Rahat Fateh Ali Khan – The man who would be king

September 6, 2009

mainissue_1The torchbearer of a gharana that has been producing music for 600 years, the hope of a nation still in mourning for Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and a brilliant vocalist: Rahat Fateh Ali Khan talks to Instep about keeping Nusrat’s legacy alive, his next album and what the future holds for Pakistani music

Described as an “absolute gem and an amazing guy” by Charkha co-producer Rohail Hyatt and a “maestro” by friends who have seen him perform live, one expects an air of grandeur to surround him. Yet Rahat seems unfazed by the praises lavished on him, his popularity and his stature as Nusrat’s musical heir. Down to earth and friendly, he speaks in a low tone of voice, often lapses into thoughtful silence before talking and quotes couplets to punctuate a point. His respect for musicians and producers alike, combined with the now forgotten tradition of suffixing bhai and sahibs after a name, signifies his genuine respect for his peers even if they espouse entirely different genres of music.

Despite having been announced as Nusrat’s musical heir in 1997, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan took the subcontinent’s musical sensibilities by storm with the soulful ‘Mann Ki Lagan’ for the film Paap, released in 2004. Several Bollywood hits including ‘Jiya Dhadak Dhadak’ and ‘O Re Piya’, a stint at Coke Studio’s first season, numerous private performances, work on the Mel Gibson – directed Apocalypto soundtrack and the groundbreaking album Charkha followed. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan has settled into our consciousness as more than just the inheritor of Nusrat’s legacy. Rahat talks to Instep about the album, working in India and what the future holds for the tradition of qawalis and gharanas.

Nusrat’s legacy:
the long road ahead
The week I meet Rahat coincides with the date of Nusrat’s twelfth death anniversary. As the airwaves are inundated with his music, the questions that loom are of the future of gharanas (families with decades of musical tradition) and qawali music in the country. How can Nusrat’s legacy be kept alive?

“The work that we are doing on qawali, which is a very difficult task in this time, is what Yousuf Salahuddin sahib and I are working on,” Rahat asserts. “Yousuf Salahuddin sahib has started this revival, where he has selected a ghazal by Ghalib and work from Iqbal’s kalaam, Shikwa, Jawab-e-Shikwa and Apna Muqaam Paida Kar, he’s getting me to sing on this kind of material. We’ve already started work on this album, which will be called Koi Umeed Bar Nahi Aatee, and will be released by Fire Records.”

mainissue_3“This is a new development in the realm of qawali,” says Rahat, “Work which my grandfather had once done ke Iqbal ka agar kalaam shuru hai to uss par jo giraah aarahi hai, who bhi Iqbal ki hi hai. Yousuf sahib has done one experiment that if ‘Koi Umeed Bar Nahi Aatee’ is by Ghalib then the giraah is also from Ghalib’s kalaam.

“So this is some very interesting work that we’ve done that people will also appreciate.”
What does the future hold for gharanas, families such as Nusrat and Rahat’s that have had music as their mainstay for decades, centuries even?

“Looking at musical families, there are several people who are singing and doing well in their genres. In gharanas, there’s Shafqat (Amanat Ali Khan) bhai, who is representing the Patiala gharana, he is doing some good work and forging the name ahead. In our family there’s me, whatever work we get, we try and complete it in a good way.”

“Sur ka parchaar ab hona shuru hua hai. (The importance of a melody is being recognized now).”

Agar sur ki taraf gaamzan hogaye hain log to gharanon ka future theek hi hai.” (If people have begun recognizing melodious tunes, then the future of musical families is fine)
It’s a hopeful note that lingers in the air, one that has the promise of truly coming full circle…

the name of the game
But while Rahat Fateh Ali Khan hails from a gharana that has six hundred years of tradition behind it, his mainstream debut was in the form of ‘Mann Ki Lagan’. Rahat describes his entry, the story of which has been often quoted, into the Indian film music industry as ‘accidental’.

“We started ‘Mann Ki Lagan’ in 1998, when Shahi (Hasan) bhai, Faisal Rafi and I were working together on a project. It was the title track of that album, but there was a problem with VCI for the rights, and the album was just left aside. That one piece of the album was heard by Pooja (Bhatt)’s husband Manish Makhija when he came to Karachi.”
Rahat explains that the hit song really wasn’t the start of his musical career, as I draw a comparison between him and the late Nusrat, who began working in India during the later half of his career. “In this country, recognition comes very late. I wouldn’t say that ‘Mann Ki Lagan’ was the start. In 1994, when Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sahib was still alive, my album was released, which he launched. ‘Kissi Roz Milo Humein Shaam Dhale’ was a song off it that became a super hit. That’s when I started my career as a musician.”

mainissue_2But while he doesn’t express any wistfulness when saying that ‘recognition comes very late’, Rohail Hyatt seems exasperated when he comments, “Rahat ko abhi se log dekhlein, izzat de dein!” (People should see Rahat now and give him the respect he deserves!)
Following ‘Mann Ki Lagan’, Rahat has gone on to feature on the soundtracks of several Indian films. “The composition of ‘Mann Ki Lagan’ is completely new. It has no antra, it has parts. That was a first for India even, and then they started working on this method. They discovered that ‘this is Rahat’s style’. Now they send songs on this format, which are suited to my range and style.”

From ‘Mann Ki Lagan’ to ‘Ajj Din Chadheya’ (Rahat’s latest song off the Love Aaj Kal soundtrack), how has the experience of working in Bollywood been?

