I can sing today because Amjad bhai told me I can

Published: June 23, 2016
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Acclaimed Sufi singer and qawwali maestro Amjad Sabri was shot dead by motorcycle-borne gunmen in Karachi. PHOTO: AFP

I never knew it would come down to this; me writing about how Amjad Sabri changed me. What sort of a man was he? Everyone has pictures with him. Everyone seems to know him personally. Every second politician has something to say. His death has made even those talk who were never fans; those who never considered him an A-lister.

As a boy who grew up in the cultural milieu of Sadaat-e-Amroha, I would go to our community centre every year to witness Amjad Sabri perform for the Urs of Hussain Sharafuddin Shahwilayat. I had never been exposed to qawwali this way and watching him stir up the crowd was magical. He was a rock star of this world. Everyone wanted to greet him and tell him how good he was. The elders saw Ghulam Fareed Sabri in him. The youngsters admired his electrifying energy.

Years later I was standing in front of him on national television, reciting Main To Panjetan Ka Ghulam Hoon. How I reached there, I still don’t understand. A private TV channel was running an eulogy recitation competition at a time when we were still new to this phenomenon of Ramazan transmissions.

I used to sing here and there, and upon the advice of a few well-wishers, I partook in what would later turn out to be utter madness. However, this association with breakfast television that lasted for around five years taught me a number of things and most importantly, made Amjad Sabri a mentor, friend and an older brother.

With his worldly dealings and choices we were not concerned. I began working for that channel and seeing him every now and then became routine. From Amjad Sabri, he became Amjad bhai – the man who would praise my singing ability with words of appreciation that I never deserved. Many a times he made me push my limits and discover my vocal range which he thought was remarkable.

He used to say,

“Ek raag pakka karne mein saal lag jatay hen par main jaldi karadoonga.”

(It takes a while to master even a single raag, but I will help you do it faster).

He would pinpoint errors and teach some very basics of singing in passing. He never let go off even a minute mistake; this was how his father had brought him up.

I do not claim to be a protégé of this master qawwal. Amongst his understudies, whom he guided for the TV show and during the countless hours of private sittings, I claim to be the weakest and least motivated. Yet he never failed in recognising me.

And it wasn’t just me.

Amjad bhai was like this with everyone – from the anchors to the production team to the crew. He was always smiling. Telling jokes, anecdotes. His knowledge of fiqh, Sufism and Islamic history was awe-inspiring. I would throw random questions at him and he would have an answer for everything. I do not blame him for his choices but what I truly regret is that more people saw just his flippant side. However, I think he has already begun changing that, posthumously.

Ali Raj

Ali Raj

A sub-editor at The Express Tribune. He tweets @AnaariKiBandooq (twitter.com/AnaariKiBandooq)

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