Thursday, February 11, 2010

The story of Nusrat's biggest fan

The first time I heard the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was in Harlem, 1990. My roommate and I stood there, blasting it in his room. We were all awash in the thick undulating tide of dark punjabi tabla rhythyms, spiked with synchronized handclaps booming from above and below in hard, perfect time.

I heard the clarion call of harmoniums dancing the antique melody around like giant, singing wooden spiders. Then all of a sudden, the rising of one, then ten voices hovering over the tonic like a flock of geese ascending into formation across the sky.

Then came the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Part Buddha, part demon, part mad angel...his voice is velvet fire, simply incomparable. Nusrat's blending of classical improvisations to the art of Qawwali, combined with his out and out daredevil style and his sensitivity, outs him in a category all his own, above all others in his field.

His every enunciation went straight into me. I knew not one word of Urdu, and somehow it still hooked me into the story that he weaved with his wordless voice. I remember my senses fully froze in order to feel melody after melody crash upon each other in waves of improvisation; with each line being repeated by the men in the chorus, restated again by the main soloists, and then Nusrat setting the whole bloody thing alflame with his rapid-fire scatting, turning classical Indian Solfeggio (Sa, Re, Gha, Ma, Pa, Dha, Ni) into a chaotic/manic birdsong. The phrase burst into a climax somewhere, with Nusrat's upper register painting a melody that made my heart long to fly. The piece went on for fifteen minutes. I ate my heart out. My roommate just looked at me knowingly, muttering, "Nusrat...Fa-teh...A-li...Khaaan," like he had just scored the wine of the century. I felt a rush of adrenaline in my chest, like I was on the edge of a cliff, wondering when I would jump and how well the ocean would catch me: two questions that would never be answered until I experienced the first leap.

That is the sensation and the character of Qawwali music, the music of the Sufis, as best I can describe it.

-Jeff Buckley, New York, 1997


After hearing his first Qawwali in 1990, Jeff executes his first cover of "Yeh Jo Halke Halke" in 1993, just 3 years after discovering this art and having no formal training, let alone unable to speak Urdu. We @ Chaiwallas Boombox shed tears and had goosebumps for weeks after hearing this.



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