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Saieen Zahoor | an Enigmatic Sufi Musician

Saieen Zahoor, Sain Zahur1.
For many seekers of the Sufi path, powerful and recurring dreams sent from the realm of unknown sets off their journey. For Saieen Zahoor, the youngest son born in a rural peasant family of Punjab, Pakistan who later to become a legend of our time - the involvement with music was also inspired by a series of mystic incidents. He started singing at the age of five, and from that early age, he had dreamt of a hand. As Saieen would recall, 'it was a call that was made to him' to take up singing.

According to Saieen Zahoor in his youth he had had a dream in which a hand beckoned him towards a shrine (tomb of sufi saints). Saieen interpreted the dream as an invitation to the world of spirituality. On the advice of a Sufi, he set off, aged 13, to look for that shrine. "My parents didn't stop me - they were fed up with the dreams!" he says. He searched for nine years, living in shrines, singing and performing where he was given food, until he found the place of his dreams at Uch Sharif in Pakistan's southern Sindh province.

'For many years I kept traveling up and down the country. I have been to almost every corner of Pakistan,' Sain would recall.

From Kashmir in the north down to Sindh province in the south, Sain kept visiting any shrine he could come across but could not find the one he saw in his dream.

Finally after years of roving Sain chanced upon a small shrine in the south of Punjab in a town called Uchch. 'As I was passing by this shrine someone waved at me with his hand, inviting me in and I suddenly realised that it was this hand which I saw in my dream.' It is a mysterious coincidence that Saieen eventually found his shrine in Uchch, as this is the town which historically had been home to some of the most revered Sufi Saints of the region.

Sain decided to adopt this town as his home and it was here that as a disciple of Ustad Ronaq Ali and the legendary Sain Marna, he became an exponent of the ancient instrument, Ek Tara. The sufi kalams are verses of poetry redolent with devotional love, which are sung with the passion and power needed to give listeners a chance of actually knowing the mystery of God. With his robes, beads, tightly bound turban and one string ektara lute, Saeen Zahoor delivers sufi music with focused and flamboyant joy.

From an interview with Sonya Rehman, "Beti," he says, "it’s a long story," as I ask him how his path led him down that of the ek tara (the traditional instrument that Saieen plays) and the dervish way of life.

"I was seven years old when I started seeing a hand which would emerge from a grave in my dreams. Afterwards, I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep. My parents would scold and ask me what kept bothering me night after night, but I never told them about my dream. Every night for seven continuous years I had the same dream."

During this time, Saieen met a dervaish who lived in a graveyard, played the ek tara and sang. “He had magic in his voice,” remembers Saieen. The young Saieen began sitting with the dervaish and contended himself by learning the ek tara from him.

“He would sing songs about pain and loss. They were folk tales which I would sing only in Seraiki (a dialect spoken in the region Saieen was brought up in).” Saieen told the dervaish about his recurring dream who advised him to look for a darbar and when he found it, only then would he understand the significance of his dream."

Saieen Zahoor is one of Pakistan’s most enigmatic musicians whose mystical music is steeped in Sufi spirituality and devotion. Revered equally for his haunting voice and for his renditions of kalams by saintly poets Baba Bulleh Shah and Mian Muahmmad Buksh - Saieen Zahoor has been a definitive part of Pakistani music for over five decades.

Sain cannot read or write but has the most innovative and unique way of memorising songs. 'When I have to memorise some lyrics, I sketch them on a paper as an image and then I never forget.' According to a renowned Punjabi poet and writer Najam Hussein Sayed, Sain Zahoor has a 'treasure of a memory,' as he remembers some of the most rare songs from the ancient tradition of Punjabi Sufi literature.

Known for his "Magical" voice that put his listeners to trance, Sain Zahoor or Saeen Zahur Ahmad was born around 1945. He was nominated for the BBC World Music awards based on word of mouth and emerged as the "best BBC voice of the year 2006", an award that had earlier recognized other prominent Sufi singers such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Abida Parveen.

All his life, Sain Zahoor has performed mainly in dargahs (Sufi tombs/shrines) and festivals, and in the streets. He adopted the folk instrument Ektara (ek= one, tar = string), in its three-stringed version, as his main instrument. Like some traditions of Sufi music, he has a passionate, high-energy style of singing, often dancing in a frenzied style with the tassels on his instrument whirling around him.

Quoting from Muniba Kamal's article: Saeen Zahoor, one had seen before at the Sufi Festival organized by the Peerzadas in Karachi, where he was hypnotic swirling on stage while striking just the right notes in that mellifluous voice that tugs at the chords of the heart. At Coke Studio, up close and personal, he is even more iconic. With that weather beaten, chiselled face, the kindest eyes and a dignity to his demeanour, wearing his robes and turban with grace, an ektara in hand, Saeen Zahoor is enigmatic. He talks in dulcet Punjabi and though he cannot read or write, he is a philosopher as all dervishes are. His speech is punctuated by Sufic kalam of the great saints particularly Baba Bulleh Shah. He has been around and learned from life.

Perhaps the most surprising thing seeing Saeen Zahoor at the high tech Coke Studio was how savvy the man is. Calling backing vocalists Saba and Natasha as Beti (daughter) at times and Bachi (child) at others, he told them exactly what he wanted them to sing and where. Comfortable with the mike, with headphones in his ear and looking every inch at home in the studio, Saeen was nevertheless not of this world, that is to say he was other-worldly.

Saieen Zahoor, Sain ZahurWhat sets him apart from the stereotypical pop star is that while he may go and perform all over the world, which he has, but nothing holds him back from playing at the shrine circuit. He does not speak English or Urdu, and he has no desire to do so. He will never modernize his image let alone his lifestyle. He is who he is and he is incredibly sophisticated, even though he doesn't know how to read or write. And he has made it, beyond the dreams of most pop stars and rockers of our time.

"I love and appreciate music about Allah. But for me music about people or worldly things denotes greed which I don’t like, to be honest. But any song which carries with it the name of the Almighty and His praise, I love."

"In this Sufi line of work your love, passion and devotion are all-consuming."

"Music is nutrition for the soul. I can perform all night. Once you start reciting Sufiana Kalam you forget your physical being." - Saieen Zahoor

When asked what about the dream that he once had as a child - has it stopped? "Yes, it has. But the blessings of that dream continue to this day,” says Saieen, his eyes lighting up like fireflies in the dark. (credit)

. Saieen Zahoor Performs @ Coke Studio
1. Aik Alif
2. Toomba

# Resources:
. Music by Sain Zahoor
. Sufi's Choice via Guardian
. Bulleh Shah: The Mystic Voice of Punjab
. A voice, like a call
. The other side of Pakistani Islam

. Music from the Sufi Shrines of Pakistan
. The town of Uchch in 1878
. Hazrat Jalaluddin Surkh-Posh Bukhari
. The Saints and Shrines of Multan
. Interview: Saeen Zahoor - Man behind Khuda Ke Liye's 'Allah Hoo'
. Aik Alif - Saieen Zahoor Sings Bulleh Shah
. Music of Saieen Zahoor


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Technology of the Heart: Saieen Zahoor | an Enigmatic Sufi Musician
Saieen Zahoor | an Enigmatic Sufi Musician
Technology of the Heart
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