that’s correct. I believe this should be one of the matters on which a qawwali musician should be sensitive. This music has its roots in Sufism but currently there are many musicians who perform this art form in a variety of different manners. The concerts I give abroad can also be seen as a form of entertainment, but I still pay attention to maintaining a purely traditional style, to performing qawwali without distorting its main characteristics. That’s why I keep performing all around the world. If I distorted it, there wouldn’t be this much demand for my performances.
In a documentary I heard that the clapping of hands was a later addition to qawwali, which was introduced into the genre after an encounter with the Western culture. Is this true?
Qawwali is a music type that’s been performed for some 750 years now. When [Indian musician-poet] Amir Khusrow Dehlawi started preaching Islam in India he … invented qawwali in order to attract people’s attention. He is known to have used small zills [finger cymbals] and clapping [in his performances]. So it cannot be argued that this was borrowed from the West since it is the way this music is performed for centuries. And when we perform in the West, people sometimes keep the beat by clapping. It doesn’t do any harm.
Some members of the audience in your concerts fall into a trance-like state. How does that make you feel? Is it a sign that your performance is really good?
I call that a sort of prayer. When people listen to qawwali, they not only hear the music and the lyrics, but they want to become part of it -- emotionally, mentally and physically. The secret to it, of course, is in the unparalleled lyrics, based on the Sufi poetry. Hearing those beautiful lyrics amazes people and they start flowing with the music. But this is not only about hearing the lyrics. When I perform at concerts abroad I still see people fall into trance, and this is the spiritual aspect of qawwali.
There’s a Sufi music tradition in Turkey, too, and it’s particularly used in commemoration ceremonies for Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, held annually on Dec. 17, the anniversary of his death. What would you say about this connection?
Yes, I know a lot about Rumi. But I had no knowledge about the commemoration ceremonies. I normally attend [these kinds of programs] upon invitation. This is my first trip to your country, but it feels very much like home.