Hadji Ghulam Farid Sabri

A portrait of hadji Ghulan Farid Sabri. Special thanks to Global Heritage for the permission to use it

This is the story of Haji Ghulam Farid Sabri, a famous 'Qawwal' (a singer of Qawwali) who passed away only four years ago.

Qawwali is the religious music of the Sufis, the mystical expression of Islam. Singers and scholars of Qawwali can trace the origins of the songs back to early Persia, and the art is handed down from father to son over many generations. Haji Ghulam Farid Sabri came from such a family and since he was six had studied under the great masters in order to carry on that tradition.

During the partition of India, when Ghulam Farid was about 25, he and his family were uprooted from their native town in the Punjab and were transported to a refugee camp in Pakistan. Conditions in the camps were woeful, food was scarce and expensive, and the rewards for hard work were barely enough to sustain life, malnutrition was rife and brought with it the scourges of tuberculosis and dysentery.

Ghulam Farid found work by day carrying hods of bricks for government house building or by breaking rocks to build roads. At night, almost single handed, built his own house, brick by brick, to shelter his parents and his younger brothers and sisters. Eventually - like most others in the camps - he fell sick. Worn out, he was told by a doctor that due to the condition of his lungs, he would never again have the strength to sing Qawwali.

In dispair Ghulam Farid went to his father for counsel, and that counsel was uncompromisingly tough.

"To be able to sing Qawwali is a gift from Allah. If Allah does not will it you will not sing" he was told. "If however you can make Allah listen to you and see that you are fit, he might grant you that gift." So Ghulam Farid set out to make Allah listen to him. Every night for the next two years, when everyone else was asleep, he would sit in the middle of the camp for 4-5 hours singing the name of Allah over and over again, as powerfully and beautifully as he could.

All his days he bore the scars of beatings with wood and stones thrown by his tired, sleepless neighbours, and the fights he got into when they were determined to stop him; but he would not be deterred, and as time went on his lungs grew stronger and his magnificent voice was formed.

Soon Ghulam Farid began to gather around him a small following of people who appreciated Qawwali. One day, a rich business man approached him and offered him a partnership in a night-club, but Farid's reply was that all he wanted to do was to sing Qawwali, and he rejected the offer. Shortly after that, his fortunes turned, he formed a group with his brother and together they began to be widely acclaimed for their singing. The Sabri Brothers took Qawwali to many countries and were the first to introduce it to a Western audience amazing them with the power of their ability to uplift and inspire others.

Hadji Ghulan Farid Sabri in performance. Special thanks to Global Heritage for the permission to use it

Today Haji Ghulam Farid Sabri, is renowned all over the world as the foremost Qawwal of his time and is acknowledged as a deeply religious man, yet a warm simple man with a great sense of humour, who lived in and for his own connections, forever grateful to Allah for the gift of Qawwali. In live performance the unseen attendence was often formidable, the ecstatic joy of his dedication can still be heard in his recordings. To hear him sing the name of Allah is to feel the uplifting presence of a religious essence that had been devotedly summoned for over 30 years.