Speaking ahead of her concert at the Coca-Cola Arena in Dubai on Friday night, famed Pakistani Sufi singer Abida Parveen, 68, says coming back to the UAE "feels like returning to one's own". There is widespread excitement among her fans to see her perform live, after her last concert in Dubai was cancelled in 2020 due to Covid-19.
Strikingly humble, Parveen puts those in her presence at ease immediately. To the simplest of questions, she responds with the most profound answers incorporating, Sufi kalam (poetry) by Baba Bulleh Shah, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and others in Punjabi and Sindhi. She then goes on to translate and explain the context of these works.
Parveen is one of the last remaining musicians trained in the great classical Sufi tradition passed down through generations. Seated in her hotel room in Dubai, she is dressed in her signature androgynous loose shalwar kameez, with a maroon ajrak shawl draped on top.
Hailing from a family of Sufi musicians from Larkana, the hometown of the Bhutto family, she began her training at the age of three with her father. “From a young age, I was only passionate about music and that remains the case,” she says with a smile.
Later, as she grew older and more proficient, she sought out other teachers, including the great Ustad Salamat Ali Khan. She adds in her eloquent Urdu: “I am a student in this field and wherever I go in the world, like the times I went to India, it was to learn. I seek knowledge like a faqir [a Muslim ascetic] begging at a dargah”. The word dargah comes up in conversation a number of times, not just as a physical place, the shrine of a Sufi saint, but also as a metaphor for spiritual learning.
Parveen began her career singing at dargahs, superseding her two brothers to become the musical heir to her father's legacy. It was a rare achievement for a female singer, but no surprise to anyone who has ever heard her powerful voice and seen her perform, putting not only herself in a rapturous trance-like state, but also the audience.
Hailed as the "Queen of Sufi Music", when asked what the title means to her, she responds in her characteristically humble way: “The titles come from people, but this is also the language of God, a barkat [blessing]. It lights a spark in me to seek more.”
Sufi kalam has stood as a counterpoint to religious intolerance and interreligious strife over the centuries in the Indian subcontinent by spreading a message of love. Abida Parveen’s response is the Sufi teaching of seeking hazrat ishq, divine love, as a force that unites people of various faiths. She also talks about the concept of wehdat, which is central of Sufi teaching: when we become one with the divine, we also become one with others and the entire universe. There is no "I" left any more that divides us.
Given that so many young Pakistani musicians, including Grammy Award-winning Arooj Aftab, cite Parveen as their inspiration, it seems natural to ask why she doesn’t take on formal disciples to pass on her legacy. She agrees that there is a need for formal training, however, the "restlessness and fire need to be there”.
When pressed on whether she thinks this fire is missing in younger artists, she says: “I’m a student myself, so I don’t think of taking on students”. But then on a serious note, she adds: “What I want is to collaborate where we learn from each other".
On the subject of collaborations, some of her most recent work, especially with younger artists, has been on the Coke Studio platform, where she has performed over several seasons. She admits that these collaborations have been great, but “what is needed is an institution or a gathering place where artists come together and learn great Sufi kalam and put it to music".
Despite engaging in commercial ventures, from concerts around the world to even singing soundtracks for television shows and films, Parveen still somehow retains the purity of her music and commands respect from her audiences. The reason for this is the spiritual message, which is at the heart of everything she does, and which shines through every time she speaks. For her “Sufi poetry and music have an intrinsic connection that come together as a worship of the divine".
Abida Parveen will perform at Coca-Cola Arena in Dubai on Friday at 9pm. Tickets and more information is at www.coca-cola-arena.com
Scroll through images of Coke Studio Live in Dubai below