Where have all the Sufis gone?
by Peter Pannke
When I first travelled to the East in 1969, I had only a very vague idea about the music I was going to find. I had not foreseen that my trip would take to Sindh, nor did I expect to live for a longer period with the malangs of Sehwan Sharif and Bhitshah, as I eventually did. I had, in fact, never heard of them before, and I consider it as my good fortune that I could discover their culture on the spot. What I eventually found was not only music but also the words and images, the colours and customs which make up the extraordinary rich cultural tapestry of the Indus Valley.
The memory I cherish most is the hospitality of the people who never gave me the feeling that I was a stranger but welcomed me as a fellow human being.
My second chance to visit the country came in 1997, when I was asked by the House of World Cultures in Berlin to organize a festival of sufi music celebrating the 50th anniversary of Pakistan. Travelling up and down the Indus, I found the music to be even richer and more varied than I remembered. In view of the amazing riches of Pakistani sufi music, I focused on artists who had not yet found a western audience like the incomparable Sohrab Fakir, the surando wizard Muhammad Fakir and the Fakirs of Shah Abdul Latif whom I could inspire to sing the verses of the Risalo for the first time outside of Pakistan in an all-night performance in Berlin. To my book ‘Saints and Singers – Sufi Music of the Indus Valley’, originally complied for the festival in Germany and now presented in an English edition by Oxford University Press Karachi, I could add some new discoveries: the refined classical voice of Nasuruddin Khan Sami, the Guati ceremony led by sorud maestro Karim Bakhsh Nuri, the thrilling alghoza virtuosos Allah Bachayo and Arbab Ali Khoso, Punjabi legends Hamid Ali Bela and Pathane Khan, and alst not least Taj Mastani, Mai Sabhagi and Mai Hanju, female bards of the Thar desert. Since many of the musicians who are portrayed in the book have left us in recent years – Bahauddin Qawwal, Allah Rakha Khan, Sohrab Fakir, Muhammad Fakir, Qurban Fakir, Alan Fakir as well as my colleagues Khalid Basra and Anwar ul-Haq, who helped me to discover the beauty of Pakistani music – it stands as a memory of their music and their lives.
The term ‘sufi music’ is somewhat opaque. Music performed by derwaishs and fakirs can be found in every Islamic country from Morocco to Malaysia, but they display of a great variety of different local traditions rather than a single style. Since nobody seems to have a clear idea of what the term ‘sufi’ means, it came to be used in quite arbitrary ways. Rock bands turned traditional sufi songs into pop tunes, snippets of Qawwali popped up in soundtracks of Hollywood movies and TV commercials, to which Pakistan added its very own brand of sufi soap – ‘sufi music’ became a marketing term rather than a valid description of tradition. Soon one could witness ‘sufi dances’, supposedly based on the ritual of the Mevlevi derwaishs, but in face only vague imitations; the ‘sufi trance’ that became the rave of a younger generation had very little to do with the fantastically flexible rhythms of the original traditional trance cults. Most recently, ‘sufi plug-ins’ offered via the internet to supply DJs with a few sounds and rhythms shrink the incredible wealth of different local styles to a stereotyped few. While presenting sufi music in the west, I realized that some genres adjust easily to a concert format, whereas others suffer when they are taken out of their traditional contexts and put on a stage. The question remains how far concerts can transfer not just musical genre but also the cultural and spiritual meaning.
So, where have all the Sufis gone? “Where the danger is, the saving power also grows”, the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin says. Sufis have always managed to absorb influences from many different quarters, taking on ever new shapes, surfacing in new ways, sometimes even shedding their name. The future of the unique and manifold musical traditions of Pakistan lies in the hands of its lovers and listeners. As long as the people recognize sufi saints – whose shrines they have visited for many centuries and who have helped them cope with their lives – as spiritual authorities which have so far survived all political and social upheavals, their music will continue to live.Tagged