The acclaimed qawwal has left us with countless memories. He may be gone but his legacy will live on forever
Wednesday’s tragic evening has left one question lingering on everyone’s mind - why would anybody want to kill Amjad Sabri? The answer lies in the famous saying that a great war leaves the country with three armies - an army of cripples, an army of mourners and an army of thieves. In this ongoing warfare against extremism and misguided interpretations, our war (against what and in allegiance to whom?) has been left with a crippled security system, a constantly mourning nation and thieves that are hell bent on robbing us of peace and freedom. Their latest victim is renowned artist, the protégé of one of Pakistan’s most illustrious qawwal gharanas and humble soul, Amjad Sabri.
One of 21st century’s few remaining qawwals, Sabri refused to succumb to the increasing commercialization of cultural music though for many qawwali puritans he was too contemporary and uncustomary in his approach. He wasn’t an understated spiritual artist; he was more a prolific celebrity. Yet he worked hard to salvage the dying art form through a career that spanned decades of reiterating famous kalams of his ancestors and legendary father Ghulam Farid Sabri but while his dreams and aims got bigger, his life was cut short - Sabri was brutally gunned down in Karachi in what was a premeditated attack by unidentified terrorists. His untimely death was an instant reminder of how short and unpredictable life is, but it was more a reminder of how noble a man and iconic an artist Sabri was and what a tragic loss his death is for the nation.
Amjad Sabri was barely nine when he went into training and by 12 he joined the pioneering Sabri Brothers, of New York’s Carnegie Hall fame, live on stage. Decades later when he finally took the mantle, he proved his suitability in a blink of an eye with a stirring, powerful vocal cadenza. Though his affiliation with Bollywood often came under scrutiny, Sabri continued to live and perform on his own terms and travel across the globe as a devoted exponent of qawwali. His striking voice that transcended the realm of words soon amassed a large fan base that transcended all borders.
Read also: The best in him was yet to be
As with most popular celebrities, controversy didn’t delude Sabri’s life. It was just last year that he got into a copyright battle with the makers of Salman Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan, who featured his clan’s trademark qawwali ‘Bhar Do Jholi’ through a rehashed version by Adnan Sami, without obtaining rights for it or attributing it to the original maestros. However, a bigger blow came when a blasphemy lawsuit was filed against him in Islamabad High Court for singing a qawwali that mentioned the names of sacred religious figures. It was only then that he came under extremists’ radar and it is perhaps what has eventually cost him his life.
One may argue that pushing the statement that ‘he lives on forever’ will only brush the blatant injustice, he has been a victim of, under the carpet and further desensitize our nation. But the fact remains that he will live on - not just through his voice on CDs and online music platforms – but also through the memories of his down-to-earth persona, his undying love for his heritage, his courage to speak his mind and his commitment to staying true to his cultural roots. He will be remembered time and again through vigils, through tributes and through his last song recorded for Coke Studio’s upcoming season, where he has collaborated with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan on the famous qawwali, ‘Aaj Rang Hai’.
Can we do something about it?
By Ali Gul Pir
During the break, Amjad Sabri said to me, "Let’s try it. If it works, good and if it doesn’t, it’s fine." It worked like aaloo in parathas; it was amazing! That’s what the late Amjad Sabri said to me when he and I were guests on a run-of-the-mill Eid show. I had been asked by the host to perform ‘Waderai Ka Beta’ on the show and I looked at Sabri sahab and caught him looking back with a grin. "Shall I do the chorus?"
That’s how I once shared stage with him. He was a down to earth, jovial and caring man. I met no one who spoke ill of him. His role in the media industry was of a jolly and caring uncle; he gave advice on business and family matters.
At a time when very few people were out there doing live shows, making music and appearing on television to keep the music industry alive, he was putting in the work. He was an artist who wanted to perform and entertain the world. That is why his loss is not just a devastation for his family, friends and fans, it is a great loss for art in Pakistan.
Incidents like these reinforce the fear of speaking up or doing something positive in Pakistan. No matter who the culprit is or what their purpose is, the sheer cold blooded murder of a global artist who brought nothing but love and joy to his audience is concerning. This promotes the "if you do not follow the line we will deal with you" thinking which ends up discouraging creativity and innovation. Safety and justice are the pillars of a functional society. If artists cannot express what they feel without being hunted down for their work, then asking why we don’t have enough people doing more in our society becomes a redundant question. If you allow the killing of innocents or doers of our society then soon this nation will die. We will all become zombies or robots going through our motions, going through series of actions and call it a life.