“It’s been very good. Because jab aap apni neeyat ke saath insaaf karein, (when you’ve done justice to your conscience) whether you work in Pakistan, England, the US or India…. you have to do justice to your work. I have received a very good response everywhere. Vishal Bhardwaj and Shankar Mahadevan are on the top of my list for the people I have enjoyed working with the most in India.”

How much creative control, I wonder, does Rahat have on the work he does in India? “Pakistan and India have the same process of working, because it’s done on a situational basis,” Rahat explains. “You just need to understand the situation and the mood and the guide track that they have made. The improvisations are my own; I usually make layers and send three or four tracks so that the composers can adopt it.”

Now that he mentions Pakistani films, I ask whether he’s ever been approached to do a song for a Pakistani movie.

Would you like to? “Of course,” he says. “I’d love to.”

The musical experiment
Despite having worked with Eddie Vedder (via Nusrat’s acclaimed work on the Dead Man Walking soundtrack), Oscar-winning composer James Horner and a bevy of Bollywood producers, Rahat reserves the most praise for Pakistani producers Rohail Hyatt and Shahi Hasan.

“Rohail sahib aur Shahi bhai ke saath kaam karke mujhe aisa laga hai jaise maine apni rooh ke saath kaam kya hai (Working with Rohail and Shahi made me feel like I were working with my soul.). That’s the kind of connection I have with them. I’ve worked with Waqar (Ali, Sajjad Ali’s brother) sahib, but I have a different connection with him.
“Rohail sahib and Shahi bhai’s ability…the talent that God has given Pakistan in the form of these two is unparalleled in the Subcontinent.”

Milestones in Rahat’s career – ‘Mann Ki Lagan’, ‘Jiya Dhadak Dhadak’ and Charkha came at the hands of these two producers. Rohail and Rahat both describe Charkha as an “experiment”, albeit one that took Rahat beyond the clichés of film soundtracks.

mainissue_4Released in 2008, Rahat’s solo album Charkha (that Hyatt and Faisal Rafi produced) was a departure from anything he had done before on a commercial scale. As Instep wrote when the album released, “Charkha is world music that people anywhere in the world would respond… as they did with Nusrat. And it is the perfect launch for Rahat at a time when he has shed the slightly shrill nervous voice to sing from the heart (and the stomach at times) as his uncle had foreseen he would.”

“If we look from the point of view of what kind of work was done on it (Charkha)”, says Rahat, “then every artist goes beyond themselves to work on their album. But for this album, Rohail bhai and I spent almost two to two and a half years working on it. The chord sense of this album has been done on a different dimension by Rohail sahib….” After a thoughtful pause Rahat continues, “And I believe that even in the next ten years the chord sense that has been created on Charkha will not be found on any other album.”
“As far as the album’s success goes, I have also been given a TMA award for this…” he trails off, seemingly reluctant to associate notions of sales and commercial popularity to Charkha. “The songs are very cultural, ‘Kanday Utay’, the title track ‘Charkha’, ‘Dunga Paani’, these are dark concepts that people would never dare to sing. It was thought that slow songs of this kind would not do well. We did this experiment; Rohail sahib made this musically very interesting, so that the listeners wouldn’t get bored.”

The strings of fame…
Charkha, which released in India, added onto Rahat’s substantial body of work. And for now, while he seems content to work via email with India, I ask him what he makes of the situation after 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, given the statements made by India’s political leaders about not allowing Pakistani musicians in India and incidents like Ghulam Ali CDs burned openly in Mumbai.

“Just because a few people have done these things, the whole country can’t be considered wrong. Where there are bad people, there are also good people. I don’t believe that there’s any problem. Shafqat bhai and Atif bhai have just come back from India. In such times people try and exploit the situation in a bad way. Yahan bhi hain, wahan bhi hain…” (These people are here, and in India)
Does he think things will get better?

“Insha Allah, why not? When relations were bad earlier, didn’t they get better?”
When I reply in the affirmative, Rahat confidently remarks, “So if they’re bad today, they’ll be better tomorrow.”

The allure of fame has taken several artistes across the border, and while artistes like Strings, Ali Azmat and Shafqat Amanat Ali built their base in Pakistan before hopping across, one feels newer entrants want to get Bollywood fame and fortune overnight. I ask Rahat what he feels of this mentality.

In response, he quotes a couplet by Allama Iqbal,
“‘Tu rehnaward e shauq hai manzil na kar qabool
Laila bhi ho humnasheen to mehmil na kar qabool’
(Don’t accept your future as your destination)
Rahat philosophizes, “Every artist should consider the ‘destination’ as their beginning. One thing should not be considered as a destination.”

“Woh kya shair tha…’abhi ishq ke imtehaan aur bhi hain’…(What was that couplet – ‘there are more trials ahead in love’). Artistes should establish what is inside them, not establish a country. They shouldn’t think that if they don’t work there (in India) that they won’t become popular and no one will listen to them. Good work is heard everywhere. If it doesn’t become popular in one place, it may become popular in America.”

But while Pakistani music continues to produce enormously talented individuals, concerts are a rare occurrence. “It used to be peaceful in the country earlier,” Rahat reflects. “Now there’s a bit of disturbance in the country which people have exploited. During Khan sahib’s time there was also a bit of instability but not as much as it is now.”

He takes on a more optimistic approach, “Hum ne himmat ki hui hai, hosla badhaye rakhein. Hum kaam karrahe hain, jiss tarah se bhi karrahe hain, thoda karrahe hain par acha karrahe hain.” (We’ve kept our spirits high. We’re working – as we can – we may be doing less work, but it’s good work).

– Rahat’s photographs courtesy Coke Studio

Source: INSTEP Magzine