Maqbool Ahmed Shah Sabri
Maqbool Sabri was one of the greatest Sufi singers of all times, often called as the ‘Melodious Qawwal’ for his melodic and sweet voice. He was the lead qawwali singer of the Sabri Brothers group from Pakistan. He was the foremost qawwal along with his elder brother Ghulam Farid Sabri who introduced qawwali music to the world which was till then limited to the religious shrines in India and Pakistan.
Maqbool Ahmed Shah Sabri was born on 12 Oct 1945 in Kalyana, East Punjab of British India (today in Charkhi Dadri district of Haryana, India) as the fourth son in his family. He was the eighth child after his elder brothers Hidayat, Ghulam Farid, Kamal and the next four sisters. The only one younger to him is his brother Mehmood Ghaznavi Sabri.
Maqbool belonged to a family of musicians whose music tradition goes back to over 400 years, as they were said to be descendants of Mian Tansen who is considered as the greatest musical legend of all times. As a family tradition every male member in every generation was trained in Hindustani classical music either in vocals or instrumentals. Qawwali singing started from Maqbool Sabri’s grandfather, Mian Mehboob Baksh Ranji Ali Rang, who passed on the music legacy to his father and uncles. Maqbool Sabri’s father, Inayat Hussain (also called Inayat Sen) had a very sweet voice and on the advice of a Sufi master also took up qawwali singing like his own father and used to give performances all over India. He also trained his sons in qawwali singing and classical music to continue the family tradition. Unfortunately, the eldest son Hidayat passed away with high fever at the young age of fourteen. So, Inayat Hussain used to mentor Ghulam Farid, who was the eldest surviving son and always took him along to his qawwali programs so that he could learn from the experiences. Maqbool was too young at that time and by the time he started learning music, his father had quit giving qawwali performances. Maqbool Sabri inherited music tradition from his mother Jannat Bibi’s side too as she also hailed from a musical family. His maternal grandfather, Baqar Hussein Khan was a sitar player who had the distinction of having played sitar in royal events and ceremonies of few princely states.
During the partition of India in 1947, Inayat Hussain’s family faced turbulent times and they moved to Pakistan along with the majority of muslims in their area, though his brothers remained in India. After moving to Pakistan, they had to stay in a refugee camp near Karachi under very poor conditions. Maqbool was very young at that time and though he didn’t have to face any problems like his parents and elder siblings, he had to grow up in those poor conditions unlike the free atmosphere of his native village in India. After 2-3 years of initial struggle, the conditions improved a little and by that time their family had settled down in a densely populated area in Karachi where most of the other refugees from their region also settled down.
Maqbool’s father, though not in the best of his health and his elder brother Ghulam Farid worked hard to provide the best possible conditions to their family. The affections, hardwork and discipline in the family helped them to recover quickly and come back to normal life. The music tradition in the family still continued despite of these hindrances and Maqbool, though physically not as strong and energetic as his brothers, was bestowed with the best talent of music in his family which would go on to bring much fame to qawwali art form.
Love of Music
Maqbool Ahmed was given training by his father at the young age of five years. Though his training was started, it was just as a formality to have some basic knowledge of the family tradition and his father didn’t think much of him in music as he wanted atleast his younger children to study well, which his elder ones could not do because of the hard times earlier. But Maqbool was very fond of music and used to sit with brother Ghulam Farid (who was fifteen years elder to him) whenever he was practicing at home. Ghulam Farid, out of love, used to teach some basics to his little brother playfully. But no one thought seriously about his singing career till he was about ten years old. It was Maqbool’s teacher at school who realized his talent and love of music. He spoke to Maqbool’s father over this and when his father came to know about his music interest, decided to train him. He trained Maqbool for some time and soon realized that he was much talented and needed other teachers for advanced training. He arranged to train him with the best teachers available and so Maqbool was first sent to Ustad Ramzan Khan to learn music. He surprised everyone with his quick learning and his capability to sing the classical notes very beautifully. It was soon evident to everyone that he was extremely talented and as a result received much encouragement from his family.
One of Maqbool’s brother-in-law got him to sing in a theater and he got much appreciation from the audience with his rendition of popular Hindi movie songs. The theater manager also started paying him handsomely owing to his popularity. He used to be called as Bachcha (meaning kid) as he was still a young boy of about eleven at that time. But, when Maqbool understood that some other performers in the theater were resentful towards him because of his popularity, he decided to quit singing there. Intelligent as he was, he was also mature enough at just eleven years to take such a decision with complete confidence over his talent. Soon after quitting work there, he started his own qawwali group with the help of his father and named it ‘Bachcha Qawwal Party’.
The knowledge of Arabic and Persian at home also helped him in his career, as many poetic verses from these languages are often used in qawwalis. Maqbool was also interested in listening to music of these languages on radio which helped him with proper pronunciation and intonation when using these languages. Maqbool Ahmed had a very good diction which blended well with his fluent and beautiful voice to result in an attractive rendition. His first qawwali performance was at a private program in Karachi where he rendered “Do Alam Baqa Kul Giraftaar Daaree”, a Persian poem in memory of Hazrat Imam Hussain. It was a huge hit and starting from that Maqbool made his name in the top qawwali artists of Karachi even though he was still a young boy.
