A Day in a New York Park: Swinging to Sufi Rhythms at Union Square

Posted on July 23, 2010
Filed Under >Kinza, Music, Pakistanis Abroad
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The Sufi Music Festival organized by Pakistani Peace Builders (PPB) in Union Square was the closest I’ve gotten to Lahore in three years. And boy, was it a treat. Think Food Street, Salt N’ Pepper, faludas, kulfis, funny but poignant commentaries on rickshaws, Naani force feeding you, freshly picked jaaman, all thrown in one. Then, multiply this by a thousand. And add in some jasmine and rose necklaces and bracelets. And that still doesn’t compare. Ah, but I digress.

Kain de ke lamiyaan ne  rawaan ishq diyaan
Ki  dasaan ki baat suwaan ishq diyaan

They say that the path of love is very long
What should I tell you about love?
– Daastan-e-Ishq

Despite the sweltering 90-something degree heat and the sun beating down on the New York concrete, hundreds if not thousands of people showed up for the concert. My friends and I decided to go against every Pakistani tradition and arrive EARLY at the concert location in the hopes of landing front row seats. When we arrived at 3:40 pm, about an hour and a half early, I must say that we were shocked to find that there wasn’t a crowd.

I know, how naïve. On facebook, over a thousand people had confirmed that they would attend.

We walked towards the railing that would separate the crowd from the stage. As the sweat trickled down our backs, we slowly inched towards the stage, shielding our eyes with our hands in the hopes of catching a glimpse of a performer. Our stride was, however, rudely interrupted by the loudly vocalized objections of an Organizer Aunty, who duly informed us that they were still setting up and needed this space cleared. We receded out beyond the jungle gym, to a space littered with chairs and tables where dejected travelers rest. As we sat having cold drinks, a few young monks took laps around the square chanting, “hare Krishna, hare Ram.” A good omen, I suppose.

After about a half an hour, we assumed the set-up should be complete, and were happy to find that it was. We walked right to the front, up by the railing. Somehow, the idea of standing at a sufi concert felt strange. Luckily, the guy standing next to us offered to share his ajrak. We settled down on the ajrak, took off our shoes, opened an umbrella or two for relief from the sun. A few bottles of water and one desperate bathroom run to the Barnes and Noble across the street later, the square had started to fill up. By the time the concert started, the square was (being the eternal optimist that I am) about half full. Keep in mind; most New Yorkers don’t get out of work until 6 pm.

Chalo, acha hi ho ga agar bohat zyaada crowd nahi aa aya (Okay, maybe it will be good if this isn’t too crowded),” a friend said. Maybe.

First came the dhol virtuosos, with Tari Khan, tabla virtuoso, and I was transported to the Liberty roundabout. Abid Hussain and Abdul Rasheed roused the crowd with their playing. Even the most serious, no-nonsense Pakistani New Yorker felt his or her shoulders rise and fall with the beat, involuntarily, but naturally. I turned around to see if more people had come. I stared into a sea of people, spotting a few pagris and bindiyas, and smiled to myself.

I noticed that the crowd’s energy dipped with the more contemporary performers. Zeb and Haniya and the Meekal band didn’t enthrall the crowd as much as I’d expected. Perhaps it was because the soundboard was still a little off when these groups performed. At one point, an Uncle loudly proclaimed that the lead singer of the band, Asad Abbas, needed to speak up, or rather, sing up. The singer responded with a subdued “ji (Yes, Sir)”.

Soung Faqirs from the Sachal Sarmast Shrine in Sindh captured the attention of the audience with their bright clothing, loud singing and energetic dancing. Rafaqat Ali Khan reached out to the crowd and got them clapping. People started to get up and dance.

Then came an unexpected treat. Akhtar Chanal Zehri walked on stage in his impeccably white clothes, dark skin, black beard, and eyes lined with kohl. He was a mesmerizing sight. Zehri was introduced as a rap artist from the Sindh (a mistake since he’s from Balochistan), and he rocked the crowd. His voice was mesmerizing as he took us through the roller coaster ride that was Dana Pe Dana. The composition and his voice were very rhythmic and fast, similar to a rap song. And then he had that swagg factor, “OOOOOOOOOh, braaaah!” He even improvised some lyrics for the expat crowd!

The best was, of course, saved for last. At 7:20 pm, Abida Parveen walked onto the stage and got a standing ovation. Just seeing her, in her black shalwaar kameez and ajrak around her neck, was surreal. She sat down, followed by the rest of the crowd. Everyone inched closer to the stage. She belted out Mahiya di Gharoli and Tere Ishq Nachaiya with a smile on her face. She was more animated than I thought she would be. Many people got up to dance, and she seemed pleased that the crowd was so involved.

