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Qawwali singer Amjad Sabri murdered in Karachi, June 22

Posted on June 23rd, 2016 in News, Recent posts by .

Amjad-Sabri-©Bartek-MurackiThe leading qawwali singer was shot dead yesterday in Karachi. Simon Broughton reports 

Leading qawwali singer Amjad Sabri was shot in his car by two armed motorcyclists in Karachi on June 22. He was 45 and one of the leading performers of qawwali music in Pakistan today. It’s a religious, devotional tradition with deep roots in Pakistan and India, but has become popular all over the world. The Pakistani Taliban, who consider Sufism to be idolatrous and even devotional music to be forbidden, have claimed responsibility.

Amjad Sabri was leader of the Sabri Brothers, founded by his father Ghulam Farid, although they claim a lineage going back 400 years to the time of Tansen. From the 70s, the Sabri Brothers started touring internationally and made many recordings. Amjad started touring with his father and uncles Maqbool, Kamal and Mehmood Sabri from the age of five.

Amjad Sabri had taken over at the helm of Sabris with two of his brothers. He gave some spectacular performances in Europe in recent years. His most recent recording was Ecstasy of the Soul (Transetnika, 2012).

In 2010, there were bombs in the shrines of Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi and Daata Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore. But this is the first targeted killing of a high-profile Sufi musician and raises serious questions about such musicians’ safety in Pakistan.



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Feature | Sondorgo: Lost music of the Balkans

Posted on October 8th, 2015 in Recent posts by .


In 2011 Simon Broughton discovered the story of Hungarian tambura band, Söndörgő, prior to their Songlines Encounters performance. Four years later the band’s music continues to be met with critical acclaim. 

Söndörgő will be on tour in the UK from November 12-27. Find out more here.

The kid was just four years old, and playing with all the singleminded concentration and enthusiasm that young boys have when they are gripped by something that fascinates them. In his hands wasn’t a toy car or a football, but a tambura – a small mandolin-like instrument. As he noticed everyone was looking at him, he stepped into the limelight at the centre of a circle of onlookers and musicians and played like one possessed. More than anything, this was evidence of the healthy tradition of tambura playing here in the south of Hungary.

The tambura is typical of the Serbian and Croatian communities in Hungary – and over the border in Croatia and the Serbian province of Vojvodina. As an instrument it is fast, agile and precise – and its music is very catchy.  It’s like a meeting of Greek bouzouki and Hungarian violin, delicate yet fiery, as a tight group of strummed strings sparkle together. The music has an irrepressible spring to it. I’m listening to tambura players in Mohács in the south of Hungary.

Söndörgő have described what they play as the ‘Lost Music of the Balkans’ and it’s true. Hungary is famous for its Gypsy fiddle music, Serbia is famous for its brass bands, but here lost in the cracks between them is the delicate and distinctive sound of tambura music that’s virtually unknown.

In Hungary, Mohács is notorious for the battle that took place here in 1526 when Hungary was defeated by the Ottoman troops of Suleiman the Magnificent. It marked the end of Hungary’s golden age and the beginning of Turkish and Habsburg domination – the Turks left in 1699 and the Habsburgs were in control until World War I. In Hungarian ‘ More Was Lost at Mohács’ is a resilient expression meaning ‘Things Could be Worse.’ On a more cheerful note, Mohács is also famous for its Busójárás Lenten carnival with sheepskin costumes, scary masks and lots of tambura music. According to popular belief, the tradition started after the Turkish occupation when the population carved themselves masks, re-entered the town making lots of noise and scared away the Turks.

Most of the South Slav population in Hungary came because of the Turks. In the 14th and 15th centuries, as the Ottoman empire expanded into Serbia, many Serbians fled north up the Danube. The South Slavs founded a number of towns along the river which had, and in many cases still have, a strong Serbian or Croatian flavour. These include Mohács, Ráckeve (with the most beautiful Serbian Orthodox church in Hungary), and Pomáz and Szentendre, close to Budapest. Szentendre is a popular day trip for visitors to Budapest and is where Söndörgő are based.

The tambura probably came to Hungary with the Turks. The small lead tambura (prímtambura) usually has five strings, with the two top strings doubled to emphasise the melody, plucked with a plectrum. Then there’s the bigger bass-lead tambura (basszprímtambura) and the guitar-like contra tambura which plays accompanying chords. Down in Mohács, the bass is traditionally a bass tambura (tamburabőgő), which looks deceptively like a regular double bass, but is played with a plectrum and has frets.

