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Obituary: Ghulam Farid Sabri

Farrukh Dhondy
Wednesday 18 May 1994 23:02 BST

Ghulam Farid Sabri, singer: born 1930; married (five sons, six daughters); died Karachi 5 April 1994.

GHULAM FARID SABRI was one of the most versatile Qawwali singers of modern times and, as one of the Sabri Brothers, the first to bring this devotional music, invented by medieval Sufi poets and mystics, to audiences in the West. With his younger brother, Maqbool, he composed and performed several Indian and Pakistani film scores in the Qawwali style, had recorded hits and began the poetic embassies from the subcontinent to the expatriate Indo- Pakistani populations of the United States and Britain.

He was born in 1930 in the Central Provinces of the Raj and was brought up in Gwalior. The family, which had a tradition of performance, claimed descent from Tan Sen, the court maestro of the Great Mughal, Akbar, a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth. While Akbar can claim success with uniting the Hindu and Muslim kingdoms and populations of India into one enlightened Empire, to Tan Sen redounds the credit of inventing a style of classical music. Claiming descent from Tan Sen is equivalent to saying you are descended from Mozart. But the claim is more serious, because in India the musical tradition passes like sap through a family tree.

After the partition of India in 1947, Sabri's family migrated to Karachi together with thousands of other Muslims who formed in Pakistan the Mahajar community of migrants and refugees, distinct from the indigenous Sindhis, Punjabis, Baloch and Pathans. The Mahajars took with them the courtly traditions and conceits of Urdu, a language in which the central tradition of Qawwali which the Sabris began to practise, is carried on. On arrival in Karachi, the brothers, whose education was begun by their father, were taught classical style by Ustad Latafat Hussain Khan, the maestro, who is now 87 and lives in Southall, west London.

Qawwali, which literally means 'utterance' in Arabic, is usually traced back to Amir Khusro, the soldier, poet, missionary and Sufi philosopher who composed in Persian in the 13th century. This branch of Indian Sufism brought together the obsessive, trance-inducing devotional pursuits of the Hindu Bhakti cults with the mystical strains of Persian Islam and dedicated the amalgam to Allah, to the prophet Muhammad and to the saints who were for the most part Sufis themselves.

Qawwali takes the form of a melodic line of lyric sung by a lead and repeated by a chorus to the accompaniment of rhythmic clapping and drums and, since the advent of Christian missionaries, the hand-held harmonium.

Beginning in Persian and Poorbi, the north Indian 'Hindustani' dialect, Qawwalis began to be composed in the new language of Urdu and turned in its subject matter from religion to love, a movement akin to that of black American music from 'spirituals' to Gospel and Soul.

The Sabri brothers sang in every language available to Qawwali, from the traditional Urdu to Persian, Poorbi, Punjabi and Sindhi.

For the most part, Ghulam Farid Sabri led the chorus, echoing and elaborating on the lead lines fed to him, as the dramatic performance proceeded, by his brother the lead singer. He was a big man with the commanding look of a Sumo wrestler and a voice like a barrel organ which would on occasion startle an audience with the chant of 'Allah]' above the melodic line and voices of the other Qawwals.

Sabri had the habit of anointing people who went to interview him with perfume which he kept in a small vial. When asked on a tour of Britain in the early Eighties what Qawwali was all about, he said it was 'bringing the message of Muhammad to the world'.

Though the repertoire of the Sabri brothers was substantially devotional and one of their biggest recorded hits was 'Tajdaar-e- haram' ('King of Medina'); a hymn to Muhammad, it included love lyrics and Qawwalis which could be construed as Sufi defiance of orthodoxy.

The night before he died, Sabri was discussing a tour of Germany later this year. His appearances in Britain and the United States set a pattern and began to build an audience for what has now come to be known as 'World Music'. Following the Sabris to London and the US came other Pakistani Qawwals, the most famous of whom is Nusrat Fatch Ali Khan.

Haji Ghulam Farid leaves behind him five sons, six daughters and a legacy to an art that he assisted in making international.

(Photograph omitted)

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