THE ICON INTERVIEW: SPIRITUAL CHANNELS

Updated September 23, 2018

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Abu Muhammad with his older brother Farid Ayaz - Photo: Kohi Marri
Abu Muhammad with his older brother Farid Ayaz - Photo: Kohi Marri

“I don’t give interviews,” says Farid Ayaz looking at me square in the eyes to communicate the gravity of the point he’s about to make. “There’s no power in the world that can make me come here [to speak to you]. Kissi ka baap nahin bula sakta mujhe meri marzi ke baghair [Nobody can dare call me without my consent]. Except, he has an advantage,” he points to his younger brother and second half of their popular qawwal group, Abu Muhammad. “When he reached out to me, even though I’m unwell, I told him I’ll be there.”

Although brothers, Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad observe radically different fashions — Abu sports a typical North Indian-style kurta and pyjamas whereas his older brother Farid has adopted a more flamboyant look in comparison: he dons a Sindhi cap with intricate mirror work, an ajrak around his shoulders and a dhoti.

Farid Ayaz is late to arrive to the interview and demands the attentiveness of everyone present. Should their attention waver, even slightly, they’re in trouble — Farid is swift to scold them for being disrespectful. His mouth is forever stained a deep orange due to his habit of incessantly chewing paan, and several times during this interview, he motions to his nephews to bring him a silver paandaan so he can fold himself a new paan. When he is done, he flashes a sharp look at the other family members present in the room and is promptly presented with a spittoon shaped like a large silver goblet to expel whatever remains of his paan into.

His younger brother (there is a 10-year age gap between them) Abu Muhammad has no such inclinations — towards dhotis, delivering regular admonishments or chewing on betel leaves. Amiable and quite the storyteller, Abu is the one who manages the business side of things; he meets with prospective clients, negotiates contracts etc. There’s a faint scent of a musky itar (essential oil) at his home where we meet and he promptly takes a little vial out and places two tiny drops of itar on both of my wrists. We spent a good half hour engaged in conversation before his older brother joined us.

As the heirs of the legacy of legendary qawwal Munshi Raziuddin, Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad have striven to keep their art pure even in the face of contemporary commercialism. They explain how …

One of the more prominent qawwali groups in Pakistan today, Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad trace their lineage back to Mian Samat bin Ibrahim who was mentored by Hazrat Amir Khusro — at the birth of what we now know as qawwali. It’s a tradition that has been passed down through generations ever since. They belong to the qawwal bachhon ka gharana of Delhi and, according to the brothers, their family have been engaged in qawwali for 750 years.

Farid Ayaz and Natasha Baig with producer Zohaib Kazi - Photos: Insiya Syed
Farid Ayaz and Natasha Baig with producer Zohaib Kazi - Photos: Insiya Syed

Haven’t you ever tried doing something different? “I have,” confesses Abu. “Around 30 years ago, qawwali pe zawwal aya tha [qawwali was in decline]. On the qawwali that we are doing today. Our neighbouring country tried to ruin it. It’s one thing to be modern, but the whole concept of qawwali was vulgarised.”

Was this in the early 90s when people accessed foreign channels via satellite dishes and suddenly there were remixes of older songs and compositions — including Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Afreen Afreen, picturised on a skimpily draped Lisa Ray walking through the desert causing a bit of a scandal in qawwali and qawwali-following circles?

“Qawwali is a spiritual experience,” says Abu. “This isn’t entertainment, it’s referred as that in this day and age, but it’s a message composed by some very prominent people to promote peace. For a few moments, it takes you to a point where you don’t feel like you’re a part of this world.”

Back then times were bad for qawwals. There wasn’t enough work and making ends meet was becoming increasingly difficult. Lest their sons be tempted to sell their ancestral heritage, the compositions of their gharana, their father — famed qawwal Munshi Raziuddin — sat his sons down and said: “Your ancestors have made many sacrifices to protect this work. If, in my lifetime, you ruin their legacy, I won’t be able to show my face to them [after my death].” He exhorted them to be patient, that this difficult time too would pass, and that, “Agla waqt tumhara hi hai [The future will be yours].”

Making notes on the lyrics sheet -Photos: Insiya Syed
Making notes on the lyrics sheet -Photos: Insiya Syed

“My father was very strict — he didn’t just use words, he used his hands as well,” laughs Abu, indicating that he and his brothers were subject to more than just a few lashings. “We didn’t have his foresight,” says Abu. “That [difficult] time did pass and you can see where we are now.”

Where they are now is that the Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal & Brothers is engaged in numerous tours across Pakistan and around the world. They’re regulars at Coke Studio, first making an appearance in 2011 (Season 4) with ‘Kangna’, a composition made on 10-beats (jhaptaal) and which, according to Abu Muhammad, is incredibly difficult to follow for musicians. “Because ordinarily, most qawwalis are based on six or eight beats,” he explained.

