Nader Khan : Capturing a State

Nader Khan

Canadian singer- songwriter Nader Khan discusses the art and challenges of composing devotional music.

What’s happening on the music front lately?

My first album Take my Hand came out in December 2008. So over the last few years I have been touring and performing and there are other social activism campaigns that I am running as well. I am at a point now that album number two is a few months away from completion. It’s recorded here at home in a semi-studio setting.

Looking back at Take My Hand, are you happy with the way it was received?

To be honest, none of my work is driven by how it would be received. My focus is whether it is good musically, lyrically and does it move me. Because  if it doesn’t move me then fat chance that it will move somebody else. I do bounce the songs with a few people I consider having a refined musical and lyrical taste or in the music business but that is more in terms in ensuring that it is actually a good product.

What qualities do you look for to ensure your material is good?

There are many levels and each one has its goodness and perfection. If you look at the lyrical content, does it have depth? Am I completely butchering the pronunciation? Am I singing it good enough and does it generally sound all good together? Something may sound palatable to me but not to everyone else. For example in the first album I took a “naat” in Urdu (a poem praising The Prophet, peace be upon him), and sang it in an Arabic musical mode, with some Chinese drums and Turkish-style chanting. Before I began I had a vague idea in my head of what will eventually sound like and alhamdulilah, I am glad it came out every well and the people who heard it responded to it very positively.

How did you get in to devotional music?

I had been singing for a while and doing devotional music for a while but not “officially” as an artist. Now when my first album came out there was a lot of people already on the scene but there wasn’t a lot of material that moved me. This was one of my frustrations. They were too ethnically divorced from each other. It was almost as if there was a point that things have to be ethnic to be Islamic. So, if a song wasn’t overloaded with adhkar it wasn’t Islamic enough. At its core, any good art is a powerful emotion that you are trying to convey. Devotional art is a powerful emotion that is conveyed but with spiritual consequences. You hear a song, it moves you, it makes your heart tremble with awe or with love for the Prophet Peace be Upon Him.

Are their any songs you heard eliciting that reaction from you?

Dawud Wharnsby’s songs really have that raw energy. I first met him a few months before his first Nasheed album (A Whisper of Peace) came out. In that album, he had a very short song about the Prophet’s (PBUH) last moments, I remember hearing that and I bawled like a little girl. I remember sitting outside a supermarket in the parking lot just playing that over and over again. At that time I found very little of that calibre that moved me the way Dawud did.

What came first for you? A spiritual mindset and then the song-writing or was it vice versa?

I have been singing for a very long time. Growing in India all I had around me was Bollywood with very little exposure to other genres. That is where I started off at and even when I was living in Saudi Arabia for a short while my music was Bollywood based. But I was always surrounded by spiritual people, my family also had deep spiritual connections in India. So in retrospect I always grew up with spirituality around me without realising the effect it had on me. After coming to Canada, in my first year of university, there was this quest for identity. Who am I? Where do I fit? For me what began as this quest for identity slowly – and this is purely through good company and no merit of my own – turned to a spiritual quest of some sort.

Did this quest result in you making musical sacrifices?

Well I had to come face to face with the fact that I liked making music, I like singing but at the same time what am I exactly seeking through the singing? It was about that time that Yusuf Islam came with the album Life of the Prophet PBUH. Islam’s rendition of Tala ‘al Badru Aleina pushed me over the edge. I realised that this is what I can do. That’s when I started considering to record something.

When did you first think of yourself as a songwriter?

I had never considered writing songs in English. There’s a song on the first album called The Sound Of Tears, it is the most popular song on that album. It took me about five years to write it, compose it, arrange it. The song is really about capturing the moment of tawbah or repentance. It happened quite by chance. Every single word in that song came to me, I didn’t sit there and craft it. It kept coming to me and I kept writing and I guess that is how I became a songwriter.

You mentioned earlier that devotional music, for you at least, is about capturing a specific spiritual moment or a state. Is it a challenge to take that specific moment and turn into a song that would live on?

Of course, because you are trying to capture a state but maintain a sense of rhythm, rhyme and appropriate language. The thing about songwriting is that it points to a certain meaning in a subtle manner. The more subtle it is the more eloquent it is because it is not in your face. You can have a song about facts of science and pointing out how many grains of sands are in the palm of your hand or you can say that Allah’s knowledge is so awesome that only He Knows. That will provoke a particular emotion. The subject has to be timeless. You have to talk about an eternal truth that everyone can relate with.

And is that what sets devotional music apart from other genres?

Devotional music could be about everything else but in reality it is pointing to Allah. But there are songs that are put forth with the claim of being devotional music but they’re not, that’s because maybe they are outwardly talking about Allah but in reality they are pointing at yourself.

For more information Nader Khan click here.

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