Söndörgő came to Songlines’ attention in 2008, thanks to a fantastic live CD they did with Macedonian saxophonist Ferus Mustafov, one of Europe’s greatest Gypsy musicians. Being interested in South Slav music, the band were huge admirers of Mustafov and, when they were able to get in touch, went down to meet him in Macedonia. “We went to his rehearsal in Skopje and it was incredible,” says Söndörgő’s leader Áron Eredics. “Once he’d finished he just said ‘Now you play!’ and we were terrified. But it went quite well and we both had the feeling it would be good to record a CD together. So we arranged to come back for ten days practice together followed by four or five concerts at which the CD was recorded.”

“They drank a lot and so you couldn’t really rely on them, but they knew some really old tunes”

Söndörgő are almost literally the songs of the band Vujicsics who from the mid-70s pioneered the professional presentation of South Slav music in Hungary and had one of their records released on Joe Boyd’s Hannibal label in 1988. 

Screen-shot-2015-10-08-at-12.05The family background is mixed. They think the Eredics name is Croatian, but the family now only speak Hungarian. Kálmán’s grandmother was Serbian (and the last Serbian speaker in the family), but she married an Austrian (and there was some anger in the family about this). Kálmán married a Jewish wife from what is now Ukraine and they are proud of their totally mixed ethnicities. It certainly means that their commitment to the music can’t be described as nationalistic

Kálmán and his brother Gábor Eredics grew up in the town of Pomáz, just next to Szentendre. It was there they formed a band in 1974 inspired by a local group playing South Slav music for weddings and parties, but “they drank a lot and so you couldn’t really rely on them, but they knew some really old tunes,” explains Kálmán. This coincided with the folk revival in Hungary and the start of the táncház movement. Also living in Pomáz was a composer and ethnographer of Serbian background called Tihamér Vujicsics (1929-1975) who composed for the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble and collected Serbian and Croatian tunes from the communities in Hungary.


Sadly Vujicsics was killed in an aircrash in 1975 and the band (pictured right in 1981) adopted his name in his memory. “We’d been given this horrible official name – the Pomáz Young Folk Group of the Minorities – so we were very glad to get rid of that,” Kálmán chuckles. Before his death Vujicsics had virtually completed Musical Traditions of South Slavs in Hungary, a collection of melodies and songs, which was published in 1978. It was from this book and from the tunes they’d learned from the drunken old-timers that Vujicsics built their repertoire.

They released an award-winning debut CD in 1981 and became one of country’s best ensembles and the only professional band performing the music of the South Slavs in Hungary.

So the next generation of Eredics brothers grew up in an environment where this music was just a part of everyday life. “My father bought me a tambura when I was five years old,” says Áron, “although I didn’t play it at that time. It was when my cousin Dávid said they wanted to start a band at school that we began in a serious way.”

Like the Vujicsics Ensemble, Söndörgő have also drawn on the collections of Tihamér Vujicsics, but they’ve also connected with traditional players like József Kovács in Mohács and also taken tunes from other parts of former Yugoslavia and arranged them for tamburas. Paradoxically their repertoire is both more adventurous – arranging tunes from other regions of former Yugoslavia – and more traditional – with old tunes that have been preserved in the communities in Hungary – than the local tambura bands in Vojvodina.

But Söndörgő’s real passion is for the music of József Kovács and other musicians from Mohács who are the bearers of a living tradition.  This shows in their ability to create a party with their playing, whether it’s on a concert stage in Budapest, or playing, whether it’s on a concert stage in Budapest, or amongst the community in Mohács. While they have an amongst the community in Mohács. While they have an illustrious background behind them, they are committed to doing things in their own way.


toure-heartVujicsics, Southern Slav Folk Music

(Hungaroton, 1981)

Excellent Vujicsics debut with vocals by Márta Sebestyén amongst others.






vujicsicssamosvirajVujicsics, Samo Sviraj

(Vujicsics Association, 1997)

Great Croatian and Serbian tunes, one from the field recording by Bartók. 






sondorgmustafovSöndörgő & Ferus Mustafov, In Concert

(Sonodisc, 2008)

Live album with Ferus Mustafov, a Top of the World selection in October 2009 (#63).






sondorgo-tamburisingSöndörgő, Tamburising

(World Village, 2011)

New album with tambura player József Kovács and singer Kátya Tompos and Antal Kovács.






toure-heartSöndörgő, Tamburocket: Hungarian Fireworks

(Riverboat Records, 2014)

The band added Macedonian melodies and a nod or two to Béla Bartók to their South Slav musical background.







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A Dervish on the Beat in Konya

Posted on September 24th, 2015 in News, Recent posts by .


