PAKISTAN: Mustt Mustt - Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Updated: Jan 20
In his first Western album, the King of Qawwali shows off his immense vocal talent in an album that straddles the line between tradition and innovation
Qawwali is a particular style of Sufi Islamic devotional singing that achieved a popularity in the Punjab region of Pakistan and India. Initially a solely religious and acapella form of music performed at Sufi holy sites, musical instruments were eventually introduced, and while the content of the songs is still on the whole religious, they are performed at concerts and other venues. Qawwali music achieved a popularity worldwide in the 1980s and 1990s, in no small part due to Peter Gabriel’s record label Real World Records, releasing music for Western consumption, and there is no greater figure in the promotion of qawwali in the West than the Shahenshah-e-qawwali himself, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
“...listening to Khan’s powerful vocals, one cannot help but feel that one is listening to a man reaching some kind of proximity to the divine. I can’t give it higher praise than that.”
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan comes from a line of qawwals that stretches back 600 years, and continues to this day, with his nephew, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, continuing the familial legacy with his own successful career as a qawwal. This was the legacy into which Khan was born, and it was a legacy he would not only do proud, he would in some ways come to define it. However, Khan wasn’t happy simply being a purveyor of traditional qawwali, he had grander plans, and when Peter Gabriel introduced him to Canadian guitarist and producer Michael Brook, Gabriel suggested the two could work together, and a wonderful collaborative partnership was born.
Mustt Mustt is considered a westernised version of his traditional qawwali music, which is unsurprising as it was a collaboration with Michael Brook. The sound is therefore a fusion of the two styles. Indeed, the album starts with Brook’s slap bass, not the thing you would usually associate with qawwali music. That said, the final result is triumphant. Nothing in this album is incongruous, and the style that is created serves the purpose of the album, which is to serve as an introduction to the world of qawwali music to people unfamiliar with it. Though Khan’s voice is always considered one of the greatest ever recorded, and his vocal ability to reach a huge range of notes was acclaimed during his life and continues to be so after his untimely death at the age of 48 in 1997, some music critics have derided Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Western albums, Mustt Mustt in particular, stating they’re a watered-down version of his Pakistani work.
While this may be true to an extent, I feel that Mustt Mustt plays an important part in cementing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s legacy. While it is undeniably true that Khan’s Pakistani work is more authentic to true qawwali and its Sufi roots, I came to Mustt Mustt a complete novice to world music and qawwali, and I fell in love with the album, and as such I have gone on to listen to the traditional qawwali albums as well. I am not sure that if I had to go straight into traditional qawwali, which is often particularly and beautifully complex in structure, as well as lengthy, I may not have stuck with it. Mustt Mustt allows for people unfamiliar with Sufi song to get a taste of the wondrous world of qawwali music, and for that, it serves its purpose. It just so happens that I think it is great in and of itself. There is nothing inherently ‘better’ about an album that is traditional as opposed to an album that seeks to innovate or create a new sound. They should both be taken on their own merits and flaws, and on that basis, to my mind at least, Mustt Mustt is a very strong album.
The title track is a good example of this. It is one of only two tracks that contain actual lyrics (we’ll get to that soon), and it is based off a Sufi devotional poem called Dama Dam Mast Qalander. It was already a famous qawwali song, but Khan and Brook updated it for the modern day. According to Khan himself, quoted in the Real World Records web page about the album, he wanted to update qawwali for the times, as the youth in Pakistan had lost interest in the slow, traditional qawwali songs. So, Mustt Mustt is updated and shortened, what with the tempo being faster than on a traditional recording. Yet the essence of Khan as a performer is kept, as the vocals compliment the excellent instrumentation. The other song with lyrics, Nothing Without You, is another one of my favourites. It is an achingly beautiful rendition of a Sufi love song, and though I have no idea what the lyrics mean, I find it an irresistible song, with Khan’s vocals perhaps being at their absolute best here, soaring and transcendent as only he can be.
If I were to criticise it slightly, I would say that the album is at its weakest when the balance between Brook and Khan is favoured to closely to Brook, meaning that Khan’s sublime vocals get less prominence than they should, which isn’t the case on many of the tracks, but it is on one or two, in particular Sea of Vapours. It’s not a terrible song by any means, it merely focuses a bit more on Brook’s guitar playing, which means it just doesn’t have enough of what makes this album spectacular – Khan’s vocals. There is also one other odd inclusion on the album, which is the Massive Attack remix of Mustt Mustt, which became a club hit here in the United Kingdom. It’s not necessarily to my taste, but the remix works, and it gives Khan the interesting distinction of having the first song in Urdu to make it onto the British pop charts.
Most of the album, aside from the first two songs, do not have any lyrics. Khan is using a technique called ‘tarana’, a classical vocal technique where only the quality of the sound is what matters. This is another example of the universality of music, and how music can be appreciated even without meaningful lyrics. Here, Khan is distilled to his essence, and it is the power of his voice and that power alone that makes the album what it is. One also shouldn’t forget that qawwali is a devotional music. It is music that is meant to make one feel closer to God, and although I’m not a Muslim and I can’t say I’m particularly religious, listening to Khan’s powerful vocals, one cannot help but feel that one is listening to a man reaching some kind of proximity to the divine. I can’t give it higher praise than that.