What You're Not Listening To

What You're Not Listening To

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on Ashura

September 08, 2019

I was asked the following question the other day: “How do you decide what programming goes into each show?” Sometimes, this can be a very convoluted and complex answer. The hits? The flops? The B-sides? Obscure bootleg recordings? Sometime all yes to these. Several of the shows in this series, which is my second and first professional foray in podcasting, coincide with significant events, such as Gay Pride festivities in June. This month, however, came completely as a result of my being curious to something on my computer’s digital calendar I saw a couple of months ago: Ashura. Not knowing anything about this entry, I decided to do some research.

Ashura is a religious observance for Muslims all over the world. Ashura literally means tenth, and it is celebrated on the 10th day of Muharram, first month on the Islamic calendar. It is celebrated by both Sunnis and Shi’a Muslims for different reasons. The 3 days of the Ashura festival had their origins over a millennia and half ago when the prophet Muhammad and his followers found the Medina community of Jews fasting for Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement. When Muhammad asked the Jews why they were fasting, they answered that they were fasting to remember the day when Moses was saved from the Egyptians by God.

“There should be change – the West should understand our music and culture, and vice versa. With such collaboration, artists can come closer to each other and come to know each other.” Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

I have a great deal of music in my vast audio collection, and remembered one significant artist I had not listened to in ages, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Khan was born a Punjabi Muslim in what was then called British India. His family moved to Pakistan when he was very young, and he came from a long line of musicians in his family, as it was their profession. After being trained by his father and uncles, Khan began his professional recording career in 1971 for Radio Pakistan.

Khan’s career started to receive global attention in the mid-1980’s as part of the touring WOMAD Festival, the World of Music, Arts and Dance, founded by British rock musician Peter Gabriel, to help bring little-known art forms to the attention of Western audiences. Khan also started to become a major influence to other World music forms that eventually found audiences stateside and the U.K., such as Bollywood, and was a leader in bridging the gap between the Islamic world and the West. He had no problem working with instruments that were common to artists in Western culture, and enjoyed working with musicians from Europe and the United States.

Khan live in London, 1995. Photo courtesy of the BBC.

Just as Khan’s influence and profile were becoming higher in the United States, thanks in no small part to his work on the Real World label (also founded by Peter Gabriel) and the inclusion of his work in several high profile film soundtracks, including Dead Man Walking, Khan died suddenly at a London hospital at just the age of 48 in 1997 of heart failure. Even though he was a huge influence on popular culture, during his lifetime, he stressed that at its core, his music was religious music first and foremost, and he didn’t want the value of what he and his family had been doing for over 600 hundred years to be cheapened by commercial viability.

Before I begin this program, I am going to make the closest thing to a “not all men” statement I have ever made. Not every cisgender, pissed off, middle-aged white man in the U.S. with an internet connection hates Muslims. You needed to know that today. In fact, in speaking only for myself, the opportunity the Ashura holiday has presented has opened up whole new worlds to understanding. This show,