Tribute to Amjad Sabri: the man who held his own against the tide of commercialized Sufi music

Renowned qawwal Amjad Farid Sabri was shot dead today by unknown gunmen when he was passing through Liaqatabad in Karachi. His loss will be deeply felt by fans and followers, who live all around the world and are from diverse religions and creeds.

A scion of the famous Sabriyya Sufi order, Sabri had to live up to the prestigious name made by his father, Ghulam Farid Sabri, who founded the Sabri brothers group along with his younger brother Maqbool Ahmed Sabri. The Sabris have a musical history stretching back centuries to the Mughal era, and claim direct descent from Mian Tansen, a musical virtuoso in Akbar’s court.

Read more: Amjad Sabri’s funeral to be held tomorrow

More recently, the Sabri brothers were catapulted into global recognition by becoming the first exponents of Sufi qawwalis in the West when they performed in front of packed crowd in New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Ghulam Sabri inculcated his two sons, including Amjad Sabri, into the qawwal tradition at the tender age of 9. As the younger Amjad recalls, “Most riyaz is done in Raag Bhairon and this is an early morning raag. My mother would urge our father to let us sleep but he would still wake us up.” And, despite the hardships, he understood the importance of such discipline, even at an early age. “He [Ghulam Sabri] was correct in doing so [waking his sons up before the crack of dawn] because if a raag is rendered at the correct time, the performer himself enjoys it to the fullest.”

Also read: TTP Hakimullah Mehsud group claims responsibility for Sabri’s assasination

 

Like most child prodigies who find their calling early in life, Amjad Sabri progressed from feat to feat in the world of qawwali until he eventually attained mastery of the form. In his first performance with his father back in 1988, Sabri, who was still only 12 years old at the time, wowed audiences with his well-developed voice which soon matured into a burly baritone with age. Since then, he has been regaling audiences with his heartfelt renditions of Sufi kalaams, both at home and abroad.

The tragic loss of Amjad Sabri will be felt long after today, while news of his death is still being carried by the news cycle. As the person billed with carrying forward the qawwal tradition after the deaths of his illustrious father and uncle, his death will impact his fans and followers of the Sufi tradition for years to come.

VIDEO: Amjad Sabri’s emotional last Kalaam
Upon the untimely death of Sabri’s uncle Maqbool Ahmed in 2011, pop singer Abbas Ali Khan said, “Qawwali, in its true form, will be lost, as modern day artists have commercialized Sufi music so much that it fails to exist in its true form,” adding that the mantle of carrying forward the art in its true form had now fallen on the shoulders of his nephew. Yet, even with his many talents, the humble Amjad Sabri – true to Sufi form – felt that the burden of carrying this mantle was “too heavy”.

And maybe it was. In the age of Coke Studio and slickly produced performance videos, carrying forward the qawwal tradition was maybe too much to expect from one man. Yet Sabri managed, even in the face of such odds.

Related: Why Amjad Sabri never informed police of the threats he received before he was shot dead

While the reasons for why Sabri was killed are still unknown, the snatching away of his life can be seen in the context of Sufism’s larger struggle to retain its foothold in Pakistani and South Asian culture. Since 2001, there have been numerous attacks on the shrines of celebrated Sufi figures and thinkers, including Rehman Baba and Data Ganj Baksh. Let us hope that Sabri’s untimely death does not leave the prospects for Sufi thought in the region even more bleak.

We still need an Amjad Sabri among us. He carried the mantle of the Sabri order after the death of his uncle when no one else could. But now after his own death, his fans and followers around the world are at a loss to say who will carry this heavy mantle after him. On the day of his tragic death, let us promise that his struggle to curb the dilution of his pure art form and the Sufi tradition will go on.

Read more: Renowned qawwal Amjad Sabri shot dead in Karachi

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Ahmad Durrani

Ahmad Durrani is Associate Editor at Daily Pakistan Global. He is also an independent researcher and journalist working for Tanqeed, a South Asian journal of politics and culture. He tweets at @ahmad_sdurrani.