Back then times were bad for qawwals. There wasn’t enough work and making ends meet was becoming increasingly difficult. Lest their sons be tempted to sell their ancestral heritage, the compositions of their gharana, their father — famed qawwal Munshi Raziuddin — sat his sons down and said: “Your ancestors have made many sacrifices to protect this work. If, in my lifetime, you ruin their legacy, I won’t be able to show my face to them [after my death].” He exhorted them to be patient, that this difficult time too would pass, and that, “Agla waqt tumhara hi hai [The future will be yours].”

“Other than us, Gumby had a major role to play in this, since he’s carrying the rhythm,” says Abu. “He sat down with Farid Bhai several times to really understand what we’re trying to do.” It would take all of Louis J. ‘Gumby’ Pinto’s learning and experience of playing diverse styles of music over the past couple of decades to be able to accompany a complex qawwali on drums. But he did, and added a whole other dimension to it. The final track is also a whopping 16 minutes long.

It’s even more surprising to find out that it took three seasons until Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad were comfortable with going forward with this — their initial fear was that this would result in vulgarising qawwali as had happened across the border in the late 1980s/early 1990s. What ended up happening was the opposite.

Natasha Baig and Abu Muhammad going over the song one more time before recording -Photos: Insiya Syed
Natasha Baig and Abu Muhammad going over the song one more time before recording -Photos: Insiya Syed

“The concept that people had before of qawwali, the one that was ruined during those dark days, completely changed after Coke Studio,” says Abu.

They were then contacted by Mira Nair. She wanted ‘Kangna’ for her film The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012) — the movie opens with that track. The dilemma was editing the 16-minute track into six or seven minutes for the film. According to Abu, several people tried and failed. They just couldn’t figure out how to cut ‘Kangna’ short. This is where Farid Ayaz’s experience and creativity came into play. “Farid Bhai ustaad admi hain [Farid Bhai is a master],” Abu started to tell me while, at the same moment, his older brother walked in the door. Talk about coincidences.

“When a student apne ustaad ki jootyon se guzar ke nikla ho [has learnt at the feet of his master], he hears jhaptaal everywhere, even in his sleep,” Farid explained. I quickly realised that Farid has a habit of talking in metaphors. “When your soul and your voice are one, you don’t lose your way.” Then, he looked up and abruptly called out “Allah!” It’s something he does quite often, interjecting it in between conversations and even meals.

This year, at Coke Studio, they performed an improvised version of Allama Iqbal’s famous poem, Shikwa, with a young, new and incredibly talented singer Natasha Baig. Her powerhouse vocals were paired perfectly for the shikwa [complaint] part of the song, while the group would perform the jawab-e-Shikwa [response to the complaint].

It’s a composition that’s very close to their heart. “I’ve spent 50 years listening to my father sing three things every single day,” says Farid. “Meray Bannay Ki Baat Na Poocho, Mareez-e-Mohabbat Unhi Ka Fasana and Shikwa. That makes it 18,250 times.” Munshi Raziuddin, used to perform a version that didn’t actually begin with Allama Iqbal’s Shikwa. “He would later add Iqbal’s Shikwa to it,” explained Abu. According to him, it was that version that motivated co-producer Ali Hamza to reach out to them and suggest that they do it.

Farid Ayaz sharing a moment in between recording performances with producer Ali Hamza
Farid Ayaz sharing a moment in between recording performances with producer Ali Hamza

Although they were sceptical at first — performing Shikwa is a massive undertaking — eventually they decided to give it a try. The final version is in Urdu and Farsi with poetry by Allama Iqbal, Omar Khayyam and Amjad Hyderabadi.

“I didn’t know Natasha was going to be a part of the song,” says Farid adding that it’s because Abu usually keeps track of these things. “I met her on the day of the performance,” says Farid. “I corrected her pronunciation a little bit, explained the tempo, the mood and tone of Shikwa.” She was nervous at first, they said, but had the confidence to pull it off.

Farid has a confession to make: “I’ve listened to that recording a few times and, at one point, I made a mistake. Although the second time, I tied a knot on it, changed the tone and tried to cover it, but a mistake is a mistake. Just because you haven’t caught it, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be aware of it.”

Despite that, it’s still one of the more powerful performances of the whole season. When it’s Natasha’s turn to perform the shikwa, you feel the pain in the song. When the camera shifts to the qawwal group for the jawab-e-shikwa, they emerge from the darkness through some very nifty light play, their collective voices and unified stance adding to their somewhat commanding performance. You feel the strength and power of their response.

Un ke baap ke buss mein nahin tha [It was beyond them],” he says referring to the producers when talking about who gets credited for the success of this performance. “Humare baap ke buss mein bhi nahin tha [It was beyond us too]. But if your intentions are clear, you stay within your boundaries and keep your nose down … Woh aap ki naak ko khud ba khud utha leytay hain [The Almighty automatically helps you succeed].”

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 23rd, 2018