Bob Marley was once jamming on stage, a day before his show in Africa for promoting peace in Africa. A man came up to the stage and shot him. Bob was rushed to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries but nonetheless injured and hurt. Everybody assumed the concert was canceled. The next day Bob got on stage with bandages on his wounds and right before he started the concert, he said "The bad people work 365 days a year to make this world bad, so the people who are doing good to make this world better can’t take a day off."
In the loving memory of the Sabri scion, we asked celebrities, some close to him and some only distant fans, to share their thoughts on the loss and on what they will always remember of the Late Amjad Sabri…
Strings reminisce Sabri’s Coke Studio recording, just 25 days ago…
"We met Amjad Sabri last year for the first time when we called him over to see and approve ‘Tajdar-e-haram’. Five minutes into our meeting we were talking to him as if we were age-old buddies. Soon after the viewing, on his way out, he couldn’t resist the stationary pool table lying in our office lounge. He played like a champ and crushed everyone he played with.
This year when we called him and told him the idea of a possible collaboration with Rahat Fateh Ali khan, he very graciously accepted it. When he came to the studio he had friends with him. We asked him very politely to ask his friends to leave since guests are not allowed on the floor. We were told that they were his bodyguards and that he cannot move without them.
By this time Rahat Fateh Ali had arrived too. We knew when these two giants are sitting on a platform, the only thing you can expect is magic. So after a small briefing session we skipped the rehearsal and went straight into recording. Amjad Sabri started singing in his grand sonorous voice and blew everyone away. We all cried that night. These two masters took us to a very different journey, a journey we can never forget. Just 25 days later Amjad Sabri is not with us. Still can’t believe it."
Ali Zafar recalls a memorable bus ride with Sabri
"It’s shocking and heartbreaking. Don’t have words to express. Sad. Very sad indeed. I hope his murderers are brought to justice and his legacy lives on.
I remember meeting him at the PSL match last but my fondest memory of him is him singing ‘Channo’ many years ago with me on a bus ride to a cricket match that we were playing. He was a gentle soul with a powerful voice. May God bless his soul."
-- Ali Zafar
Hadiqa Kiani’s fond memory of Sabri on Pakistan Idol…
"One of my fondest memories of the legendary Amjad Sabri was when he came to Pakistan Idol and met my son. I remember Ustad Amjad Sabri being so incredibly humble and so grounded. He was the one who was taking on the Sabri Brothers legacy, he was a master of the genre and I remember taking guidance from him for my qawwali performance of ‘Aaj Rang Hai’. He gave me a quick lesson on the language of the genre, telling me that instead of ‘nizam’ I was to say ‘nijaam’ which means the one who runs the system. Along with this he gave me other key words of advice and of praise for my rendition of the classic that I will never forget. Pakistan lost one of its real treasures today and my thoughts and prayers will remain with his family and with the people of this nation."
-- Hadiqa Kiani
Ahmed Ali Butt on meeting Sabri at the LSAs last year…
"I had the honor to work with him last year at the Lux Style Awards and also met him before at few events; he always stayed humble and down to earth which is why he was loved by everyone. It’s such a tragic and shocking news that he is no more but his music will live forever in our hearts. Our prayers are with his family and loved ones."
-- Ahmad Ali Butt
He was a genuine artist and a humanitarian, remembers Sanan Baloch…
"It is so heart-breaking to even think that Amjad Sabri is no more. I came to know him through my show initially but as I knew him more and more, I realised he is not just another singer but a genuine artist and a humanitarian. I remember a show where we stood on a road to raise funds for a needy patient and we raised enough funds for his treatment. Isn’t that beautiful? I guess he was the kind of person who would go to any length to help someone or make someone happy. For him qawwali was a means to make us happy. They just haven’t killed him; they have tried to kill our happiness. I will remember both his qawwali and his kindness. God bless you Amjad bhai."
-- Sanam Baloch
Freiha Altaf on working with Sabri
"I remember, last year, he asked me for 22 invites for the Lux Style Awards because he has a huge family, two wives and kids. He was really excited about performing and came up to me to show his clothes as well. Everybody had nothing but nice things to say about him. He was really sweet to talk to and had no nakhras whatsoever.
I was always a big fan of his father and I was happy to see that Amjad Sabri was carrying the torch. Qawwali is as it is a dying art form and the legacy can only continue through the gharanas. So to lose somebody at this young an age from a gharana is like losing a whole genre of music. It’s just immensely tragic. I can’t forget the opening of the show at LSAs. It gave me goosebumps. My daughter was there and she turned around and said that ‘mom this is the best part of the show’. We haven’t lost one person, we’ve lost a whole legacy."
-- Nida Ameen