- Tell us about your foray into music and opera singing. How did it all begin for you?
I set out to be a scientist. I completed my MSc Physical Chemistry and was poised to start a PhD in Australia. But while still a student in 2006 I recorded an album of Amir Khusrau’s sufi songs. His poetry is transcendent and it brought me pause to reflect on my family’s own deep-seated values: offering a helping hand to anyone in need, seeking peace, showing love, forgiving one’s enemies.
Following 9/11, the government said terrorism is linked to poverty and lack of education. As a student I wondered what I could do to bring peace to our world; so much negativity seemed to be focused around Pakistan. What would stop the perpetual misgivings, mistrust and misunderstandings?
I wanted to identify the moments – if any – when the Muslim and Western worlds peacefully coexisted, so I undertook an MA in History: Islam and the West (Queen Mary, University of London). I found that in Cordoba, Andalusia (Spain), Muslims, Christians and Jews all lived and worked together in peace and harmony.
Andalusian Sufi poet Ibn-Arabi is another prime example: he was gifted a house by a Christian governor in what is now Turkey but immediately passed it on to a beggar. And I was deeply moved to discover female sufi saint Hazrat Bibi Rabia, who was devoted to bringing peace between faith communities. If a woman could do this, so could I!
At the same time I recognised music is a potent way to convey one’s message without hurting its listeners. People always responded to my performances, so I decided to pursue western classical singing, and specifically opera – its highest expression. Music is my vehicle to promote Pakistani values and culture on the world stage. I am also very much supported by my husband Stephen Smith, a trained pianist, ethnomusicologist, and recording engineer.
- You are based in London as of now but do appear in many musical events in Pakistan. How do you manage such extensive travelling?
My lifelong commitment is to disseminate Pakistan’s good values, wherever I am. When the opportunity comes I take it. It does help to have a family home in Karachi and is also less expensive for event organisers – no hotel accommodation fees!
- You are a vocal coach as well. Tell us a bit about that.
It started with my vision for female talent to have their own space where they can hone their singing skills solely in the company of other ladies. So I started Saira Arts Academy (SAA), a women-only arts cetnre, in Karachi in 2009.
I have a number of students there as well as others in the UK from a variety of nations. My objectives are to:
a. eradicate their fear of singing
b. transform complicated technique into simple exercises
c. give them the stage from very early on in their study
I’m working to launch branches of SAA in interior Sindh and Gilgit-Baltistan once COVID settles down. SAA also runs a full-scale affordable video production studio, SAALOC (SAA on Location), where artists like veteran singer Surraiya Multaniker, her daughter Rahat Multanikar, visiting British West End artists and others have recorded. Many artists from around the world have visited SAA – eg Paul Livingstone (USA; sitarist, disciple of Ravi Shankar), John Ranger (UK/USA; West End/Broadway Music Director), my coach and composer Paul Knight (UK), as well as Pakistani artists from across every province.
Back in London I direct NJ Arts (Noor Jehan Centre), where my team focuses on two things: showcasing Pakistan’s multifaceted culture and bringing people together through creativity. We run events, workshops, master classes, vocal and keyboard tuition.
- Do you think there’s a market of listeners for opera singing in Pakistan?
If you had asked me ten years ago, I might have said no! But I have been very pleasantly surprised to discover that Pakistanis from every area and walk of life seem to love my operatic style. Even when they don’t understand the language – opera is often in Italian, French or German – audiences respond to the sheer beauty and emotion.
In 2013 I was commissioned as a Final Judge and in 2014 Chief Judge of Sindh TV’s reality show Voice of Sindh. My maiden performance as judge was Handel’s aria “Lascia”; to my surprise the applause from the other judges and participants was lengthy. Then in 2014 when I toured around Sindh people kept asking me to sing opera – word had spread!
Nowadays people expect to hear opera whenever I perform. I think what really draws them are the powerful, sustained high notes. A few years ago I was singing a Punjabi folk song for a very enthusiastic crowd at PILAC (Lahore) and everyone started shouting “High notes! High notes!”. Similar things have happened in interior Sindh.
Because of ongoing demand, I officially launched my new genre, Sufi Opera, in 2016.
