Interview By Morgan Quinn
Finds his calling in Sufi
Farhan Shah is an award-winning, Adelaide-based, Pakistani-born singer, composer, and music producer. He arrived in Australia in 2016 and has been working tirelessly, touring internationally, performing at major Australian music festivals, and producing award winning recordings.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Farhan Shah, who sat down with me to discuss his music and upcoming performances at the National Folk Festival. Joining him was Keith Preston, an experienced world music player in his own right, who offered his perspective on performing in the unique ensemble that will soon be gracing our stage.
So, what kicked everything off for Shah?
“From age 10 or 11, I was always around musicians in one way or another,” he reveals. “This was in Karachi, the metropolitan city of Pakistan. I was influenced by Western, pop, and rock music.
“As a teenager, you might laugh, I had a band called Just In Case,” Shah recalls, with a smile in his voice. “I became involved in many productions, writing jingles, producing songs for others, advertisements, background music, film music, releasing my own music, until finally I found my calling in Sufi music.”
This was to be a turning point for Shah.
“When I started doing Sufi music, the earlier experiences of my life gave me a unique ability to blend all those sounds,” he explains. “I could combine the traditional Qawwali and Sufi sounds with the contemporary by mixing guitars, bass, drums, and different ethnic instruments as well.
“It also enabled me to collaborate with all kinds of musicians,” he continues. “Sufi and fusion has become kind of my “claim to fame” and it’s what I enjoy playing in a group and as an individual.”
Multicultural Australia is fantastic
As for what audiences can expect to see when they perform at the National Folk Festival, both Shah and Preston are keen to chime in.
“The traditional Qawwali music is the style of music we will be brining to the festival this year,” Shah says. “Singers and musicians sit on the floor and then deliver the traditional performance, using instruments such as tablas and harmoniums. All the instruments are acoustic, with soaring vocals.”
“He hasn’t noticed that I’m not Pakistani yet,” Preston adds, with a proverbial wink, a line that gets Shah laughing.
“Sometimes it’s a bit odd playing the traditional music of a culture you’re not from,” Preston continues. “But it’s something I think is fantastic about multi-cultural Australia.
“It’s been a journey, but I feel very comfortable with this music after all this time. It resonates with me, and I’m able to contribute as an equal member of the group.
“In the contemporary iteration of Farhan’s group, I play electric guitar, whereas in the traditional Qawwali group I play Santur, which is the Kashmir hammer dulcimer. It’s a very rare sound here.”
Vibrant melting pot
Preston sees festival as a potentially vibrant melting pots for such culture culminations.
“I think it’s important that the festivals represent who we are as Australians,” Preston asserts. “It’s exciting when you see African, Middle Eastern, Indian, Pakistani, Asian performers presenting their own music and experimenting and collaborating with one another in the Australian context. Our festivals should reflect that.”
I take this juncture to enquire: when composing one of these pieces, is there a distinction between the spiritual message and the music itself?
“Traditional Sufi music is devotional music,” Shah states. “Sufiism is a movement which happened in the 8th and 9th century against the idea of the exuberant and lavish life styles and the orthodox teachings of certain religions.
“Qawwali comes from the word “call” – “call” meaning “sayings”. So, sayings of different saints, teachers, from the holy book of Muslims, the Quran. The general ideas are of peace, love, humanity, diversity, multi-culturalism, speaking for justice. This music was very hypnotic and attractive.
“So, when I compose this music, I am aware that it stays on those Sufi lines, although we are contemporising it with different words and sounds.”
“Music is my religion”
Preston has his own thoughts on the topic.
“From my perspective, Sufi music is very attractive because it’s not really tagged to an orthodoxy,” he says. “It’s more that you can achieve themes of mystical unity or enlightenment through music and dance, and through the words.
“I’ve often asked other Afghan and Persian musicians who are into the Sufi music, ‘What is your religion?. They say, ‘I don’t really care about religion – music is my religion’. It’s sort of like, this is the early form of Trance Music. It’s like the whirling dervishes who spin and spin until they feel like they’re sort of spinning in time with the world.”
“You will find traces of jazz in the music as well,” Shah interjects. “There are improvisation aspects. The scale is fixed, the rhythm is fixed, some lyrics are fixed, but it’s all about feeling that music inside you. Sometimes you will see performers pick up a line and they will keep repeating the same thing again and again with different variations.
“You will see a lot of musicians singing, cutting off each other’s lines – it’s almost like a fight between vocalists.”
“We get a lot of people who can’t help themselves. They get up and dance because it’s so mesmerising. It just has a bloody good beat.”
For the Folkie, there will be five members indulging in this mesmeric musical rumble. Keith Preston on Santur, multi-instrumentalist Ravi from Melbourne, a Sydney-based harmonium player, and a Brisbane-based vocalist.
And, of course, Shah and his incredible voice. Was such a talent a given gift, or one honed and trained over ceaseless hours?
“It is a natural gift that was always there, but I have discovered it over time,” Shah explains. “Even when I go back and watch my performances I think, ‘Is this really me who did this?’.
“I had training for Eastern and Western Classical music, in Pakistan for a year or two, but I would say that the person who influenced me the most was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the “King of Qawwali” music,” Shah continues. “He was the one in ‘85 to perform at WOMADelaide and then ’92, and I think in ’96 and ’97. Because of him Australia became familiar with Qawwali and Sufi music.
“I received this accolade in Adelaide Fringe Festival of the “Pakistani Pavarotti”, which always brings a good laugh to us all. Now that is how I always get introduced: ‘Please welcome, the Pakistani Pavarotti, blah blah blah!’” he chuckles.
“But I will say, he will always be the real Pavarotti, the “King of Qawwali”. I’m still exploring what I can achieve and do.”
Keith adds: “In South Asian music, there aren’t these barriers between genres.”
Inclosing, Shah proffers: “The Australian audiences that I’ve seen are quite receptive to this idea of cultural diversity. This is what brings people together and connects different cultures and languages.
Music connecting our hearts
“What else can you do with music?
“It connects hearts; it cuts those cultural barriers and for a moment you become one. These are the bridges that connect different people. All those mind-setting barriers of, ‘you are different, I am different, you follow a different god, I follow a different god, I don’t follow god’… all these closed doors get opened in one performance. It clarifies.
“What you take from that performance when you go home, you reflect in isolation – it does change a lot of things, these cultural encounters. It feels good to be part of those experiences.”
You can catch Farhan Shah and Keith Preston when they perform as the five-piece Farhan Shah & Sufi-Oz at the National Folk Festival on 6 – 10 April at Exhibition Park. More info & tickets are available via folkfestival.org.au/