Khan is singlehandedly responsible for revitalizing the musical style known as Qawwali, a Persian tradition that dates back over 700 years. Qawwali is typically performed by a group of eight to ten musicians, known as a “party,” and focuses on religious themes such as praise to a higher power, mourning the loss of a loved one, and the powerful connections between romantic and familial love. Many of these songs use changes in tempo and energetic buildups to tell the song’s story over the course of fifteen to thirty minutes, bringing both the audience and the performers into hypnotic states in the process. And no one was better at transporting an audience to places of intrigue and ecstasy than Khan.
Born in the volatile Punjab region near the Indian border in Pakistan, Khan’s first public performance was at the age of 16, when he sang in memoriam at his father’s gravesite. His father, Fateh Ali Khan, was an established musicologist and qawwali performer. With roots in an intensely musical family, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan pursued his destiny from an early age, first as a traveling qawwal, then later on as a signed recording artist and composer. His widespread acclaim and success as a singer also led him down some unexpected paths. His music was prominently featured in several Pakistani as well as Bollywood films, with Khan actually appearing on screen in Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya. In 1985, Khan joined forces with Peter Gabriel to create the soundtrack to Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and, in 1995, with Pearl Jam’s iconic Eddie Vedder as part of the soundtrack to Dead Man Walking. Khan’s prototypic voice and performance were transcendent of culture, politics, race, and economics, making him one of the only Pakistani singers to cross over so prominently into the Western world.
Despite his untimely death at just 48 years old, Ali Khan is one of the most decorated qawwali performers of all time and still considered by many to be the greatest vocalist ever recorded. Thankfully, there are hundreds of hours of his recorded music to immortalize his inimitable voice and unrelentingly energized performances. To add to this legacy are the countless stories of his generosity and belief in the equality of all people. Those that performed with him have noted that Ali Khan would divide his income into 21 equal parts, distributing the money to his fellow performers, his family, and various charities and social foundations. Ali Khan considered himself on a level plain with everyone else, no matter how strong the evidence that his voice was from another world.