Of course it took a few years for people to realise what it’s about. But Sufi Opera as a concept seems to be catching on, not only in Pakistan – when I performed sufi opera during a lecture tour of US universities, 2000 professors and students gave me a standing ovation. And at a recent gathering of around 70 British and international opera figures I introduced my plans for Sufi Opera to pin-drop silence. People have been approaching to discuss collaboration on it.
- What are you currently working on?
I am very busy working on my first Sufi Opera, which I will stage in London next year, inshallah. It was slated for the end of 2020 but COVID delayed it. I have an international team of professionals – researchers, English writers, and a composer – my operatic vocal coach Paul Knight who has vast experience in the industry. I’ve also been working with a group of professional artists on the music and drama side.
Last year I composed and recorded an original album of Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum’s Farsi ghazals, the first ever recording of Farsi ghazals by the iconic poet. The pre-launch took place at Al Hamra Hall, Lahore last November and now I am working on the vocals.
I also have a queue of international recording projects to complete, one with a Hollywood film producer, with requests for more constantly coming in. We complete most of the production work in our London studio.
- You have performed a variety of genres ranging from Beethoven to Noor Jahan. How different are these genres from each other in terms of singing?
It’s the magic of seven notes, or twelve, if you prefer! East and West share exactly the same pitch assignments, the difference is in how they are arranged.
In Pakistani classical, we select a raag and stay within it for the duration of the song. It is permissible to mix several ragas, for example adding an extra note from a different raag. This is called mishal, but the performer nevertheless is bound to that pattern of notes throughout the song. Mishal is acceptable in almost all genres except pure raagdari.
In stark contrast is Western classical music, based on scales and harmony. A single song can be based on just one scale or it can change scales once or many times. However, these changes always follow the rules of harmony.
Another difference is that Western classical requires clearly and distinctly hitting each note – no portamento allowed!
We have a phrase in Subcontinent music culture “bey sura beshak ho lekin bey taala na ho” (“Being out of tune can be forgiven, but never being out of rhythm”). But in Western classical music a vocalist must be in tune, in time and remains under tutelage throughout life.
I have the advantage of training in both Pakistani and Western classical styles. My longtime vocal coach Paul Knight was a disciple of British opera icon Benjamin Britten (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Britten). I learned raagdari from Chitrarupa Gupta, a disciple of legendary Pandit A.T. Kanan. Physiologically it’s quite unusual to be able to sing both styles as each requires an opposing vocal fold position even for the same note. Once a person’s vocal folds have settled into one style, it is almost impossible to readapt for another. I feel it’s God’s special blessing that I can easily switch while keeping my vocal quality intact.
My opera training led the UK government to request I record the British National Anthem for their citizenship ceremonies in East Sussex. I sang it in operatic style and was proud as a British Pakistani to know that my voice greets new British citizens all across that region. I was really humbled to receive a letter of appreciation from the Queen herself via her lady-in-waiting (P.A. to the Queen) at Windsor Castle. A special media ceremony was later organised at Pearl Continental Hotel Karachi attended by the Deputy Head of Mission, British Consulate Karachi. Last year I also had the distinction of performing a taster of my Sufi Opera genre for Pakistan’s Pres. Arif Alvi and the First Lady at Presidential Palace, Islamabad, which they both appreciated.
- You have performed in both western and eastern classical styles. Is there any style of music you haven’t tried but would love to?
I believe music is an ocean; you are in a continual process of drawing forth new sounds for your songs. Regarding testing other styles, I only take on what fulfils my overall vision. At the end of the day, music is a vehicle to serve my vision, which is to promote Pakistan’s sufi values to the world. My academic hat helps enormously to go deep into the research of cultures and languages before I set out on any music project. I was recently approached about creating Arabic sufi songs in a North African style. Who knows, some day I might be asked to compose sufi songs in a Chinese, Japanese or African style – I would do it!
- You created a new genre of music called Sufi Opera? What exactly is it?
Let me briefly introduce opera. Opera is considered the apex of Western Art, it’s a combination of theatre and music that plumbs humanity’s most tumultuous questions and emotions. It’s traditionally the music of kings and nobles.
