Riffat Sultana channels the musical wisdom of 500 years and eleven generations of master vocalists from India and Pakistan. Daughter of legendary classical singer, the late Maestro Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, Riffat is the first woman from her family's musical lineage to publicly perform in the west. Riffat performs a wide variety of traditional and modern material from the Indian sub-continent, including Sufi, Geet, Ghazal, Filmi, Qawwali, and Light Classical. Her band features various instruments including tabla, bansuri flute, and her husband and producer, Richard Michos on 12 string guitar, which is the perfect vehicle to showcase one of the most passionate and exciting voices in world music. Her performances are devotional, and ecstatic Sufi songs are sure to move your heart, soul, and feet!
Riffat Sultana channels the musical wisdom of 500 years and eleven generations of master musicians in her family in India and Pakistan. But in all those years, she is the first woman to sing in public. For a Muslim woman in a traditional country, such a career simply was not appropriate. Perhaps one reason her performances today have such overwhelming emotional power is that she sings for all the woman in her distinguished family who never had that chance before. For Riffat, it took moving to the United States to free her musical soul. Now, her amazing voice is being heard around the world, including a featured spot in the 2004 "We Are The Future" concert, produced by Quincy Jones in Rome, Italy. Where doors were always closed to her, now they are opening everywhere, and Riffat has collaborated with singers and songwriters from all over the world.
Riffat's father, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, is a musical icon, one of the most respected classical singers in India and Pakistan. In 1947, when Pakistan became a nation, he walked hundreds of miles from his Punjabi village, Sham Churasi, into Pakistan. At the time, Sham Churasi had no fame, but soon it would be widely known as the name of Ustad Salamat's school & of music, or garana. Riffat's mother Razia is also a gifted vocalist, from India, descended from a line of highly respected Shiite musicians.
Denied the chance to study classical music, Riffat took to learning romantic ghazals and other songs from relatives, tapes and the radio. Family friends recognized her unusual talent and remarkable ability to hear songs and sing them readily. Some offered to teach her, but her father always refused. Despite his insistence that women do not sing, Riffat's father was a kind and loving man, and always a friend to her. It wounded him to see his daughter so unhappy, so he made the unusual move of offering to take her on tour with him in Europe and the United States in 1990-91.
The family continued on to North America, where they were welcomed by adoring Pakistani communities. Working within these communities, Riffat began to make forays into the world of public performance as a singer. Pakistanis in the U.S. loved and encouraged her, and in time, Sukhawat became the first of her brothers to accept her as a fellow musician. Riffat's musical career became an open secret, and finally, her father acknowledged the fact and gave her permission to sing, teaching her the classical forms of his unique style of music and vocalization. In 1995, she joined Sukhawat and Richard Michos to form the Ali Khan Band, an acoustic group of world musicians that performed a variety of traditional and popular music from India and Pakistan. The group started out working in the Bay Area. Then Michos introduced a prominent Algerian DJ Cheb I Sabbah to Riffat's father and brother. The meeting proved fateful when Sabbah persuaded Khan Sahib to let him record the family and mix the music for the dance floor. The 1996 release, Shri Durga, became one of the most successful DJ albums of the year, and introduced the music of the Ali Khan family to a whole new audience. Subsequently, the Ali Khan Band opened for Cheb I Sabbah at the Sound Factory in San Francisco, and word began to spread fast.
Soon after the group was asked to open for Ben Harper at the Fillmore, and then to record a single for compilation on the City of Tribes label, the buzz grew. Clearly, it was time to start doing some serious recording. Two Ali Khan Band albums for City of Tribes "Tawsir" (1998) and "Zindagi" (2000) fusing cultures and styles with a contemporary feel did well on CMJ, and with a growing youth audience paying attention, the inevitable happened: the group went electric. By now Richard was developing an original approach to accompanying Riffat's Pakistani Sufi songs on guitar, as well as in producing the albums, and as he added electronics and other instruments, the soundscape continued to expand, allowing Riffat and Sukhawat to compete dramatically for the affection of audiences.
