If Riffat Sultana sounds like a natural when she sings, chalk it up to genetics. There is an ease to the Pakistani vocalist’s delivery that suggests bloodline, and indeed she is the latest link in a chain that can be traced back half a millennium and 11 generations, to Chand Khan and Suraj Khan, legendary court musicians to Akbar the Great. Riffat’s father, classical singer Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, is himself a legend in his homeland. Originally from the Punjabi village of Sham Churasi, he and his brother Nazakat Ali Khan gained fame in the ’60s and ’70s as the Ali Brothers Today Salamat passes his knowledge on to his two sons, Shafqat Ali Khan and Sharafat Ali Khan, who perform with him.
But Riffat grew up a Muslim in a nation where women are, to put it mildly, not encouraged to become artists. Like her Indian mother, Razia, also a performer, Riffat was not initially allowed to sing in public. Observing the male members of her family practice, and knowing she too had the music in her soul, she stood in the sidelines and longed. Denied the opportunity to study classical music, she took the initiative to teach herself ghazals and other traditional songs that she’d hear from relatives and on the radio.
Eventually Riffat was allowed to accompany her father on tour in Europe, playing the tambura while still keeping her voice silent. The family performed in the United States and Riffat ultimately received permission to remain in the country, where she developed her musical skills and steadily gained a following within the Pakistani communities of America. Back home, her family remained unaware of her burgeoning popularity—one time when they ventured to San Francisco, Riffat sent her brothers, who had accepted her as a musician, to perform in her place lest the elders catch on. That’s all behind her now. With her voice now a finely honed instrument, even her father has recognized Riffat’s talent and given his blessing. Having previously sung Punjabi folk music, devotional Sufi songs and classical, even having led a trance band called Shabaz, Riffat Sultana now works in an acoustic trio with her husband, Shiraz Ali Khan, who adds a delicate touch on 12-string guitar, and Ferhan Najeeb Qureshi, a master on tabla. Calling themselves Riffat Sultana and Party, the trio is in buzz mode. With a new CD due this spring on the MI5/Caroline label, Riffat Sultana is not only doing what the women in her family never before had the opportunity to do, but ensuring that the next 500 years get off to a good start.