There were many rounds of wah wahs for her improvisation of Bulleh Shah’s kalaam. One of the verses that resonated with me given the diversity of New York City was:

Asaan Ishq namaaz jadoon neeti eh
Tadoon bhul gayee mandir maseetiye

Whenever I have prayed with my heart
I have forgotten about the temple and the mosque (it mattered not where I was)

I’m sure the following verses struck a chord with recent grads in an economy with a 10% employment rate:

Parh parh ilm hazaar kitaaban, te kadi apne aap nu parhiya nai
Ja ja warde mandir masiti, te kadi man apne wich waria nai

You read so many books to know it all, yet fail to ever read your heart at all
You rush to holy shrines to play a part, would you dare enter the shrine of your heart

Wah, wah, wah!

Abida Parveen then sang Lal Meri Pat, at which point everyone got up on their feet, sang along, and finally dhamaaled. The crowd energy reached a soaring height, with everyone dancing to their own beat but clapping in unison. The last song, Ho Jamalo, got everyone in a frenzy, and it would be an understatement to say that the night ended on a very, very high note.

Everyone left smiling, at peace.

The concert ended on time, and there was no pushing or shoving as people dispersed (another anomaly). I for one, over 24 hours later, am still on a spiritual high, which I hope will continue to last for a while. On my way out, I ran into Akhtar Chanal Zehri. I told him what a great performer he was, and he put his hand on my head and thanked me. I was touched. The thing I miss the most about Lahore, and Pakistan in general, are the buzurgh and their way of blessing you, be it with a knowing smile or a pat on the head. Zehri was happy with the turnout, and was touched by the love, “ishq, mohobbat,” he received from the crowd. I also ran into Abid Hussain, and chatted a bit about Model Town and Link Road. My brother took a picture with him, and my uncle referred to the two as “Lahori munday” as the camera flashed.

The sky turned a dark blue hue, the crowd slowly dispersed. We had dinner at a nearby BBQ joint. I had beef brisket. Lean. With a side of grilled asparagus. As I ate my brisket, I thought of the proclamations the concert host made through out the evening. These included, but were not limited to: “Pakistanis love New York!” “Pakistanis are peaceful!” and “Salaam, salaam this is my Islam!” The crowd clapped a little, but the slogans sounded a bit awkward, because honestly, they were a little out of place. I mean, yes, it is important to put another, ‘realer,’ image of Pakistan out there, one that is not violent, and is tolerant. But, such blunt exclamations were just, well, too blunt.

I mean, we’re in a city where statements are made through actions, not really through words. As a New Yorker, I can say that much of the intolerance organizations like the PPB fear as a lashout against Muslims and/or Pakistanis come from areas/people outside New York (see: Sarah Palin). To me, the sign above the stage said it all:

“Be overflowing with peace and joy, and scatter them wherever you are and wherever you go.”
– Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti

But, I suppose, sometimes you do need to stress a point, particularly when wanting to send a message to a larger community, beyond a few attendants. And I must say, this is one of the best ways to get this message across.

Then again, if this doesn’t work, might I suggest a Lady Gaga and Akhtar Chanal Zehri collaboration?

Just a thought. Braaah!

P.S. Photographs by Hyder Kazmi.

35 responses to “A Day in a New York Park: Swinging to Sufi Rhythms at Union Square”

  1. pharmacy jenny says:

    I went to this concert with a Pakistani friend at work. It rocked. Was a great event.

  2. Wajiha says:

    Does anyone know if a good video of this event is available somewhere?

  3. A Dhamaller says:

    It was a good show, no doubt, but the real question remains what other have asked: Who speaks for the ‘real’ Pakistan, the damallers or the Talibaners. I think neither does, but until we construct an identity that we all can share, no amount of dhamalls will help!

  4. Watan Aziz says:

    Image of Pakistan?

    By ambassadors or qawalis?

    Pardon me, the image of Pakistan in US and other countries is truly based on the good, decent, hard working and honest Pakistanis from the taxi drivers and gas station attendants to the licensed professionals and independent consultants.

    And most certainly their hardworking and decent children, who excel in sciences and arts.

    The ‘first contact’ by these Pakistanis and of Pakistani origins has done more to undermine the efforts of all the hate mongers and fear peddlers.

    Please, give credit to all Pakistanis and of Pakistani origins who are working hard to make an honest living, get successful in life and contribute to humanity.

    The artists are great, but they reflect the “paid performance” and packaged delivery. And frankly, I would rather have most of the officials keep their mouths shut and smiles wide. All they do is translate (and bad one too) and unless you are a Pakistani, you have no clue what they have just said!

    And finally, these hard working, honest, decent Pakistanis are the true reflection of the hard working, honest, decent Pakistanis in Pakistan.

    Just because Pakistan has a bad system and has had “leaders” imposed on top of them, few rotten apples and criminals running around, does not make Pakistanis any less or more than any other nation.

    No nation has a monopoly on goodness and no nation has an exclusive on badness!

    And on moments likes these, it is worth it to say,

    Pakistan Zindabad
    Pakistan Paindabad

  5. Dina says:

    Enjoyed the post and also the comments. Things worth thinking about.

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