Lost song hauls are considered the ultimate discovery in the world of music. But when Real World Records, British musician Peter Gabriel’s music label , decided to move its tape and film archive in the UK’s Box, Wiltshire from an older mill building to a new facility in 2021, the archive’s chroniclers never imagined it would throw up tunes that would send the world of music in a tizzy.

They had stumbled upon an analogue tape with qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music on it. The track listings hadn’t featured in any of the previous albums released by them and had not been heard since the day of the recording. This is when label manager Amanda Jones and Gabriel, who’ve pursued world music since the company’s inception in 1989, swung into action to digitise it.

Now, 27 years after he died at 48, Nusrat’s compelling voice will transcend barriers yet again through the album Chain of Light, which will release on September 20.

According to Jones, the recording took place amid an “outstanding studio space, with very experienced engineers, the right food and the right creative environment”.

“We had recorded several live sessions over these years. We were very careful to release albums by Nusrat in the right way…and did not want to overwhelm the release schedule with too many albums, all at the same time. Putting some tracks aside for later release was not a surprising thing to do. We simply didn’t get to a point of planning another new release,” says Jones, over email in an exclusive conversation with The Indian Express.

Jones’s involvement with Nusrat’s music goes back to WOMAD Festival, which was founded in 1980 by Gabriel. She vividly remembers the seminal moment from 1985, where Nusrat sang at midnight on Mersea Island, a sleepy Essex town known for open grasslands, rough beaches and seafood with the only connection to the mainland through The Strood — an ancient Roman causeway that floods during high tide. It’s on this unassuming little island that Nusrat found his first international audience, one which didn’t understand the words, but fell easily and deeply into the music’s cadence and that five-octave voice which came with equal part intensity and equal part technical prowess. The passion and power of Allah Hu and Mast qalandar easily places it in any list of the greatest gigs ever and remains etched in Jones’s memory. “The performance had an electrifying effect. It was an unexpected experience for the majority of the audience who had never been exposed to qawwali music like this. I think the crowd’s reaction also took Nusrat by surprise. This was a new audience who was responding to his music in an overwhelming way,” says Jones.

Immersed in lyrics of the Sufis, the music of Nusrat, who’d trained under his uncles and legendary musicians Ustad Mubarak and Ustad Salamat Ali Khan — who moved to Lyallpur in Pakistan from Jalandhar in India after Partition — came at you with open arms. Little wonder then that his tunes have been modified, turned into club numbers or put through machines for different results besides, of course, being covered extensively, including an odd-sounding live version from Jeff Buckley, who called him “my Elvis”. Nusrat was not singing the folksy qawwali, the kind that’s heard today. His qawwali was steeped in dhrupad and khayal, layered, rich and complex. So when Gabriel founded Real World Records four years later in 1989, at a time when the interest and excitement for artistes from many parts of the world beyond Europe and North America was growing, Nusrat was one of the first artistes he wanted to record. He’d been introduced to qawwali by Pete Townsend of The Who. The guitarist acquainted Gabriel with qawwali — first through Sabri Brothers and then Nusrat.

In 1988, as Real World Records went into a distribution and production deal with Virgin Records, which represented the likes of Janet Jackson and The Spice Girls, among others, Nusrat evinced an emphatic response. Qawwali, from being an esoteric tradition for the West, was suddenly finding attention as world music. “Even in the very early meetings, Simon Draper, founder of Virgin, discussed the importance of the upcoming Nusrat albums we had planned,” says Jones.

And Nusrat obliged, collaborating with Canadian guitarist and producer Michael Brook for Mustt Mustt (1990), a seminal crossover album that remains one of Nusrat’s most popular works. They collaborated again on Night Song (1996), a more evolved set, with the eponymous track (a dhrupad alaap) making it to Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning Zero Dark Thirty (2012).

As was the case until recently, this will not be Brook’s last collaboration with Nusrat. Jones says that the older magnetic tapes were vulnerable and needed to be “baked” before they could be played on a reel-to-reel machine and the music transferred to a digital format.

“The digital tracks were then sent to Brook in Los Angeles where he and his engineer mixed the album,” she says. The four-track album, the name of which has been drawn from one of the unheard tracks, Ya Ghous ya Meeran, will also be an opportunity for the new generation to engage with qawwali and Nusrat’s other-worldly voice and mysticism.

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