Twenty three years ago, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s most experimental album Night Song was released. It was the second and last of his collaborations with Canadian guitarist and producer Michael Brook. The first, Mustt Mustt (1990), was an international success. Besides yielding Massive Attack’s chart-busting remix of the title song, it also created a blueprint for how Western and South Asian musical elements could be blended to make catchy pop – a foundation over which artists like Bally Sagoo and Talvin Singh built the Asian Underground.
Night Song, the musically more daring of the two Khan-Brook collaborations, gives a glimpse of directions which Khan’s music could have taken had the maestro stuck to experimenting in the West. Khan died a year after the album’s release.
Among his last original works, that included his collaboration with grunge rocker Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam for the Dead Man Walking (1996) soundtrack, contributions to a couple of Bollywood soundtracks and AR Rahman’s Vande Mataram (1997) album, Night Song stands out as the zenith of musical experimentation that kept Khan occupied in his later years.
Since Khan began performing globally at the World of Music, Arts and Dance festivals in the mid 1980s, the qawwali and his style of singing in particular began to gain worldwide popularity. While back home in Pakistan, Khan sang complete songs and his vocal improvisations could often last hours, his Western collaborators who revamped Khan as a pop star used his voice in bits and parts like a rhythm instrument. An early example is Gabriel’s composition Passion from The Last Temptation of Christ (1989), which only features Khan’s scatting.
Brook went the farthest into decontextualising Khan’s singing, stripping it of its spiritual and traditional roots, and adapting it to Western pop aesthetics. Mustt Mustt, rightfully credited only to Khan, still sounded reverential of his background and its songs featured minimal electronic production.
In Night Song, credited to both Khan and Brook, the electronic embellishments and a tapestry of string arrangements complemented with instruments like the cello and drums often seem to drown out the raw power of Khan’s voice. His voice drifts in an out of a wall of music with multiple layered tracks and loops, thereby ceasing to be the star of the tune. The results are anything but not interesting.
Gone are the harmonium, tabla and the claps. The kora, an African 21-string harp lute, opens the first song My Heart, My Life and remains a constant. The bass is booming, the percussion floats like a ghost, and the haunting notes on Brook’s modified infinite guitar makes the song sound like the sort of boundary-pushing electronic pop artists like Bjork and producers like Brian Eno were dabbling in at the time.
If the album has to be labelled a certain genre, it can be called trip-hop, the Bristol electronic sound the likes of Massive Attack mastered. Consider the entirety of Lament; one could easily mistake it as a song by Tricky or Portishead if Khan’s voice wasn’t part of it. The impressive production and arrangements highlights Brook’s skill as a composer and producer and sometimes overwhelm Khan’s voice. For someone used to listening to Khan’s qawwalis, the results can be jarring. But if experienced as pop music where Khan is not the centre of attention, Night Song really delivers.
Unlike devotional elements in the lyrics of Mustt Mustt, the lyrics in Night Song involve love, affection, romance, obsession and the works. While the songs are structured as garden-variety pop numbers with an average length of four and a half minutes, the recording of the album was a painstaking process.
As Brook says in a short documentary released by the album’s record label, since it is Khan’s hour-long improvised vocal exercises that can lead to unannounced magic, what Brook did was record the backing instrumental tracks first, make long loops out of them, get Khan to sing as he pleased without any direction over them, get those recordings back in the studio, cut the best parts and organise them into the structure of a pop song, and record additional instruments over them.
Did the effort lead to a masterpiece of an album? It depends on which part of the world you are from. It showed up in world music charts in the West, received rave reviews from the Western press and was nominated for a Grammy award in the World Music Album category. From a South Asian perspective, it’s a bit like Rahman’s Slumdog Millionaire score getting Oscar love because the score was indeed something new to Hollywood, although he had done far better work in Indian cinema.
With Night Song, Khan’s voice became a supporting character while it is the sole reason for him being a super-success across the globe. At such, what makes Night Song enduring and relevant is Brook and Khan showing a way for Western and Eastern music to come together and create interesting results. The album almost sounds like the first of many experiments the duo could’ve made before finally realising a joint vision.
So for a Western listener, Mustt Mustt or Night Song could be gateways to Khan’s qawwali and ghazal work. For a South Asian listener familiar with Khan’s music, these albums are like dessert or a complementary treat which could, perhaps, be the entry point into Asian Underground music or its sister genres. What Night Song makes one wonder is what Khan could’ve created in the West if he didn’t pass away in 1997. Reportedly, a duet with Bjork was in the works.