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Lal Hussain, 66, beats his drum as he makes calls at doors to wake people up for Sehri by his drumbeats. — AFP

The beat is fading for Ramazan drummers but Rawalpindi's Lal Hussain persists to keep the practice alive

“Wake up and eat your morning meal!” he howls along with the Bhangra-inspired beats emanating from his dhol.
Updated Jun 03, 2018 04:20am

Lal Hussain saunters through Rawalpindi's empty streets at 1am shattering the silence with syncopated drum beats, awakening startled Pakistanis so they can sleepily eat their sehri meal before the day's Ramazan fasting begins.

“Wake up and eat your morning meal!” he howls along with the Bhangra-inspired beats emanating from his dhol drum.

Hussain has been faithfully hitting the streets every Ramazan for the last 35 years, walking with his tasselled drum for miles through the deserted byways and back alleys of the city's old quarter.

Lal Hussain, 66, 'Ramazan drummer' holds his drum as he leaves his house to makes calls at doors. — AFP
Lal Hussain, 66, 'Ramazan drummer' holds his drum as he leaves his house to makes calls at doors. — AFP

Mothers and children peek through their windows to catch a glimpse of the drummer as he passes, while men greet him in the streets offering small amounts of cash as thanks for his service.

Lal Hussain beats his drum as he makes calls at doors at Bani area in Rawalpindi. — AFP
Lal Hussain beats his drum as he makes calls at doors at Bani area in Rawalpindi. — AFP

But this centuries-old tradition is becoming rarer in Pakistan.

Drummers once provided the heartbeat to the sehri ritual but their future is uncertain as more Pakistanis connect to the grid and purchase smartphones.

A man looks on as Lal Hussain beats his drum in the streets of Bani area in Rawalpindi. — AFP
A man looks on as Lal Hussain beats his drum in the streets of Bani area in Rawalpindi. — AFP

Now, people almost universally rely on phone alarms, digital clocks or public announcements on loudspeakers to rouse them from their slumber in time for sehri.

“Need is the mother of innovation,” says Uxi Mufti, former director general of Pakistan's national institute of culture and heritage. “Now when (the drummers) are not required, they are vanishing.”

Lal Hussain roams on streets of a residential area, waking people up for sehri by his drum beats. — AFP
Lal Hussain roams on streets of a residential area, waking people up for sehri by his drum beats. — AFP

Every year fewer drummers fan out in the cities and villages across Pakistan during Ramazan to wake their fellow Muslims for sehri.

“Hardly a dozen drummers are left in Rawalpindi,” Hussain tells AFP as he makes his rounds through the city of some five million people.

Residents of the area look on as Lal Hussain walks in streets, beating his drum to wake people up for sehri. — AFP
Residents of the area look on as Lal Hussain walks in streets, beating his drum to wake people up for sehri. — AFP

“There used to be a drum beater in every street but now many of them have gone. The younger generations have adopted other professions.”

Even as his fellow drummers have retired or abandoned the tradition, the 66-year-old persists undaunted as he battles hepatitis C; determined to keep the practice alive for as long as possible. His dedication has endeared him to residents.

Lal Hussain walks around a residential area, beating his drum to wake people up for sehri. — AFP
Lal Hussain walks around a residential area, beating his drum to wake people up for sehri. — AFP

“It rekindles [memories of] our forefathers, our culture, so we enjoy it in the same manner,” says Yasir Butt.

And with Pakistan's frequent power cuts, Hussain says he is ultimately more reliable than residents' battery-reliant phones.

“There are people who tell me to continue with drum beating as they don't trust their mobile phones,” he says.

Lal Hussain beats his drum as he makes calls at doors "wake up and eat your sehri" at Bani, an old residential area in Rawalpindi. — AFP or licensors
Lal Hussain beats his drum as he makes calls at doors "wake up and eat your sehri" at Bani, an old residential area in Rawalpindi. — AFP or licensors