In the ancient tradition of Sufi singing, the power of Abida Parveen's voice engages the listener to transcend temporal space and truly comprehend how music can be a path to the divine. The Embassy of Pakistan in Kathmandu brings the famous singer to audiences here with a concert on 5 April at the Hyatt Regency.
Lovers of Sufi Soul will get a chance to hear Abida's husky alto voice as it rises and dips effortlessly, wrapping itself around poems written hundreds of years ago by Sufi saints in Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi and Saraiki. She sings with a trance-like intensity, raising her hands to heaven in fervour or submission and slapping her thighs in emphasis.
The 49-year-old is often hailed as the successor to the legacy of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It is a mantle that sits well on Abida, who has a similar command over traditional ghazal, the ability to infuse folk songs sublimely and above all, to communicate with the audience. But unlike the late Khan, Abida is not tempted to crossover to more accessible-and lucrative-world music or fusion styles.
Surprisingly, she has a pragmatic view on the Bollywoodisation of Sufi music. "Plagiarism is good for Sufi music. Film music only makes way for larger audience and more mass appeal," she says. Despite her niche following, Abida's fame has spread across the world, and is not just limited to the Urdu cognizant quarters. From Los Angeles to Lucknow, they queue up to hear her sing. The breadth of her audience does not faze Abida. "I always assume I'm singing for god. For me, my audience is god."
Abida Parveen was born in the Pakistani town of Larkana, where her father, Ghulam Haider, ran a music school. Though women in Muslim society are rarely encouraged to pursue musical (or other performance) careers, Haider recognised his daughter's extraordinary talent at an early age and encouraged her to sing. Her career crystallised after her marriage to the late Ghulam Hussain Sheikh, a senior producer in Radio Pakistan who became her mentor. She studied classical vocal music with Salamat Ali Khan.
While she does not regularly perform purely classical music, her prodigious command of the ornamental idiom and developmental genius of this genre is apparent throughout her music. She has performed in a wide range of venues both sacred and secular, from the shrines of saints in her native Sindh to the world's greatest concert halls.
It is to touch this divinity through music that those fortunate enough to get tickets to Abida's public performance on 5 April count themselves privileged. (Those who can't make it can watch the broadcast on Kantipur Television when it goes on air.) The concert is being managed by Infinity International. She will also be singing at a separate private concert for King Gyanendra next week.
Abida devotes herself to Kafi, a strain of mystical and often radical poetry originating from what is now the troubled border between India and Pakistan. These are love poems in many senses of the word and the Sufi ideal of Visal (union with the beloved) is often expressed in ways that seem as worldly as they are spiritual.
Whether any awareness of Sufism is necessary to fully understand this music is a moot point, but without getting into Cultural Studies territory it's clear that the best devotional music (whether Gregorian Chant, John Coltrane or Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares ) has a power to communicate across racial and denominational divides, and Abida's ecstatic flights are no exception.
This music is more reflective than the joyous abandon of Qawwali. The tabla and dholak provide the shifting, cyclical heartbeats that underpin Abida's song, shadowed by the harmonium and bansuri flute. Her gloriously honeyed voice is a warm, agile instrument, suffused with sadness and joy, strength and fragility in equal measure.
With such a voice Abida could sing a shopping list and have an audience weeping, though we doubt we'd ever get to test that particular theory.
(Abida Parveen's concert will begin at 4.30 PM at the Hyatt Regency on Saturday 5 April. Tickets: Rs 2,500 and Rs 2,000 per person. Price includes dinner and drinks. For more information and reservation: 01-4491234. Tickets available at Hyatt Regency, Siddhartha Art Gallery, Bhatbhateni, Namaste Lazimpat, Himalayan Java, Nanglo outlets.)