Musician Nader Khan: from homeless in Dubai to successful recording artist

Canadian nasheed artist Nader Khan credits his previous UAE stay for inspiring some of his songs
Nader Khan says Yusuf Islam’s music and Rumi’s poetry have inspired him. Courtesy Yasin Dusoruth.
Nader Khan says Yusuf Islam’s music and Rumi’s poetry have inspired him. Courtesy Yasin Dusoruth.

In 2007, only a few people in the UAE knew of the hard times that musician Nader Khan was ­facing.

The Canadian nasheed artist was a cash-strapped business analyst in Dubai internet City and was going though a difficult first marriage – a period he recalls as being exceptionally tough.

“I was working full time and homeless,” he says. “It was very expensive to live in Dubai at the time, and my kids, who were still living in Canada, needed the cash. So instead of getting a place to live, I got a pricey gym membership and lived out of a rented Mitsubishi Lancer. I showered and shaved every morning at the gym before going to work.”

Khan managed to get back on his feet when he returned to Canada and remarried. He says his four-year UAE experience provided the inspiration for a collection of Islamic devotional songs that would eventually end up on his debut album, Take My Hand.

The 2008 release received acclaim through word of mouth and led to tours of the United Kingdom, North America, South-east Asia and Australia.

Khan has now returned with his follow up, Water. Like its predecessor, the album was recorded without any string instruments, all 15 tracks featuring Khan’s bluesy tenor and percussion.

Don’t let the bare-boned arrangements fool you, however – western music lovers will detect traces of the blues and R&B in Khan’s powerful vocals.

“The more you are working as an artist the more you realise what your strengths are,” says Khan. “Water, for me, shows that growth, in terms of my singing range and the versatility of the songs.

“I find that people respond to the rawness of my songs so we made sure that we didn’t overproduce it.”

What ties it all together are the evocative lyrics that are full of praise for God and The Prophet Mohammed. Khan explains that the stirring wordplay is a defining hallmark of the nasheed ­genre.

“A good song will have an emotional impact,” he says. “The differentiation that I would make is that a good devotional song will have an emotional impact but with spiritual ­consequences.”

Born and raised in Hyderabad, southern India, Khan recalls a childhood where he “lived and breathed” Bollywood music. Ironically, it was when he joined his family in the conservative Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh for a seven-year stint in 1987 that his musical career flourished.

“By the time I got there I knew I could sing decently and I was also playing the keyboard, and by the end of my time in Saudi I was doing live Bollywood gigs at private parties,” he says.

“It was there when I started connecting with western styles and getting into hard rock and songwriters such as Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder and old-school George Michael.”

Khan’s next transformation happened when he settled in Canada in 1993 and the culture clash triggered an identity crisis.

“My quest for identity coincided with me really meeting good people,” he says. “And it was with this good company that my quest became a spiritual one.”

This resulted in Khan gradually moving away from a career as a Bollywood singer towards exploring the Islamic-inspired nasheed musical genre.

It wasn’t a smooth transition. After years of listening to well-produced pop records, Khan says he was frustrated with the lack of quality in nasheed albums at the time.

“I was entering a field where records that were coming out sounded awful and they were passed off as nasheeds,” he says. “There were some notable exceptions but the vast majority were so cringeworthy and I was embarrassed listening to it.”

Khan credits the 1995 Yusuf Islam nasheed album The Life of the Last Prophet, and an English translation of the Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi for providing him with the inspiration to record nasheeds in his own way.

“That Yusuf Islam record blew me away, particularly the layering of the vocals and the simplicity of the lyrics,” he says.

“And the English translation of Rumi’s poetry totally twisted my mind because that was the first time I read meaning of such sublime nature that was articulated in English. I definitely saw a possibility on how to proceed after reading that.”

While Khan’s UAE stay was arduous, he credits the experience with instilling in him the desire to help others. All profits from sales of Water go to fund international projects by Water Aid Canada.

“I still have a lot of insights from my time in the UAE that I am still converting into songs,” he says.

“That part of my life gave me an insight into what it is to live on the other side, so to speak. So now, whatever work I do, I cannot help but link it to service to humanity.”

• Water by Nader Khan is available on iTunes. For more details visit www.naderkhan.com

sasaeed@thenational.ae

Published: June 24, 2015 04:00 AM

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