From Faisalabad to Oxford: Rahat Fateh Ali Khan recognised with honorary degree

Pakistan's Qawwali superstar talks to us about the UAE, his many musical modes, as well as potential future collaborations

Encaenia - University of Oxford by Ian Wallman
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He has sold millions of albums worldwide and performed in front of hundreds of thousands of fans, but surprisingly Qawwali virtuoso and Bollywood giant, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, admits that when it came to receiving his honorary degree from the University of Oxford last week, he was extremely nervous.

“The pressure and stress don’t matter for celebrities when performing live. But getting an honorary degree? The pressure and stress were exactly that,” he says in Oxford’s Town Hall, where he’s added a sold out concert to his Oxford visit.

I thank Oxford University for acknowledging the deeply spiritual music of Qawwal. The degree recognises the power of classical forms of music, to promote peace

It seems fitting that Khan, who comes from a Pakistani family of renowned Qawwali singers stretching back centuries, should be honoured for his contribution to music in a city so steeped in iconic choral traditions, but of a very different nature.

It was a choir at the degree ceremony that gave Khan's nerves the cathartic release they needed. After the honorary degrees had been given out, the choir in the hall burst into the 'Hallelujah' chorus from Handel's Messiah.

“It was like a great unwinding from the pressure,” he says with a broad smile. “Those voices singing ‘Hallelujah’ – it was like a release for all of us, hearing them sing.”

For a musician who has achieved so much, Khan says he was humbled and honoured by the award.

“I thank Oxford University for acknowledging the deeply spiritual music of Qawwal. The degree recognises the importance and power of music, especially classical forms of music, to promote peace.”

Encaenia - University of Oxford by Ian Wallman
Rahat Fateh Ali Khan receiving an honorary degree from Oxford. Photo: University of Oxford by Ian Wallman

A collaboration with Yo-Yo Ma?

Khan already had a relationship with Oxford prior to this honour – the university named a rehearsal hall after him in 2017, and he comes to Oxford occasionally to give music lessons to music students. This visit, however, seems to have lit a desire in Khan for more collaborations of this nature, in part thanks to the choir at the ceremony and an opera singer he heard the day before, whose singing he described as “intense and deep”.

Khan 'loves' the Emirates and 'prefers' Qawwali to Bollywood

Among the other honorary graduates was another musician, the celebrated veteran cellist Yo-Yo Ma. “Yo-Yo Ma and I really connected and we both said that we must work together in the future,” Khan said.

Professor Eric Clarke, a musicologist at the university, said that the Faculty of Music was thrilled that Khan’s contribution to music was being formally recognised by the university.

“Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan is one of the most distinguished and widely followed Pakistani musicians alive today. The Qawwali tradition – of which he is such a distinguished exponent – is rich and powerful, one of the many extraordinary world musical traditions,” Clarke commented.

“With its aspiration to embrace and engage with the huge diversity of the world’s music, the Faculty of Music is delighted to have developed this close relationship with Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and looks forward to a long and productive relationship with him,” Clarke continued.

Rahat Fateh Ali Khan also performed at a sold-out show in Oxford. Photo by William Parry
Rahat Fateh Ali Khan also performed at a sold-out show in Oxford. Photo by William Parry

Judging by the rapturous reception his predominantly Qawwali concert received last Thursday, Khan clearly has a loyal fan base in Oxford and across the UK, where he has sold out hundreds of shows in the past. Khan says he loves London, but adds: "I love the Emirates too, particularly Dubai, and Abu Dhabi is special too. Dubai and London are like my second home. I love the culture of each of these cities."

Khan has a unique versatility as a performer – he has proven himself extremely talented and successful across classical Qawwali, fusion and pop. He is the only playback singer in the family, he adds.

Khan's current show is called Me, myself and I and its title reflects this oeuvre of genres: "The 'Me' is fusion; the 'myself' is Bollywood-style hits; and the 'I' is classical Qawwali," Khan says.

But which genre is he most passionate about?

“Because Qawwali is in my blood, I prefer it. Following the deaths of my father [Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan] and my uncle [the legendary Qawwali singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan], I started singing solo from 2003 and for years wrote and performed more commercial, Bollywood-centric music. But my soul, my spirit, is Qawwali. It is in my family and part of our roots for 600 years.”

And Oxford is now part of this distinguished family in more ways than one following Khan's award – and no doubt he wasn't the only Khan feeling the pressure this visit.

His teenage son, Shaziman Ali Khan, performed for the first time in public alongside his father at the concert last week. He was warmly and enthusiastically welcomed with claps and cheers by the audience.

The young singer is just beginning his career, but his father says he too is only just starting his journey, even after singing for 40 years: "I have learned a lot. I am learning a lot. And I have a lot yet to learn."