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LISTEN: Sufi Field Recordings Compiled By Arshia Fatima Haq
Christian Eede , July 12th, 2017 15:43

Arshia Fatima Haq tells us about her work as a sound recorder and the excellent, recently released compilation of field recordings of Sufi devotional music she has put together

Sound recorder and compiler Arshia Fatima Haq is founder of Discostan, a collective of artists which looks to "curate sound, image and text from an imagined federation of states from Beirut to Bangkok via Bombay", as the accompanying notes to her first release with Seattle-based label Sublime Frequencies state.

Sublime Frequencies have been focused on exposing audiences to a variety of obscure sounds from rural and urban settings, mostly across Southeast Asia, North Africa and West Africa and the Middle East since their founding in 2003. A lot of their releases have featured field recordings, as well as compilations of music local to the aforementioned regions. The label's latest release, compiled by Fatima Haq, focuses on the field recordings that make up much of their output.

Entitled Ishq Ke Maare: Sufi Songs from Sindh and Punjab, Pakistan, the compilation takes in field recordings of Sufi devotional music collected from the Punjab and Sindh regions of Pakistan. The compilation is out now, and you can stream the record in full just above.

We caught up with Fatima Haq below to discuss the compilation, Sufi music and the process of reconciling the different languages of the regions featured on the release.

What is Sufism?

Arshia Fatima Haq: I should start by saying I’m not a formal scholar or academician, and that my understanding of Sufism has come through personal experience and study. Sufism is also manifested in a diverse spectrum of practices, so it’s hard to generalise about it, but for me, what is common to almost all its forms is a personal, intuitive, and creative relationship of the individual to the divine. It’s the mystical branch of Islam, in which devotion is expressed through immersive, embodied practices, often using sonic and kinetic modes such as dhikr, or chanting, music and physical movement as a ritualistic means to transcend the anchoring of the body to the earthly plane and to approach the spiritual realm, sometimes through inducing trance states.

One thing that I have learned and also observed is that Sufism tended to absorb long-rooted indigenous practices that predated Islam as it spread through Asia, and in doing that, it created supple, resilient spaces of worship that are very localised and relevant to the populations among which it exists. Often, Sufi saints and theologians were also advocates of social justice, providing forums for the unheard voices of people suffering from political or racial injustice. In the subcontinent, there’s a strong emphasis on the feminine - in fact some of the male saints wrote in the female gender as they felt that represented the voice that needed most to be heard (as in the song on the album “Shah Jo Raag”).

Because of its syncretic nature that integrates and reimagines local traditions, I see in Sufism a radical outlet in a way, a critical resistance towards the often monolithic, hegemonic forms of politico-religious Islam that are being forced on Muslims all around the world today. Through its poetry, its songs, its architecture, its embrace of vernacular languages, histories, and rituals, and its diverse constituency, Sufism is perhaps the most vital counterpoint to the neoliberal brand of Wahabi/Salafi Islam that is actively working to erase local memory and sites of religious significance in our current historical moment.

Unfortunately, Sufi spaces are frequent targets of fundamentalist attacks; many of the shrines have been subject to bombings over the years. Most recently, the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar which I spent a lot of time filming and recording in over the last couple of years was targeted in February of 2017 – it was pretty heartbreaking to hear about.

Can you describe Sufi music tradition, particularly the song forms you've included in the compilation?

AFH: Sufi musical traditions vary according to the different regions in which they are based. In Southwest Asia, qawwali and kalaam are two of the more common forms. Kalaam is basically sung verse, and usually relates the poetry and writings of local saints in the form of song. These can be a cappella, performed with a single instrument, or a small ensemble. They are often confessional, solitary communications between an individual and the divine. Qawwalis involve a larger instrumental ensemble, a choir led by a singer, and function in a call and response format - this form is more engaging of larger groups and audiences and can be seen as a musical practice of communal healing. In this context especially, the act of listening is active and just as significant as the act of performing. The space of music created between performer and listener is known as that of sama, which also means the space of listening to divine music.

Beyond these genres there are very specific regional forms such as kaafi, which is verse in the languages of Punjabi and Sindhi. There are also Urdu ghazals which are adopted from pre-Islamic forms of poetry, and usually take the form of lyrical lamentations about the separation from the beloved, a metaphor for the divine. These are just a few examples among many.

Why is Pakistan more home to Sufi music than the rest of South Asia? Why travel?

AFH: Traditionally, Sufi saints were itinerant and covered large expanses during their lifetimes, many of them journeying eastwards from North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Often they had to remain on the move due to persecution because of their heterodox practices and their revolutionary political beliefs which were seen as threats to existing bureaucracies and governments. Many settled for long periods in present day Afghanistan and Pakistan, and some of the key figures who are storied all throughout the subcontinent - such as Bulle Shah and Shabaz Lal Qalander - have their sites of burials and shrines in Punjab and Sindh, Pakistan respectively. From a very young age, I heard songs on my dad’s cassette tapes that told tales of these saints. So when I wanted to explore the living traditions of Sufi music within the subcontinent, it made sense to travel to these sites myself to experience what was happening there.

How did you find the musicians featured in these recordings?

AFH: The musicians on the recordings range from completely unknown performers, true itinerants who I encountered by chance at the various shrines, to well-known musicians who have made appearances on Pakistani television and performed internationally as well. My introductions to the more established musicians were made by Professor Fatah Daudpoto in Jamshoro, Sindh, who himself is a practicing Sufi.

Songs in the collection are in Punjabi, Urdu, Sindhi and Saraikhi. How did you reconcile language?

AFH: As I mentioned earlier, Sufi practice and expression is often very specific to the different regions in which it is found, so it is natural that languages of poetry and songs are localised for the different populations in which they are rooted. Because I covered a large expanse of northeast and southeast Pakistan, I encountered many of these linguistic differences and documented songs specific to the different regions. My native language is Urdu so I was able to translate much of this material myself, although I did work with another native speaker to verify accuracy, and I found local translators for the other material.

Do you have any particular relationship to Sufism? What attracts you to this music?

AFH: I was born into a very orthodox Sunni family in Hyderabad in South India, but my father had a lot of Shia (local term for Shi’ite) friends and also frequented a Sufi shrine in his neighbourhood, and from a very young age I felt drawn to the environment there, to the dynamism, the charged emotions, and living practices I experienced in these spaces. The music was a key part of this experience - the transcendence, the embodiment, the rapture I saw and felt in participants was very different from the by-the-book, rule-based form of Islamic practice that I was raised with at home.

I’m also very drawn to the spiritual texts from within the tradition, especially the writings of Hazrat Inayat Khan, who wrote extensively on the mysticism of sound and music. In these texts there is a poetry and active space for interpretation that often leads to more questions than answers. Many of the Sufi saints write about how they find the divine not in the mosque or the temple, but somewhere else, somewhere more personal, and in this rejection of institutional space and practice I find a possibility of radical transformation and a continuous unfolding of knowledge that I am myself enraptured by.