Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Islamic ‘blues’ from Pakistan at Singapore’s Esplanade: Faiz Ali Faiz

During live performances, great blues musicians improvise with their instruments routinely. A three minute song easily stretches to ten minutes or more simply because a musician 'speaks' his emotions through his guitar. The musician himself is in a virtual trance during the entire performance.

Much like a blues performance, the Pakistani tradition of devotional song called the Qawwali thrives on improvisation. However, in the case of Qawwali there are no guitars and the impromptu music is provided by the human voice. It is the voice which moves up and down the musical scale. Vocalists, not instruments, play with each other.

To be sure, the singing voice is supported by the tabla and harmoniums. Additionally, the music is underpinned by religious lyrics often written about Sufi saints or Pirs. In fact, the music's intention is to induce a mental state amenable to contemplating the greatness and beauty of God.

Many Sufi orders believe that the existence of God can be confirmed through 'out of worldly' religious experiences.
Pakistani Qawwal Faiz Ali Faiz
Singapore got a taste of good Qawwali music this last weekend. Faiz Ali Faiz (not to be mistaken with Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz) gave a rousing two hour performance at the Esplanade. Despite the apparent lack of familiarity with the language or the musical form, the audience appreciated the versatility and beauty of the human voice; the playful to and fro between Faiz Ali Faiz and his entourage.

For Singapore's Pakistani community it is a frustrating reality that cultural exchanges between Pakistan and Singapore do not occur more regularly. The odd art exhibit or concert once a year does not do justice either to Pakistan or relations between the two nations.

There is a reasonable population of Pakistanis in Singapore – certainly enough to fill up concert halls. Perhaps the problem lies with the Pakistani community not actively encouraging such links. Maybe the fact that Pakistan is overshadowed (at least in 'official' circles) by its more powerful neighbour, India, has something to do with the current state of affairs?

Most likely, it is a combination of neglect, malaise and India's natural linkages with Singapore. Nevertheless, the Faiz concert was an opportunity to celebrate Pakistan in Singapore – even if most Singaporeans cannot distinguish between Pakistan and India.

I enjoyed it thoroughly and look forward to more Pakistani artists visiting Singapore.


Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors, Imran improves the profitability of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at imran@deodaradvisors.com.

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