By Sonya Rehman
Last month, the popular Pakistani music series, Coke Studio, broadcast one of its long-awaited tracks for the new season, ‘Rang,’ a duet between Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and the late, Amjad Sabri.
A touching rendition of a devotional song by Ameer Khusro, the famed Sufi poet and scholar; what made the Khan-Sabri collaboration so special was the fact that Khan’s uncle, the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Sabri’s father, another Qawwal powerhouse, Ghulam Farid Sabri, sung the same song at a shrine in Karachi over four decades ago.
But perhaps more than the fact that two of the country’s greatest musicians were sharing the stage for the first time, it was the anticipation of seeing Sabri—the highly-acclaimed and adored Qawwali singer—deliver one of his last performances before his brutal murder in Karachi, this year in June.
“It’s very strange for us to think he’s not in this world anymore,” Faisal Kapadia, the co-producer of Coke Studio’s current, ninth season stated shortly after the release of the track, “Sabri was the type of person that if you spoke with him for a few minutes, you’d feel you’d known him all your life. He was a really humble, simple guy.”
A huge fan of cricket, and a great player to boot, Kapadia mentioned how Sabri would love playing a cricket game on his phone before a recording or a concert. “His loss for Pakistan is huge and irreparable,” Kapadia said, “For Sabri to pass away in such a manner and that too at such a young age…it’s shocking. What a fabulous voice, what power he had.”
However for Kapadia, the turn-out of thousands at Sabri’s funeral did give him sense of solace in grief. “It showed how loved he was. It’s very easy to become famous, but not everyone can be loved to the extent that he was.”
“Targeting Sabri in the prime of his life and at the pinnacle of his career, one of the few remaining Qawwali greats of Pakistan, is a big blow to all of us. A hole in our hearts. The final exam of our resilience,” stated Meesha Shafi, a Pakistani actress and singer who also featured on Coke Studio this year, “Artists have a lot of power to influence public opinion but no one should have to pay with their life for dedicating their time on this earth to reading verses of love. This is an active and horrific extremist colonization. A genocide of our cultural heritage. Sufism is a significant part of our identity and tragically, our very identity is under urgent threat from extremist and intolerant mindsets.”
Laid to rest in Karachi, right beside his father’s grave, Sabri was one of the most sought-after singers in the country, oft touted the “rock star” of Qawwali who was successfully carrying his family’s legacy forward amidst a number of music projects and performances across Pakistan, the United States, India and Europe.
“History has many different kinds of martyrs,” Taimur Rahman, an activist said, “Most were martyred in politics or war, some were martyred for their struggle for science or philosophy. Perhaps it is only in Pakistan that you have a martyr for music.”