Asian Music and Dance

Remembering Nusrat 

It was an interesting evening. A largely South Asian audience packed out the Royal Festival Hall to witness Rahat Fateh Ali Khan pay tribute to his uncle, the legendary Qawalli singer Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Alongside him a troupe of five backing singers and two percussionists. Behind was the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra led by Conductor Michael Seal. 

It was incongruous sight. The orchestra kitted out in traditional elegant black with the men in bow ties. Rahat and ensemble dressed in kurtas. 

It was a performance that pitted the rustic, free-flowing, hypnotic, hand-clapping, rhythmically engaging beats and melodies of Qawalli from the hot, dusty, sands of Punjab with the controlled, pre-composed multi-layered confines of Western orchestral music. 

It was certainly loved by the audience. From the opening number, Rahat’s voice cut through the textured layers of orchestral compositions arranged by Tim Pottier.  The audience loved it. For many, more used to seeing orchestral pieces of well known symphonies, there was real excitement in seeing and hearing sounds from two contrasting cultures creating larger-than-life music that enveloped the far corners of the auditorium. Sometimes, it felt as if Rahat’s powerful voice (a touch too much treble) drowned out the intricate orchestral arrangements. At times, Michael Seal was almost galloping to hold the ensemble in check with the strings, brass, woodwinds and timpani drum. 

It was exciting. But something seemed missing and this became crystal clear when the orchestra sat down and the lights were dimmed for all but the front portion of the stage for Rahat and his ensemble. It was then they did Qawalli as I knew it with the songs ‘Afreen Afreen’ and ‘Akhiyan Udeek Diyan’. It was only then that the energetic, stylised clapping came out. It was only then that harmonium came out to drive the hypnotic, rhythmic sounds carried forward by the tabla and dolak. The audience rose to their feet. One man couldn’t contain himself as he rushed forward to shower Rahat with a wad of notes. “Please, no money,” says Rahat. The music flowed. It waxed. It took sharp turns. It was dynamic, improvised and should have continued for longer. But the evening was coming towards a close with more orchestral numbers. 

It was a wonderfully packaged evening of Qawalli which was only unleashed briefly. It was a commercial success. It was enjoyed by the vast majority of the audience who called out for more. The evening deserved an encore but this was passed by. Rahat is a splendid vocalist. His voice shines. He is also only in his mid-thirties and has many years to scale towards the heights that his uncle attained. Certainly, since the great Nusrat passed away, there is a void waiting to be filled in the world of Qawalli.  



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