Look in many a music store and you'll find Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan filed under "world music." At the best of times, it's an uncomfortable label inextricably associated with trendy advertising soundtracks and middle-class dinner parties, and crassly combining genres as diverse as Berber Amazigh and Mexican huapango under the same marketing conceit. But shortly before his death, Khan was becoming one of the very few so-called world-music artists to transcend this pigeonhole: growing numbers of international listeners were appreciating his art as extraordinary music, period.
Who can say what further bridges he might have built between East and West had he lived longer? On Khan's death in 1997, Westerners were just starting to grasp this musical treasure that Pakistan had given the world but in South Asia women wailed and men wept as if a god had removed himself from the earth. And in a way one had, because Khan had made the rich religious poetry of the Sufi tradition even more magical, bringing words and music together in an ecstatic celebration of the divine. To listen to him was to hear the harmony of the spheres.
On the temporal plane, Khan took qawwali the name given to Sufi devotional songs to new audiences. Peter Gabriel tapped his vocal gravitas for the soundtrack of The Last Temptation of Christ, and Khan collaborated with Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder on the soundtrack for Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking. His urgent, crescendoing lament during the prison-riot scene of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers raised eyebrows among qawwali purists (Khan himself admitted that he was disturbed by the film's violence), but it lent a harrowing pathos that became a condemnation of the very acts it accompanied.
Believing that passion transcended words, Khan rarely sang in English, preferring to use his native Punjabi and Urdu, or the Farsi of the Sufi poets. But it was passion that killed him in the end. A lover of food, music and constant touring, Khan never heeded his doctor's warnings to diet or slow down; he would sing for hours at a time, palms upraised as if channeling energy from his audience. And so his heart gave out at age 48, depriving humanity of one of its greatest voices. World music? The label is hardly adequate. File, instead, under "genius."