Simon Broughton reports from Konya, Rumi’s home town in Turkey

It adds a whole extra dimension going to Rumi’s shrine with a group of Moroccan Sufi musicians. I’m talking about the Ensemble Thami al-Harraq, who performed on Wednesday evening (September 23) at the Mystic Music Festival in Konya, Turkey.

There are many different Sufi saints revered in different parts of the Islamic world, but if there’s one who’s universally adored, it is Jalaluddin Rumi, also known as Mevlana. He was born in Balkh (now Afghanistan) in 1207 and died here in Konya, then the capital of the Seljuk Empire, in 1273. But his poetry and ideas have spread far and wide and his tomb attracts visitors from all over the world.

“The musicians are asking if they could perform a zikr, in front of the tomb?’’ the spokesman of the group, Abdellah Cherif Ouazzan, asks the Turkish guide. A zikr is a sung or chanted ritual in praise of God, and Rumi, of course, was one of the most influential Sufis in using music as a way of becoming closer to God. The Moroccans want to celebrate their 800-year-old hero for whom they really feel love. But sadly a zikr is not permitted in the shrine.

“Either seem as you are, or be as you seem”

The curious thing is, that while Turkey frequently promotes itself with Rumi and Whirling Dervishes and is one of the most democratic and open countries in the Islamic world, actually practising Sufism is illegal here. The Sufi lodges were closed by Kemal Atatürk in 1925 after the foundation of the Turkish Republic and that ban remains in place. So the Rumi mausoleum can’t be a place for a Sufi ritual, although thousands of people are going there to worship at his tomb.

When you go in, you don’t take your shoes off, as you would in a mosque, but put plastic covers over the soles to protect the floor as in a museum. Over the doorway, a sign in Persian reads ‘Whoever enters incomplete, will emerge complete’. That’s quite a claim.

There are many tombs inside the mausoleum, but Rumi’s is in the corner topped on the outside by a distinctive turquoise cone. Rumi is buried alongside his son, Sultan Veled, who actually established the Mevlevi order – popularly known as Whirling Dervishes – after his death. There’s a throng of people clustered by the tomb – many of them praying, but others simply standing in wide-eyed amazement. He isn’t just revered by Muslims, but the translations of Coleman Barks, which have sold over 2 million copies, have made Rumi one of the most widely read poets in the US – admired, of course, for his spirituality that connects faiths, but also his imagination and humour.

Thami al-Harraq

At the time of the Seljuk Empire, the educated language was Persian, but the language of trade (and Islam) was Arabic and the everyday language was Turkish. Many people spoke all three. Although Rumi wrote predominantly in Persian, the Ensemble Thami al-Harraq have in their repertoire the poems he wrote in Arabic. But that’s not what they were doing in Konya.

Either seem as you are, or be as you seem,’ that’s the Rumi quote in dozens of languages on the grandiose plaza in front of the Mevlana Culture Centre where the festival performances take place. There were 22 of them on stage, all men, all dressed in white. Sitting cross-legged on carpets, 14 singers in front and eight instrumentalists on a platform behind playing violins, violas, cello, ouds and percussion. The performers – an all-star band – come from Sufi lodges of the Ouazzaniya brotherhood from Fes and other cities in Morocco. It begins with a solemn solo prayer, but then become more convivial. The music is Arab-Andalus in style with almost swinging syncopated rhythms. Basically the music alternates chorus with solo songs. Virtually everybody gets a turn and there isn’t a poor voice amongst them. One striking singer is Marouane Hajji, whose voice projects like a comet and is a soloist in his own right. This is clearly spiritual music, but made into a powerful concert performance.

But the final part, performed without instruments and just voices only, is what they do in their zawiya (shrine). Ouazzan tells me it’s the first time they’ve performed it outside the zawiya. They basically sing ‘Illa-lah’ again and again, but with a fiery, rough-edged intensity, occasionally punctuated by guttural intakes of breath. Then one of the band comes to the front and beats a drum. The singers stand and join hands swaying first from side to side and then bending forward and back. This is not a concert performance, but there isn’t that awkwardness of planting a sacred ritual on stage. “We don’t need people to listen to the music,” says Ouazzane, “but to feel it.” 

As the beat gets faster, they form a ring, bouncing with a sort of spiritual joy into the air. The music reaches its climax. There’s tumultuous applause and then they bring things down with a solo prayer. You might argue that musically it’s a little rough and repetitive, but the effect is extraordinary. We’ve been witnessing a style of spiritual music it would be virtually impossible to experience anywhere else.

The Konya International Mystic Music Festival continues till September 30: Find out more at

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Sain Zahoor, Sufi troubadour in London

Posted on September 16th, 2015 in News, Recent posts by .


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




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