Café Saqafat – Sufi Music Heritage in the Times of the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Rafique Wassan

Initiated in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, Café Saqafat is a new online social media broadcasting cultural work – mediated through FaceBook live streaming and later on a recorded version uploaded on YouTube. Started in November 2020 in Karachi, the Café Saqafat livestreamed initiative is launched by the Sindh Culture, Tourism and Antiquities Department. In the livestreamed programme, it invites and engages with the various artists and genres in terms of styles and content that include folk, popular, classical, semi classical, ceremonial and Sufi and instrumental music.

Image 1: Sindhi Sufi singer Manjhi Faqeer performing in Café Saqafat.

It has been almost one year that the COVID-19 global pandemic has ceaselessly impeded everyday social life. All sectors of socioeconomic life, from attending schools, universities, and markets to celebrating at in-person social gatherings, art, and musical events are gripped by the pandemic lockdowns. Informed by anthropology, ethnomusicology, and cultural and critical heritage studies, in my interdisciplinary PhD research project I work on the contemporary progressive cultural production and politics of Sufi heritage in the Sindh region in Pakistan. In March last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out globally I was in Sindh. My attention was instantly caught by a concern for the vulnerability and marginality of the musician community, especially those artists and performers whose economic livelihood and musical social life depend on public performances at Sufi shrines and festivals. In response to the pandemic, Sindh Culture Department in Karachi initiated a social media livestreamed Café Saqafat creative cultural space to patronise and promote art practice and artist communities in Sindh, and to provide the isolated public a solace in the times of Coronavirus lockdown.

Café Saqafat (Café Culture) builds on the heterogenous tradition of Indo-Pakistan: Sufi shrines and festivals are popular public spaces visited in large numbers by the commons, male and female devotees, families, and tourists. Likewise, Sufi shrines in Pakistan’s Sindh province feature a longstanding presence and patronage of music. Over the centuries, the Sufi Faqeer performers patronised by the shrine custodians, the common masses, progressive secular civil society, and government officials continued to transmit the kalam tradition of Sufi poet-saints – in the form of poetry and musical cultural expression. The Sufi shrines in Sindh are popular public spaces that host daily, weekly, fortnightly, and monthly performances. In addition, annual Sufi festivals under the patronage of official and non-official actors attended by faith-based devotees and secular intellectual-minded lovers of Sufi music and thought contribute to the formation of a popular cultural public sphere.

In the contemporary progressive cultural production of Sufism reconstructed by the Sindhi modernist intelligentsia, Sufi poets represent the image of freethinking sages whose heterogenous cultural expression goes against the grain of rigid and exclusivist faith boundaries. And, the intellectual political modernist-oriented cultural production of Sindhi Sufi heritage has set itself the task to transcend – at least at a forceful discursive level – the caste, class, and gender hierarchies. On the question of caste and religious intolerance Sindhi progressive civil society affectively uses Sufi narrative to defend interfaith harmony, freedom, human rights, and peaceful co-existence. For instance, Saif Samejo, a lead vocalist and founder of the Sufi-folk pop music band The Sketches, in his critical music work expresses empathy, solidarity and protest to defend human and indigenous land rights, an ethos of inclusion and co-existence.   

Sufi inclusive discourse and performance form the constituent feature of Sindhi Muslim identity. It invokes critical relevancy to conceptualise and regenerate dialogical knowledge and progressive politics of Islam. In his seminal ethnomusicology works, William C. Banfield (2015, 2010) has presented a cultural relevancy and cultural codes approach to music that takes issue with the marketisation and commodification of music. Precisely, Banfield calls for ‘better and more directed conversations about concrete creativity’ (Banfield 2015). Thinking through the cultural relevancy and cultural codes in the musical approach discussed by Banfield, Sindh’s Sufi music heritage can be analysed to reveal the concrete, creative, critical, and dialogical agenda. In this regard, Café Saqafat, as a new flagship livestreamed music programme run by the Sindh Culture Department, is a case in point that spotlights the creative cultural relevancy approach to Sindhi musical culture in the midst of the “Corona” pandemic.    

