Thursday, June 23, 2016

How we shot the messenger

Yesterday brought the shocking news of the murder in Karachi of the great Pakistani qawwal singer Amjad Farid Sabri, killed according to early reports by the Taliban. News media has focussed on the circumstances of his death, with minimal coverage of his art other than via the easy option of embedded YouTube clips. But Amjad Farid Sabri deserves to be remembered for more than being a famous Sufi singer who was allegedly murdered by the Taliban; both because he was part of a musical dynasty that built pioneering cultural bridges between the East and West, and because his backstory provides a valuable perspective on the sectarian violence that continues to blight the Indian subcontinent.

Amjad Farid Sabri - seen above - was born in 1976. He was the son of Ghulam Farid Sabri (1930-1994), who was one of the two musicians - the other was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan - responsible for popularising the genre of Sufi devotional music known as qawwali. Ghulam Farid Sabri came from a celebrated family of musicians that stretched back to the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great (1542-1605). In contrast to the cultural dualism of the 21st century, Ghulam Farid Sabri was trained in both qawwali and Hindustani classical music; the latter being a product of the Hindu culture of Northern India.

Their involvement with Hindustani music reflected the Sabri family's roots in the part of the Punjab that is now in India. Following Partition in 1947 into the Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan sectarian violence erupted in the Punjab; so the Muslim Sabri family relocated to a squalid refugee camp outside Karachi in the new state of Pakistan where they lived for two years. The Partition of India, which was no more than a fatally flawed but expedient exit strategy for colonial Britain, prompted a conveniently forgotten humanitarian tragedy. In the first two years of Partition more than fifteen million people were uprooted; the final death toll is unknown but conservative estimates put it at more than one million. Writing in his history of Partition Midnight’s Furies, Nisid Hajari reports how "Some British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasted on spits.”

Ghulam Farid Sabri survived the post-Partition horrors and established a reputation as an outstanding exponent of Qawwali. In 1956 he formed the Sabri Brothers qawwali party with his brother Maqbool Ahmed Sabri, and he started his recording career with EMI Pakistan in 1958. The Sabri Brothers played a seminal role in the evolution of qawwali as we know it today. They fused popular ragas associated with the Mughal court of Akbar the Great with Middle Eastern rhythms driven by the dholak and tabla which invoked the heartland of Islam. The arrival of television in Pakistan in 1967 with weekly qawwali programmes boosted the popularity of the Sabri Brothers in their homeland. In 1975 the Sabri Brothers undertook a pioneering American tour and performed at Carnegie Hall. During a second American tour in 1978 they recorded the album for Nonesuch's Explorer Series seen below, a disc which introduced many Western listeners - including this writer - to qawwali. Amjad Farid Sabri had been taught by his father since a young age, and in 1982 at the age of twelve he joined his father's qawwali party. Following the deaths of his father in 1994 and uncle Maqbool Ahmed in 2011 he became a leading exponent of qawwali, and his genre-bending performances with ensembles such as the Chicago-based hip-hop band FEW connected with a new young audience.

There is absolutely no debate that the Taliban should be condemned for the murder of Amjad Farid Sabri, if they were indeed responsible. But as H.L. Mencken told us, for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong. And it is clear, simple, and wrong to blame the Taliban alone for his death. As William Dalrymple explained in a thoughtful New Yorker article: "Today, both India and Pakistan remain crippled by the narratives built around memories of the crimes of Partition, as politicians (particularly in India) and the military (particularly in Pakistan) continue to stoke the hatreds of 1947 for their own ends". The Taliban and their inexcusable atrocities are part of the monstrous legacy from British colonial ambitions in India and American political ambitions in Afghanistan and elsewhere. So it can be argued that we are all in some way responsible for the murder of Amjad Farid Sabri. But let us avoid the trap that has ensnared other commentators of allocating blame. Tragic though his death is, we must remember Amjad Farid Sabri for his music which brought a venerable spiritual tradition to 21st century audiences.

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