Nusrat's Passing Leaves Void In The Music World

Singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died on Saturday, a day meant for the anniversary of Elvis Presley's death. Yet the surprise passing of this Muslim star shocked the music world more than Presley's sad demise 20 years ago.

It reveals how much music - and the world - have widened since the days of Presley. Elvis was known via stage, movies and music; Nusrat commanded all these, in addition to "enhanced" CDs and online Web sites. Born in Pakistan, he became a global phenomenon, recognized in 1995 by UNESCO as "The World's Greatest Musician."

Nusrat was born Oct. 13, 1948, in Faisalabad. His was a world of ancient music: For six centuries, men in his family had sung the religious form qawwali ("utterance" in Arabic).

Nusrat trained as a singer from the age of 9. When his father died in 1964, he joined the family "party," as qawwali groups are known. A party aims to embody, via music, the essence of Sufi thought. Using repetition as well as melody, it tries to create a state of ecstasy.

The roots of qawwali lie with a 13th-century poet who composed in Persian. Singers like Nusrat still use this repertoire, which made its way into Farsi and Hindi and, most recently, Urdu. Nusrat's extraordinary voice, however, leapt all boundaries.

Nusrat's fans ranged from Seattle's Eddie Vedder (they recorded a duet for the film "Dead Man Walking") to Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Although the singer never compromised his roots, he proved enthusiastic at bridging cultures. In 1985, Nusrat made his Western debut, performing at Britain's Womad (World of Music and Dance) Festival.

The festival was co-founded by pop star Peter Gabriel, whose Real World label helped bring Nusrat global fame. Of his 125 albums, some of the best were made for Real World, landmarks such as "Shahen-Shah" and "Night Song."

In 1990, also on the Real World label, Britain's Massive Attack re-mixed Nusrat's version of the Sufihymn "Mustt Mustt." Their treatment, heavily influenced by dub reggae, made him a star for a new Ecstacy generation. It even ended up in a 1996 Coke commercial.

In 1992, Nusrat spent a year as a visiting professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Washington. His performances here always drew diverse crowds, with stars like Vedder next to Muslim cab drivers.

It is ironic that Nusrat's death coincides with India's celebration of independence. For the star used his status to heal the wounds of that nation's 1947 partition. He did so partly by participating in India's massive film industry (known as "Bollywood".)

Nusrat's film work dates to 1988, when he contributed music to "The Last Temptation of Christ." His exceptional voice was heard in other Western movies (from "Natural Born Killers" to "Dead Man Walking.") But only in 1994 did Nusrat actually penetrate "Bollywood," when he recorded music for Shekhar Kapoor's "Bandit Queen" (his vocals were employed over a rape scene).

Nusrat professed admiration for India's filmmakers, and he continued to make music for them. At times he defied government bans to do so. Just recently, the film "Aur Pyar Ho Gaya" ("And We Fell In Love") was released under his musical direction.

But Nusrat also campaigned in his native Pakistan. There, he asked recognition for Indian film stalwarts such as singer Lata Mangeshkar. Mangeshkar is a famous "playback artist," the singing voice for generations of "Bollywood" starlets.

It was during a televised feature on Mangeshkar that Real World staffers learned - in a TV news flash - of Nusrat's passing. Reached at Real World's offices Monday, Gabriel said he "felt a great sense of loss."

"I have never heard such spirit in a voice," he added. "Nusrat and Otis Redding were my singing inspirations. They have been supreme examples of how far and deep a voice can go."

The obese Nusrat was a diabetic who needed hospital dialysis twice weekly. Two years ago, while visiting California, he was advised to have a kidney transplant. He was supposedly on his way to do so when, in London, his condition worsened. Although his death was caused by cardiac arrest, London's Cromwell Hospital admitted him with hepatitis.

With the singer when he died were his manager, friends and the cricket star Javed Miandad.

Nusrat leaves behind a wife and two children. He also leaves a trained musical heir, his nephew Rahat. But his fans around the world remain in shock. During the three hours it took to clear his body for customs, journalist Jatender Heer paid his respects at Heathrow Airport. "Stars like Malkit Singh were there, in the cargo hold. It was incredibly moving for all of us."

On Sunday, Nusrat was buried next to his famous father. Papers and politicians in both India and Pakistan overflowed with praise. Thousands of mourners wept outside the family's house, and others fainted as his cortege passed by.

Here in Seattle, Nusrat's ex-students and listeners also mourn. DJ Damon Gayley, who runs downtown's Beats From the East club, said he was discussing the death both yesterday and this morning. "Nusrat was such a pioneer, and so young. But I know his voice will be sampled forever. It will be heard down the years - which is probably just what he wanted."