When I Sing for God...

The legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

BY: Dimitri Ehrlich

Excerpted with permission from "Inside the Music."

A few days after attending the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards with Peter Gabriel, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sat down with me in a dimly lit lounge of a hotel in midtown Manhattan, attended by an interpreter and his manager. As his vast corpulence settled into the couch, his beige gown draping the floor, he seems at once kingly, unearthly, and decidedly out of place in the middle of New York. There in the shadows, rocking his girth from side to side, Khan spoke softly and without any hint of his awesome lung power, his presence largely unnoticed by passersby unaware of the qawwali master in their midst.

Although Khan's music is based entirely on the Sufi tradition, an offshoot of Islam that emphasizes mystical and often poetic expression of the divine, he is circumspect about his personal religious affiliation. "I am not Sufi," Khan says, "but I spent a lot of time from my childhood up until now with the Sufis, and I deeply studied them. Sufi music is a kind of prayer, and if you sing in this manner, you will become closer to God, very close. That's basically what I do.

"Every religion has its own way of describing God. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism--they all have their own way of following God. Sufism describes God and teaches how to come closer to God. So basically, I follow the Islamic form of Sufism to find my way to God."

According to Sufism, the voice is indicative not only of a man's character but also of his spirit, the degree of his spiritual evolution. Sufis believe that no word uttered is ever lost, that the sound reverberates into the cosmos infinitely, according to the spirit put into it.

When Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan performs, his hands seem to float on the surface of unseen waves. His wrists move in a dancerly fashion, describing small arcs and pirouettes, his fingers extended in a manner reminiscent of classical Indian dance. His face reflects an absorption that cannot be faked, as he reflects on the personalities of Allah, Muhammad, and the Sufi saints. Khan's performances are like public prayer sessions, during which he calls to mind through qawwali singing the nature of the sacred Muslim figures.

"When I sing traditional spiritual songs, I always concentrate on who it is that I'm singing about. For instance, if I am inspired by the Holy Prophet, I concentrate on the Prophet. When I sing, I sing for God and for holy prophets, and their personalities are in my mind. Accordingly, whenever I sing about God, or the Prophet Muhammad, I feel like I am in front of him. I feel their personalities, and I pray.

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