IN HIS WAR against fame, Eddie Vedder can claim a small victory: When the reclusive superstar sought a collaboration with South Asia’s most popular singer, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, it turned out that Khan had, ahem, never heard of Mr. Vedder. Yet upon closer examination, the 47-year-old Pakistani master and his No. 1 grunge fan — brought together on two duets for the soundtrack of Dead Man Walking — seem like natural bosom buddies.
They’re both huge stars. Legend has it that the 250-pound Khan — variously likened to a crooning Buddha and Jabba the Hut — enjoys downing 70 kebabs at a go in his hometown of Faisalabad, Pakistan. And his influence far outweighs his impressive girth: Khan’s nickname is Shahen-Shah (King of Kings). ”Lots of people are musicians, but that’s music,” said folk rocker and fan Jeff Buckley after a recent Khan show in New York.
They both attract rabid fans. Khan’s oeuvre, though explicitly religious, creates the same churning exhilaration commonly found in mosh pits. Called qawwali (pronounced ”Kavali” and meaning ”utterance” in Urdu), it is a type of Sufi devotional music that sets mystical poetry to spare instrumentation provided by drums and harmonium. Grounded by a standard verse-chorus-verse structure, live performances of the songs thrive on repetition and improvisation, all aimed at inducing a state of intense devotion (and occasionally trances) in audience members. During his long (sometimes four hours) shows, fans express their appreciation by showering Khan and his band of musicians and singers with cash, while dancing exuberantly in the aisles.
They’ve both been accused of selling out. Though initially acclaimed for his traditional work, Khan has become more well-known as a modernizer. A relationship with world-music cheerleader Peter Gabriel has led to experiments crossing Western rhythms with qawwali singing (as in Khan’s No. 2 South Asian hit ”Mustt Mustt,” with which he closes every show), and his songs have appeared in movies ranging from The Last Temptation of Christ to Natural Born Killers.
Both of their personal tastes run to the eclectic. When asked whom he might like to work with, if not Vedder, the rotund star was quick to answer, ”Bjork. I like her voice.”