Covering Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

This made me so so happy. Jeff Buckley, when singing and mispronouncing nearly every word in the song, stands for every music lover enamored by an artiste singing in an alien language. On one hand, it’s almost frightening how close he gets to the feel of a Nusrat song – the impassioned wails, the improvisations, the fact that he is singing the part of Rahmat Ali, the high-pitched backing singer that you hear on every one of Nusrat’s live shows. On the other, it’s hard not to be swayed by the the earnest appeal to the crowd to “do it like they do it in Pakistan”, urging them to clap in time with the song.

Sadly, there are not many Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Sure, almost every high-pitched singer on every talent show in India tries to sing Nusrat songs, but they are mostly insipid rehashes, sans personality or individuality. Bally Sagoo, the British DJ who, at some point, was remixing every Indian song in existence, got North Carolina-based singer Gunjan to sing ‘Kinna Sona’, on the Bend It Like Beckham OST. I find Gunjan’s voice too tinny for my taste, and the version itself does not break any new ground  – just a straightforward beat added to the basic structure of the song.

Remixes abound, of course. In addition to the familiar names – Michael Brook, Peter Gabriel, Massive Attack, there’s Italian electronica composer Gaudi, who came up with an entire album dedicated to Nusrat remixes, called Dub Qawwali. That one’s quite an earful, featuring a guest appearance by MK Gandhi even.

Two AR Rahman songs pay tribute to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. ‘Varaagha Nadikarai’ from Sangamam is inspired by the Punjabi folk song ‘Lal Meri Pat’, which is technically not a Nusrat song per se, but Rahman based it on his version of it. Then there’s ‘Tere Bina’ from Guru – a lovely song that was due to be sung by Murtaza and Qadir Khan, but was rerecorded in Rahman’s voice at director Mani Ratnam’s insistence. (the brothers can still be heard in the opening strains of the track) I love the song, but hate the visuals – the cheesy dance routines do not fit the semi-spiritual vibe.

I was never a huge Atif Aslam fan – despite some of the songs from his band Jal being ear-wormy enough. Until I heard his Coke Studio songs – two of which stand out. ‘Wasta Pyaar Da’, a mash-up of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ with a traditional Punjabi song, and ‘Jal Pari’. The second song’s from Aslam’s own solo album. At 4:39 of the performance, he segues into Nusrat’s ‘Tu Mera Dil’. The transition is done without drawing too much attention towards itself, a smart little homage that makes this Nusrat fan feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

One of the most interesting things you will hear is the Brooklyn Qawwali Party, a tribute band formed by percussionist Brooke Martinez specifically to cover Nusrat Fateh Ali songs. This 9-minute version of Musst Musst, complete with claps, a wind section, a double bass, an electric guitar – and even a harmonium – is sublime, especially when the guys sing the main chorus of the song.

And then there’s Pakistani-American band Kominas’ completely irreverent take on ‘Pooja Karoonga’. I’ll reserve all comment.



6 thoughts on “Covering Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

  1. Shruti says:

    Thank you so much for posting these.. Ive never really thought so much about Nusrat Ali Khan’s music and style so much… and ofcourse, the Jeff Buckley cover made me balk and giggle with sheer surprise! :)

    • I was – and am – a huge Nusrat fan. Like most of the other music I listen to, there are days of blind devotion followed by weeks (months?) of ambivalence.

  2. Hrishikesh says:

    Thanks for blogging an excellent tribute to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan…its been 18 years… Nusrat still lives on…

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