Kamal Haji, a well-known name within the Ismaili Muslim community in the USA, has garnered praise on an international level for his lyrical aptitude, especially in his recent release titled “Padharo Mawla.” In this release, he had the opportunity to write lyrics which would be sung by the legendary Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. Ismailimail caught up with Kamal for an exclusive chat, in which he shared his experience in writing the lyrics for the song, as well as working with the Salim-Sulaiman brothers. He additionally spoke about his own band, and the various other volunteer projects he has worked on within the Ismaili community in recent years, as well as inter-faith projects.
Ismailimail: Kamal, thank you for taking the time to chat with us.
Kamal Haji: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
IM: Before we speak about the experience or inspiration behind the lyrics of “Padharo Mawla,” do you mind telling our worldwide audience about yourself? Where are you from originally? How long have you lived in the USA?
KH: I am originally from Karachi, Pakistan, and came to the US to pursue higher studies, in the 90’s. I have been living here ever since.
IM: By profession, you are an experienced Analytics, Data Warehouse, and Business Intelligence Professional. By hobby, you are a musician. Tell us, why did you choose to take up music as a hobby? Do you come from a musical background? Who or what inspired you to write lyrics and become a musician?
KH: I am not from a musical family per se, but from the very early stages of my life, I had a passion for Performing Arts. During my childhood, I had the blessing to be a part of the Youth Flute Band in Darkhana Jamatkhana (Garden, Karachi), where I played the recorder and was a lead side-drummer. At school, I was actively involved in the brass band, where I played lead drums and various other instruments. The school had great extracurricular platforms that encouraged creativity, such as writing and singing competitions.
When I was a teenager, my friends and I created our band, called “Andaaz.” Around the same time, the Pakistan music industry was going through a pop revolution, with the rise of Vital Signs and Junoon, following the pioneering music of Nazia and Zohaib Hassan, Alamgir, and Mohammed Ali Sheki. These musicians were a source of inspiration for us, and we started writing and composing our own original songs. I still remember the joy and spirituality I experienced during that process. The Religious Education Center (REC) and Scouts Unit also provided platforms to create original acts. In our spare time, when weren’t studying or playing sports, my friends and I would be jamming on covers and creating our own grooves and beats.
While I was inspired to become a musician by the pop icons of the time, there was also an abundance of inspiration from within our own community, such as the legendary Taj Qawi, Kamal Taj, Karim Shahbuddin, Ali Shahbuddin, Mukhee Mehdi Surmawala (Garden Orchestra, Karachi) and Nizar Lalani (Prince Aly S Khan Orchestra, Karachi), as well as from some very talented and musically inclined REC teachers, especially Aziz Lakhani and Kamran Khimani.
IM: Have you ever had a conflict between your professional life and your personal interests that made you choose between the two?
KH: Not really. I keep a balanced schedule between my professional life and musical projects. I worked hard to acquire my Bachelors and Master’s degrees from the University of Houston, and continue to enjoy working in the field of data science and analytics. At the same time, since my years at college, I have been performing music professionally on the weekends. My band, South Asian Fusion, has provided unique opportunities to work with talented Houston-based artists, as well as world-renowned Indian and Pakistani professional singers, including Alamgir, Ali Haider, Tahira Syed, Jatin Pandit (of Jatin-Lalit fame), Kamran and Imran Mehdi Hassan, Shazia Khushk, Javed Ali, and Palak Muchal. For a while, I also directed a live music show on a Houston-based radio station, Hum-FM.
I feel lucky to have a tremendous amount of family support and encouragement that enables me to keep this balance, and not give up my passion. Of course, there have been instances where I have not been able to participate in some Jamati musical projects, which conflicted with my other weekend commitments. Other than that, I have been able to keep the balance.
IM: While you have written lyrics for many wonderful songs in the past, what was your inspiration behind the lyrics of “Padharo Mawla,” as well as the “official” Diamond Jubilee song in the US?
KH: The love for our beloved Imam, which was instilled in me by my parents and religion teachers, has been the core inspiration behind all the devotional songs I have written in the past, as well as during the Diamond Jubilee year, including my Diamond Jubilee album Reflections, Jubilee Mubarak and Padharo Mawla, to name a few.
The process writing lyrics goes hand in hand with the compositions. When I am trying to create a new melody, I somehow hear the words in the background. I find an inspiration on the subject and start writing about that topic, while keeping the feel of composition married to the lyrical content, and vice versa.
Padharo Mawla was more focused on the genre of Qawwali, in order to create something specific to Ustaad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s style of singing. Again, ample time was spent with Salim-Sulaiman to understand their vision, before I started writing the song. The process remained iterative throughout.
IM: When you heard your lyrics being sung by the legendary Ustad Rahat Fateh Ali khan for the first time, how did you feel? What were your first thoughts?