In the terrible times of the Coronavirus, thanks to the new digital technology and social media practices, creative art and music have come to the fore as an active mode of resilience to fight the dreadful moments of isolation, social distancing, and insecurity. After the outbreak of the Coronavirus and lockdown in Pakistan, various civil society social actors in Sindh inventively took to the new social media platforms and organised the online streamed events, talks and music-making sessions. During lockdown in July, Saif Samejo, in his flagship Lahooti Live Sessions, created and released on YouTube the Sindhi-Marwari language fusion music video with female Sufi folk artist Marwal Murk. The song lyrics of “Waba’unn Je Zamane Main – In the Times of Pandemic” are jointly composed by Sardar Shah, a progressive poet, writer and provincial Minister of the Sindh Culture, Tourism and Antiquities Department, and Marwal Murk. The song lyrics express human emotions and the human condition in the difficult times of pandemic that have severely affected the union of lovers. In the song, the fusion lyrics by Marwal Murk induce the popular cultural imagery of Sufi shrines, to visit and seek prayers to realise the union of the beloved. The text below represents the opening stanza of the song.

When our union is so difficult in the times of pandemic

How does one tread on the wet soil of his heart without holding your hand

The shore of love is so far away in the times of pandemic

I take my votive offerings to shrines, praying to meet you, my beloved (Translation by Lahooti)     

The creative cultural space of Café Saqafat manifests the idea and use of socio-politically engaged art and performance practice. It brings out the cultural translation, transmission, and circulation of the progressive-critical practice of art and Sufi music heritage enacted by the Sindhi intelligentsia (see the cultural translation approach in Cultural Turns by Doris Bachmann-Medick 2016).

In this broader view, Café Saqafat exhibits the cultural translation of art and music as a social practice beyond marketisation and entertainment. The Café Saqafat livestreamed initiative is launched to invite and engage with the various artists and genres in Sindhi music. In addition to music, Café Saqafat invites and organises talks with the popular living legends in the fields of literature, film, TV, and radio. Café Saqafat exhibits a creative cultural space and a ‘work of new imagination’ (Appadurai 1996) by the Sindhi progressive intelligentsia in the age of new social media and uncertain pandemic times. In Café Saqafat the creative cultural process at work spells out the presence and location of the argumentative tradition’s (Sen 2005) alternative standpoints and counter-discourses within Muslim societies. By infusing the idea of art and a music-loving, tolerant, and pluralist Sindhi Sufi identity, it generates and circulates the progressive politics of Islam (see progressive Islam in the edited work by Omid Safi 2003).

On November 05, 2020, the first event of Café Saqafat curated a talk with renowned Sindhi language poet, lyricist, and writer Imdad Hussaini. Since then, Café Saqafat continues to grow and curate the weekly performance evenings with a diverse set of artists, performers, actors, and writers. On November 26, the third event in row in Café Saqafat livestreamed the performance of Ustad Shafi Faqeer, a renowned Sufi singer of Sindh. Bakhshan Mehranvi, Sindh’s progressive poet and TV anchor, hosted the performance event. Ustad Shafi Faqeer comes from a family of hereditary caste musicians and continues to transfer the Sufi performance tradition at various Sufi shrines and literary festivals in Sindh. Particularly, he is associated with the shrine of Sufi Shah Inayat Shaheed, the 18th century Sufi martyr and protagonist of the peasant movement in Sindh. In the Café Saqafat programme format, the host interviews the invited guest artist followed by the musical performance. The online streamed event is turned into a conversational and dialogical mode with the inclusion of the comments of the participants and video calls by fans and friends. The host of the programme vociferously inscribes in the event the participatory spirit by announcing the names and reading out the text messages of the viewers that also include the Sindhi diaspora from North America, Europe, and the Gulf.  

Image 2: poster for the Sufi performances of Ustad Shafi Faqeer circulated on social media.

Image 3: poster for the Sufi performances of Manjhi Faqeer circulated on social media.

