Jameela Sidiqqi tells the story of Pakistan’s only internationally renowned Sufi female singer
They weep, they faint and some go into a trance in jam-packed concert halls, while scores of others sway uncontrollably in the aisles. It may be a nail-biting moment for the health and safety police but these scenes are typical at an Abida Parveen concert. The Pakistani singer really has to be seen to be believed; her numerous recordings rarely do full justice to her electrifying live performances. At a stadium performance in Lahore, Peter Gabriel’s Real World label representatives were hugely impressed: ‘The power was like at a heavy metal concert – but it was only Abida accompanied by a percussionist and a harmonium.’
She is, undoubtedly, one of the world’s greatest singers and Pakistan’s only internationally renowned female singer of Sufi music. A woman in what has always been a man’s world, Parveen is truly one of a kind. Born in Larkana in the Pakistani province of Sindh in 1954, she was drawn to mysticism at a young age and was initially trained by her father, Ghulam Haidar – an established classical vocalist of his time. In a radical departure from the norm, Haidar not only nurtured his daughter’s immense talent but also, bypassing his sons, named her his musical successor when she was just five years old.
Parveen’s repertoire consists largely of Sufi poetry in the Sindhi and Punjabi languages and Saraiki dialect, although she also sings a number of ghazals (rhyming couplets) in Urdu or Farsi. A great deal of her Punjabi repertoire overlaps with the texts sung in qawwali (Sufi devotional music), notably those performed by her near contemporary, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, causing some to dub her a ‘female qawwal’ – a label that made her uncomfortable despite the fact that her performances can be just as spiritually uplifting as that of Khan. Her forte, however, is kafi, a song form invented by the mystic poet-musician Shah Abdul Latif (1690-1752) from her native province Sindh in Pakistan, dotted with Sufi tombs. Kafi differs markedly from ghazal and qawwali. Ghazal is a literary genre that can also be read, and qawwali relies heavily on a chorus of male voices and rhythmic clapping. But kafi is primarily a solo genre designed only to be sung. Many author-composers clearly specify the raga, or melodic framework, the singer should use. Also, unlike qawwali’s carefree abandon, which aims to heighten spiritual awareness in listeners through frenzied rhythms and syncopated clapping, kafi is a somewhat softer, more reflective genre. Blending sadness with joy, it’s akin to a heart-wrenching symphony that nevertheless ends on an optimistic note.
Parveen’s best-loved and most popular numbers include verses not only from Shah Abdul Latif but from all the prominent mystic poets of the region, often inserting the verses of several poets into the same song. Her huge international success is perhaps not as surprising as her complete – and unconditional – acceptance in her native Pakistan, where Sufi music either belongs to hereditary male qawwals, or to the many solo male artists who specialise in singing Sufi verse. Women are even frequently relegated to the back rows as listeners. But the male/female divide rapidly melts into insignificance the minute Abida Parveen strikes the first note with her exceptionally deep and powerfully controlled voice. Anyone who has attended her concerts will testify that she appears wholly ecstatic, as though on some spiritual sojourn of her own, and totally oblivious to the impact she’s having on her audiences. For her, the performance of this music is, in itself, an act of devotion: “There is a message in this music, the Sufi message of love,” she said in an interview for the Channel 4 documentary Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam, adding, “when somebody listens to this music, it is their heart, their soul that is listening…”
Parveen has been going from strength to strength since the late 80s, with a sparkling international career that has seen her appearing on reality TV shows and judging talent contests and in India. The latest of these was the controversial Sur Kshetra, which was a (supposedly) peaceful battle of musical notes with India pitted against Pakistan. She is by no means the first Pakistani artist to have achieved this god-like status on Indian TV. But she is definitely the first talent-show judge to flatly refuse to mark down a not-so-good contestant on the grounds that he was singing her sacred and beloved Sufi poetry, albeit a little out of tune.
This album was recorded at a time when Parveen was beginning to get noticed outside of Pakistan but had yet to be embraced by India and its gigantic Bollywood music machine. It features all her famous numbers including kafis, a couple of Urdu ghazals and a thumri (light classical song) in Hindi.
(Accords Croisés, 2005)
One of her finest albums, this features her usual repertoire but with the most amazing sound quality. French bansuri flute player Henri Tournier contributes a lovely breathy texture, improvising around her every vocal nuance. The flute is no stranger to this genre – there are numerous songs which feature mystical folk heroes that play the instrument. This is a terrific studio recording.
(World Village, 2002)
Another outstanding album featuring some rarely-heard numbers and, again, beautifully enhanced by Henri Tournier’s bansuri.
(Times Music, 2005)
There are numerous compilations – in fact the majority of her albums are compilations – of which The Very Best of Abida stands out with its well-balanced mix of her traditional and modern repertoire.
This article originally appeared in Songlines #92 (June 2013). Subscribe to Songlines