If you think that secularism is the only antidote to Islamic fundamentalism, you should hear the Sufi music of Abida Parveen, Pakistan's Nina Simoneby Kamila Shamsie / June 19, 2005 / Leave a comment
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…