On January 21, 2021, Café Saqafat curated a musical performance with Manjhi Faqeer, Sindh’s acclaimed and popular folk Sufi singer and Sufi kalam writer. Yasir Kazi, himself a progressive writer, poet, radio broadcaster and TV host, moderated the performance event with Manjhi Faqeer. Over more than twenty years Manjhi Faqeer rose to prominence in Sindhi popular Sufi performance. In Sindh, Manjhi Faqeer’s dialogical and rebellious Sufi performance genre continues to recreate the idea and imagery of Sufi resistance, and the heterogeneity, inclusivity, and plurality of Islam and Muslim identity among the youth. The popular Sufi performance of Manjhi Faqeer has a powerful alternative identity appeal and critical reception among the progressive secular political modernist youth, civil society, and human rights groups. At his Sufi Aastnu (Sufi lodge/public place) in a small village in Barhoon in the Sanghar district, Manjhi Faqeer, along with his Sufi circle, continues to carry out Sufi gatherings and festivals and transmit Sufi music and philosophy of love, human fellowship, tolerance, peaceful coexistence and religious harmony.

Image 4: Sindhi Sufi singer Mandjhi Faqeer and his group in Café Saqafat.

In critical heritage studies, heritage and identity form an important area of inquiry (see Graham and Howard 2008, Smith 2006). For instance, Brain Graham and Peter Howard (2008) point toward the multiple uses and producers of heritage that may involve ‘public/private, official/non-official and insider/outsider’ actors. In this light, the progressive cultural production of the Sufi tradition and Sindh identity authenticity call attention to the secular political modernist informed intellectual and artistic agency of the Sindhi intelligentsia. For the Sindhi intelligentsia, the idea and use of Sufi performance tradition tends to imply an intellectual political practice to form the pluralist and tolerant Sindhi Muslim subjectivity in Pakistan. For instance, the views of Yasir Kazi, the host of the programme, reflect the progressive politics of Sufi heritage and Sindhi identity authenticity. In the opening comments, Yasir Kazi identifies broadly the social viability of Sufism.

We welcome you in this online streamed Café Saqafat program by the Sindh Culture Department in which every week different artist performers, singers, actors, broadcasters, poets, writers, intellectuals, researchers, and educators are invited. We invite the pioneers, architects and contributors of our land, the society. The soil of Sindh is the soil of Tasawwuf (Sufism), and this soil is made of the fragrance of Tasawwuf, and every person in its spirit and existence is a Sufi. And, we understand that Tasawwuf is the kind of our religion and ‘in the universe we don’t express hatred against anyone, God is witness love is our religion’ [he reads the stanza of a Sindhi poem]. In principle, the people belonging to the soil of Sindh must have faith in the respect for humans and seek the manifestation of the Creator in humans, in every life form and in every creature.

Furthermore, introducing Manjhi Faqeer, Yasir Kazi identifies the political-cultural relevance of Sufi performance heritage and the socially engaged role of the Sufi artist. The Sufi performance of Manjhi Faqeer, stresses Yasir Kazi, is more than musical sound and instruments. It is beyond the marketisation of music. The rational modernist reconstruction of Sufi performance heritage by the host is explicitly defined to have as its purpose to transmit a thought, message, lesson, contemplation, knowledge, representation, and an identity. The following views of Yasir Kazi to introduce Manjhi Faqeer and his Sufi performance inform the broader intellectual, sociopolitical purpose.

Our guest today is not merely a Raagi (singer), his work is not only to perform a Raag (music/singing). His Sufi performance is not intended for earning money, but he is the representative of the fragrance of the soil of Sindh. He is the preacher of the dignity of humanity. He teaches the lesson of love for the human being. He travels to the villages, settlements, and towns of Sindh, goes to the shrines, and disseminates a lesson, transfers the message of Taswwuf. His performance has the power to touch your hearts. He transmits the message through music.

Image 5: Manjhi Faqeer and Yasir Kazi, the host of Café Saqafat.

