Hazrat Shahbaz Qalandar Marwandi was a contemporary of Jalaluddin Rumi, and like him, spent many years travelling and preaching. Both men were born in Afghanistan and travelled east – Rumi to what is now Turkey, and Marwandi to Karbala in Iraq. While Rumi would die in Konya, Marwandi eventually moved back to the sub-continent and settled in the plains of Sindh.
Marwandi’s dargah in Sehwan is one of the major Sufi sites in South Asia, attracting a steady stream of pilgrims all year round. But while Rumi’s mystical writings have captivated and continue to inspire millions of people from all walks of life and every corner of the globe, the Falcon King (Shahbaz) of Sindh is known to the world-at-large almost entirely for a single poem written in his memory.
It’s an old lyric with a rousing chorus:
O laal meri, pat rakhio bala jhoole laalan,
Sindri da Sehvan da, sakhi Shabaaz Qalandar
Dama dam mast Qalandar
Ali dam dam de andar.
[O the red robed one, may I always have your benign protection, Jhulelal
O master, friend and Sire of Sindh and Sehwan
The red robed God-intoxicated Qalandar
The Lord in every breath of mine, glory be to you.]
Legend suggests the poem has a glorious pedigree. Said to have been written originally by none other than Amir Khusro, the father of qawwali and inventor of the sitar, the lyric is said to have been updated by the mighty Bulleh Shah of Punjab. And, of course, as with all songs with such deep folk roots, singers and story tellers have spun a number of local versions.
The song would most likely have stayed a subcontinental treasure, known mainly to malangs and rowdy students, were it not for a recording made in the early 1990s by the British group Massive Attack and featuring Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Retitled Mustt Mustt and re-engineered to include a reverb-filled drum and bass line, the song and Nusrat sahib became an international sensation.
Dam Mast Qalandar probably has the strongest claim to being the all-time "Sufi standard". In Pakistan and India, literally hundreds of artists have recorded versions of the song. It's impossible to pick out "the best" of these, but particular favourites of mine include those by Saeen Akhtar and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan.
Beyond the subcontinent, artists of nearly every stripe have fallen in love with the song as well. And it is (just) a few of these interpretations that we take time to savour this week.
Safar Ensemble (Germany)
The Safar Ensemble is a German-Afghan group that usually promotes the more gentle sounds of Afghan semi-classical music. This time they really step out and get down with a bass-propelled version, which is solidly based on the Massive Attack/Nusrat template. Frontman Mohammad Ahmad strikes a commanding presence with the longish locks of a Sehwan malang, and a voice that is not intimidated by the ripping electric guitar solos that are a true rocker’s delight.
The members of this Chicago collective represent the very cream of the Windy City’s musical fraternity. Drawn from the schools of jazz, reggae and funk, not to mention bhangra and qawwali, the group has been delighting fans including a certain Barack Obama (“There’s a lot of funk in that desi!”) for a number of years. The desi component is made up of two Sikhs, Inderpal (vocals and keyboards) and Maninderpal (percussion. vocals), Tamil Nadu’s Pavithra (vocals) and the group’s Kenyan founder, Rahul Sharma (guitar, sitar). This version of the song seamlessly integrates bhangra rhythms with Rastafarian praise and tasty brass interjections, to create a roiling sound that captures the urgent energy of the original very well.
Luxus Oriental Blues (Turkey)
You can always rely on the Turks. With such a rich musical heritage to draw upon, situated as their ancient country is at the meeting ground of multiple cultures, it is almost de rigueur that Turkish bands pick up a song like Dam Mast Qalandar. What starts out as a straightforward reading, albeit with a keening gypsy violin intro, quickly turns into an extended electric blues churn. Video is poor throughout but this clip is definitely a keeper. An inspired retelling of the old story complete with a pleasing trombone solo midway through.
Prem Joshua (Germany)
The revered Sindhi deity Jhule Lal is a complex personality to decipher. Hailed and worshipped by Hindus as a river god and incarnation of Varuna, his temple in Udero Lal in Sindh is half a mosque. Sections of both communities claim him as their own and his name is frequently substituted for that of Shahbaz Qalandar himself. In this clip, German Osho disciple and multi-instrumentalist Prem Joshua places Jhule Lal at the centre of the song. The mood is laidback, almost dream-like. While the percussion is less prominent than in other versions, an incredible bassist keeps things barreling along, allowing Joshua to show off his many impressive talents.
Brooklyn Qawwali Party (US)
Brooklyn Qawwali Party are besotted with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. The eleven-member group came together explicitly to perform what they term the "thunderous songs" of the Big Man of Qawwali. What marks do they receive? Effort-A. Pronunciation-D. Burning Down the House-A++. By turns a Jaipur brass band then, with Fela Anikulapo Kuti in nothing but his underpants, it is these guys who in my opinion would keep every faqir and malang, not just in Sehwan but all of Sindh, sleepless for days. As my kids say: they killed it!
Manu Narayan and Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars (US)
While Manu Narayan seems a bit out of his depth here, the idea of a klezmer – East European Jewish – band performing an iconic Muslim anthem is one too good to ignore. Klezmer was the music performed at Jewish weddings and other celebrations in Eastern Europe. But upon transplantation in the US, elements of jazz were included, giving the music a broader canvas to work on. Frank London on trumpet is the special treat of this most unlikely of covers.
Susan Mayo (US)
All good things must come to an end, and we bring down the intensity levels with the most innovative interpretation of Dam Qalandar we’ve heard. Susan Mayo is a professor of cello in the American state of Kansas. This version is light to the point of being delicate. Yet, the multiple and intricate paths the quartet pursue bring a freshness and vigour all their own.
A word of thanks to Sadiq M Alam for the translation of Dam Mast Qalandar.