'It was kind of magic': Michael Brook reflects on seminal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan collaborations
The 1996 Grammy-nominated album, a collaboration between the Canadian musician and Pakistani legend, turns 25
Written by Hina Husain
"It's a big world now — at the time, it wasn't."
Michael Brook has seen world music evolve a lot over the years. In the early '90s, a time in which the expansion of the genre was "a notable innovation," Brook, a Canadian musician, teamed up with Pakistani legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to record two iconic albums: 1990's Mustt Mustt, and the 1996 Grammy-nominated Night Song.
This would mark Khan's first collaboration with a Western musician, and the result paired Brook's ambient guitar chords perfectly with Khan's intense vocals and stamina, blending to form a moody and atmospheric sound that could pull listeners into a state of Sufi mysticism.
The '90s were a time of great musical exploration, with artists in the West increasingly pulling more multicultural influences into their music and experimenting with vast musical lineages. In the wake of this new era of global music, the Grammy Award for best world music album was established in 1992.
Brook and Khan, two artists from opposite ends of the world, came together in the English countryside to blend together the sounds of traditional Eastern folk singing with new-age Western electronica, a collaboration that propelled Khan to international superstardom, introducing a whole generation to qawwali, the devotional music of the Sufis. Considered one of the greatest Sufi singers in the Urdu language, Khan was often called "Shahenshah-e-Qawwali" — the King of Kings of Qawwali — in his native Pakistan. He was a celebrated artist throughout South Asia and came from a family that had practised the tradition of qawwali for almost 600 years.
Brook, who hails from Toronto, is a guitarist and producer who has delved into various musical genres, from experimental to world music, over his long and illustrious career. He came across Khan's work in the late '80s through his dealings with British record label Real World Records.
"Peter Gabriel," Brook recalls, "who was in charge of Real World Records, had heard my solo album that had some Asian influences in it, but was still kind of a modern, studio-type recording. So he thought I might be an appropriate producer and collaborator for Nusrat, and he asked me to get involved and we recorded it in his [Real World Records] studio in Bath, England."
Night Song was Khan's last studio album before his untimely death the following year. Considered the more experimental of the two albums, Night Song, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month, was nominated for best world music album at the 39th annual Grammy Awards, but lost out to the traditional Irish band the Chieftains. (In November 2020, the Grammys officially changed the world music album category to best global music album.)
The landscape of world music has changed considerably in the last 30 years. Artists like K'naan, from Somalia, and Stromae, from Belgium (and is half Rwandan) have blurred the lines that distinguish Eastern and Western beats from one another. With the rise of music streaming services like Spotify in the last decade, audiences have access to music from all corners of the globe literally at their fingertips, 24/7. But back in the late '80s, exposure to other cultures' musical traditions was still a relative luxury, and collaborations like Brook and Khan's showed us how much more there was to discover in the world.
"In terms of the album's legacy," Brook reflects, "I've had a lot of comments from people from India and Pakistan who say this music has been a pretty big part of their life, and that's very moving and flattering. I feel proud to have been associated with something like that. And I do think it has maybe exposed two cultures a little bit to each other."
Brook now lives and works in Los Angeles, composing film scores and soundtracks for films like The Fighter, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Brooklyn. His last studio album came out in 2008, a collaboration with Armenian musician Djivan Gasparyan. CBC Music spoke with Brook over video call in his home studio, to discuss what it was like working with Khan on both Mustt Mustt and Night Song.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
It's been 25 years since Night Song came out. What do you think when you hear that?
That's a long time, and it doesn't feel like it. I actually listened to some of the album a couple of months ago and I'm still happy with it. I'm not sure I would change anything in it.
This was your second collaboration with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Was it very different from your first time working together on Mustt Mustt?
The process was significantly different on Night Song. I think when we did Mustt Mustt, most of Nusrat's experience in a studio had been an archival experience, where you did a performance in real time, and that was it. You made your record.
In the interim between the two albums, Nusrat had done some work with other people, and also from our time working on Mustt Mustt, he became more familiar with modern studio techniques like overdubbing, layering, editing and all that kind of stuff. So the whole process was quite different. And I think he had more creative input into the second album, just because he was more aware of the options.
It's interesting you say that because listening to both the albums, I feel Mustt Mustt is more of a qawwali album — it's very heavy on traditional Pakistani instruments like the tabla and harmonium, and there are lots of background singers on the tracks. Night Song feels like a more intimate collaboration between you and Nusrat, and it sounds like you would have had more input on that one.
Well, my involvement was similar on both albums. I created backing tracks and I'd play them for Nusrat and say, "What about this one?" and he would listen to them for a while, then go away and come up with ideas for what to do. One of the biggest differences between Night Song and Mustt Mustt was that Mustt Mustt was kind of like a live band. We had musicians playing and Nusrat singing, along with the party (the background singers). And then based on what would happen, I'd sometimes completely replace the original backing track.
Night Song was similar, but I don't think we used the party. It was more, I would play Nusrat something, and he'd come back and sing on it. Based on what he sang, I might change it quite a bit. But it was more of an overdub process and we'd get musicians in one at a time. There wasn't the sense of live music so much.
Which process did you enjoy more?
I enjoyed both processes. When we did the second album, we were more familiar and comfortable with each other, and because Nusrat was more aware of studio options, it was much more of a collaborative process.