Manjhi Faqeer was initiated into Sufism in his young age. Initially, in his early years, Manjhi Faqeer shares with the host in Café Saqafat, he was more into religious poetry but gradually got involved in Sufi poetry, singing and a diverse Sufi way. Manjhi Faqeer recalls that his participation in Sufi contemplative gatherings with the Sufis provided him a force and inspiration to persuade the Sufi world of bewilderment, intuition, and heterogeneity. In his performances, Manjhi Faqeer transmits the cultural expressive power and agency of Sufis that transcend the boundaries of faith-based, rigid religious identities. In Café Saqafat, Manjhi Faqeer spelled out his pluralist, inclusive, and peace-loving Sufi worldview that intervenes to contest exclusivist religiosity and duality. Manjhi Faqeer identifies with the Sufi ethos of peace and love for all humans and religions. The cosmopolitan Sufi ethos of empathy and peace for all humans irrespective of faith- and nation-based identity affiliations call forth a critical reflection and action in the socially insecure and polarised times of the Corona pandemic.

The idea of Ishq or Love is central to the Sufi mystical tradition of Islam. In the history of Islam and the popular Sufi literary canon, Sufis are widely recognised and celebrated as the radical lovers and martyrs of love (see Schimmel 1975, Safi 2018). Also, on the idea of love central to the literary discourses in Sufi philosophy, it is instructive to refer to Shahab Ahmed, the author of a pioneering work What is Islam (2016). Shahab Ahmed identifies and discusses the ethnical and aesthetic concept of mazhab-i ishq that denotes “a way of going about being a Muslim – a mode of being with God, of identifying, experiencing, and living with the values and meaning of Divine Truth.” In the conceptualisation and practice of mazhab-i ishq, Shahab Ahmed reminds his readers that the core idea of love suggest the realisation and attainment of higher values and Truth and “it functions as mode of knowing, of valorising and meaning-making.” Viewed from the higher experiential values and meaning-making Sufi concept of mazhab-i ishq, for Manjhi Faqeer Sufism is the religion of love that has a task to uphold the respect and love for all religions and establish human unity. He believes in the Sufi esoteric teachings that call for the purification of the heart and self and take to the experiential path of love to realise and know the higher values and Truth.

In Café Saqafat, joining through a video call the views of Nisar Khokhar, a journalist, activist, and founder of the Sufi festival Baagyen Saan Shaam – Evening with Rebels in Sindh, point toward a renewed presence of the critical Sufi performance tradition in Sindh enacted by Manjhi Faqeer. Nisar Khokhar brings out in his rational, political modernist opinion the oppositional and counterculture posture of Sufism and Sufi artist. His views below manifest and transmit the progressive intellectual political persuasion, and an image of a socially-engaged dissenting Sufi music artist.

Basically, Manjhi Faqeer has gained immense popularity and reception among youth. It has a reason. Because Manjhi Faqeer represents the voice of dissent against the conventions and status-quo. Manjhi Faqeer has invented the entirely new introduction of Sufism in Sindh. He is unlike the conventional Sufis.

The views of Nisar Khokhar and Yasir Kazi highlight the critical and socially-engaged role of Sufi music culture. In this respect, Manjhi Faqeer’s appearance and performance hosted in Café Saqafat is indicative of the public role and presence of Sufi art and artists in the times of the current Coronavirus pandemic. It is widely acknowledged that the medical personnel have performed the front-line fight. The active role and presence of multiple social actors including the artists, musicians, filmmakers, and other creative culture producers should be promoted and made visible in the fight against the pandemic. The affective, empathic, and educating role of creative culture can be a powerful resource and resilience to deal with fear, isolation, and anxieties in the times of “Corona”. In fact, in the difficult times of isolation and social distancing during the lockdown, the creative culture – literature, art, music, TV drama, films – have proved the vibrant means to console and protect people from anxiety and fear. I remember that, during the initial peak months of the pandemic outbreak and lockdown, many friends were searching and asking for the best recommendations of literature, films, and music. In this way, the online initiative of Café Saqafat by the Sindh Culture Department reveals the primacy of creative culture and art practice to engage with and safeguard people in the times of fear and crisis. 

In the uncertain times of the Coronavirus, Café Saqafat’s online streamed platform of music continues to create hope and happiness and transfer the plurality of views and knowledge. In Café Saqafat, Manjhi Faqeer concluded his performance with a song that contains the Sufi message and aspiration for the establishment of peace. The message in the lyric “we aspire to establish love, compassion and brotherliness, no war no conflict we declare ourselves the Sufis speaks volumes to restore peace, compassion, and fellowship in the current times of fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and division in the pandemic. The Sufi message to establish unity, inclusion, pluralism, and peaceful coexistence reminds of a vital call for the development of global synergy and solidarity to fight against the pandemic and disasters.

