Musical Meals For A Snacky Culture (Thoughts On Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Live at WOMAD 1985)


According to the Wikipedias:

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Urdu/Punjabi: نصرت فتح علی خان), born Anjum Pervaiz Ali Khan (13 October 1948 – 16 August 1997), was a legendary Pakistani vocalist and musician, primarily a singer of Qawwali, a form of Sufi Islamic devotional music.

Real World Records says that Khan’s voice is “universally recognised as one of the great voices in musical history and he was key in bringing the Qawwali music tradition to the Western world.”

Though Khan died in 1997, his powerful voice still resonate. Real Records just released Khan’s 1985 appearance at WOMAD. If you’re not familiar, “is an international arts festival. The central aim of WOMAD is to celebrate the world's many forms of music, arts and dance.” The album’s liner notes lay out the significance of the performance:

Looking back, it’s impossible to over-estimate the significance of this moment of musical history. On the remote flat lands of Mersea Island in Essex in July 1985 an eclectic programme of music was unfolding at the WOMAD Festival. New Order appeared on the same bill as Tabu Ley Le Rochereau, The Fall and Penguin Café Orchestra— it was a remarkable line up.

At midnight on Saturday night July 20 Nusrat Fateh Ali Khanand Party took to the stage. The group sit cross-legged in two rows and for some minutes there is a silent pause. What unfolded over the following hours stunned the audience. And it impressed upon Nusrat his remarkable skill at communicating with audiences from a different culture and language and with no understanding of the deep and ancient traditions of qawwali music.

“What unfolded over the following hours stunned the audience.”

Listening to this electrifying live performance, I have been meditating on those words: “What unfolded over the following hours stunned the audience.” And, even at that, as NPR says: “In all, it was a very truncated performance — in more traditional settings, qawwali concerts can go all night.”

I love music from all around the world and my “Western Sensibilities” are often challenged, whether it be tones, time signatures or time. It is not uncommon for my kids to complain about the length of something I’m listening to more than anything else. Though I regularly listen to long pieces of music, they do not. They have grown up with pop nuggets 3 minutes or less. This isn’t a “GET OFF MY LAWN” rant against young people or shorter songs. It’s just something I think about.

Non-western music often requires commitment. The first two pieces are each longer than 20 minutes. The shortest song on the album is over 9 minutes. These pieces are musical meals but I worry that ours is far too often just a snacky culture. Far too often, we are far too easily pleased with musical munchies when a four course meal is being offered. This is turning into a “GET OFF MY LAWN” rant, isn’t it? Sorry, I’m just reminded that, sometimes, things are worth our full attention. There is something meaningful in committing more than three minutes to the experience of music. Music can be entertainment but it can also be so much more. Khan’s powerful performance reminds us of that.

Watch the album’s official trailer.

  • Visit Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s site at the Real World Records website.

  • Watch the first song from the album “Allah Hoo Allah Hoo.”

  • Stream the album at NPR.

  • Purchase the album at Amazon.