One of the most remarkable Sufi singers from Pakistan is at the Barbican this month. Simon Broughton meets him in Pakistan and hears his astonishing story
The Sufi shrine of Mian Meer in Lahore, Pakistan has an elegant central tomb dating from the 18th century. It’s surrounded by a spacious paved enclosure where people come to pray, sit, reflect and enjoy the shade of the trees. The shrine is a quiet, spiritual place in a vibrant, busy city. A regular visitor here is the extraordinary figure of Sain Zahoor. Dressed in a dark turban and bright waistcoat, Zahoor is a holy troubadour who sings in praise of God at Sufi shrines in Punjab. “I am a messenger,” he says, “spreading the words of the saints as widely as possible among the people.”
He’s a charismatic figure with piercing eyes who stamps bells on his feet and sings into the belly of his ektara, the stringed instrument often used by ascetics and holy men. ‘Allah-hoo, Allah-hoo,’ he coos, using it as a resonator. Between verses of his song, he twirls and the coloured tassels on his ektara fly.
Sain Zahoor was born in Punjab in 1946. As a child, he says, he had a recurring dream that haunted him every night. “I saw a grave and a hand coming out beckoning me. In my sleep I’d start walking towards the hand, but then I’d bump into something and wake up.” A local Sufi told him to search for the place in his dream and Zahoor left home to look for the grave. Weren’t his parents worried about him leaving? “No, they were fed up with my dream!”
Zahoor spent about three years searching for the tomb, sleeping in “mosques, shrines, even the jungle.” When he reached Uch Sharif – the ‘City of Saints’ – deep in the south of Punjab, he recognised the place of his dreams. When he arrived, a boy came up to him and asked if he was Sain Zahoor. “We’ve been waiting for you,” he said and took him to the man who became his spiritual teacher.
Sain Zahoor sings kafi, which are solo, song-like verses of Sufi poets. It’s very different from qawwali, which will be performed by Faiz Ali Faiz at the same concert in the Barbican. Sain Zahoor mostly sings the Punjabi poems of Baba Bulleh Shah (1680-1758). He can’t read or write and has learned the poetry by heart. “Whenever I sing his songs,” he says, “it’s as if Bulleh Shah is singing inside me. ‘I don’t go to the mosque of the imam, I go to the mosque of the heart,’ said Bulleh Shah.” The saint was born spookily close to Uch Sharif where Zahoor was drawn in his dream. He was one of Punjab’s most defiant Sufis who, at the end of the 17th century, countered the hardline religious decrees of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb by singing and dancing from village to village.
Sain Zahoor got ‘discovered’ by a television producer and started appearing on radio and TV. He also got taken up by Lok Virsa, Pakistan’s Institute of Folk Heritage, who sent him as part of delegations to India and around the world. In 2006 he won a BBC Award for World Music, which has helped him find a whole new audience.
Sain Zahoor and qawwali singer Faiz Ali Faiz are at the Barbican Centre on Sunday, September 27
There are are also six further dates round the UK in Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Bradford, Burnley and Nottingham