This text was first published on the Religious Matters Blog.


References

Ahmed Shahab (2016). What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton University Press.

Appadurai Arjun (1996). Modernity at Large – Cultural Dimensions of Globalisation. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, London.

Banfield William C. (2015). Ethnomusicologizing Essays on Music in the New Paradigm. Rowman & Littlefield.

Banfield William C. (2010). Culture Codes, Makings of a Black Music Philosophy: An Interpretive History from Spirituals to Hip Hop.

Graham Brian and Howard Peter. (Eds) (2008). The Ashgate Research Companion to Heritage and Identity. Ashgate, England.

Medick Doris Bachmann (2016). Cultural Turns: New Orientations in Study of Culture. De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston.

Safi Omid, (Ed.), (2003). Progressive Muslims on justice, gender and pluralism. Oneworld Publications, England.

Safi Omid, (ed), (2018). Radical Love: Teachings from the Islamic Mystical Tradition. Yale University Press.

Schimmel Annemarie (1975). Mystical Dimensions of Islam. The University of North Carolina Press.

Sen Amartya (2005). The Argumentative Indian, Writings on Indian History Culture and identity. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Smith, L (2006). Uses of Heritage. Routledge, London.

YouTube Links

Café Saqafat. ”An Evening with Manjhi Faqeer”. 21-01-2021. YouTube link.

Café Saqafat. ”An Evening with Ustad Shafi Faqeer”. 26-11-2020. YouTube link.

Waba’unn Je Zamane Main. ”The Sketches Ft. Marwal Murk – Lahooti Live Sessions”. YouTube link.


Rafique Wassan is an anthropologist from Pakistan and currently a PhD-student at Walter Benjamin Kolleg’s Graduate School of Arts and Humanities – Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies, Bern University, Switzerland. His interdisciplinary PhD research project focuses on the contemporary progressive cultural production of Sufi heritage discourse and performance in Sindh, Pakistan.


Further articles in the thread #religiousmatters of the series #DossierCorona on TRAFO:

Birgit Meyer, Introducing #DossierCorona #religiousmatters, 24 April 2020.

Birgit Meyer, Studying Religion in Times of Corona, 27 April 2020.

Peter van der Veer, Global Breathing, 11 May 2020.

Rodrigo Toniol, Temporalities of the Pandemic and a Proposed Research Agenda About Religion, 27 May 2020.

Johan Strijdom, Vulnerabilities and Interventions in Times of Corona: Bodies, Food and Religion in South Africa, 28 May 2020.

Murtala Ibrahim, “Coronavirus is a Ghost of the West”: Conspiratorial Explanations of the Covid-19 Pandemic among some Religious Leaders in Nigeria, 3 June 2020.

Veerle Dijkstra, Going Online: How Corona Transforms Christian Worship, 12 June 2020.

Erik Meinema, ‘Quarantine is Godly’, but in the Fight against Corona, ‘the Devil is in the Details’, 16 June 2020.

Tuhina Ganguly, Yoga and Immunity in the Time of the Pandemic, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 3 July 2020.

Liana Chua, Viral Devotionality and Christian Solidarity In/Beyond Borneo, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 22 July 2020.

Natalie Lang, Religion and Covid-19 under observation: the Asia-focused research blog CoronAsur, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 4 September 2020.

Johanneke Kroesbergen-Kamps and Hermen Kroesbergen, Speaking about the virus: the language of war in the Reformed Church in Zambia, 12 November 2020.

Yanti Hölzchen and Gulniza Taalaibekova, “So, surely with hardship comes ease” (Quran 94:5): Seeking acceptance and the quest for unity during the Corona pandemic, 2 December 2020.

Maria José de Abreu, On Twisted Logics and the Pandemic, 23 February 2021.


Citation: Rafique Wassan, Café Saqafat – Sufi Music Heritage in the Times of the Coronavirus Pandemic, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 08.06.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/28497.


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