Riffat Sultana
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Riffat Sultana

San Francisco, California, United States | Established. Jan 01, 1998 | MAJOR

San Francisco, California, United States | MAJOR
Established on Jan, 1998
Band World Folk





I admire people whose lives are fueled by passion and are undefeated in the face of obstacles. Pakistani vocalist Riffat Sultana, who received a standing ovation after her performance at the Skirball last week, is one such person. When I began to plan concerts that could be presented in association with Women Hold Up Half the Sky, Riffat instantly came to mind. During her visit to Los Angeles, I got a chance to talk to her and learn much more about her personal journey.

Riffat and her new acoustic ensemble during soundcheck at the Skirball. During the concert, her deep and modulating voice and ecstatic singing were enthralling.
Riffat Sultana did not always have the freedom to sing. Although she is the daughter of esteemed classical Hindustani (North Indian) vocalist Ustad Salamat Ali Khan and raised in a family of musicians that goes back eleven generations, she was forbidden to study classical ragas and perform in public because of her gender. Her brothers were taken under her father’s tutelage, but she and her sisters were denied his vast musical knowledge. For Riffat, the prohibition to sing was a torment.

The status of women in Pakistan varies considerably depending on the woman’s class, whether she lives in a rural or urban area, the state of socio-economic development where she lives, and the impact of tribal, feudal, and social customs on her life. What is generally true is that Pakistani culture considers it inappropriate for a woman—at least one from a “respectable” family—to perform publicly. Ironically, Riffat’s father taught one of the greatest Sufi singers of all times, a female, Abida Parveen! Then again, Abida’s case is rare: her father, legendary singer Ustad Ghulam Haider, decided when she was only five years old that she, a daughter, would inherit the family tradition instead of his sons. Thank goodness even the strictest of gender codes allow for an exception or two!

Riffat Sultana’s father, the great Ustad Salamat Ali Khan (second from left),
performing with his brother Nazakat (third from left).

Although she was not allowed to learn music formally, Riffat’s passion for music only grew. Undeterred, she sought lessons from her mother, also a skilled singer, who could only perform in the private sphere. Riffat also spent hours listening to and learning from cassette tapes.

In 1990–1991, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan took Riffat on tour with him to Europe and the United States. She was not allowed to sing and had to fulfill the domestic needs of her father and brothers. But Riffat was permitted to play the tambura (a stringed drone instrument) on stage. For Riffat this was a prime opportunity to continue absorbing the music of her heritage.

Allowed to remain in the U.S. with one of her brothers, Riffat eventually took a great risk: she began to perform in public as a singer. For years she performed clandestinely, scared if word of one of her shows got back to Pakistan. With one foot in a restricted world of tradition and the other in a promising new realm of possibilities, her life proved awkward and challenging. Over time, though, Riffat’s musical career became an open secret, and her father gave his blessing for her to sing. Riffat told me that towards the end of his life, he even gave her a lesson or two. Since then, Riffat’s musicianship has blossomed, though her public performances are still frowned upon by many of her family members.

Riffat Sultana singing “Tu Mera Dil Tu Meri Jaan (Thou art my heart, thou art my life),” one of my favorite Punjabi songs, made famous by Pakistani musical icon Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Backstage at the Skirball, Riffat told me that the call to perform is larger than herself, for music is in her blood, her soul. As I watched her on stage—the set list contained qawwali pieces, ghazals, folk songs, compositions by her younger brother Shafqat Ali Khan and Abida Parveen, and one Bollywood tune—I thought that perhaps one reason Riffat’s performances have such emotional power for me is that she sings for all the women in her distinguished family who never had that chance before. As the first woman in her family to stand up for her right to self-expression, she is a source of inspiration for her female kin and a new generation of aspiring vocalists. Her dream, she says, is to have her sister and her nieces, all equally gifted singers, in her ensemble. I hope she is able to fulfill that dream. To hear onstage the female lineage of the Ali Khan family would bring so much hope to talented women vocalists who so often go unheard. - Yatrika Shah-Rais

"Riffat Sultana"

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 herselfghazals 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. - Jeff Tamarkin

"Album Review Zindagi"

Editorial Reviews
The qawwali/trip-hop/rock fusion style that the Ali Khan Band introduced on their first release, Taswir, is perfected and taken to new levels on this album.Taswir was an interesting and impressive album, but Zindagi is more polished and more diverse than its predecessor. It seems as though the band has gotten more comfortable with their signature style and is therefore willing to take more risks and introduce different sounds. It's unusual for an act to use a saxophone, a rapper, and tablas in the same track -- and even more unusual for them to make it cohesive -- but this band actually manages to do it. The title track, "Mere Zindagi," has an almost Western-style hook that winds itself through the whole song and inspires listeners to sing along, even if they understand none of the words. Isaac J. Frierson raps on "Piyar Piyar" and "Mast Kalander," lending bits of dancehall and hip-hop to each song, while "Sindhri Do's" light tone is reminiscent of earlier works byKing Sunny Ade. The beginning of "Gorak Kalyan" sounds for all the world like early-'90s smooth jazz, but the tune swiftly shifts into a more traditional Middle Eastern style. Zindagi floats cheerfully yet purposefully along and draws the listener with it. It's a varied, intriguing, highly musical work that can compare to any other album in the genre. ~ L. Katz, Rovi All Music Guide - L. Katz


Riffat Sultana Discography (partial)

 Please visit ITunes Riffat Sultana or You Tube Riffat Sultana for numerous single and album releases.

Tawsir (City of Tribes, 1998)            

Sufi, Folk,& Love Songs  (self produced 2006)

Zindagi (City of Tribes, 2000)

Shabaz (Mondo Melodia, 2001  


 Various - We Are The Future: You Are The Answer (CD, Comp)Universal Music Special Markets,WAF ProductionsWAF Productions2004 
  • Forgiven
Janaka Selekta* - Pushing Air(CD)Chaiwalla'sBoombox2010  
  • Qalanderi
Cheb I Sabbah* - Devotion

Six Degrees Records


2008Voices of Spheres CD(1997)                           XDot 25



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 Bhangra.  Her electric ensemble lays down funky danceable grooves that build to ecstasy as her soaring vocal  lifts the audience to emotional trance and dance inducing heights. Her acoustic ensemble features more traditional instruments including tabla, bansuri flute, and 12 string guitar, and she often fuses the two lineups.  Highlighting her performances are  devotional, and ecstatic Sufi songs to great saints like Shahabaz Qalander and Baba Bule Shah, sure to move your heart, soul, and feet! 

Band Members