In 1999, the group came to the attention of entertainment manager and producer Dawn Elder, and then President of Mondo Melodia Records/Ark21. This label, owned by Miles Copeland, was receiving a lot of attention for its growing success in world music. Dawn signed the Ali Khan Band, but at this point, the name, so reminiscent of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan seemed unnecessarily confusing. The musicians wanted to establish a separate identity for their more electronic and Western fusion project. So, for their Mondo Melodia release, they became Shabaz, literally King Eagle, but also a reference to the family's beloved Sufi saint, Lal Shabaz Qalander. Shabaz is an incredibly rich synthesis of Qawwali, jazz fusion, rap, and Bhangra featuring 2 of the most powerful voices in Qawwali today with the extraordinary instrumentalist Richard Michos and ensemble. Riffat participated in an international songwriters retreat that took place in the South of France in 2001. With such luminaries as Khaled, Hakim, Jeff Beck, and Simon Shaheen on hand, Riffat, working with Narada Walden, composed one of the most popular songs of the retreat, Queenie's Jam, which became a track on the Shabaz album. Shabaz offered groove music with intensely exciting vocals from Riffat and Sukhawat. When the album was released in September, 2001, many took notice, including Quincy Jones, who would later sign Riffat up for his mega-concert in Italy in the spring of 2004.
Riffat has grown to become a confident composer and performer. Along with Richard and her brother, she wrote more than half the material on Shabaz. Over the years, she has performed Punjabi folk, devotional Sufi songs, classical music, as well as ghazal, geet, and electronic and acoustic fusion. As she tours widely and records under her own name, Riffat Sultana is making her family, her country, and her ancestors proud, and bringing a truly spectacular voice and talent to the world stage.
Photo: Salamat Ali Khan and Riffat Sultana
reviews and press releases
With influences ranging from Zakir Hussain to Jimi Hendrix and dance music he (Richard Michos) brings an open Western sensibility to the band’s sound adding the colors and textures of electronic beats, dance, rock and ambient music to create a heady irresistible mix. As the Ali Khan Band, Shabaz (which translates as ‘Chief Eagle’) recorded two albums for City of Tribes. Their 1998 debut Tawsir appeared at the top of the CMJ New World Music chart and Zindagi (Urdu for ‘Life’) their follow-up disc reached similar heights in 2000. (Source)
Michos brought the studio expertise, and his rock guitar background, to a disc that blended dancefloor-programmed beats and samples with rock music and vocals that ranged from Indian classical to qawwali to some that moved beyond easy classification, adding rapping, pedal steel guitar, and even a didgeridu to the mix. The album was successful, rising on world music charts, and the band opened for such major stars as King Sunny Ade and Femi Kuti. (Source)
Based in the San Francisco area, they played with artists like Femi Kuti and King Sunny Ade transporting crowds with every gig. They continued to work and shape their sound polishing and refining pushing their unique talents across more musical boundaries from the rhythmic richness of Bhangra, to the experimentation of Chela, where club beats frame intoxicating passionate vocals. They had their unique vision of a true world fusion where continents and histories come together in the music of the dance. (Source)
Qalanderi, another Sufi track features the sensuous vocals of Riffat Sultana. “Qalanderi” is a luminous example of what Cheb i Sabbah does best: taking a valuable artifact and with great care and joy reinventing it for a contemporary audience. This trippy and slow-burning qawwali takes off into the stratosphere and brings to mind the fervent dances of whirling dervishes. (Source)
This is club music, fueled by hypnotic rhythms, brisk beats, and textures as adventurous as the voices they accompany. (Source)
Riffat Sultana is the first woman from her family’s musical lineage to publicly perform in the west. Riffat’s stunning vocals have been recorded for numerous labels including Ark 21 / Universal, Triloka / Mercury, Hearts of Space, City of Tribes, 6 Degrees and XDot25. She performs a wide variety of traditional and modern materials from Pakistan and India, including Sufi, Geet, Ghazal, Filmi, Qawwali, and Light Classical. Her performances include devotional and ecstatic Pakistani Sufi songs to great saints like Shahabaz Qalander. (Source)
Formerly the Ali Khan Band, Shabaz are actually part of an eleven-generation continuum: the brother and sister duo at the heart of the band are the children of the great classical singer Salamat Ali Khan. Sukhawat and Riffat joined with Riffat's husband Richard Michos, a guitarist and producer, to use their classical training in new settings. The resulting fusion of jazz, Hindustani classical, rock and electronica has caught the ears of luminaries like DJ Cheb I Sabbah, among others. (Source)