With the number one of the Sabri lineage gone, the future of the Sabri qawwali tradition hangs in the balance
By Ali Raj
Eastern music, pehlwani (wrestling) and politics; these are perhaps three trades in our part of the world where one’s own progeny is unduly prioritised over everyone else. While family tradition in politics is oft-discussed, family tradition in music, at least, is never examined. It is set in stone that to lead the Patiala gharana, for instance, one has to be in blood-relation with an Amanat Ali Khan or a Fateh Ali Khan. “If not our children then who else?” is the belief. Outsiders are not welcome and there is little room for debate.
The same applies to the Sabris as well.
Amjad Farid Sabri’s life was brutally cut short this year on June 22, leaving his fans, foes and family wondering where he came from and where he went.
In his death, the number one of the Sabri lineage is gone. With questions looming over his murder investigation and the future of the Sabri qawwali tradition, the family has nominated his successors to lead the group once again.
Proceeding with the same name (Amjad Farid Sabri qawwal party), music arrangement, style and set list that Amjad standardised, mastered and popularised, his brothers Azmat Farid Sabri and Talha Farid Sabri will now head the party.
“Azmat and Talha will lead until our fourth generation is ready to take charge. Our children are still too young and we will not permit them to take qawwali up full-time until they graduate from college,” Amjad’s elder brother Sarwat Farid Sabri tells The Express Tribune in the meeting room of their Liaquatabad residence.
Amjad’s eldest son Mujaddid Farid Sabri, lovingly called Mujji, is poised to lead the group in future, along with his cousins: Sarwat’s son Taha Farid Sabri, Azmat’s son Bilawal Azmat Sabri and Talha’s twins Sayem Farid Sabri and Dayem Farid Sabri.
Mujaddid’s younger brothers Aun Muhammad and Muhib Ali are also in line.
While daughters of the Sabri household have never in the past ventured into singing publicly, the boys cannot lead until they turn 17. Sarwat explains, “You see, it is not just about singing. It’s a spiritual thing. Qawwali is serious business. It has its own etiquettes and rules. One needs to have adequate training and knowledge before becoming the lead singer.”
Like their fathers did growing up, the children will be allowed to accompany the band, if they wish. This liberty of choice is a very important aspect of upbringing in the Sabri household.
Sarwat himself has played manager for the band of his father Ghulam Farid Sabri and uncle Maqbool Ahmed Sabri for decades; yet, he never fancied taking the microphone himself.
“Abba ji had given us the freedom to choose whatever we want to do. We believe that one cannot make an artist out of someone by force.” Sarwat, who is now interim in-charge of the family, feels if anyone from his nephews or son really has a liking for the family trade, he will succeed. Otherwise, there is no point.
While Amjad was the most animated and proactive of the lot, it was Azmat who was always considered to have a superior understanding of the art form among the siblings. Being at least four years older than Amjad, Azmat and 35-year-old Talha had travelled the world along with their late brother. “They were both fully trained under the supervision of our father. Our trade is in safe hands,” Sarwat says, while clearing his throat.
While Azmat and Talha may have been instrumental in making Amjad’s group so formidable, they were hardly ever noticed. “That’s because Amjad was there … the one and only centre of attention. You cannot match his charisma. Of all the siblings, his voice was the most melodious,” Sarwat adds.
Amjad was eighth in the line of the five brothers and six sisters. “We had a younger brother Asmat Farid Sabri who was physically challenged. He died at the age of 29 in 2008.” Sarwat also clarifies that Amjad was going to turn 40 soon and was not 45, as quoted by reports.
Shouldering the legacy
Nominating the family’s new marquee singer after the passing of the previous one is common practice with gharanas of Eastern classical music. The idea ties down to the larger culture ofdastar bandi still in fashion in tribes in Pakistan.
While the Sabris, too, trace their lineage back to musical giants of the past, music in general and qawwali in particular, had not been in practice in the family for more than three generations.
When Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s uncle died, he was still more of a tabla player and less of a vocalist. However, circumstances forced Nusrat to take charge and lead the band.
After consulting our mother, I have decided that we will tie Amjad’s dastar on Mujji’s head and the party’s dastar on the heads of both Azmat and Talha
With the Patiala gharana, a similar turmoil ensued with the death of Ustad Amanat Ali Khan. In an earlier interview, Shafqat Amanat Ali had recalled how his elder brother had locked himself in a room to prepare for the new responsibility.
The Sabris will hold their dastar bandi ceremony on Amjad’s chehlum, scheduled for July 28. “After consulting our mother, I have decided that we will tie Amjad’s dastar (headgear) on Mujji’s head and the party’s dastar on the heads of both Azmat and Talha,” Sarwat discloses.
After the Quran khawani in the afternoon, a visit to Amjad’s grave and fateha late evening, the proceedings will take place between Maghrib and Isha prayers in the presence of all relatives.
