After His Assassination, A Pakistani Artist's Family Keeps His Song Alive

Jul 26, 2016
Originally published on July 26, 2016 11:06 am

It's been about a month since Amjad Sabri's voice was silenced. He was shot dead in his home city of Karachi by two men on a motorcycle, and his millions of fans are still in shock and anger.

So are his family. Sabri's oldest brother, Sarwat, hopes the police will soon arrest the culprits. He has many questions for his brother's killer: "Why did you do it? Are you doing it for God? For evil? Or for a man? For money? And he has to give the answer to the whole nation — not only the nation, the whole world now, because the whole world is listening."

Qawwali is what made Amjad Sabri world-famous. It's devotional music linked with Sufism, a mystical variant of Islam deeply entwined with the traditions of South Asia.

Sabri was a brilliant performer and a pioneer. At his family home in the back streets of Karachi, visitors still flood in every day to pay their condolences. An entire wall is devoted to a portrait of Amjad's father, also a legendary qawwali singer.

We're met by Amjad's brothers, including Talha Fareed, who performed alongside Amjad for many years.

"He was like my father," Talha says. "I am still in shock. I feel as if he is coming in here. I feel he is just coming."

Relatives have come from far and wide. "We are proud that we were related to him," says Mohammad Taha, 15, who flew in from his home in London to mourn his Uncle Amjad. "We are proud to be his family. The thing I don't get is, who would want to hate him? He loved the world, the world loved him. But there is always a hater. Where there's friends, there's always enemies as well."

Those enemies include the Taliban. For years now, the Taliban and other Islamist fundamentalists have fought a war against music. In Pakistan, they've burned down CD shops and attacked musicians. Soon after Sabri was shot, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban took responsibility. Sabri's family aren't sure that's true, yet there's no doubt their form of Sufi Islam, with its emphasis on spreading faith through music, is anathema to hardline Islamists like the Taliban.

His brother Sarwat says their faith is all about tolerance. "Our message is for humanity," he says. "It is not for one sect. It is not for one religion. It is for the all human."

Then, as we're sitting and talking, something strange happens. The Sabri family starts singing. We didn't ask them to; it was spontaneous. Amjad's brother, Azmat, starts; his younger brother Talha Fareed joins him for a duet; and then it's Amjad's uncle Mehmood's turn.

There is a message behind this. Amjad's home is a house of mourning right now, but it will always be a house of music that will not be silenced by violence. The next generation of Sabris also don't seem scared.

Amjad's sons and nephews are busy learning qawwali, according to Sarwat. "How many of them are learning to sing? All of them!," he says. "And all of them are very talented!"

Twelve year-old Bilawal Sabri, singing one of his Uncle Amjad's songs, is happy to prove that point.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The Taliban are famous for fighting a war against music. In Pakistan, they have burned down CD shops and attacked musicians. Yet, as NPR's Philip Reeves reports, hardliners, the Taliban and other Islamist extremists, are encountering stubborn opposition from some of their victims.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

AMJAD SABRI: (Singing in foreign language).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: It's been about a month since this voice was silenced.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

AMJAD SABRI: (Singing in foreign language).

REEVES: Amjad Sabri was shot dead in his home city of Karachi by two men on a motorcycle. His millions of fans are still in shock and anger. So are his family.

SARWAT SABRI: Anger is becoming a very small word for this. I am beyond this.

REEVES: Sabri's oldest brother, Sarwat, hopes the police will soon arrest the culprits.

S SABRI: Bring the mastermind, not the hanky-panky killer, you know? - the person behind them, behind the scene.

REEVES: Sarwat Sabri has a lot of questions for his brother Amjad's killer.

S SABRI: Why did you do it? Are you doing it for God, for evil - Or for a man, for money? And he has to give the answer to the whole nation - not only the nation, the whole world now. Because the whole world is listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

AMJAD SABRI: (Singing in foreign language).

REEVES: This is what made Amjad Sabri world famous, Qawwali. It's devotional music linked with Sufism, a mystical variant of Islam deeply entwined with the traditions of South Asia. Amjad Sabri was a brilliant performer and a pioneer.

At Sabri's family home in the back streets of Karachi, visitors still flood in every day to pay their condolences. An entire wall is devoted to a portrait of Amjad's father, a legendary Qawwali singer. We're met by Amjad's brothers. They include Talha Fareed, who performed alongside Amjad for many years.

TALHA FAREED SABRI: He was like my father. I am still in shock. I feel he's just coming in here. I feel he is just coming.

REEVES: Relatives have come here from far and wide.

MOHAMMAD TAHA: We are proud that we were related to him. We are proud to be his family.

REEVES: Mohammad Taha, who's 15, flew in from his home in London to mourn his Uncle Amjad.

MOHAMMAD: The thing I don't get, thought - who would want to hate him? He loved the world. The world loved him. But there's always a hater. Where there's friends, there's always enemies as well.

REEVES: Those haters and enemies include the Taliban. Soon after Sabri was shot, a splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban said it did it. Sabri's family aren't sure that's true. Yet there's no doubt their form of Sufi Islam, with its emphasis on spreading faith through music, is anathema to hardline Islamists. Sarwat Sabri says their faith is all about tolerance.

S SABRI: Our message is for humanity. It's not for the one sect. It's not for the one religion. It's for the - all human.

REEVES: Then, as we're sitting and talking, something strange happens.

AZMAT SABRI: (Singing in foreign language).

REEVES: The Sabri family starts singing.

AZMAT SABRI: (Singing in foreign language).

REEVES: NPR didn't ask them to. It was kind of spontaneous.

AZMAT SABRI: (Singing in foreign language).

REEVES: Amjad Sabri's brother Azmat starts. Younger brother Talha Fareed joins him for a duet.

AZMAT SABRI AND TALHA FAREED SABRI: (Singing in foreign language).

REEVES: Then, it's Amjad's Uncle Mehmood's turn.

MEHMOOD SABRI: (Singing in foreign language).

REEVES: There's a message behind this. Amjad Sabri's home is a house of mourning right now, but it will always be a house of music that will not be silenced by violence.

S SABRI: We are not scared of anything. We're not scared of anything.

REEVES: The next generation of Sabris also don't seem scared. Amjad's sons and nephews are busy learning Qawwali, says Sarwat Sabri.

How many of them are learning to sing or perform?

S SABRI: All of them.

(CROSSTALK)

S SABRI: And all of them very talented.

REEVES: Bilawal Sabri, who's 12, is happy to prove that point...

BILAWAL SABRI: (Singing in foreign language).

REEVES: ...With one of Uncle Amjad's songs.

BILAWAL: (Singing in foreign language)...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

AMJAD SABRI: (Singing in foreign language).

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Karachi.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

AMJAD SABRI: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.