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'A man learns all his life, and dies the day he thinks that he has learnt everything'

Nusrat Fateh Ali KhanAnother 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."

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan 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...


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