More on Nusrat

On reading the last anecdote of Eddie Vedder and Nusrat, reader Omer Tariq was reminded of Nusrat’s recording of Mustt Mustt with Michael Brooks. He shares a photo of the liner notes which have another anecdote about Nusrat:

The genius of Nusrat was that he managed to open up a classical canon to new influences. He took the genre of Qawwali, and perhaps of North Indian Classical, to new heights as a result. As he did this he was criticized by purists for adulterating the art form. But this anecdote reveals how Nusrat held true to the principles of his art even as he bent it into new shapes.

A few years ago I heard Salman Ahmad tell his story of working with Nusrat. I wrote about this time during an earlier piece on Junoon:

On leaving the Vital Signs, Salman spent a few months rehearsing and performing with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Party. Salman had an in through Rahat, Nusrat’s nephew (they were similar ages), and also Imran Khan (who Salman knew from his days as an amateur professional cricketer). Nusrat was wonderfully open in his outlook to the musical world. He came in with no prescriptions of moral superiority or aesthetic elitism, and this led to some of Nusrat’s most influential and prized innovations: bringing classical systematics to Qawwali, opening Qawwali to the world of Western popular music, and reinvigorating an interest in the history of the subcontinent. Nusrat would tell Salman to “just play what your heart says”. 

What I didn’t write in this piece was how Nusrat coached Salman. For many days Nusrat said nothing while Salman tried to follow along, until one day after arduous struggle, Salman seemed to have found something decent. At which point Nusrat remarked: “ریاض ہو رہا ہے” (riyaaz is occurring). Riyaaz is the Urdu word for the exercises musicians do to keep in shape, but here it means less practice and more flight.

This method of inculcating new people into an order is paralleled by the Tableeghi Jamaat (which has been in the news for the wrong reasons recently). One of the great organizational practices of the Jamaat is how they make new people feel included. A stereotypical story made its way to me of a new member that showed up in jeans for a few days. This seemed normal, no one commented on it and everything else continued as expected. At some point he happened to show up in a shalwar kameez, which was closer to the aesthetic of the Jamaat, to which one of the more established members responded by praising how he looked.

Anyway, back to Nusrat. Here’s his recording of Mustt Mustt. A triumph of eastern vocal over a bed of percussion, electric guitar or synth (I can’t say for sure, perhaps both) and a pronounced bass. For those that have heard the incredibly long recordings of great qawwalis or know a little about North Indian Classical, you are familiar with the idea of an alaap. A musical segment that repeats key phrases from the raag or scale to set the mood of the recording such that you are in a good enough space to experience the melody and poetry that follows. Nusrat’s more ‘fusion’ oriented work shortcuts the alaap and instead uses the familiarity of Western instruments to bring people in. It doesn’t replace the alaap in function completely, in that it doesn’t foreshadow the melody but it finds a way of making the hardcore stuff more approachable. Another function of the alaap is purely for aesthetic purposes, which is on display in abundance here.