(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

All this year, NPR is bringing you the stories of 50 great voices from around the world. Any such list is bound to stir debate, but when it came to the singer we're profiling today, there was unanimity among our selection committee.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr.�NUSRAT FATEH ALI KHAN (Singer): (Singing)

SIEGEL: That's the late Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Many Americans got their first introduction to Khan's haunting voice in the film "Dead Man Walking," and it was Khan who introduced a new generation of Pakistanis and Pakistani-Americans to their own traditional music.

NPR's Bilal Qureshi is one of them.

BILAL QURESHI: I still remember buying my first album. I was eight and living in Islamabad, and it was a bootleg cassette that opened with a guitar riff, and then came that voice.

(Soundbite of song, "Mustt Mustt")

Mr.�KHAN: (Singing in foreign language)

Professor�ZAREENA GREWAL (American Studies and Religious Studies, Yale University): In moments, his voice could be, like, smooth like honey, and then in other moments, that same voice takes on a texture and a kind of coarseness. It's very gripping.

QURESHI: Zareena Grewal grew up in a Pakistani family in the suburbs of Detroit. She now teaches religion at Yale.

Ms.�GREWAL: He's the great Pakistani musical gift to the world. I mean, he's sort of like the national musician, but also, his name, to me, immediately has a religious charge because he was a Sufi, and the body of his work is mostly religious music.

QURESHI: That music is called Qawwali.

(Soundbite of song, "Allah Hoo")

Mr.�KHAN: (Singing in foreign language)

QURESHI: I have to confess: Before Nusrat, I found it pretty boring, something my mother would force us to listen to on a Sunday afternoon. And as Zareena Grewal describes, you wouldn't exactly hang his poster on your wall.

Ms.�GREWAL: He's kind of morbidly obese and sweaty, crazy hair, these intense facial expressions as he's singing. I mean, he really was just a sight.

QURESHI: But when Nusrat opened his mouth, he had a range that other Qawwali singers just didn't.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr.�KHAN: (Singing in foreign language)

QURESHI: Nusrat always wanted to try new things, says Salman Ahmed. He's a Pakistani guitarist who played with the singer.

Mr.�SALMAN AHMED (Guitarist): If you sat with him and you spoke with him, you felt like you were speaking to a child. He had this attitude of wonderment about everything. He marveled at everything. If you hit a guitar chord, he was like: Play that again. And then he would, like, sing out the notes within the guitar chord. You know, so he had this curiosity about the world.

QURESHI: And what he did with that curiosity made his songs the anthems of Pakistani life. But after my family moved to the U.S., I stashed my Nusrat cassette in a drawer. I wasn't planning to pass around the native music to the new high school crew.

But then Nusrat resurfaced in my life. Oliver Stone used his music in a film. He sang with Eddie Vedder and Peter Gabriel. And his success defied my assumptions about what someone from that part of the world could mean to listeners here.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr.�KHAN: (Singing in foreign language)

Mr.�MICHAEL BROOK (Guitarist): 99.99 percent of us don't understand the lyrics.

QURESHI: Guitarist and collaborator Michael Brook says that would bother Nusrat a little.

Mr.�BROOK: But I think he also felt that whatever spiritual component there was, that was in the lyrics, but it was also in the way he sang it.

QURESHI: And so that's what he focused on.

Zareena Grewal and Michael Brook.

Prof.�GREWAL: Spirituality isn't just something that you get from taking a bubble bath and writing in your diary. I mean, it comes out of a kind of discipline.

Mr.�BROOK: He just practiced all the time. He was very, very good. His pitch was incredible, and he thought about singing all of the time, like he really didn't seem to do much else.

(Soundbite of song, "Longing")

Mr.�KHAN: (Singing in foreign language)

QURESHI: In person, Nusrat was quiet and reserved, perhaps because performing took so much out of him. He was just 48 when he died in August of 1997. His death sparked a nationwide state of mourning in Pakistan. But he left behind hundreds of recordings and concert performances, and DJs have been sampling his voice ever since.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr.�KHAN: (Singing in foreign language)

QURESHI: Nusrat's greatest legacy may have been to shatter the idea of what it means to be a traditional Muslim singer.

Again, Zareena Grewal.

Prof.�GREWAL: This is what's inspirational is that you have this extraordinary tradition, and what is important is to continue to make it meaningful given, you know, our realities in the moment. And he did that.

QURESHI: And for me, his legacy is in the idea that greatness - vocal and otherwise - can never be constrained by borders or stay stashed in a drawer.

Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Intoxicated")

Mr.�KHAN: (Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: You can hear the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and guess who will be our next great voice at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Intoxicated")

Mr.�KHAN: (Singing in foreign language)

SIEGEL: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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