26 October 2016
Insaan Culture Club
Reviewed by Daneesh Majid
Seeing an Indian dancing to the magic of a Pakistani musician shows there is hope for South Asian solidarity.
Image: Daneesh Majid
An Evening of Attunement and Sufiyana Solidarity
India and Pakistan were on the brink of armed conflict during the past month as people-to-people ties between both countries ended up in the political crossfire.
But The Insaan Culture Club’s fun-filled evening Attunement was a reminder that music does not just soothe ears. Long before Sufi melodies travelled across borders via Coke Studio or Bollywood soundtracks, they brought Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs in syncretic harmony centuries earlier.
That too, not only to mystically entrance people in praise of revered saints but to foster a spirit of universal brotherhood. When recreating that same essence at the SOAS Djam Hall, Insaan could not have hosted a more fitting artist than prolific Pakistani musician Arieb Azhar.
From the onset, Fizza Imam’s brilliantly crafted medley expressed the existing yet elusive Indo-Pak camaraderie. Her serene mezzo-soprano voice and guitar told the story of two friends named ‘Indira’ and ‘Pakeezah’ whose parents demand that they discontinue their friendship.
She commenced her opening act with a Farida Khanum gem “Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo” to signify Pakeezah’s lament over the forced separation. Equally grieved, she followed up with Indira’s response via a Bollywood ballad “Bin Tere.”
It obviously did not take a security analyst to deduce who the real-life counterparts to these characters were. The sheer creativity by which Fizza interspersed an allegorical narrative with many other Desi hits set the tone for an extraordinary evening.
The musical bard Arieb Azhar then had everyone singing along (and sometimes shaking a leg) to soulful tunes rooted in the Punjabi lyrics of humanistic poets. His potent voice harmonized by violinist May Robertson gave sonorous life to the immortal words of poet Bulleh Shah with "Paave Tu Jaan Na Jaan." The singer/guitarist similarly did justice to Mian Muhammad Baksh’s composed poem "Saif ul Mulook."
Furthermore, Azhar’s signature versatility was on full display when he switched gears to Urdu for “Jab Hum Kutte The,” a song that described how hungry rabid dogs are more civilized than greedy humans. Not many artists can pull off a set that includes song names like “Charsi Bhangi” (meaning ‘junkie leper’) after singing a mystical Amir Khusro classic “Chhaap Tilak.” One would also find Balkan Gypsy music at a Sufi gathering rather strange, but Arieb Azhar’s melodic ingenuity ensured that it did not feel out of place.
Qalandari dhamaals (songs honouring wandering Sufi ascetics) that exalt renowned saint Laal Shahbaz Qalandar have always played a special role in evoking a Sufiyana ambience. Be it “Dar Ragda” or “Utho Rindo Piyo Jaam-e-Qalandar,” these rhythmic tunes had the audience clapping their palms, tapping their feet, and most of all swaying to the beat. Plus, what would a Sufi gig be without “Laal Meri Pat” and “Dum Mast Qalandar Mast Mast?”
However, the star of the night was Azhar’s musical rendition of a Ghulam Farid poem titled “Husn-e-Haqiqi.” Not only was this song extraordinary for its inclusion on Coke Studio Season Two, but it also extolled the different names and forms through which humans define spirituality. Hence this was instrumental in celebrating an interfaith union that cuts across religious and ethnic fissures.
Sufism’s goal is to nurture such a confluence and the Insaan Culture Club definitely succeeded in doing so.