Exactly 21 years ago, on August 16, I was heading to the Rang Bhavan in Dhobi Talao, south Mumbai, to be part of the jury of the Independence Rock festival contest. It was around 5.30 p.m.and the event was to start at 7.
Five minutes after I left office the peon came running after me. I was required in office urgently. The section editor announced, “Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan passed away. We need an obituary.”
Now I couldn’t be late for this event at such short notice. There were no mobile phones then. So I wrote an article in barely 20 minutes, using someone else’s PC as I would take time to log in. It was a short 500-word piece.
An era was over. The Pakistani maestro had been the foremost exponent of Sufi music and Qawwalis. His audience in India had grown after the release of his album Sangam in 1996. He had many film projects as well.
It was a Saturday evening, and the next day’s edition carried my full-page article on evergreen idol Elvis Presley and a box item on Blues pioneer Robert Johnson, whose death anniversary was also on the same day. Elvis The Pelvis had passed away in 1977, and Johnson years earlier in 1938. In 2007, jazz drummer Max Roach shared their death anniversary.
It is the day the music died as Don McLean sang in ‘American Pie’. His reference was to Buddy Holly and Richie Valens who had been killed in a plane crash on a different date when country singer Waylon Jennings escaped as he exchanged his flight ticket.
But Johnson, Presley, Khan and Roach on the same date? Hard to digest even today.
I had brief interactions with Khan, over two interviews and two mehfils. At the launch of Sangam at the Juhu Centaur hotel (now Tulip Star) he had sung ‘Afreen Afreen‘ which had become a music channel hit. The album also had ‘Sheher Ke Dukandaaro‘ and ‘Ab Kya Soche‘. He did some favourites like ‘Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor‘, ‘Kinna Sona‘ and ‘Dam Mustt Mustt‘. Magical and majestic, to use two words.
(Sourced: Google, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with Jagjit Singh and Lata Mangeshkar)
The following day I interviewed him. He was soft-spoken and in special praise of Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi and Jagjit Singh. Sadly, a section of the Indian media wrote he criticised Indian artistes, which certainly didn’t seem to be the case.
My own exposure to his music kept expanding after that meeting. Like most music journalists, I get euphoric after my first encounter with legends and then keep exploring their recordings. So the next spot was Rhythm House store in Kala Ghoda to pick up tapes. New discoveries each time.
Khan kept returning to India. An interesting incident comes to mind. There were issues between the neighbouring countries. Many objected to Pakistani musicians or cricketers coming here.
The artiste had recorded the music of the film Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya. The film’s director Rahul Rawail had cleverly got Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray to launch the album at his Matoshree residence in Bandra East. Actors Bobby Deol and Aishwarya Rai were there with lyricist Akhtar. So was the Saregama team. I had coaxed one of the record label’s employees to help me get in.
Thackeray, just before launching the album, asked who the music director was. He was obviously taken aback but had no option.
Our next interview was while he was recording Milan Luthria’s Kacchhe Dhaage. While the first was a general profile, this one focused on his Bollywood film projects. The highlight however was being one of the 40 people to attend a private mehfil at the Sun N Sand, Juhu, where he didn’t sing qawwalis but only ghazals, himself on harmonium and one tabla player. Unique indeed.. Still rings in my ears.
Qawwalis have been his forte though, later on I got hooked on to ‘Mere Rashke Qamar‘, ‘Akhiyaan Udeek Diyan‘, ‘Kaali Kaali Zulfen‘ and many more. There was his Hindi devotional ‘Saanson Ki Mala‘, whose 30 minute 2 seconds version we had released during my stint at EMI Music. And there were the albums Night Song and Mustt Mustt with producer Michael Brook, released by rock star and world music promoter Peter Gabriel’s Real World Records.
Khan passed away in London a day after Aur Pyaar Ho Gaya was released. Fans were shocked. Now, wonder if Johnson, Presley, Khan and Roach are jamming up in the sky. That would be a fantastic mix.