5 May 2010
On Thursday the 29th of April, Pehchaan held ‘The Sufi Night’. Pehchaan is a student organization at Princeton, we describe ourselves as ‘Pakistanis and Friends of Pakistan at Princeton’.
In common terms, it is a PSA (read: Pakistani Students Association), but it is much more. Pehchaan is Urdu for identity, and the members of this group at Princeton are looking for just that, identity.
As Pakistanis, we look for our own identities, like everything else in college. We look for a national identity, or a lack thereof, and perhaps an identity for a country so strongly based in ideals that it forgot what it was. Everybody else, as the name suggests, are our close friends. Some personal, some just people supportive of the cause. All held together by a common appreciation of delicious Pakistani food served at Pehchaan Study Breaks, and also by the desire to integrate Pakistan into the world. They see Pakistan through Pakistanis at Princeton, and a gate is opened.
But last Thursday, things changed. For once, the food was not the highlight of a Pehchaan event. Shocking, but not terrifying by any means. A healthy sign (literally and figuratively).
As we explored ways to explore more Pakistani identity, we thought of rediscovering Sufism. While none of us are Sufis per se, Sufism is an established identity, that developed in Pakistan, of many places, and we thought we’d use this as our entry into some enlightenment, some academic discussion.
We struggled behind the scenes, with class schedules and tantrums, but things happened.
Suddenly Sufi Night was quite a lineup. We hosted Arjun Baba of Arjun and Guardians and now of Fanaa fi Allah (an American Qawwali group) and also Salman Ahmad of Junoon. The night was dotted with some Bulleh Shah, a talk on the religious aspect of Sufism by Sohaib Sultan, our Muslim Chaplain and author of The Koran for Dummies, some beautiful Sitar music by our friend Ahsan Cheema from UPenn, and some live Sufi Pop from Pehchaan.
The audience gathered into Rocky Common Room: majestic room mostly recognized by its starring in A Beautiful Mind. We started things off with Gal ik nukde wich mukdi ae (It all ends with one point), a Bulleh Shah classic. People listened intently as I spoke in an unconventional Punjabi accent, unconventional being an understatement, my English perhaps more Punjabi sounding than mu Punjabi itself.
Sohaib took the floor after, talking about ihsan, love and beauty. He explained while Sufi art and music blossomed, because Sufism encourages love for the world, and appreciates those that beautify the world, and we were all there that night, to celebrate that beauty.
And boy did we celebrate.
Arjun Baba (who was Sufi-christened Jehangir) took us all by storm. We were introduces to him by our Hindu Chaplain, who had previously been in touch with him for Sacred Sounds, where Arjun Baba performed his Bhajans. He is a fascinating performer. I wiki-ed him afterward, to find the most interesting stuff. His style, with his band is mostly western music, mostly reggae fused with eastern vocals. His vocal training ranging from the Bhajans deep in India, to performing at an Urs in Pakistan. He has been to Pakistan many times, and so has his tablanawaz (Tabla player), both big fans of the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Party and his tablanawaz Ustaad Dildar Hussain. (For once party in an article about Pakistan refers not to corruption or bootleggers, but to Sufi musicians) He is a worthy Youtube target while you procrastinate I must say.
On Sufi Night, Arjun let go of his guitar and took up his other persona, the harmonium accompanied by a Tabla. He started of with Allah Hu, trying to explain to the crowd the clapping rhythm custom of Qawwalis. I am no Qawwali connoisseur, but I found a lead. Salman Ahmad, seated humbly on the floor in front of the performers led with the clap. Everybody else followed. The audience was not a Pakistani one, it had all backgrounds. Many Arab friends, Indians, Caucasians, East Asians (which for some reason are just called Asian in the US, I really don’t get where the rest of Asia goes, but that for another time): students, guests, staff and faculty alike. Allah Hu was even better considering Salman had done a Rock version of the Nusrat classic a few years ago at Central Park, one of the most played on my iPod still.
About 200 people from all over clapping to the rhythm of a Pakistani Qawwali sung by a New Yorker at Princeton is something I will never forget.
Ahsan took the stage, unfortunately he could not find a tablanawaz, but his performance was stellar none the less. All sat intently listening to the painful, at times hopeful notes off the Sitar strings, perhaps reminiscing, perhaps just floating in the atmosphere of the night.
We were stupid enough to schedule our own performance after two stellar performances. But Hamza, Faaez and Waqas’s rendition of Husn e Haqiqi by Arieb Azhar did not go unnoticed. I was proudly manning the translation slideshow and was therefore able to snatch myself a picture as part of the band.
Salman Ahmad came on to close the night. We had heard he was going to read from his new book Rock and Roll Jihad, an autobiography, apparently so had he, but in the spirit of the night he said, plans changed.
Salman went impromptu. He talked about his life, his return to Pakistan, his forming of Junoon, his performances with Nusrat. All with an unexpected sense of humor, light, refreshing, thoughtful and kind. Every now and then he would start strumming on his twelve string. His whole talk was held together by the chant of Ghoom Toom Tana Na Nana. Every song he sang, he would bring it back to this. From a free style vocal yelp (I am out of words here, clearly), to Bulleya, to John Lennon’s You May Say I’m A Dreamer (in which by the way, he cleverly replaced religion with terrorism). The whole talk was about finding common ground, about appreciating what we have, about sitting together and chanting Ghoom Toom Tana Na Nana.
And he sung it all amazingly well. The sound system was no beast, I would know, I was running the volume switch. But Salman took us all by storm. His vocals have clearly come a long way, and I would go to any concert of the new re-incarnated Junoon.
I am a fan, a big fan. (And as me and Hamza realized the album Salman was signing for us was still not in stores yet, we ran over excitedly to the ATM to pay for it, gladly realizing we were over excited but enjoying it. We also realised we were two Pakistanis, slightly unshaven, running toward an ATM in the dark in dark colored shalwar kameez, something was just not right. As it goes, two Pakistanis walk into an ATM…)
Pehchaan stayed back for an after party of sorts, for pictures of “Sufi Grungism” and discussion with Salman and his wife Samina over Sufism, music and Pakistan.
Some things you never forget. I for one won’t forget Samina telling us that our generation was hope for Pakistan because we did not harbor resentment, and telling us to volunteer with SSGWI, their new charity organization.
It was a wonderful night. I can proudly say we opened for Arjun Baba and Salman Ahmad, would have made my night any day. But it was all about something much bigger than ourselves. Nothing described it better than what Salman signed our CDs and books with, ‘Love, Life, Junoon’.
Event Photos Courtesy my friend Ammar Ahmed