Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Pakistani devotional singer who had worked with such Western musicians as Eddie Vedder, Peter Gabriel and progressive guitarist and producer Michael Brook, died Saturday at age 48. After traveling to London from his native Pakistan for treatment for liver and kidney problems, Khan was rushed from the airport to Cromwell Hospital, where he suffered a fatal heart attack.
London's Daily Telegraph reported that doctors at the hospital blamed Khan's death on his treatment in Pakistan with infected dialysis equipment, from which they said he contracted hepatitis. The singer, who various reports said weighed over 300 pounds, had been seriously ill for several months, according to a spokesperson at his U.S. label, American Recordings.
Khan was a master of qawwali singing, which combines lyrics from Sufi religious poems with hypnotic rhythms and vocal chants. Considered a superstar in the Sufi community, Khan drew thousands of fans to concerts, where many danced as though lost in ecstatic trances and threw money at his feet while he played.
Though he never performed in English -- he sang in Urdu, Punjabi and Farsi -- Khan also captivated many Westerners, including such musicians as Vedder, Joan Osborne and the late Jeff Buckley, as well as Hollywood types like Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. Khan signed to a U.S. record deal with Rick Rubin's American Recordings in mid-1996, and he recorded at least a few songs with Rubin last fall, according to a spokesperson for the label.
Born into a family with a centuries-long tradition of qawwali singing, Khan began recording in the early '70s after ignoring his father's wishes that he pursue medicine. Although he recorded for labels in Pakistan, England and Europe, he was barely known in the U.S. pop mainstream until he toured with Peter Gabriel's 1985 WOMAD festival. He also sang on Gabriel's soundtrack for "The Last Temptation of Christ" and released several albums on that singer's Real World label.
"I feel a great sense of loss," said Gabriel in a statement. "Since our first meeting at WOMAD in 1985, Nusrat, his voice and his music have been an important part of me life.
"I have never heard so much spirit in a voice. My two main singing inspirations, Nusrat and Otis Redding, have been the supreme examples of how far and deep a voice can go in finding, touching and moving the soul."
In 1995, Khan collaborated with Brook on the album "Night Song," which some denounced for departing too much from qawwali tradition. Shortly after, he worked with Eddie Vedder on two songs for the "Dead Man Walking" soundtrack: "The Long Road" and "The Face of Love." Khan sped up qawwali songs slightly to suit the times and did not take a purist outlook toward his art. "The mixing of qawwali with popular music does not make any difference as long as it is a known religious song," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1996. Perhaps with that in mind, Massive Attack remixed one of his songs, "Mustt Mustt," into a dance hit.