We liked the Bee Gees, Boney M. and Abba, they made music of the world. “Stayin’ Alive” stimulated the root chakra long before we knew what kind of spirits that was capable of awakening. Ra-Ra-Rasputin was and remains a smash. And Abba, oh Abba!
Once, on a rainy evening, we drove from Zurich to Gossau near St. Gallen. It was around 1978, a private mass was being held at a family friend’s house to commemorate the martyrdom of a relative of the Prophet Mohammad. One was supposed to be sad. In the car, my mother unflinchingly put in an Abba cassette, and soon “Fernando” was playing.
I couldn’t help thinking of my father. He had flown to visit relatives in Karachi a few days before. Away from the stifling work, the grey cold in Switzerland. Autumn in Pakistan, on the other hand, was warm, still around thirty degrees Celsius.
‘Garam mousm’ is what they say there in Urdu, warm weather. Abba sang “There was something in the air that night, a star so bright,” leaving me desolate on the motorway at dusk. I looked up at the sky and thought of the small lights of the plane that had carried my father away. Him, Dilawar. Mother called him Dil, heart.
Father had a heart condition. His doctor had said that he was really homesick. Abba, pronounced in Urdu, means papa. Karachi was supposed to warm his heart again. Garam dil, you warm heart. Fernando.
There, in the Pakistani port city, my brothers and I had bought cassettes with the hits of western 70s pop. Copies of pirated copies, to be had cheaply in Saddar, a market where windows and walls still testify that they arrived here with British colonisation.
About ten years later, I bought a CD at Jecklin store in Zurich by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the world-famous Pakistani Qawwali singer whose music can be heard in the soundtracks of the movies Dead Man Walking, The Last Temptation of Christ, Natural Born Killers and Gangs of New York, among others.
Khan’s album Shaheen Shah was released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label and, as so-called world music, was initially only available in Europe, the USA and Japan. It would have had to be imported to Pakistan. But who would think of importing Pakistani music there!
Another decade later, Pakistan celebrated its fiftieth birthday. It was 14 August 1997, I boarded a morning plane in Karachi for Lahore. The captain announced over the loudspeakers at just before eight that, by government decree, the national anthem had to be sung at exactly eight. The cabin crew distributed the lyrics on handouts. When the song rang out, all the passengers stood up and murmured the melody they knew from closing time on Pakistan TV.
After the last verse, everyone quickly sat down again and continued to leaf through their newspapers, which reported on the Prime Minister. He had passed a bill to combat religiously motivated terrorism the previous evening after enormous international pressure: henceforth every citizen was suspected of terrorism across the board.
Lahore was full of music. In the baggage hall of the airport, Qawwal, a devotional style of singing belonging to Sufism, was playing. Outside, cars honked excitedly and everywhere people walked around with small or big radios on their shoulders. Not far from the Pakistan Tower, army cadets dressed in Scottish kilts were blowing bagpipes, like the soldiers of the English Queen in the past.
On Mall Road, lads had lined up in a circle. In the middle, those who wanted to could produce themselves singing and dancing, while the others clapped the rhythm and whistled euphorically.
In the evening, I walked through the streets and across the squares of this historic city, considered the cultural centre of the country. The roar of joy could still be heard deep into the night, after all, the state had granted a day off. Later, I lay in my hotel bed and asked myself: What distinguishes the reluctantly stammered national anthem from the joyfully sung songs that everyone seemed to know by heart?
A simple answer came to mind: The state is not culture, neither a space for living nor for loving. So why chant its praise? But all the other songs, whether classical, spiritual, kitschy, pop or folk, give their singers a feeling of belonging together. Belonging provides warmth.
According to urban legend, an old man appeared to the young guitarist Salman Ahmad in a dream. “Music is your vocation,” he said, “you will play music obsessively!” Salman founded a band and called it Junoon - passion, madness, even obsession.
When I visited him and his bandmates in their rehearsal room, he said, “We make world music.” He played electric guitar, Brian O’Connell, an American who had become Pakistani by marriage, bass and Ali Azmat sang along in Urdu. The press called their music “Sufi rock”. On the occasion of Pakistan’s round birthday, Junoon released their fifth album, called it “Azadi" - Freedom - and dedicated it to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
After returning to Karachi from Lahore, I was driving around Karachi with friends one evening. I asked them what Junoon’s music meant to them. Javed, the husband of a journalist friend, replied: “It combines ancient traditions with modern times for us.”
Junoon gave a concert in Karachi. After a dozen rock numbers, they played their encores and I realised what Javed’s words meant. The audience was beside themselves with happiness, dancing and singing and celebrating.
Then, when the Sufi “Allah Hu” invoked the time before creation in the Abrahamic religions when everything was still one in the universe, it seemed as if you had made a pilgrimage to a shrine and were now witnessing a ritual trance of whirling dervishes. I saw men and women, teenagers and twenty-somethings, smiling, crying and hugging each other as if someone had released them from prison after a long sentence.
For many years I experienced my father as absent. Working day and night, then in hospitals and rehab. When I was about ten years old, I witnessed a doctor informing my weeping mother of the clinical death of her Dil in an empty hospital corridor lit by neon lights. My father was revived thanks to a quick-witted doctor and his defibrillator.
When he was there, he was really there: cooking and joking, singing us to sleep, generous with his feelings, philosophising with friends, making loud long-distance calls to relatives, humming Sufi songs and reading old Urdu poems, occasionally sitting melancholy on the sofa. Often he would say, “We are all one.”
A few years before he died, he visited me frequently and without notice in my office behind the Zurich Opera House. We were making up for the lost years when we had missed each other.
The warm, kind heart of my Abba stopped beating twelve years ago today.
20 June 2022. In loving memory of Dilawar Hussain, son of Noorbano Bai Rajabali Ismail Dosani and Noor Mohammed Ali Bhai Khemji. Husband of Zohra Bano Hussain-Vakil.