Twenty years after these two icons died – both in 1997 – their music lives on like a fluttering howl of beauty in an otherwise confusing and contested political landscape.
Jeff Buckley and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan gave us songs and albums of deep longing and yearning which feel stronger today than ever before because of their mesmering melodies, innovative detours and voices so rich and penetrating that a second in their company means submission.
Literally – in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s case. This qawalli master is arguably Pakistan’s greatest cultural export with his intoxicating brand of ‘sufi serenity’ which praises Allah and usually ends up in a swirling mass of ecstacy, thumping tabla rhythms and a stunning convergence of voice and melody that is, frankly, breathtaking.
The likes of Massive Attack, Peter Gabriel, Michael Brook and Gaudi obviously thought the same with their colloborations with the desi dean of devotion offering Western audiences a stunning insight into a music so exuberant that many fans still label him as ‘Elvis of the East’.
And Jeff Buckley certainly did. He regularly recited Nusrat’s songs – even on stage to baffled audiences – and his album Grace, to these ears at least – brims and throbs with qawalli sensibilities, seeping and swarming out senses until we’re enriched with a devastating piece of music that is both timeless and ecstatic.
Buckley drowned at the age of 30 while going for a swim in the Missississipi River. Nusrat died, aged 48, of a heart attack after liver and kidney problems. Both artists still have a colossal following today because they understood that you have to put it all on the line come what may; health problems, family legacies and political strife.
And America and Pakistan – that oddest of couples – do still come alive when we hear their arrangements or those sensuous, hearbreaking voices.
And this is as good time as any to revisit some of that mysterious grace – which ecompasses east, west and everything inbetween.