Jerome De Missolz's documentary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: The Last Prophet, the latest installment in Shanachie's World Music Portraits DVD series, starts off rather shakily with a meander down New York City's streets as a cab driver explains how much the Pakistani qawwali singer means to him. But the anonymous cabbie means nothing to us, so his enthusiasm carries little weight. As the setting switches to Khan's home in Lahore, Pakistan, it soon becomes clear that this production predates the singer's death in 1997 -- leaving the larger question of his legacy unaddressed.
Despite these bumps, however, the DVD presents a good overview of Khan's career via interview snippets with the singer and two of his producers. Even better, the concert settings with his gospel-music-on-steroids qawwali ensemble provide a lovely contrast to solo performances in the artist's sparsely furnished living room, where he quietly describes his revolutionary approach to the sacred music of the Pakistani Sufis.
Qawwali -- which comes from the Arabic aqwaal, meaning "word of God" -- may not exactly be a household word like reggae or rumba. But if you're a moviegoer and have seen The Last Temptation of Christ, Dead Man Walking, Bandit Queen, or Natural Born Killers, then you've heard a sample of a genre that, aside from a few specialty label releases, was unknown in the U.S. before Khan's ascent to stardom. Set to a propulsive beat of tabla drums and handclaps, his voice of pure yearning swooped imperceptibly from suffering to ecstasy in a gliding, keening cry that skated on the knife edge of pure spirit. In that voice, Peter Gabriel heard the complex emotions that he wanted to accompany Christ's crucifixion in Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ. But Nusrat's Sufi music hasn't always been used with reverence. In Natural Born Killers, director Oliver Stone scored a rape scene with Khan's rendition of a religious song, "Taboo." "My permission was not sought," he tells Last Prophet filmmaker De Missolz. "I was hurt and criticized."
While Khan's sacred repertoire was frequently profaned, cropping up unauthorized in cheap Bollywood action flicks, his departure from traditionalist circles was well planned. From almost the beginning of his career in the late Sixties, he sought to broaden qawwali's appeal beyond the mosques and shrines of Sufi saints, where it has been historically performed. "At first I sang just like my father or my uncle. Pure classical," he explains, referring to his musician father Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and his paternal uncle Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, who performed in the ensemble that Nusrat inherited. "I couldn't better them in their style of music. So I started to innovate. I included folk music and some light music. I simplified the heavy classical composition. That made the music more accessible and usable." While Gabriel first brought Nusrat to an international audience via the Real World label, Canadian record producer Michael Brook made him a world music star by combining a folk-based yet secularized qawwali with Euro dance beats on the CDs Mustt Mustt and Night Song. Massive Attack's remix of the title cut "Mustt Mustt" proved so popular, it was transformed into a Coca-Cola commercial for Indian audiences with Khan's blessing.
Brook's interludes with Khan provide some of the most compelling moments of the documentary as the latter illustrates one of the rags, or musical modes used in qawwali, along with different vocal techniques for expressing the rag, while accompanying himself on harmonium. Even while speaking, Khan is fascinating to watch. His smooth, unlined face is ageless, and when he refers to a man who looks much older than he as his younger brother Farrukh, it comes as something of a shock. His warm relationship with Brook adds the right touch of intimacy to counterweight the remote way he carries himself. The exception to that is during his vocal performances, and these are powerful. An excerpt from a Chicago concert finds Khan in full improvisational mode as his ensemble claps, sings, and sways around him, intoxicated by the moment. "Our music is close to jazz music. It is not written down. It's revealed to the soul," he tells De Missolz, leaving the viewer to wonder if Khan might have eventually considered collaborating with a jazz group.
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Two directors of Oriental Star Agencies, the firm that represented the singer in England, provide the best assessment of his contributions to qawwali. Mian Mohammad Arshad notes, "Before him, qawwali was cold. He has rearranged it and given it a lift. But he has not deviated from the tradition." Muhammed Ayyub observes that Khan conveys emotion that easily crosses cultural boundaries. "In Japan, young people listen to his music. They say, 'We don't understand the words, but it goes into our hearts.' No one can do what he does." Ayyub concludes with a statement that could serve as a final tribute to the Pakistani vocalist: "He has transformed [qawwali] greatly. Now it belongs to the entire world."