By: Shehzad Ali Darwish
Sufi and Qawaal artist, Shabnam Merali is not a standard woman. An accomplished musician, she has skillfully mastered the world of classical Raags, Ghazal, Sufi-Qawaali and Ginans. She continues to enthrall her audience by singing Sufi Kalaam (Poetry). In the interview, Shabnam shares details of her life, musical career, experiences with us as we get a better understanding of this beautiful soul, who is constantly enriching many lives with her affable personality. Elegantly-simple, here is a woman you cannot help loving.
Shehzad Ali Darwish: Shabnam, you are originally from Karachi, Pakistan and now residing in Edmonton, Alberta. Did you always aspire to be a musician?
Shabnam Merali: Yes, I am from Karachi. Music has been present throughout my life, first as a child, I was fascinated by the great Ustads and felt a deep desire to seek that path. However, this was not the case when my family and I moved to Canada. I studied accounting and practiced it for numerous years. Then, one fine day, I abandoned the world of numbers and with the support of my husband and children, I pursued music.
SAD: Was it difficult? I mean…to make it as a career.
SM: It was alarming! ( laughs). The difficult part was in discovering musical intrument accompanists to work with. There were few at that time. Not like the hub nowdays, where the creative world is thriving. With perserverance and having the deep love to sing, I had to remain cerebral and not give up! Luckily, as the years progressed, I found mutual musicians and got my feet right into it.
SAD: Shabnam, you have brilliantly performed over hundreds of concerts world-wide. How do you manage to keep such a hectic schedule and still find time to pursue other endeavours. I hear you are also involved in the Ismaili Institution.
SM: Yes, I am still alive after all that !! (laughs). My schedule is tumultuous, no doubt. The family’s support is a great encouragement to keep up. I regularly perform in Pakistan, Europe, Africa, USA and Canada, thus, I am out of the country quite frequently. I manage by keeping up with my riyaazat (singing practice), and by meditation. It certainly helps keep away the clutter that does build up by travelling so much. Remember, these travels are not leisure, but often days of real hard work, be it rehearsing, delivering performaces, recordings and interviews.
SAD: Why have you chosen the genre of Qawaali & Ghazal as the medium?
SM: My love for Sufism. And my love for the Urdu poetry. Both dwell in the deep core of my heart. When I am performing Qawaali, I literally transcend into an enigma– some spirit lifting me and I am one with the Almighty. Sort of surreal to dissect the emotions. Very cathartic.
SAD: I agree. In fact, in December 2007, the show ‘Riyaazat’ held in Toronto, you got a standing ovation for your performance. I know, because I was there and quite charmed by your performing ability. How does that make you feel? Being able to “lift” the audience.
SM: Thanks for being there. I feel very humbled and blessed to be able to transcend people’s hearts with music. It is a silent communication between the aches, happiness and spiritual upliftment that we human beings can share. I recall the crowd in Karachi, Pakistan in 2007 for a concert, “Nazraana -e- Mohabbat — the audience were in thousands and my energy exude from theirs. Similarily, I experienced the same thrill when I performed, “Taarif -e- Mowla (for the Golden Jubilee) in Calgary, Alberta Dec 2007. So, it is not always necessary that the artist is the “queen” for the night, it is the audience that ignites that in me.
SAD: Heard you dabble with visual art – painting?
SM: (smiling). Who is giving out my secrets?? Yes, I have dabbled. It’s quite relaxing! You must try it too!
SAD: After all the concerts and rehearsing, the volunteer endeavours in the Aga Khan Institution(s), family commitments, being a radio host, social gatherings, and attaining many awards, what does Shabnam Merali do for relaxation?
SM: I enjoy opera. Also, the free time gives me an opportunity to spend quality time with my family and friends. I take walks. Reading and attending my lawn !!
SAD: What does Shabnam read? Who does she read?
SM: I enjoy literature, islamic studies, history and poetry. Works of M.G.Vassanji, Amitav Ghosh, Naguib Mahfooz, Farhad Daftray, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Farid Atthar, Rumi, Mirza Ghalib, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Parveen Shakir, Pablo Neruda are some of my favourite reading pleasures. Each of their works attributes an extension of “human conditions”, by which, various themes are explored in the books. Very Effective. I have now commenced to collect African authors who seem to be marganilised in the global map….but are emerging slowly.
SAD: Who are your favourite musicians whom you have admired?
SM: There are few: Noorjehan for her versatilty. Mehdi Hasan for his rendering of fine ghazals. There are some instrumentalists I adore – Sitar, Sarangi and Santoor. Ashwini Deshpande a good raaga vocalist. In the Western music, it is Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky. I also enjoy jazz, so I would also say the music of Abdullah Ibrahim a South African musician. There are some lovely Arab voices of Sabah Fakhri, Umm Kulthum and Wadi es-Safi who are tender and yet powerful.
SAD: Historically, the art of Ghazals was practiced in the courtyards of the Mughal Emporers and has been dominated by male performers. The trend (thankfully) has been changing, and more women ghazal singers have taken pursuit. Was it ever a challenge for you as being a powerful ghazal singer? You are not a disciple of any ustads, so how did you break into the world of so-called male dominated field?
