Tim Pottiers Article on Remembering Nusrat

A few weeks later I watched a BBC documentary on Sufism and despite my own unshakable agnosticism, was moved by its deep-rooted pacifism and faith in love and music as the paths that bring us closer to God. The documentary included footage of an awe-inspiring performance by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Pakistan’s mystic superstar which got me hooked and I went straight out to by an album which included the qawwali ‘Mera Piya Ghar Aaya’, a song which reverberated the corridors of my Birmingham house for months afterwards.

 

Working with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music is nothing like the CBSO’s earlier Rafi project. A novice to the art form of qawwalie expecting a few groovy sixties numbers and some sentimental film tracks won’t be completely disappointed – Nusrat’s output was wide and varied – but those after vocal virtuosity which defies human anatomy and the odd record breaking number of syllables pronounced by a singer in the space of a few seconds might be more positively rewarded.

 

 

The project is ambitious. The English Chamber Orchestra had done recordings using religious songs by Nusrat and a boys choir some years ago, but Nusrat’s vocals on that were all sampled. Nusrat performed live with the Kronos quartet but there are only 4 of them as opposed to 75 and they’re used to tackling the impossible day in day out – it’s how they get their kicks. So when I was approached by Saregama, India’s biggest record company to do the project for a 4 date UK tour late last year my first thought was how am I going to fuse together 9 performers whose music has an integral element of improvisation with 75 musicians following a conductor. Saregama’s instructions varied from ‘big romantic orchestral sounds’ to ‘something that will appeal to light music fans as well the contemporary music audience’.

 

 

Well it was a starting point even if I was none the wiser for it – at least I knew the canvas was blank. I did a prototype arrangement of ‘Dum Must Qalander’, possibly Nusrat’s most famous song, which appropriately translates as ‘lost in his work’. It’s based squarely on an existing recording and draws on influences as diverse as John Williams, Jonathan Harvey, Shostakovich and John Adams.

 

I made a midi mock up of the arrangement and boarded a plane to Lahore to test it out with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Nusrat’s nephew and current principal vocalist of his famous qawwali troupe which stretches back over several generations of this famous Faisalabad family.  

 

Lahore has had its negative press coverage recently and the city I arrived in early in April wasn’t what I expected. Cool climate, grey drizzle, wide well organized roads and suburbs looking onto a horizon of heavy industry. The canals and flat terrain made feel I’d been tricked and taken to Belgium but further into inner Lahore and colonial parks in between imposing wonders of Moghul architecture assured me the destination board wasn’t faulty. The city isn’t as cosmopolitan as it once was, I rarely saw foreigners outside the hotel, but that famously relaxed and welcoming Punjabi culture is still worn with pride on every smile that greeted me in the streets, from the police officer who insisted on singing Celine Dion to me (there was no escaping him), to the kids I played cricket with in the street and giggling schoolgirls at Lahore fort who explained to my friend it had been a long time since they saw a tourist. 

 

 

Qawawalis are long, anywhere from 7 to 40 minutes and I’ve been told Nusrat once sung a single qawwali that lasted 6 hours. My instructions were to make the qawwali’s shorter so we could perform as many tracks as possible. If I was to do this I had to learn more about the musical structure of the music. This involved a visit to a well known Lahore mansion now occupied by the grandson of Pakistan’s national poet hero Alama Iqbal and former Head of the Sufi Council, Yusuf Selahuddin.

 

I learned from Yusuf that Qawwali isn’t narrative as such, it’s about getting a message across – a moral message, a case of religious interpretation or a romantic message which is often comic (the words to one qawwali in the show translate as ‘she is boldly unvailing before everybody and I am cowardly concealing’). Selected passages are chosen from a poem or sufic text to present an argument, somewhat like presenting a case in court, and the singers don’t stop until they are satisfied that the message has sunk in with the audience.

 

Yusuf Salahudin’s mansion in the centre of Lahore is the stuff of legend. Intricate wood-carved trellises and bright coloured cloth adorn the centuries old thick stone walls crawling with roses. The man’s name may have been a codename for decadence and hedonism in past years but every sentence you exchange with him you find yourself connecting with a psyche that has been assembled from a lifelong passion and obsession for all things cultural and intellectual and it’s easy to understand why Yusuf has been adopted by Lahore’s artistic class as an unofficial Minister of Culture.

 

The rooms breathe history, from tales of Mick Jagger and Imran Khan enjoying a private concert by Nusrat in the garden to photographs on the wall in which its possible to glimpse snapshots from Pakistan’s social and political history, including a photo of Yusuf and Cherie Booth QC, who popped over for tea while her husband was attending to other matters with a certain Gen. Musharraf. At 4 am I was lead to ‘the music room’ where I heard some unreleased recordings by Rahat from an album called ‘Revival of Qawwali’, an acoustically perfect underground chamber surrounded by imposing portraits of sufi poets and philosophers. It quickly became clear that Nusrat wasn’t a one off star but that Rahat was the hugely talented current master at the end of an extraordinary vocal dynasty. 

 

We eventually left Yusuf’s house at the crack of dawn to the whisper of ten thousand prayers from the courtyard of the Grand Mosque whose famous domes stood before a sky lit up by distant strikes of lightning as we bid farewell to Yusuf’s Kalashnikov toting bodyguard. I’ve become accustomed to the odd AK47 on my travels but the music, the history, the architecture, the storm! I remember pausing briefly in astonishment that this was actually my life.

 

Later that day I was due to record a demo with Rahat using the orchestral mock up I had made of ‘Dum Mast Kalnder’. It was meant to be just the two of us in a small studio so I was surprised when the whole chorus and percussion line up arrived at the studio off a minibus from Faisalabad.

 

They’ve worked with great musicians all over the world so I was touched that they were all so interested in what this symphonic project was all about. The passages I’d orchestrated where Nusrat was improvising in the original were relatively complex and Rahat wasn’t going to remember them easily. I asked him to remember where certain prominent pitches were and listen out for certain repetitions and home his improvisations towards those. The chorus managed to fit into the chunkier slots of the music and to everyone’s delight it fell into place.

 

There was a buzz in the studio at the new sound of qawwali coming from the speakers but the biggest hurdle, that of making this experiment work live is still to come. It’s an ambitious project and while I still have the bulk of artistic work ahead of me with the clock running, I admit there are sleepless nights. It helps that Rahat isn’t just a phenomenal musical talent but a kind-hearted and patient individual, somewhat unique amongst musicians of his stature. I think he’ll fit in well with Mike Seal and Symphony Hall’s own talented bunch of residents.

 

Tim Pottier works a musical freelancer in London. His music for theatre has been performed throughout Europe, North Africa, USA and the Middle East, and his Bollywood arrangements for the CBSO were broadcast worldwide last year. He was CBSO librarian between 2003-2007.

 

There was a buzz in the studio at the new sound of qawwali coming from the speakers but the biggest hurdle, that of making this experiment work live is still to come. It’s an ambitious project and while I still have the bulk of artistic work ahead of me with the clock running, I admit there are sleepless nights. It helps that Rahat isn’t just a phenomenal musical talent but a kind-hearted and patient individual, somewhat unique amongst musicians of his stature. I think he’ll fit in well with Mike Seal and Symphony Hall’s own talented bunch of residents.

 

Tim Pottier works a musical freelancer in London. His music for theatre has been performed throughout Europe, North Africa, USA and the Middle East, and his Bollywood arrangements for the CBSO were broadcast worldwide last year. He was CBSO librarian between 2003-2007.