Music, Sufism etc

I’ve been reading up a bit on drones lately and was going to work through some thoughts on that but that seemed a bit heavy for a first post. So instead here are a few scattered musings on a band I love and the politics of the genre of music they work in.

In an old Granta essay, Kamila Shamsie recounts the early, heady days of the Pakistani pop scene and its subsequent splinterings, devolutions and revivals throughout the years up to recent days. In that vein, she briefly comments upon the emergence of sufi rock from its antecedents in a purer folk tradition:

In the Sufi paradigm, God is the beloved and the mortal is the supplicant/lover – the relationship between the individual and God is intensely personal and does not admit the intercession of ‘religious scholars’ or ‘leaders of the congregation’. Small wonder that the Sufis have almost always stood in opposition to those who claim to be the guardians of religion. But the deep-rootedness of Sufi Islam in Pakistan has often meant that the orthodoxy don’t dare take it on – through the Zia years, the great singers in the Sufi tradition, such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen, continued to perform, both in public gatherings where the crowds could exceed half a million and on state-run TV. Every note leaping from their throats was a rebuke to the orthodoxy. . . Nusrat and other qawwals were such a potent force in Pakistan that it’s not surprising that Junoon’s attempt to encroach on Sufi musical ground deeply divided listeners at first. But within a few years, the term ‘Sufi rock’ was no longer something spoken with inverted commas hanging around it. Much as I loved the music, though, I was sceptical about the relentless Coke-sponsored marketing that went alongside it. It didn’t sit too well with the Sufi idea of stripping away the ego.

Thanks to the roaring successes of the music program Coke Studio Pakistan and its ethos of folk-popular sycretism in earlier seasons, not only is sufi rock freed of the inverted commas– these days, it’s officially cool, even almost trite; it seems every pop artist wants to try their hand at a sufi fusion song– a genre which, by now, encompasses not only rock but other musical styles as well. This doesn’t bother me, since I love sufi fusion music and am happy when I have loads of new songs to listen to. Nevertheless, I still find it important to think critically about what the function of ‘sufiness’ is in popular music, especially cultural products as prominent and far-reaching as Coke Studio. (Sorry, Kamila, Coke is still around with its corporate tentacles. Another issue to think about.)

One thing that I find striking about sufi fusion is the prevalence of the Punjabi language for choice of lyrics in such music, and Coke Studio’s sufi fusions in particular. Of course, this makes perfect sense since some of the finest sufi poets– Bulleh Shah, Baba Farid, Ghulam Farid, and more– wrote in Punjabi and/or Seraiki. What is intriguing here, rather, is the implications of the dominance of the language. It’s no secret that there is general discontent and complaining about Punjabi hegemony over the Pakistani state apparatus, a complaint with a history almost as old as the country itself. However, as far as I know there’s not a concurrent collective disgruntled mumbling about Punjabi language or cultural hegemony, since one of the (many) oddities of Pakistan is that the language forced upon its subjects by the state was not the one of the dominant ethnicity– it was Urdu, largely the native language of the Mohajir migrants to Pakistan who, for a time, controlled the state. (Urdu’s tenuous and at times destructive insertion into Pakistani society at large has been studied by many, but maybe a topic for another day.) In fact, in contrast there is some amount of collective hand-wringing by nationalists about the endangerment of the Punjabi language and culture, as detailed by Nadeem F. Paracha here.

So, Punjabi literary culture may be endangered, but it rules the popular sufi fusion scene? This is a phenomenon I find disappointing, in a way. To me, the political intent of sufi fusion should be to provide a counterpoint to dominant narratives and cultural trends. It should be maximally inclusive, ‘rebuking the orthodoxy’ of majoritarianism as Shamsie claimed it used to reproach the creeping Islamism of the 80s under Zia. Instead, sufi fusion, in my opinion, is becoming a tool of the politics of the warm-and-fuzzy. As much as I love Coke Studio, it is selling a brand– a brand of Pakistan where ‘sufi fusion exists, so we can’t be all bad!’ ‘we need to reconnect with our indigenous sufi traditions to fight the advance of extremism against our true culture!’ and so on.

Who am I to begrudge people their alternative narratives, especially people (like Pakistanis) who consistently see their country portrayed negatively in international media and culture? The compulsion to hold up the popular sufi fusion genre as evidence of there being something else to this country, is perhaps natural. However, in my opinion it is dangerous on two levels:

  1. It ignores the historical reality that, while sufi poetry and traditions have often opposed oppressive rulers, they have also been co-opted by authority (even modern leaders like ZA Bhutto and Ayub Khan) to provide a veneer of liberalism and enlightenment. That’s not even mentioning the role that pirs (religious authorities, often keepers of sufi shrines) play in electoral politics (block voting, generally shady activities) and patronage in rural Pakistan. It’s not all flowers and rainbows, wine cups and moths to flames.
  2. The current stylistic trends of the sufi fusion genre, rather than providing sorely-needed equal billing for regional languages and sufi traditions, continues to perpetuate the same exclusive boundaries that enclose the ‘Pakistani identity’ presented to the outside world– primarily Urdu and Punjabi in nature.

All this grumbling brings me near the end of this post, where I’d like to highlight the band that I love mentioned at the beginning.

The Sketches was formed by two college boys in Jamshoro, Sindh, one of whom still fronts the band (Saif Samejo, the male vocalist in this video). The other left the band some time ago and is now a rare Pokemon (as in it took a massive effort to find out where he went– Naeem Shah, erstwhile guitarist). There are multiple things I love about this band– Saif’s vocal range and emotional investment in the lyrics, the commitment to trying new things with their compositions, the cheesy-cute music videos– but what I love most is that they actively try to promote the folk and sufi traditions of their own Sindh while still appreciating and incorporating Punjabi, Seraiki, Hindi, Urdu and even Marwari (the latest release) into their work in roughly equal amounts. It’s a simple and organic gesture, really, to want to pay tribute to the music you listened to growing up, which is what The Sketches claimed they do. Yet it’s also a move that complicates, as their work undermines the notion that there is a single, canonic sufi language or sound for music. That is the kind of inclusivity and promotion of regional diversity, without pretense, I hope to see more of in mainstream sufi-fusion music in the future.

Behind the Scenes in Coke Studio with The Sketches. They appeared in Season 4.


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