Jeff Buckley, the pop tragic hero who drowned after making his brilliant debut album, Grace, in the mid-1990s, once attempted to sing the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan qawwali Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor. It is a (rather shaky but) touching tribute to one of his heroes delivered with nothing but an acoustic guitar and a dollop of chutzpah. His audience is, one senses, about as unsure what to make of this improbable cover as Jeff is of the Urdu pronunciation. But such is the effect the Grandmaster of all qawwals has on mere mortals. Those who absorb his no-nonsense, searching and arresting vocals are often left with an overwhelming urge to immerse themselves in the spiritual slipstream of the unique man’s music even if they risk making fools of themselves in the process.
Under the spotlight tonight is an album of romantic qawwali and sharaabi ghazals by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The album opens with a killer version of Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor (This Gentle High I Feel) to which Nusrat FAK brings a level of excrutiating intensity and accusatory hurt, leaving one punch drunk and reeling when the songs comes to an end nearly 24 minutes later. Though this is very much a song sung to a woman, the need and ache in Nusrat’s voice is scary and surely includes the Creator in its pleading. Unlike Buckley’s tentative and strained version there is nothing gentle about this rendition.
Every track on this album is outstanding, though it is hard to replicate the raw emotionalism of the opener. Kali Kali Zulfon is the second qawwali and another epic of being caught up in a mess of feminine blues symbolised by her black locks and even blacker lies. Long one of the Washerman Dog’s favorite Nusrat nuggets the version on this album is filled with more musical banter between Nusrat and his ‘party’ than the version released on the album Shahenshah (RealWorld) in Europe and America in the early 90s.
The remaining three tracks are ghazals, the best of which, Main Talkhi Hayat Se by Sahir Siddiqi is a showcase of the amazing control Nusrat had over his voice. He shouts but he also barely whispers the lines at times in this lilting paean to his true love. And you are no less enthralled. An added pleasure on this cut is the tabla accompaniment. In my mind Pakistani tabla players have it all over their Indian counterparts and to find out why listen to this song. The drumming here swings hard with as much soul and funk as anything ever laid down by Bernard Purdie. It rocks it drives it rings. The polar opposite of anything (with due respect to) the fabled Zakir Hussain whose own style is elegant and stylish but not urgent like most Pakistani tabla playing.
The album wraps up with a poppy ghazal which despite the electronic keyboard noodling is another all time favorite. Gorgeous melody, sentimental lyric, stunning vocals and tabla playing as busy and interesting as Keith Moon in his prime.
A great album to be played over and over and over. Warning: You may be tempted to try singing these yourself!
01. Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor
02. Kali Kali Zulfon
03. Main Talkhi Hayat Se
04. Humein Sharaab Pilao
05. Poocha Kisi Ne Haal