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The Pupil No More

Rahat Fateh Ali Khan studied qawwali with his uncle, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, day and night. Now he modestly assumes the late superstar's mantle.

September 03, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman writes about world music for The Times

As he reaches out to shake hands, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan does not exactly look like the successor to "the voice from heaven," his uncle, legendary qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Small, round-faced and smiling, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt as he stands in the lobby of a Los Angeles Holiday Inn Express, Khan has the demeanor of an ordinary Pakistani in his middle 20s. The age is right--he's 25--and the country's correct, but he is anything but ordinary.

Earlier, at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, Khan had kept a capacity crowd mesmerized for three hours while he sang a series of Sufi religious texts in the passionate vocal style known as qawwali. Accompanied by an ensemble that included assistant singers (one of whom was his father, Farouk Fateh Ali Khan), harmonium players, a tabla drummer and hand-clapping chorus singers, he made his connection with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan vividly clear. Somewhat lighter-toned and younger-sounding, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan's singing nonetheless had much of the articulation and pure expressiveness that made Nusrat into the superstar qawwali of his generation.

The spiritual presence he manifests at the concert has retreated to the background a few days later during lunch at a Persian restaurant in Hollywood. Studying the menu, Khan questions the waiter, insisting on two lamb kebabs with his lunch, then hums along with a Middle Eastern pop song playing on the restaurant's stereo.

Asked if he ever considered going into rock 'n' roll rather than qawwali, he simply laughs.

"I like to watch movies," he responds. "But I love my music and I love to sing. I like to listen to all kinds of music--flamenco, jazz--but I like my own music best."

Although Khan is passionate about his beliefs, he is also soft-spoken and virtually epigrammatic at times. His manager and producer, Shafiq Saddiqui--a longtime friend of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Khan family--occasionally fills in the information gaps.


Rahat Fateh Ali Khan first moved into the spotlight in the West at the Shrine Auditorium in 1998, performing with rock star Eddie Vedder on "The Long Road" at the "Dead Man Walking" concert organized by Tim Robbins. Last summer, he toured the U.S., making high-profile stops at the Hollywood Bowl and New York's Central Park.

His future as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's successor was in the cards long before his uncle died at age 48 in August 1997.

"When I was 7 years old," explains Khan, "he saw that my interest as a child was going into music. So he started to teach me ragas and Sufi poetry."

Saddiqui expands on the story: "Rahat is too modest. They were living in one house--the families of the two brothers, Nusrat and Farouk. And when Rahat was born, he had a lot of spiritual connection with Nusrat. He was in the arms of his uncle the day he was born, from the first day of his life. Nusrat mentioned to me one time that when Rahat was 3 years old, he would sing to him and he could see the recognition in Rahat's eyes. Rahat used to call both him and his father Dad."

By the time he was 10, he was performing qawwali with Nusrat, studying with him day and night.

"It was 24 hours a day," says Khan. "And it still is. But in qawwali, the music is handed down in the same family for generations. Ours goes back for 600 years. And the eldest son is expected to carry on the tradition."

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan did not have a son, and he did not feel that females had the strength to become qawwali singers. (In fact, it is exclusively a male tradition within the Sufi religion, which is the foundation for qawwali.) So the potential succession fell directly upon Rahat.

When Nusrat was a child, his father, qawwali master Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, wanted him to become a physician rather than a musician.

But Nusrat was irresistibly drawn to music, often hiding outside his father's room to hear him give lessons. When the elder Khan died, Nusrat was still a teenager, but he was expected to sing at a memorial ceremony 40 days after the passing.

"In those 40 days," says Rahat, shaking his head in astonishment, "Nusrat learned how to sing the classical tribute to his father, my grandfather. Oh my God, what a mind it took to do that. You have no idea."


How does Khan feel about following in the footsteps of a performer who was described by his devotees as "Shahen-sha-e-qawwali," the king of kings, the brightest shining star of qawwali?

"It is a very large responsibility," he says.

And how does he handle that?

"When I feel this very large responsibility," he adds with a slight smile but a perfectly serious meaning, "I just start to practice harder."

Asked if that increased practice will allow him to eventually step out of the very large shadow that was cast by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, he pauses for a long moment before answering.

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