Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

The Final Studio Recordings

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Pakistan's qawwali maestro, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, passed away from complications due to chronic diabetes in August of 1997. Earlier that year, Ali Khan signed a contract with Rick Rubin's American Recordings and entered the studio, completing in July what would be his final album. This double CD represents the complete "finished" recordings of Ali Khan. There may be outtakes, there may be alternate takes, and so on, but given the unbelievably shoddy nature of the package -- inexcusable given an artist of this stature -- totally devoid of liner notes with the exception of credits (no session details, like dates, circumstances, etc.), it is likely we'll never know. Perhaps the best thing we can say about Rick Rubin's production on this set is that there isn't any, apart from engineer and recordist David Schiffman. The engineering is wonderful, every nuance of Nusrat and his company are picked up with stunning clarity and depth -- including physical placement of bodies, voices, and instruments. From the session photographs, everything was set according to performance standards with rugs ordered all through the room and everyone seated there as well. Judging only from the photos of Ali Khan, he wasn't well, but photographs can be deceiving. Musically, however, this is easily the finest studio recording Ali Khan ever issued. His range is wider than ever, and his command of musical ideas, tempo, and vocal improvisation is tremendous. The "party" as his backing musicians were called, was in fine, relaxed form -- not always the case on his studio sessions -- with nephews Rahat and Farroukh as his side singers and Rahat Ali on harmonium and Dildair Hussein on tabla, with a chorus (or choir) backing the three principal singers. The songs themselves are from antiquity, from Rumi to poets and composers from the qawwali lineage who have long since passed into the ether of history. No matter. Ali Khan uses the frameworks of these poems and songs to carry them into a long, unbroken chain of passionate prayer, ecstatic contemplation, and whirling intensity as is common among the Sufi sect of Islam dating from the time of the Sahra singers some 700 years ago. Eight selections over two discs covering over two hours may seem like a short program (especially given the availability of a five-hour Paris concert), but it is one of intensity -- raw, direct, and full of sacred energy. Only the responsorial singing of the choir and the droning repetition of the harmonium hold the cascading tones of Ali Khan's improvisations to the earth. Hussein's tabla, both of the side singers and Nusrat, head for the space beyond space in a moving, soul-stirring performance that, in spite of the exotic nature of its foreignness to most American ears, is on a level with the very finest in the gospel tradition for its purity, rousing choruses, and heart-rending emotion. The qawwali singing that Nusrat brought to the world, with its percussive vocal stylings, soaring heights, and cavernous passions for union with the Divine are well served by his final sessions, and they make an excellent introduction sonically -- remember the package basically sucks in terms of information -- to Nusrat's immeasurable transcultural contribution to the musical arts. They are virtually indispensable to fans of the late master's work. Stunning.

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