The Sufis of Islam believe that it’s possible for anyone to experience divine love, intimately and completely, without the mediation of priests or holy texts. Sufi poets build bridges to that divine love and Sufi musicians guide you over them. Musicians like Sain Zahoor, who spent his long life singing to devotees outside small neighbourhood shrines in return for applause, food and perhaps a roof for the night. Zahoor and his kin are the spiritual minstrels of Pakistan, the wandering guardians of a rich and vital street culture that exists, for the most part, completely below the media radar.
Zahoor might have ended his days in devoted obscurity were it not for a presenter from Pakistan TV who stopped to hear him one day outside the shrine of the Sufi poet Madhu Lal Hussein in Lahore. The TV personality was captivated and fast-tracked Zahoor into a studio to record a sequence of poems by the great 18th century Sufi poet Baba Bulleh Shah which was then broadcast across the nation.
Zahoor started to appear regularly on radio and TV. Then, without a manager, a record deal or an agent, and thanks entirely to a groundswell of grapevine interest, he won a BBC World Music Award in 2006 and has since released records, contributed to film soundtracks, collaborated with Czech rock bands and performed all over the world.
So what’s so special about this busker with a divine message? With his black turban, deep-set kohl-black eyes, ringed fingers and sober robes, his three-stringed ektara lute garlanded with multi-coloured tassels, his gentle time-etched face framed with wiry black hair, Sain Zahoor takes you to an essential place, beyond mere entertainment and show-business, where music, love and the divine, dance and mingle together. His voice soars, glides and swoops effortlessly, like the greatest soul and blues singers, over a background of harmonium, flute, driving dholak drums and rousing backing vocals. His music envelops and penetrates without force; entrancing and banishing away daily cares.
Sain (an honorific title) Zahoor was born into a rural family in the Okara region of the Punjab in 1937. From the age of seven he began to have a recurring dream in which he would see a beckoning hand emerge from a grave. For seven years, he had the same dream every night. Then a mystic vagrant who lived in a graveyard advised Zahoor to travel and look for the place in his dreams.
Eventually, after nine years of wandering and playing, he found himself sitting by a shrine in Uch Sharif, the ‘City of Saints’. He saw a man waving his hand at him, beckoning him to the dargah or tomb of a Sufi saint. Zahoor’s quest was finally over and he became the student of Syed Sakhi Niaz Hussain Shah, Ustad Ronaq Ali and other teachers from Uch-Sharif.
Now in his seventies, Zahoor lives in Lahore and, despite his regular appearances on national TV and close association with prestigious cultural bodies, he stills play regularly down at the shrine of Mian Meer or that of his beloved Bulleh Shah in nearby Kasur. Like Bulleh Shah, and like most Sufi poets and musicians, Zahoor is on a mission to convince audiences at home and abroad that Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance, and that hard-line mullahs or their political allies who attempt to ban music, dancing or any sensual expression of faith are doing a disservice to themselves and their culture. “No one should be stopped from singing,” he says. “Music is nutrition for the soul.”