Pakistani singer Rahat Fateh Ali Khan channels six centuries of musical heritage

P. Ramakrishnan

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 10:58pm

RAHAT FATEH ALI KHAN may be the nephew of the late, great Pakistani musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but he carries the burden of that vast musical legacy with ease. He is calm and relaxed as we chat about his upcoming show in Hong Kong next month.

Known for his immense singing range, Khan is softly spoken in conversation.

The singer has more than a few of the mannerisms and musical phrasings of his uncle and readily admits that Nusrat had a major influence on him. "I feel I was blessed to be born into his household; I learned so much just by watching him," he says. "When I was little, I would accompany him to shows, and sometimes I would perform with him. I never got stage fright. I was always ready to perform, to sit under the arc lights and sing. As a youngster, I tried to copy his style, but now I have developed my own."

Most South Asian music lovers are familiar with Khan's richly layered voice. He is a popular singer in Pakistan, but has also contributed to the soundtracks of several wildly successful Bollywood films. His repertoire covers everything from devotional and romantic to classical and traditional.

"While others might have found studying music a chore, it never was for me. Like my uncle, I find music divine. It is my way of connecting to the almighty. I love to perform contemporary film songs, but I also like qawwali [Sufi devotional music]. There's a spiritual aspect to it that is indescribable."

That also explains why Khan refrains from anything vulgar, or even singing a syllable that has a double entendre. "I like to sing a good tune, but the lyrics tend to be the most important factor for me. I like to know what the song is trying to say. I have sung many songs in Hindi films, but my favourites are Main Jahaan Rahoon [ Wherever I Live] and Jiya Dhadak Dhadak [ My Heart Beats]. There are verses in those songs that are so profound, that I can sing them again and again. I sing them all around the world, and never tire of them."

Khan began his career at a very young age. "I don't know how I had the bravado to start so early," he says with a laugh. "But, as you know, I come from a family of musicians that goes back over 600 years. I know of no life other than this; music is my be all and end all. It has no barriers, and it transcends all borders.

Music also crosses the political divide between Pakistan and India, he says: "I have met Indian stars and singers, and they have shown me immeasurable warmth and affection. This respect is mutual. The music thwarts the politics."

Many bemoan the fact that youngsters have been tempted by Western culture. They worry that these influences are corroding the subcontinent's musical heritage, and causing the classical forms of music indigenous to Asia to peter out. But Khan has more faith in the next generation.

"Those who are educated in music study classical music, and they are informed and entertained by it. When I look at my audiences, I see youth represented in full force. Classical music dates back centuries, it's not something that will just die. The interest in it will always be there. When I was young, MTV was popular, and of course, we listened to American pop. But that never caused my interest in our music to wane," he says.

"The mind welcomes other forms, but it doesn't shut out one form to make room for a new one. My uncle left many legacies, but the way he put qawwali into the minds of the young is, perhaps, his most enduring."

Khan played Hong Kong in March last year. The Convention Centre show was sold out and the 3,000-strong crowd gave him five standing ovations. Says Anita Garg, one of the organisers of the event: "We've never seen such a reaction from the local community. When he sung a cappella, there was complete silence, and by the finale, the crowd was on its feet."

"Sometimes my shows blend into one another, but I can remember being deeply touched by the Hong Kong audience," says Khan. "They offered me such warmth and love. I'm keen to repay them for that by playing some new arrangements of songs, along with my latest numbers."

When asked if there is any music he dislikes, he demurs. "To me, there is no bad music. All music is merely notes, neither good nor bad," he says. "If it is bad, it is not music."


Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Wan Chai, October 8, 8pm , HK$300-HK$2,000. HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 6019 0621