SM: Actually, Shehzad, the first ever classical Thumri singer was a woman named, Gauhar Jaan in the early 1990’s who was a courtyard singer and proved to be quite an extraordinary performer. women have always been active in classical music and ghazals. A fine singer, Begum Akhtar was perhaps one of the most daring women singers to delve into the art. Yes, no doubt, the male dominence has been witnessed, personally, I was fortunate to never experience such behaviour. If at any time, at some external Canadian cities, I may have witnessed the patriarchal conduct of men in the studio. I always held my ground. As for “art of Ghazal”, the poets would gather around as in a Mehfil and share their prose and lyrics. In Bahadur Shah Zafar’s (the last moghul emperor /poet) courtyard, some poets like Mirza Ghalib, Zauq and Momin Khan Khan would recite their ghazals. Of course, the period of “political poetry” as I call it, was articulated through Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ahmad Faraz, Josh Malihabadi
was of great meaning to me, for I was residing in Karachi and their ghazals influenced me. I wanted to sing them. Desired to “feel” what they wrote.
SAD: Most people like Bollywood pop music in the South Asian community, how do you adapt to their interest, considering you are smoothly blended in classical / qawaali genre?
SM: Thank God we all have different taste! Imagine if we all liked the same? I adapt well in social environment. Shehzad, the good thing about having diversified array of music, we are all trying to preserve the South Asian / Central Asian cultures. The very fact, that, Classical music and Qawaali remain strong and not obscure, it is because of the interest people are developing. I see that in young people as well. Surely, for certain groups of people, pop music is something they relate to, I think it is great to have a medly of so much music. Afterall, what is music? But a prayer! A feeling to enhance or escape. It is a secret world of your own.
SAD: Wow. Well said…the last lines! Have your children taken after you?
SM: Our children are musically inclined. They enjoy operas and symphonies, and respectively play various instruments. Both have given wonderful performances within the Ismaili community and externally.
SAD: Let’s talk about what Sufism means to you?
SM: It is a way of life. Actually, I fancy not to be called Sufi, because any labelling attaches a massive responsibility and expectation. When such burdens are imposed, one loses the essence of “what” they aspire to be. I am a lover of God, does that make me a Sufi, or just a human? The word “Sufi” has become a marketing product by those who find it necessary to associate the word. Sufism is beautiful and some of the Pirs and Baba’s poetry is stunning. There is also poetry of Sufi Baba Farid, who I adore and shall visit the dargah in near future. In a historical context, I see myself singing the works of such Sufi Masters like Mevlana Jalaludin Rumi, Aamir Khusraw and Kabir. Now, by singing their poetry, one does not transform automatically in an aesthetic lifestyle, at least in my case, I am singing and finding solace in their poetry. I write Urdu poetry, and some of my poetry is spiritual. I gravitate towards Sufism, and also find the Zikr quite enriching, but cannot label
myself as a “Sufi” in all its prescribed definition.
SAD: You have been referred to as the “Abida Parveen of the West”. What is your view?
SM: Abida Parveen is a wonderful Sufi Singer ! I have most of her collection and enjoy her music thoroughly. But, our musical stylisation differs. I tend to blend Qawaali and Ghazal… No artist should be compared, for we would not need diversity. However, it is great to compliment each other as fellow artists. I like the sharing and accepting each others strength in their own sphere.
SAD: It’s Golden Jubilee….and you have been busy with performances. The respective invitations from Pakistan and Africa you received in commencing His Highness Aga Khan’s Golden aniversary, you were invited to perform. Please, share.
SM: What a humbling experience! I was invited by Pakistan ITREB to sing infront of five thousand plus audience, that was in Karachi. Soonafter, the tour continued to the neighbouring cities. I was invited twice on a musical tour to perform in Africa – Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Overall, my expressions of all the cities was just thrilling and most gratifying. People were receptive and the compliments and wishes flooded through out the performances. Additionally, in the early part of 2007, I had recorded three CD’s – Expressions (released in Canada -Dec 2007), Sunehra Safar (Golden Jubilee memorabilia -released in Pakistan -Mar 2008) and Khushi (released in Pakistan -Dec 2007) — all were recorded in Karachi for the inaugaration of Golden Jubilee, produced by Agakhan Institutions .
SAD: What would you recommend to young generation aspiring to study music? You studied Accounting, so you could always fall back on should the music not have worked.
SM: Initially, in Karachi I obtained my BA in Islamic Studies and Economics. After settling in Canada, I delved into the Accounting field and completed my Accounting degree, but the heart craved for music, thus I left the accounting career. No regrets. One should study what one has passion for. Simple. By nurturing an ability, one can flourish at an endless level. Having a strong academical background is a very important part in achievement. Personally, I am still learning and upgrading myself when there is the need for it. Same applies in the musical world. There is always room for development!
SAD: Last words to your music connoiseurs? Your audience is a diversified one — from global Ismaili Jamaati members listening to you reciting Ginans and facilitating Ginan Mushairaa’s within the Ismaili community to external audience of the Ghazal and Qawaali conecerts and private functions you have rendered your talent. Your presence is also appreciated by our Western friends, for you have also performed at the University of Alberta and at a South Asian Heritage festival held in Toronto, Canada. Your insight?
SM: Thank you for emitting so much love and support, throughout the years. Without my audience, the music would feel barren. When I witness my admirers so full of life and energy at the shows, I derive much happiness. Allah is my guide and I am a humble person seeking light through my music.
SAD: Shabnam Merali, you are an inspiration. I am an avid collector of your music and Inshaallah, I wish to hear you live in a concert again. Best wishes. Thank you for sharing your life.
SM: My pleasure, Shehzad. Best of wishes.
(Mr. Shehzad Ali Darwish is a Senior Editor / Journalist for the Naya Adab Literary Group. The organization supports progressive arts and embraces pluralism. Mr.Darwish resides between South Asia and Canada. He is currently directing a film on socio challenges of the Northern Areas of Pakistan.)