'A man learns all his life, and dies the day he thinks that he has learnt everything'
Another query that has the Ustad unusually animated concerns Night Song, the album he has produced in collaboration with Michael Brooks and for which he has been nominated for this year's Grammy, in the best world music category.
"Night Song is a brilliant
album," he says. "It is a combination of the East and the West, a combination of classical and folk music. The beat is Western and Michael Brooks,
the producer of the album plays the guitar. Frankly, though, I did feel limited doing the album because my songs are mood pieces -- I can
sing one song for an hour, improvising all along, but you can't do that sort of thing in albums of this kind. Basically, when I perform I do not follow any guidelines, I improvise on the spot and reach the peak. But in the album the song has
to be timed. The West is shocked that we sing from our raw voice,we do not create music using instruments and gadgets."
His tryst with international reknown, however, began much earlier, when he sang on the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ. Another of his sound tracks, Dead Man Walking, earned him another Grammy nomination, and his voice has also been used in the Michael Douglas starrer The Ghost in the Darkness. However, he confesses himself less than pleased with the way Oliver Stone used one of his religious qawaalis in Natural Born Killers -- where the song was used as backdrop for a rape scene.
"I did the music for Natural Born
Killers," he says, "at the instance of (rock star) Peter Gabriel. The
Westerners see music as layering, they only understand the rhythm of the
music but they do not understand the poetry. I did not like the
way my religious song was used in the rape scene in the film,
but later Oliver Stone came to me and told me that he did not
mean to hurt my sentiments. He said he did not know what the lyrics
of the song meant, he just thought the tempo matched the scene."
Throwing up his hands in the air -- an expression that is quite a
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan trademark, he exclaims, "So what can you do? After that experience, though, for my next film Dead Man Walking
I had my lawyers draw up a contract specifying that my songs could not be used for any scene without my prior approval."
Another grouse emanates from his hit song Afreen Afreen, the video of which has a scantily clad Lisa Ray filling the small screen. "I do disagree with the way videos of my
songs have been made. Afreen Afreen is a
very powerful song, it did not require such a video. The emphasis
should be on the song. Again, I have told my recording company and
in the future they will screen the video only after my approval."
But such irritants are of the past -- for now, he is busy with a major international project being put together by Peter Gabriel.
"It is still in the planning stages
and should take shape sometime in July. Gabriel will be bringing together
a stellar cast of international performers like Luciano Pavarotti,
Madonna and me, we will be collaborating with various other
international artists. I'm also singing on the sound track of
The Saint. along with some Arabic singers."
Experimentation is very much a part of his musical mindset. "I like
to experiment with my voice, besides music. I had given an example
earlier, that one looks good wearing all types of clothes -- even
Western clothes make you look good. What I meant was that the instruments
are the clothing in my songs, so it does not make a difference
to me if the music is western or techno or classical -- my voice
remains the same.
"My music, in fact, comes under any and every category. A performer learns with experience, and with age. I did not know the future
when I left home and started out to begin my career, I started
qawaali, then I met Peter Gabriel and was exposed to a lot of new
ideas. I have used whatever I have learnt from others. A man learns all his life, and dies the day he thinks that he has learnt everything."
Given the popularity even the 'inspired' versions of his songs have in India, it appears a pity that Indian audiences cannot hear the Ustad perform live thanks to the ban on Pakistani artistes performing in this country. This ban, in fact, is by way of retaliation for one imposed by the Pakistan government earlier on Indian artistes. "I'll be talking about the ban imposed on Indian
artists to our new prime minister Nawaz Sharief," says the Ustad, who had earlier tried to persuade former premier Benazir Bhutto to rescind the ban. "Nawaz Sharief
is a friend of mine and I'll be trying to get the ban lifted on
Indian artistes. It is very important for cultural relations to
be maintained between our countries. Nawaz is very fond of Hindi
film songs, he even sings them though he is not a very good singer. Nawaz will have a lot to
do in his tenure, he has been given a second chance to rectify
the mistakes he made the last time."
Arguing the case for increased cultural interaction between India and Pakistan, the Ustad says, "The people in Pakistan are very fond of India -- they love Indian stars, songs and the people of India. This whole
issue has been created by politicians."
The way he says 'politicians' indicates that in his lexicon, the word has uncomplimentary connotations. "Artists and sportsmen have no business in politics," the Ustad says, firmly. "Imran
is a very good sportsman, but that doesn't make him a good politician.
If I'm a good singer that won't make me a good politician either, will it? Being popular is one thing, but he shouldn't use his popularity
to enter politics. He has been misguided by others. Politics is
not a field for sportsmen and singers."
The Ustad has no plans to parley his own phenomenal popularity into a role in public life -- in fact, he wouldn't be able to find the time, even if he nurtured any such ambitions. For on his already brimming agenda is a plan to produce a film. "It will
be a co-production, but I cannot say anything more about it now because
I still have not worked out all the details," he shrugs.
But music remains his grand passion, and the doyen of qawwals is less than ecstatic about the direction it is taking in recent times. "These days, music is in the hands of people who are interested only in commercialising it," he says sadly. "There has to be a revolution in music. Right now, Western culture dominates everything else but if we we project our music properly, then
we can dominate world music. There are so many facilities here,
I think we should have a regular channel for Indian music which plays
folk, classical and eastern music. Our artists are good, but they need more exposure..."
And if one man has done more than others to ensure that the Asian voice is heard -- and admired -- on the global stage, it is the rotund, cherubic performer sitting across us, his face creased in a benign smile as he contemplates the vision of a musical future in which Asia rules...