Musical notes

If you think that secularism is the only antidote to Islamic fundamentalism, you should hear the Sufi music of Abida Parveen, Pakistan's Nina Simone
June 18, 2005

Karachi, 3am, winter 1999. I am sitting in a garden where the temperature is several degrees higher than in the adjoining driveway. It could be because of all the people packed into the garden, but it seems more plausible that the heat is generated by the woman on stage. With her hands raised above her head, she is belting out songs in a voice that can veer from heartbreak to ecstasy as though they are adjacent emotions. Someone sitting next to me asks, "Do you think the neighbours mind?" Another responds: "Mind? Are you crazy? This is Abida Parveen!"

It might begin to convey her status—and that of the Sufi music she sings—to explain that you could find entire neighbourhoods, possibly towns, in Pakistan where the residents would be delighted to be kept up until dawn by the sound of Parveen. There are a host of political, cultural and religious comments to be made about her popularity and importance, but all discussion of Abida Parveen must start with her sound.

"Pakistan's Nina Simone!" an English friend of mine said when I took him to hear her at the South Bank a few years ago, and it is true the two singers share something in the resonance and strength of their voices. And as Simone moved between the blues, gospel and jazz, so Abida Parveen's repertoire includes the ghazal, the kafi and the qawwali (the last involving an improvisational quality that some listeners compare to scat). She is a remarkable qawwal—the rendition of "Must Qalandar" with which she ends many of her concerts is among the most rousing pieces of music anyone is ever likely to hear, and is one of the many reasons she is often talked of as the heir to the great Pakistani qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan—but it is with the kafi that she is most closely associated.

Love songs with mystical undertones, kafis make use of refrains that form the fixed points around which the singer can string together verses from many different sources. Though most kafis are written by men (Abida Parveen feels a special affinity to those of the Sufi saint Shah Abdul Latif), the poets often take on a female persona as they write of their passion for God, which allows Parveen to bring a particular intimacy to their words.

The writer and critic Aamer Hussein explains Parveen's widespread popularity by pointing out that "she combines classical and folk in the best possible way, and brings together a modern sensibility with classical training. She is able to cut across barriers—she appeals equally to people who like dancing, to those who listen for the pleasures of sound and to those who understand the demands of kafi and qawwali."

The near devotion with which Parveen is regarded in Pakistan owes a great deal to the genre to which she harnesses her remarkable voice. She moves from one style to another, but all within the Sufi tradition of music, with God as the beloved and the singer/poet as the supplicant/lover. To understand how radical this paradigm is, it is necessary only to consider the role of third party intervention in the relationship of lovers—it is almost always unwanted, meddlesome and irrelevant. In other words, the Sufic tradition does not allow for any outside force to impose its will, its interpretation, on that relationship between the individual and God. So no clerics, no "learned scholars," no governments are in any position to dictate the terms under which one can express or enact one's relationship to God.

Bulle Shah, one of Pakistan's most famous Sufi saints, has a couplet:

Masjid dha de, mandir dha de, dha de jo kucch dainda

Par kisi da dil na dhain, Rab dilan vich rehnda.

Destroy the mosque, destroy the temple, destroy everything in sight

But never destroy a human heart—for there God resides.

Abida Parveen echoed this sentiment in a recent interview, saying "Religion was made by man, love was made by God." That she has been able to freely express such ideas in Pakistan over the last three decades—starting in the years of General Zia's military rule, which were characterised by the political ascent of Islamic orthodoxy—says a great deal about how deep-rooted the Sufi tradition is, particularly in the provinces of Sindh and the Punjab (it is no coincidence that these are the two of Pakistan's four provinces in which Islamic fundamentalists have historically been weakest).

Those who think secularism is the antidote to fundamentalism should make their way to one of the annual festivals of the Sufi saints: over half a million devotees come to listen to Sufic singers express devotion in a manner that makes a mockery of the claim that ecstatic music is antithetical to Islam. In Pakistan, very few people express a real interest in secularism—for most, religion is part of the fabric of life, and secularism denotes absence. But Sufism, with its ideas of love and tolerance, is a very real presence. And no politician or religious leader, no matter how orthodox, has ever dared challenge it.

Abida Parveen will appear at the Merchant Taylors' Hall, London EC2 on 21st June. Enquiry Tel: 020 7499 1287