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Journeys: Music Without Borders

By Manisha Sharma Email By Manisha Sharma
February 2023
Journeys: Music Without Borders

An Indian immigrant living in the Boston area reflects on connections with home—and the culture of the subcontinent—through music from Pakistan.

I had long known about the mesmerizing Sufi devotional music known as qawwali thanks to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, of course. But it was the opening sequence of Mira Nair’s film The Reluctant Fundamentalist around ten years ago that got me interested in learning more about this genre. I have been hooked since.

The film, based on Mohsin Hamid’s brilliant novel, opens with the qawwals singing at the home of a well-to-do family in Lahore. This particular piece with its melody, song structure, and accompanying chorus stayed with me. An online search for the music and artists threw up Fareed Ayaz and company’s performance of “Kangna” on Coke Studio. My YouTube account has since been responsible for a few thousand views of the video over the years.

Fareed Ayaz and company were to perform at Harvard University as part of a series titled “75 Years of Azadi: A Celebration of South Asia,” but didn’t get visas in time. By then I had already booked my ticket. The concert went ahead, but with Harvard alum Ali Sethi from Pakistan based in New York. Besides his mega-viral worldwide hit “Pasoori,” he performed several well-loved songs from the past decades while riffing with the audience, which included some of his former professors at Harvard. This time I went home and searched online for “Luddi Hai Jamalo.” I am quickly adding to the YouTube view count for all the different versions of that song.

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[Top] Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad & Brothers perform in the Boston area.

The year 2022 became one of personal exposure to and appreciation of musicians from Pakistan. In April, the Grammy for Best Global Music Performance was awarded to Arooj Aftab for her “Mohabbat” and introduced me to her enthralling voice and musical arrangements. For my year-end recap, YouTube informs me that I’m among her top 3 percent listeners.

Arooj Aftab’s treatment of Hafeez Hoshiarpuri’s ghazal “Mohabbat” is an absolute sensory delight. You bet that I was there when she and her troupe performed at the Berklee College of Music, her alma mater. “Between the first Pakistani win at the Grammys, the first Pakistani film to be selected at the Cannes Film Festival, a Pakistani song topping the most searched list on Google, local actors featured in international series, and the highest-grossing film in the history of Pakistani cinema, 2022 has been a banner year for Pakistani art,” observes Surbhi Gupta, South Asia Editor at New Lines magazine.

A sold-out performance

Back to Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad & Brothers, who finally obtained their U.S. visas. The Pakistani Association of Greater Boston booked them for a performance in a suburb 35 miles west of Boston. By the time I tried getting tickets the show was sold out. Our South Asian network came to the rescue and, after a flurry of WhatsApp messaging, I had secured a spot for an evening of qawwali.

A low stage with a resplendent white, pink, and gold backdrop at one end of a large hall lit with crystal-like light fixtures and a central chandelier set the mood. A multigenerational audience in an array of outfits ranging from shalwar suits, chooridar pyjamas, suits, saris, ridas, sherwanis, and a variety of caps lined up for the entry wristbands. Many, like me, had stoles draped over one or both shoulders—both men and women.

No one seemed fazed by the announcement that the 7 p.m. show would start at 7:45 p.m. The extra time provided an opportunity to catch up with old friends or find connections with new ones over food being sold in another hall. Besides the biryani, kebabs, samosa-chole-yogurt combo boxes for sale, there was complimentary tea, mithai (sweets), and a make-it-yourself paan station with fresh betel leaf, jars of red and green goop, fennel seed-based dry mix, and a tiny round box of chuna or slaked lime. No instruction sheet.

While I’ve enjoyed many a meetha (sweet) paan and watched them being prepared, the DIY version didn’t go well. I spooned the ingredients onto the leaf all right, but when it came to chuna, I dropped a large blob instead of slapping a hint of it on the leaf. The stinging sensation at a corner of my mouth lasted for days despite the rasmalai I immediately gobbled as an antidote.

In the food line, I met Rupesh, who had driven for over an hour with his partner for the event. Rupesh’s love of qawwali began in his hometown Hyderabad, India, where he attended many performances. In contrast, this was the first live qawwali for Faaiz, a Lahore native and a recent college graduate in the Boston area. He had only experienced qawwali on YouTube so far. In the six years he has been away, however, live qawwali shows have become popular with his friends back home in Pakistan. The generation gap leapt out when I mentioned Amar Akbar Anthony. He had never heard of this popular 1970s Hindi film featuring the qawwali-based hit song “Parda hai Parda.”

Most tickets, like mine, had no assigned seating. Someone announced that the two front rows directly in front of the stage were “reserved for VIPs.” Given the global propensity to equate money with importance, this meant those who had bought the more expensive tickets. The level floor made it difficult for people at the back of the hall to see the stage, and many got up to find a better view. Some lined up along the sides of the hall, while a few went and sat on cushions in front of the stage. Some like me stood at the back of the room.

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The qawwals were still warming up when a young man in black drew attention by getting up from his seat and dancing, waving his hands with loud “waah, waahs.” After a few minutes, Fareed Ayaz addressed him directly with a good-humored but firm “aap baith jaiye” (please sit). Clearly, this level of enthusiasm was out of sync at this stage of the qawwali session.

I understood from this mild admonition early in the performance that the audience needs to follow the qawwals’ cues. Each song progresses to a crescendo, leading towards the qawwali’s climax. The audience too must experience the music internally before expressing themselves outwardly. In the sufi tradition, the musician strives to achieve a union of the self with the spiritual through the medium of music. Also, as my friend Pratyush noted, qawwalis sung at the beginning of the program are devotional, moving only later to the more popular and well-known songs. The qawwals engaged in powerful singing for over two hours interspersed with an enunciation of specific lyrics and phrases. With only a basic knowledge of Urdu I couldn’t catch all the meanings and nuances of the layered poetry. Not to worry, I told myself, since YouTube videos are available for catching up.

The main vocalists Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad also made space for other members of the troupe to sing solo. The audience responded to the rhythm of the tabla, the dholak, and the clapping with raised arms, hands slightly bent at the wrist. This steadily built up to clapping. Many started to stand and move rhythmically in place. The enthusiastic young man in black saw that it was safe to get up and start dancing again. One way of expressing appreciation to the qawwals is presenting them respectfully with currency notes. Many approached the stage, some multiple times, sometimes taking others along with them.

As always, “Dama Dam Mast Qalandar” at the end of the evening got just about everyone up and moving. I first heard the Bangladeshi singer Runa Laila’s rendition of this beloved song, but there are so many versions and variations available to enjoy.

This was a special evening not just because I was able to watch a live performance of the qawwals that I greatly admire but also because I experienced firsthand how the music connects and elevates us. I wonder which music video I will obsessively watch next.


Born in Dehradun, India, where she grew up, Manisha Sharma has lived in the Boston area for over two decades. She works as a consumer insights professional and attempts to stay engaged with South Asian issues, causes, and culture. Source: Sapan News Network. www.southasiapeace.com .


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