July issue 2016
Singer, Not the Song: Remembering Amjad Sabri
A lot of people think that I sing to carry forward the qawwali tradition of my father and uncle,” Amjad Fareed Sabri would often say. “A few believe that I sing because I am a capable musician. Then, there are those who believe I sing to make a living. None of these people are entirely correct because I sing for a totally different reason. I recite qawwali because of my love for our Prophet (PBUH). Singing in praise of the Prophet (PBUH) is the greatest pleasure of my life.”
The devoted lover of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was gunned down in Karachi on June 22, 2016. His funeral prayers in Karachi’s Liaquatabad area saw one of the largest congregations in the city’s history. It drew people from all walks of life — people who revered him; people who loved him. Amjad Fareed Sabri was a very loveable man. Besides being a devout Sufi and a renowned qawwal, he was a fine human being.
His generosity and largesse were not limited to his wife, five children and family members. There was a vast circle of friends and neighbours who depended on him for sustenance. He was the friend you could always call on — one who was caring, sincere and helpful. And always very pleasant — he was never known to have lost his temper in his 40-year long life. A tolerant, moderate and enlightened Muslim, Sabri avoided pointed questions about his faith. When asked if he subscribed to Shia or Sunni Islam, he would invariably smile and say, “I follow the Holy Prophet’s (PBUH) religion of love, peace and tolerance.”
Amjad Fareed Sabri belonged to a storied family of musicians who followed the Seniya Gharana of music established by the great Mian Tansen in the sixteenth century. His ancestors included both celebrated vocalists and instrumentalists. His father, Ghulam Farid Sabri Qawwal, and his uncle, Maqbool Ahmed Sabri Qawwal, took up qawwali as their genre of choice when they migrated to Pakistan in 1947. Initially, the two musicians worked as members of Kallan Khan Qawwal’s renowned qawwali ensemble; later, in 1956 they formally launched their own qawwal party — the Sabri Brothers. Within a few years, the duo were ranked among the most popular and well-known qawwals in the world.
Amjad Fareed Sabri’s training in music began at the age of six. He was trained both in classical vocal music and qawwali. His gave his first public performance at the age of nine and took on the mantle of leading the Sabri qawwals in 1996, two years after the death of his father.
Amjad Fareed Sabri’s repertoire of qawwalis was extensive. It included numbers composed by Hazrat Amir Khusro, the works of Sufi Saints and modern poems. His most famous qawwalis were the modern works that he introduced himself and not the traditional qawwalis. Indeed, he is one of the few qawwals who have added to the repertoire of the genre, and his compositions have been sung by qawwals of gharanas other than his own.
Sabri did not display the arrogance often seen in hereditary musicians, who consider all but classical music unworthy and unimportant. Sabri enjoyed both classical and popular music. He was a huge fan of Muhammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Noor Jehan. He considered their songs to be veritable treasures of South Asian music and often sang them at his concerts. He also enjoyed popular Western music. George Michael’s ‘Never Gonna Dance Again’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’ were two songs that he liked, in particular. He would sing them all the time. “I love all music,” he would say. “It does not always have to be qawwali. As long as it touches my heart, I enjoy it.”
Amjad Fareed Sabri sang for the sheer pleasure of singing. Money, fame and fortune were, to him, incidental benefits of being a qawwal. Of course, he liked being paid well because he considered his fee to be a measure of his standing as a qawwal. Yet, he had little, if any, attachment to money. It was something he spent liberally on himself, his family and his friends. The giving of money as nazar (the offering made to qawwals by listeners) is an ancient tradition of qawwali concerts. In recent years, the country’s nouveau riche have taken to throwing money on qawwals to show their appreciation. Sabri was known to have discouraged the practice. “I am not a nautch girl who needs to be showered with money for encouragement,” he would say. “I recite sacred texts that demand solemnity and respect. I would rather make less than insult the saints in whose praise I sing qawwalis. I cannot allow anything that prevents me from
delivering a spiritually sound performance.”
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