Night Song

Canadian-Pakistani journalist Hina Husain interviewed producer Michael Brook to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Night Song, Brook’s second album with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan after Mustt Mustt which we’ve discussed previously on Hamnawa. Night Song is Nusrat’s last album. Husain was attracted to writing about Nusrat as part of her efforts to connect with her own roots, and that led her to fellow Canadian Brook, and she was kind enough to talk to me about this piece.

Khan’s albums with Brook are easier entry points into Nusrat’s work for ears tuned to Western music. They utilize jazz-like backing tracks, and overall bring in an experimental nature to the physical attributes to the recording that were inherent to Nusrat’s attitude as a performing artist. As such they are a beautiful representation, and swan song for Nusrat. Husain feels these albums may not get their due share amongst Pakistani audiences. Some snippets of the interview are reproduced below, but I recommend reading the entire essay.

This was your second collaboration with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Was it very different from your first time working together on Mustt Mustt?

The process was significantly different on Night Song. I think when we did Mustt Mustt, most of Nusrat's experience in a studio had been an archival experience, where you did a performance in real time, and that was it. You made your record. 

In the interim between the two albums, Nusrat had done some work with other people, and also from our time working on Mustt Mustt, he became more familiar with modern studio techniques like overdubbing, layering, editing and all that kind of stuff. So the whole process was quite different. And I think he had more creative input into the second album, just because he was more aware of the options.

It's interesting you say that because listening to both the albums, I feel Mustt Mustt is more of a qawwali album — it's very heavy on traditional Pakistani instruments like the tabla and harmonium, and there are lots of background singers on the tracks. Night Song feels like a more intimate collaboration between you and Nusrat, and it sounds like you would have had more input on that one.

Well, my involvement was similar on both albums. I created backing tracks and I'd play them for Nusrat and say, "What about this one?" and he would listen to them for a while, then go away and come up with ideas for what to do. One of the biggest differences between Night Song and Mustt Mustt was that Mustt Mustt was kind of like a live band. We had musicians playing and Nusrat singing, along with the party (the background singers). And then based on what would happen, I'd sometimes completely replace the original backing track.

Night Song was similar, but I don't think we used the party. It was more, I would play Nusrat something, and he'd come back and sing on it. Based on what he sang, I might change it quite a bit. But it was more of an overdub process and we'd get musicians in one at a time. There wasn't the sense of live music so much.

A few anecdotes popped out to me, about how Brooks interfaced with South Asian culture. First on the lyrics of Mustt Mustt:

And between the two albums, things had changed so much. For example on Mustt Mustt, I finished it, or made mixes, and mailed a cassette to Pakistan which took a long time to get there. By the time Nusrat got the tapes, the album had already come out. 

So an embarrassing aspect of that was that I would have 20, 30 minutes of Nusrat singing, since the performances are long, and I had to make that into a five or six-minute piece, so there was a lot of editing involved. So I just cut up what made sense musically, and of course I don't understand Urdu. So I was just cutting up lyrics and a lot of them were qawwali lyrics for Mustt Mustt, but I turned them into nonsense because I would just cut them without knowing. And Nusrat got a bit of flack about that in Pakistan. That was something we could have probably addressed if he had got the cassette in time.

And then on the inherent differences between Western and South Asian music, and how Nusrat engaged with the interface:

Certainly musically, and maybe in other ways, the Western culture is just remarkably flexible and varied. So when I would work with people from traditional cultures other than my own, in a certain way, they usually do something pretty close to what they always do. We put it in a different setting, and maybe structure it differently and present it in a different way. If you took any 10-second snippet of what Nusrat's saying, it probably wouldn't be that different from the kinds of things he'd sing in the traditional music. And that's true of many people from other cultures that I work with. 

So when you ask if I had to change my process, I did change it in a way as part of the path of discovery. In most of the music I work on, frequently there's two sections: there's an "A" and a "B." And you don't really have that structure in many other cultures. So Nusrat was not familiar with how you're singing along and all of a sudden the chords change. That would sort of break his focus. So what I did was, I would take each section and repeat it for 20 minutes, and it might be something that ends up as a 90-second section in the final piece. Then Nusrat could just sing and get momentum, and once he had an idea of what was going on in the background track, that was not going to change. Then to create the structures we ultimately ended up with, I would combine those two different takes, where he was just singing without having to worry about something unexpected coming up.

I’ve written previously on the inherent differences between Western and South Asian music theory. In short, South Asian music theory has inherently greater degree of tonal variety, which is then simplified to fit Western instruments. That Brook pieced lyrics together not thinking that they might not make sense, and his recollection of Nusrat’s aversion to sudden changes in musical structure seemed unfair to me. In fact, I thought this reduced both the inherent complexity and variation embedded into South Asian musical tradition, as well as Nusrat’s personal taste for improvisation and experimentation. The entire nature of Qawwali, the musical tradition from which Nusrat emerged and of which he became king, is built around loose structure and improvisation.

To be fair to Brook, South Asian music and Qawwali in particular does not have the sharp harmonic changes within a particular performance as in most Western music. Western music is built around three core concepts: rhythm, melody, and harmony. Rhythm is the beat of the music, the melody is the tune, and the harmony is when multiple notes are played together. The way harmony manifests in western music is chords, when multiple notes are played together on an instrument or sung by different voices. Western songs are constructed on top of chord progressions, and often as a song moves from verse to chorus to bridge, the selection and order of chords may vary drastically. South Asian music focuses more on rhythm and melody than harmony, and Nusrat’s own improvisation is more likely to have been melodic. As a result his interaction with harmonic shifts may not have been immediately comfortable.

I asked Husain if she got the same impression as me from Brook. Husain responded:

To be honest, I did not get the vibe from him that he saw traditional or cultural music as less complex. I feel his views stemmed in part from the fact that he doesn't speak Urdu, which is also why I wanted to speak to him, and even asked him how he was able to capture and amplify the depth of Khan's words without understanding them. In my view, that was the most important question I had for him.

In Brook’s own words, his approach to music follows an “emotional esthetic mandate” — he’s not pursuing the music’s creation intellectually. He’s aiming for musical coherence over intellectual coherence, and since he was never told the meaning, you can’t really blame the guy for splicing some of the music as best as he could emotionally understand it at the time. 

Husain requested that if anyone on the list can point out the specific places in Mustt Mustt that the lyrics don’t sit right, she’d love a pointer.

I held back a Hamnawa post earlier in the week after the passing of a mentor. I hope you may consider donating towards the funds set up in his legacy.