September 28 2015
Regarded as one of the greatest of all living Sufis, the Pakistani-artist played at the Barbican last night and our correspondent was there, and got a chance to talk to him exclusively about the ideas behind his mesmerising music…
By Subi Shah
AS I WALKED past the Barbican ticket desk on my way to interview Sain Zahoor at the sound check, I passed a queue of fans hoping to buy tickets for last night’s gig (Sunday, September 27). They were to be disappointed – the show was completely sold out, each of the 1,943 seats in the main hall had been snapped up well in advance.
Dressed in a tightly bound turban and ornately embroidered shalwaar khameez, Zahoor wears flamboyant jewels on each finger, gold hoops on his ears, several rows of coloured beads around his neck, bells on his feet. He is quite something to see.
Now in his mid-70s, Sain speaks no English, nor can he read or write, but his gift for communicating the message of Sufi Islam to audiences the world over, is unparalleled. He has worked with some of the world’s top performers and producers including Rohil Hyatt and was given the prestigious BBC World Music Award in 2006.
For someone with such a huge stage presence, Sain is a physically diminutive figure up close. Though his dark eyes twinkle with excitement (and maybe mischief) when he greets me, there is nothing starry about him at all – he seems genuinely humbled when I thank him for agreeing to my interview.
As we sit together, Sain gently plucks the strings on his ektara and smiles at me. There is something so still about him, amidst the frenzy of PR people, stage hands, lighting engineers and sound technicians.
I begin the interview by asking Sain how he came to performing. His answer is extraordinary.
“When I was a young boy, maybe eleven years old, I had a recurring dream of a saint calling my name, beckoning me towards his shrine. When I told my family of this, they all said I was quite mad!
“But the dream was so vivid and just kept repeating, night after night. I could not rest. One day, When I was maybe 13 years old, I just left home in search of that shrine. I spent many years wandering from one shrine to another in hope of recognising the place in my dream.
“One day, when I’d been searching for around a decade, I came upon Uch Sharif in south Punjab, and before I even entered, a young boy came running towards me. He said ‘You are Sain Zahoor. We have been waiting for you’.” He took me to meet Syed Sakhi Niaz Hussain Shah, who was to become my spiritual leader. It was at that moment, I felt completely at peace and I knew that this was my calling.”
I ask how he defines himself – is he a poet, a mystic, a performer? How does he feel about his rock star status? Sain looks at me with his darkest, most piercing eyes and tells me he is nothing, only a vessel for the message he is carrying.
“We are reading praises of the Creator, singing the works of pious and noble men who have dedicated their lives to spreading the message. Performing in this way is like praying. I have, over the years, had the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with many great musicians from different faiths and genres from all over the world in praise of the beloved – the unity of that is the best feeling.”
I ask how he feels performing in London to an audience who, largely, do not understand the words he sings.
“Each country and its people have a unique reaction. Places with a similar language and culture can relate more because they do not have any barrier to understanding the words, but then music is a universal language and the feeling one has from just listening is always the same.
“The essential message of Sufism is love. Love and tolerance. I do not want to convert anyone. I only want people to learn from the verses and chants that I sing, to eschew greed, violence, hate and materialism and to promote love, tolerance and kindness. That is what the great Sufis always preached and what they wrote about. Modern Islam is not the same as Sufi Islam. All I can do is pray for people who hurt and hate others. That is all I want to sing.”
Top and bottom picture: Subi Shah
Sain Zahoor UK tour remaining: Bristol (Tuesday, September 29); Birmingham (Wednesday September 30); Leeds (Thursday, October 1); Bradford (Sunday, Ocotber 4); Burnley (Monday, October 5); Nottingham (Tuesday, October 6)
For tickets/more info, please click: http://asianartsagency.co.uk/event/sain-zahoor/