Meet Trailblazing Pakistani Singer, Sanam Marvi

Traditionally, women never performed Sufi style music. Until now.

By Chris Becker March 27, 2017

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Image: Sanam Marvi

Pakistani singer Sanam Marvi, one of the few female vocalists to master the art of singing Sufi poetry in the traditional qawwali style, was just 7 years old when her father, singer Fakir Ghulam Rasool, began taking her to Sufi poet shrines throughout Hyderabad, Pakistan. It's a long-standing tradition in the Indian subcontinent for Sufi musicians to pay their respects at these shrines by singing the poetry of the buried saints.

While many people in Pakistan discourage women from learning music, Marvi’s father, a progressive teacher with Hyderabad's Mehran Arts Council, was fond of saying, “My daughters are like my sons. If my sons will learn music, so will my daughters.” Thanks to his tutelage, Marvi began to understand the connection between reciting and singing centuries-old Sufi poetry and experiencing a divine spiritual transcendence. 

“Already, by the age of 12, I felt there was something beyond the music,” says Marvi through her translator and singer Arieb Azhar, who joins Marvi as a guest artist for her concert at the Wortham Center on Sunday, April 2. 

When you hear the 31-year-old sing, there is definitely something happening “beyond the music.” In a YouTube-captured live performance of “Yaar Dadhi,” a poem by the 19th-century Punjabi Sufi poet Khwaja Ghulam Farid, Marvi compels the mostly female audience to join her cries of “Yaar dadhi!” several times before signaling her musicians to join her on tabla and dholak and delivering the rest of the lyrics. “Oh friend, this love has ignited such a strong fire within me!” she says. It’s like the DJ art of “the drop," delivered by a charismatic, even glamorous qawwali singer. 

“It’s very important for me to have a connection, a union with the audience,” says Marvi. “I’m hopeful that will happen when I perform in Houston.”

For Sunday’s concert, Marvi will sing accompanied by traditional South Asian acoustic instruments, including tabla, harmonium, sitar and dholak. But she is also known for performing with electric guitar, bass, keyboards and drums, as well as sending her voice through delays and other effects. Marvi was inspired to perform with Western instruments played by Abida Parveen, another groundbreaking and popular female Pakistani vocalist who also seeks to communicate the message of Sufism to contemporary audiences. 

“It is unusual for women to get into this genre of music,” says Azhar about Parveen and Marvi’s crossover success. “If a woman from Pakistan manages to overcome these social barriers, where people look at her not just as a woman involved in show business, but as a woman qawwal, then that woman is highly respected in our society.”

Marvi’s Houston appearance and U.S. tour is presented by Center Stage, a public diplomacy initiative by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Aligned with the bureau’s initiative of diplomacy through art is Marvi’s commitment to share the message of Sufism, a message Azhar describes as “one of humanity and human values, and a direct connection with the divine spirit.”

“Usually, people take Sufism to be the esoteric or mystical side of Islam," explains Azhar, "but the Sufis themselves would say Sufism is actually the essence of all religion.” Music, especially the Sufi singing that Marvi has mastered, creates an environment where people feel a sense of connectedness, regardless of language, race, ethnicity or nationality. Azhar describes this environment as “a magical space, where you feel a part of the grand oneness.” 

“Sufi is a message one has to feel and absorb,” says Marvi, echoing Azhar’s description of Sufism. “And it is our duty as musicians to transmit that message, spirit and state of mind.” 

Sunday, April 2 from 6–8. $20—85. Wortham Center's Cullen Theater, 501 Texas Ave. 832-487-7041. 

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