A Sufi with YouTube on his mind

Farid Sabri (left) with his father Saeed. Photo courtesy: Banyan Tree.

Farid Sabri (47), one-third of the Jaipur-based qawwali troupe that includes his father Saeed (73) and brother Amin (45), has never heard of YouTube. But describe it to him and he’s all excited.

He has a hundred questions. What exactly does it do? Can you upload only audio? Do you have to pay to be on it?

Artistes across the world are still debating whether the video-sharing website is good for them, but for him there is no dilemma. “There’s no question that YouTube can dissolve boundaries and help people like me get the exposure they need.”

Tell Farid some singers believe crowds will no longer frequent their concerts because they can see their songs for free online, and he brushes it off. “Hearing a song and seeing it performed live are two different things,” he says. “If you see a video on YouTube and are impressed, you’ll make it a point to be at the singer’s concert.”

Farid is an unlikely convert to YouTube. He comes from a long line of Sufi qawwals — his is the seventh generation — and he’ll perform along with Saeed and Amin at Ruhaniyat, India’s largest Sufi and mystic music festival, on November 22 at Horniman Circle.

Qawwali, a highly traditional musical form that largely shuns non-acoustic arrangements, is not something you’d associate with video-sharing or online music distribution. But Farid is willing to try anything to make qawwali more popular.

Farid says his ancestors moved from Mathura and became part of Jaipur’s gunijan khana (artist pool) at the request of the durbar. They and their descendants performed at state functions and later across the country. The present generation of Sabris have taken their art international, performing in countries like Australia and the US.

“The reason qawwali needs more of a push than, say, pop,” says Farid, “is because it requires at least a little understanding of Urdu, Farsi, Arabic and poetry in general. Not everybody has this understanding, which is why qawwali does not have as large a fan base.”

The other factor, he says, is television. It is usually the first point of exposure for youngsters, but it rarely plays traditional music.

There’s an easy solution, says Farid. “If music channels could give classical music just a little air time, it could provide the spark that it needs.” It’s important, he says, to give a platform to “music that touches the heart” along with that which makes your feet tap.

It’s not as if Farid hasn’t flirted with popular music. He’s sung for films like Henna and Pardes, but he says he’d never shift to Mumbai. “Money would be the only reason and that’s not enough of a motivation for me. I’d rather be among friends and my family in Jaipur,” he says.

What draws him time and again to Mumbai, he says, is a stronger motive — devotion. “I visit the city from time to time to sing at its shrines. I’ve performed at Haji Ali as well as at the Mahim dargah. This is purely devotional and a tribute to our faith and ancestors,” says Farid.

This story first appeared in the Hindustan Times, Mumbai, on November 18, 2009.