I met Amjad Sabri and his fellow performers when working at the Irving Arts Center in 2012. (December 28th)
As a member of the Front of House staff I had been assigned to work the “Amjad Sabri Qawali Night” presented by the Indus Performing Arts Promoters. Carpenter Performance Hall was booked. The venue seats 712 and we anticipated a busy evening. Along with managing the front of house for the theater we were tasked with monitoring the Green Room and changing areas, and dealing with the food vendors who would provide the ethnic menu items which were familiar to the palates of the attendees.
Qawali is a style of music associated with the Sufi sect of Islam. When visiting with Amjad Sabri, his fellow Sufi musicians, and the promoters for the event we were made aware that there was a price on Amjad’s head. His crime? The gift of song. He told us that he could no longer perform along the Durand Line, anywhere within the NWFP. There was a fatwa against his life, hence his need to come to the U.S. and travel to other areas to sustain his craft.
Having never been exposed to this style of music I stood at the Mezzanine level entranced by what I heard. This was definitely an ethnographer’s paradise! I learned more than a few things regarding Pakistani culture that night.
One of the producers spent quite a bit of time explaining the art form to me and also providing translation of what was being said. Amjad Sabria alternated his singing with Na’at e Nabvi – a type of poetic expression to proclaim love and devotion to Prophet Muhammad.
He played a harmonium and was accompanied by the cadence of a variety of drums carried along with simple hand claps and singing by his fellow Sufi. The men were seated on a slightly raised platform with legs crossed. Occasionally men from the audience would dance up onto the stage and throw dollar bills to the musicians. These displays were ignored until a sufficient amount was accumulated. One of the men would then quickly scuttle about to gather the funds and hand them to a man waiting behind one of the curtains. This scene was repeated again and again. The crowd was enthusiastic, happy, and fully engaged with what was happening on the stage.
Amjad Sabri and his men sang their hearts out for approximately three hours. The gift they gave to their audience was the gift of remembrance: the memory of from where the immigrants had come, and perhaps, of where they could never return.
Amjad Sabri died in a hail of bullets in Karachi. A famous Qawwali singer has been lost. This news saddens me quite a bit.
*Journalist’s note: I am unable to confirm that the death of Amjad Sabri was an act of jihad. I merely wish to report that I was told of the death threat when our lives intersected at the Irving Arts Center.