And between the two albums, things had changed so much. For example on Mustt Mustt, I finished it, or made mixes, and mailed a cassette to Pakistan which took a long time to get there. By the time Nusrat got the tapes, the album had already come out.
So an embarrassing aspect of that was that I would have 20, 30 minutes of Nusrat singing, since the performances are long, and I had to make that into a five or six-minute piece, so there was a lot of editing involved. So I just cut up what made sense musically, and of course I don't understand Urdu. So I was just cutting up lyrics and a lot of them were qawwali lyrics for Mustt Mustt, but I turned them into nonsense because I would just cut them without knowing. And Nusrat got a bit of flack about that in Pakistan. That was something we could have probably addressed if he had got the cassette in time.
So for Night Song, I had to phonetically transcribe every performance. They were still just as long, and I still hadn't learned Urdu. So I had to write them all down, and then when I did an edit, I made sure there was a lyrical continuity. And also I think the lyrics were less qawwali. I know Nusrat consulted with some poets lyrically for the album, and that was a different part of the process.
So on Night Song, everyone was a little more comfortable and was like, "Let's see what we can do." A little more open.
I have so many questions based on what you've said. In regards to cutting the songs down, I've read some things by writers in the East who say that this music is meant to be experienced in the way it's sung. In order to fully appreciate the beauty of qawwali, you need to go through the 20- or 30-minute journey of the performance. Do you think splicing and dicing the music to keep just the best parts, does that take anything away from the music or the experience?
I have a couple of thoughts about that. One is when people say, "It's meant to be this way" — who meant it that way? Also, what we do does not reduce the amount of qawwali music that people can have. It's still all there, and if you want that experience, we have not blocked, hindered or diminished it in any way. And I agree, it is a different experience.
People have said this in the West too, and there is an element of, I think, condescension there in the sense that, Nusrat wanted to do this. His arms weren't being twisted or anything, and it's kind of saying that he's forbidden to do creative things musically and as an artist because he also is involved in traditional things. I have nothing against tradition, but it's a fairly weak argument to say that you can't do that because of something to do with tradition, because we're nothing to do with the tradition.
I completely agree, and as someone who's been listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan my whole life, I think the experimental nature of this album is what sets it apart from all his other work. I also wanted to talk about you not knowing Urdu. Did you have a translator who told you what the lyrics meant? Did you feel it was necessary to understand what the words meant in order to experience the emotional depth of the music, or did the music speak for itself?
Usually Nusrat's manager would translate when we were speaking. At one point in the process I asked about the lyrics and I never got a literal translation. It was more like, they were ambiguous; is this a love song or is it a religious or spiritual song? And it could be taken either way. But other than that, I didn't feel anything lacking by not understanding the literal words. Clearly a lot of people agree because, how many people in the West understand what Nusrat's saying but are still incredibly moved by his singing, including the qawwali singing? There's something clearly transcultural about what he does and the way he reached people emotionally and spiritually. And that's a mystery — why are people so moved by something that they don't understand a single word of?
That's so fascinating for me, as someone who understands the lyrics. How were you able to create music that perfectly complemented and deepened the emotional potency of the songs, without understanding a single word?
I think because I just followed an emotional esthetic mandate, and as we said, something emotional still seems to cross the boundary of translation. For me there's a sort of division of church and state in the sense that I'm intellectually curious, but I don't think much of that is involved in the way I make music, which is much more, "Does this feel or sound right to me? Does it inspire doing something else?" And so in a certain sense I don't think about music, I just do it. When you experiment, you end up doing a lot of stuff you throw away. It's kind of an exploratory process, so there is no plan or technique, it's more a process of discovery.
That's beautiful. In terms of your process, did you feel you had to alter your process working with Nusrat? Did you discover anything new?
Well, this was kind of the first major cross-cultural collaboration for me. So I learned some things about my own culture in some of those projects. Certainly musically, and maybe in other ways, the Western culture is just remarkably flexible and varied. So when I would work with people from traditional cultures other than my own, in a certain way, they usually do something pretty close to what they always do. We put it in a different setting, and maybe structure it differently and present it in a different way. If you took any 10-second snippet of what Nusrat's saying, it probably wouldn't be that different from the kinds of things he'd sing in the traditional music. And that's true of many people from other cultures that I work with.
So when you ask if I had to change my process, I did change it in a way as part of the path of discovery. In most of the music I work on, frequently there's two sections: there's an "A" and a "B." And you don't really have that structure in many other cultures. So Nusrat was not familiar with how you're singing along and all of a sudden the chords change. That would sort of break his focus. So what I did was, I would take each section and repeat it for 20 minutes, and it might be something that ends up as a 90-second section in the final piece. Then Nusrat could just sing and get momentum, and once he had an idea of what was going on in the background track, that was not going to change. Then to create the structures we ultimately ended up with, I would combine those two different takes, where he was just singing without having to worry about something unexpected coming up.
Do you have any pictures with Nusrat in the studio from your time recording the album together? Maybe something from your personal archive?
I don't think so, it was a shockingly undocumented process. Nobody had cellphones, and video cameras were kind of rare. I remember at one point, we were doing a session and I said, "We gotta be filming this somehow!" One of the engineers took a surveillance camera down from outside and brought it in so we could at least film something, because it was kind of magic.