The way our world seems to be moving, with its preoccupation with materialism and dearth of sufi values, I wanted to do something new. I’m grateful to great sufi singers like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Aziz Mian and others who took our sufi values beyond Pakistan, albeit primarily to the diaspora. But I want to go a step further, conveying those values in an international language and musical medium.
So I’m adapting Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’s story of Umar Marvi, and presenting it to the English speaking world as a sufi opera – a brand new English stage and music production for a predominantly western audience. It demonstrates that far from being weak secondary figures, women have agency, no matter their background. My Marvi is the bravest woman in the whole world. She boldly stands against the aggression and injustice of the king and refuses to compromise for wealth and power. In the end the king completely changes his ways and bows at her family’s feet. I have seen many depictions of Marvi as tearful and begging, helplessly pining for her fiancé, but my Marvi has unshakeable faith in God. In one aria she addresses the king:
Now hear the prophecy of a Sufi girl Whose family has seen miracle on miracle. Now hear the prophecy of a Sufi girl Our duas protect the land, And I tell you before these myriad witnesses You will lose I will win If you persist in doing evil you will regret it!
- You have conducted online concerts as well. How do they work? Do people really tune in?
Yes, The beauty of online performance is that it transcends so many physical limitations. The driving force behind my online concerts is staying connected with my people and fans.
Through my fan page I’ve done several live concert series where I take people’s weekly requests and endeavour to perform as many as possible the following week. I always include a few western songs, so there is a rich variety of music from Pakistan, the West and further afield. Interestingly, people tune in from across the globe. On any given day we’ve had interactions with viewers in the UK, Pakistan, Switzerland, USA, Australia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Morocco, Egypt, Palestine, to name a few.
- Are you involved in any charity work?
Yes, it’s a way of life! In 2003 as a student I founded Sarah Foundation Pakistan to assist deserving people in need. When the 2005 earthquake hit, our charity took relief to thousands of victims – I managed to organise a 40 foot relief container from the UK. In 2010 I personally took part in flood relief distribution in interior Sindh. Most recently I spearheaded Covid Relief for daily wagers across Pakistan. We’ve reached thousands across many cities, even up north in the KPK area, eg Tank near Waziristan, Gara Bhuda, Tator, Shah Zamani, Adamabad etc. People told me it’s controlled territory, nobody can go there. Yet I knew that families living there are suffering terribly. Through trusted individuals originally from that area, we were able to have relief distributed in several very remote villages in a way that met our charitable criteria. We also distributed relief to the khawaja sira (transgender) community in Islamabad, to artists of Islamabad and Hyderabad, impoverished labourer families near the brick factories of Kasur (Punjab), and villages surrounding Sheikhapura and Faisalabad. Although I couldn’t join the operations in person, we organised things from London and were in constant touch with our volunteers, sometimes four or five times a day.
- You have performed at the Pakistan High Commission in London on Independence Day. Tell us about that experience and what are your plans for this Independence Day?
For years I have been honoured to perform for my country as a voluntary service, not just on Independence day and Pakistan Day but also on other occasions such as the unveiling of Quaid-e-Azam’s bust in 2017. I was humbled when the High Commission phoned and said I was the only person they considered to perform for that historic event at the British Museum where Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, also presided. I’ve been privileged to sing at other special events like Journey of Love commemorating the contributions of British missionaries to Pakistan, the High Commission’s official Christmas celebration, and I have been invited to perform at their upcoming “Minorities Day” event on 11th August. I’m grateful to be included as an integral part, not just an ordinary artist. On 14th August, if there is a change to the UK’s COVID restrictions which allows the High Commission to proceed with public celebrations, I am sure I will be singing there!
- What is your vision for Pakistan and what does it mean to be Pakistani for you?
My vision is to see our traditional spiritual values, like kindness, tolerance and hospitality brought to international awareness. Wherever evil is, whether in the form of corruption, poverty, injustice, oppression of women etc – we must all join together and fight it. Pakistan has its own battles, many of which we have yet to overcome, but by living according to real sufi values we
- Marvi is the bravest woman in the whole world
- My academic hat helps me go deeper into cultures
- I was really humbled to receive a letter of appreciation from the Queen
- I had the distinction of performing Sufi Opera for Pakistan’s President
- 2,000 US university professors and students gave me a standing ovation for singing Sufi Opera