Band of brothers
In the Sabri lineage, qawwali was first taken up by Amjad and Sarwat’s grandfather, Inayat Sabri. Sarwat says, “His Pir sahab Khawaja Hairat Shah Warsi had directed him to do so. Then came my father and uncle who made it famous across the world.”
They say the Sabri brothers made a name for themselves because they complemented each other’s strengths. While the barrel-chested Ghulam Farid would lead as the vocal powerhouse, the rather solemn Maqbool would anchor the ship.
For the most part, they never ventured far off from each other. They had few disagreements, squabbles here and there, as siblings do, but they would eventually come back together. In 1991, however, it so happened that a disagreement evolved into a larger misunderstanding and the brothers drifted apart. “Chacha was demanding too much [in his share of earnings] yet I advised Abba ji to give in,” Sarwat recalls. The issue was soon brushed under the carpet and all was good once again, or so it seemed.
Orphaned and abandoned
Bags were packed, tickets were confirmed and hotels and venues were already booked. It was April 1994 and the Sabri brothers were set to embark on a tour across Europe. They were to perform at around 30-35 shows, covering almost the entire continent. Two days before they were to fly out, Ghulam Farid complained of chest pain. En route to the hospital, he passed away. “He was such a commanding figure that we believed he would be there forever. And then he left. Just like that,” Sarwat says. Ghulam Farid’s chehlum went by and the group completed the tour with Maqbool leading. “Then came Abba ji’s first death anniversary. We held it at Karachi Arts Council.”
The life-size painting of Ghulam Farid that dominates the meeting room was created by painters from Naz cinema for the event. “This was followed by a tour … then another,” Sarwat says. “We had this European girl who would assist me on the tours. Chacha told her he doesn’t want me to tag along this time. She spoke to me and I said if that is his wish, so be it.”
He was such a commanding figure that we believed he would be there forever. And then he left.
For Ghulam Farid’s second death anniversary, Maqbool was not in Pakistan. “He was with his family in South Africa. He had a wife there,” Sarwat says. Amidst the confusion, a young Amjad decided to organise it. “He spoke to the Arts Council people and invited all the Pirs and elders we knew.” He also called up the party musicians who were loyal to Maqbool and they all agreed to join in. “There Amjad sang two of our father’s compositions. When he got off stage, the elders in attendance invited him to 15, 20 programmes there and then.” Amjad thought, “Why not?”
By the time Maqbool returned, Amjad had begun playing regularly. Within three months, he and his friends had formed the band that would putter around in their Suzuki van.
“Chacha’s house is right next to ours. We had this office in front where these people would practice. When Chacha returned, Amjad took his diary of events to him, thinking Chacha would embrace him. There he asked Amjad to go his way.” This rejection broke Amjad’s heart and he returned to his mother with tears filled in his eyes. “Ammi told him there’s nothing to worry. If he wants to sing, then he should go ahead. If he doesn’t, we will look for some other work and money won’t be a problem.”
Amjad turned rejection into motivation and never looked back. “You can say that from 1996 he actually started his career.”
Maqbool formed his own group and performed for as long as he could. An accident left him with an injured leg and his condition worsened when he broke his hip bone after falling from a staircase during a tour in India. “We did not stop loving him. He too loved us back,” Sarwat firmly asserts.
Soon a time came when Amjad’s popularity exceeded Maqbool’s and the former actually began helping the latter get gigs. “My chacha had no parallel when it came to singing. He was the best of the best. But Amjad was a different man altogether. Once in Karachi, Chacha was singing at a show and Amjad walked in. The crowd turned to look at him and on the microphone Chacha announced, ‘Superstar Amjad Sabri is here. I will waste your time no more’.”
The media tried their best to persuade Amjad and Maqbool to perform together. Amjad, Sarwat says, said he would do as his uncle says and sit at the back and do chorus if he wishes. Maqbool, on the other hand, never budged from his position.
He passed away quietly in 2011. His son Shumail Maqbool Sabri leads his own group. During his lifetime, Amjad tried numerous times to get Shumail to join him but the son stuck to what his father decided in that meeting room, several years ago.
Sarwat insists he by no means intends to disrespect Maqbool. “We have never spoken about it in public but I think it is important that we do. This is a historical fact and if we don’t clarify, people will cook up stories like they have in the past.”
After Ghulam Farid’s death, the family had decided to hand the dastar to Sarwat, the trusted elder son who alone was allowed to share the room with his father when they were on tour. Azmat was in the US at that time and Amjad and Talha were still in their teens. “When they tied it on my head, I lifted it and put it on Amjad’s head. I thought he was the most capable of all of us,” Sarwat recalls. “His talents were unique. Whatever he did, he did with all his heart.”