KH: It was like a dream come true! It has been a Diamond Jubilee blessing and no short of a miracle to hear Ustaad Rahat Fateh Ali Khan sing the devotional song, Padharo Mawla. I am excited that the song will be performed live at the grand finale of Diamond Jubilee celebrations, in Lisbon.
I still distinctly remember the day I received a call from Salim-Sulaiman about Jubilee Mubarak. That was an opportunity of a lifetime – to work on a project with my long-time idols, whom I deeply respect and admire. Not only did I have the chance to work on these special songs under their banner, but I also got the unique opportunity to help identify artists living in the USA to play various instruments, on the basis of their international reputation and merit.
Jubilee Mubarak was selected to be the first Official Diamond Jubilee song presented by the.Ismaili, and was whole-heartedly adopted across various nations where members of the Ismaili community reside. It has touched people across all age groups, ethnicities and nationalities, to a point where it has become an anthem and a part of every Diamond Jubilee celebration across the world. AlHamdulliah!
IM: The Salim-Sulaiman duo are, without a doubt, great ambassadors for our global Ismaili community. You have worked with the brothers in the past, could you tell us a little bit about working with them?
KH: As an Ismaili, I feel very proud of Salim-Sulaiman, and have followed their work since a very long time. I have had the opportunity to attend many of their concerts in Houston, which I like to call Master Classes, as I am able to see them in action, creating magic, on and off the stage. I believe their focus on perfection is something every artist can learn from. It has been a Diamond Jubilee blessing to be a part of the process of creating these historical tributes, with iterative discussions on how to create content, best-suited for the occasion, composition and arrangement.
IM: As the saying goes, “diversity is strength.” Please tell our audience about your band. You have quite a diverse group, how long have you been together as a band?
KH: I have led the Southwest Ismaili Orchestra, in Houston, Texas, for over a decade, now. Our city has the largest jamat in the USA, and our team has performed regional dandia for over 30,000 people. We have worked hard to identify new talent in the jamat, and have earned a solid reputation of having talented and dedicated singers and musicians from all age groups and backgrounds.
Zikr band is an offshoot of the above. It was created a couple of years ago by a smaller group of diverse artists from various ethnic and regional backgrounds. It is comprised of:
- Saif Sattani – Lead Vocalist – has roots in Mumbai, India, and is a gifted singer. His most notable project was representing the USA jamat at the homage ceremony in Aiglemont, France on July 11, 2017.
- Firuz Shukrikhudov – Bass – is from Tajikistan, where he performed on TV and enjoyed the reputation of being a pop star
- Najeeb Jan – Rubab and Bansuri – is a respected musician from Hunza, Northern Pakistan
- Zubair Feroz Bhimani – Drums – hails from Kutchh, India, and is known as Z-bear, for his crazy energy.
- Kamal Haji (myself) – Band Lead, Keys, Melodica and additonal vocals
We all feel the essence of “One Jamat” when we perform together or have jamming sessions. Some of the other projects the team has been involved in, include, Jubilee Mubarak (Official Jubilee song), With Heart with Love (Official USA song), One Jamat Dance (Official USA dance piece), Reflections (Official USA Diamond Jubilee album), Jubilee Arts Festival USA, Jubilee Stories USA, Southwest USA Dandias and Devotional Concerts, and Interfaith events.
Apart from the core members, other singers who have been featured in some of the projects include Shabana Rattani, Nizar Virani, Karim Noorani, Fazeelat Ali, Shama Tejani, Alam Panjwani, Shariq Lalani, and Sarah Haji.
IM: Alongside your professional life and your music, you are also a very dedicated volunteer within our community, as well as the community at large. What are some of the volunteer projects you have done within our community, as well as the inter-faith community?
KH: Apart from leading the Southwest Ismaili Orchestra, within the community, I have been fortunate to work on projects with people of all ages. For example, I am the co-founder and instructor of the Ismaili Seniors Matki Band – a project of the Aga Khan Social Welfare Board’s Aging Gracefully Initiative, launched 2010 in Houston, Texas. During the Diamond Jubilee year, the group had the opportunity to participate in Jubilee Mubarak, and write the Gujarati version of the song, “Bahaar”, which was part of the album, Reflections.
For several years, I have been blessed to work closely with the Religious Education Center in Houston, dedicating time to help children and youth in musical projects. I was also part of the team that founded the Ismaili Choir and Ensemble in Houston, Texas, with the mission to hone the talent of the youth in our community.
On behalf of the Aga Khan Council for the Southwestern United States, I’ve led the Ismaili Muslim Choir’s performances at various interfaith events. For example, our team represents the community at the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Prayer service in Sugarland, Texas. We represented the community at a post hurricane Harvey Prayer Service at the Hare Krishna Temple, as well as at Rice University’s Abrahamic Faith concert, where we got a chance to showcase our original song Allah (from Reflections), alongside legendary poetries, such as, Lab Pe Aati Hai Du’a by Allama Iqbal, and Na Tera Khuda Koi Aur Hai, by Najam Shiraz.