Maqbool started doing well with his qawwali programs and during that time his elder brother Ghulam Farid was associated with Ustad Kallan Khan’s qawwali group which had a good reputation. After sometime, on the insistence of his father, Ghulam Farid left his group and joined Maqbool’s group. Maqbool withdrew as the leader of his group so that his elder brother could lead it. The name of the group was also formally changed to Ghulam Farid Qawwal and Party. It gained a good reputation as both brothers were extremely talented. They kept on giving qawwali performances regularly in Karachi as well as in other places. At the same time Maqbool continued learning the finer points of music from Ustad Ramzan Khan, Ustad Latafat Hussain Khan and Ustad Fateh Din Khan, who all were the top musical masters of their time. He was still a school going lad with all these activities and continued his education till intermediate (12th class) level, after which he had to give up studies for his career.
The Sabri Brothers Ensemble: (Please refer The Sabri Brothers)
Maqbool Sabri was highly talented in vocals and he could render classical Hindustani music with great ease. He could have been an ace classical master but his love was for qawwali and he dedicated complete life for it. Though qawwali is based upon classical music, most of the qawwals don’t indulge in acquiring acute expertise in it and they get on with the basic learning. But the best qawwals are those who have deep knowledge of classical music and who exhibit their talent in it. There were/are only a handful of such qawwals and Maqbool Sabri was one of them. He blended the advanced classical components in qawwali singing and that was one of the major reasons why he was a virtuoso in that field. The other reason that made him distinguished was that he had a melodious voice with a very good diction and beautiful intonation. Maqbool Sabri even had the knowledge and ability to sing in other music styles, but didn’t indulge in going too deep into them like Hindustani. But he sometimes borrowed little elements from other music styles and used them in his qawwalis. For instance he blended Arabic and Iranian music styles with the basic in Hindustani music in many of his qawwalis. Besides his talent in music, Maqbool Sabri was a very attractive speaker whose narratives were usually in a beautiful picturesque language. He always engaged the audience with jokes, anecdotes and other interesting talk in his eloquent style. He always enjoyed explaining about the music and the verses to the audience so that they can better understand and appreciate what they were listening. Overall, he was a charismatic performer who took qawwali to a different level.
Listen Maqbool Sabri demonstrating different music styles
Maqbool Sabri had deep knowledge of Hindustani classical music and his voice was perfectly flexible to render the melody with precise measure. His alaaps were considered the best among the contemporary qawwals. The rapid taans and taranas were also another attraction which thrilled the audience. Not only qawwali and classical music, his voice was quite suitable for ghazals and playback singing in movies (though he sang only qawwalis in movies too). He had the ability to change his voice according to the format and that is the reason a rather different vocalization could be observed albeit with the same sweetness when we hear him in ghazals and movie playbacks. A perfect example is the song ‘Tere Dar Ko Chhod Chale’ from the movie Ganga Jamuna Saraswati in which we hear Maqbool Sabri in a different tone from his usual qawwalis. Listen to the song here
Maqbool Sabri’s mastery was not limited to vocals, he was an ace instrumentalist who could play a number of instruments. Not many know that besides harmonium he could play tanpura, tabla, chiriya tarang(bulbul tarang), banjo, sitar, flute, organ, piano, bongo, dholak and naal very expertly. Maqbool Sabri’s another special ability was his vocal imitation of instruments. He could recreate the music of any percussion instrument or wind instruments like shehnai or flute or any such instrument beautifully played according to the tune just with his mouth, which was amazing.
Maqbool Sabri also used to imitate the sounds of birds and animals and also the styles of various singers or famous persons quite well with his singing and actions. He used to do all these intermediate acts to bring up some light-hearted mood and entertain the audience during his concerts. The fun and energy level he showed would create a lively and pleasant atmosphere which was one of his ways to keep the audience focused without any other distractions.
Here’s a small audio clip from a concert of the late 1970s in which Maqbool Sabri was humorously imitating the style of some Indian qawwali singers with his voice and actions. Unfortunately the video of this concert does not exist, which would have much better displayed his lively and funny actions.
Pioneer of Urdu Rap
Though the term Rap was not known (or not well known) during that period, Maqbool Sabri was the first singer to demonstrate the rap effect in his qawwalis. During many concerts he used to perform rap singing for a few seconds, which was his own innovation. The same style in the West later went on to become famous as rap singing which is more popular in English music though some Eastern singers are also presenting it nowadays.
Apart from having a very good voice, Maqbool Sabri was gifted with great clarity of pronouncing the words (talaffuz) which is very much essential for qawwali singers, but which many fail to display. Good diction for good poetry, clarity of words while using different languages and uttering tongue-twisting lines with great ease were all the added assets to his beautiful voice. But, not all these qualities were gifted to him by birth, they were a result of continuous hard work from his childhood days and his great passion for singing. Maqbool Sabri had one major drawback which is a hindering factor for singers. He had low lung capacity by birth which meant that he could not hold on his breath for long notes or could not go on for high notes. But he overcame this impediment with great hard work and could render long notes with some negligible quick pauses and even practiced to perform very high notes. But since he needed sudden intake of breath after completing the note which would be obvious to the listeners he devised a new technique to solve the problem. He would render the note expertly and correctly to the utmost possible point and just when going out of breath would signal his humnawas to take over from that point with accompaniment of loud music. That was the best way as there would be no mistake in rendering the note and at the same time his out of breath state would not be noticeable to the audience. It may seem an easy matter, but to a person who does not have enough breath capacity, it is very difficult to perform any notes expertly, leave alone the high or long ones. It is even more troublesome for qawwali singers who have to perform in a loud, high pitched voice that too for a long time. It was only through sheer hard work that Maqbool Sabri was able to achieve all this using his breath capacity to the maximum possible extent.
Maqbool Sabri was very much interested in poetry from childhood days and he himself was a good poet. He wrote many poems and ghazals in Urdu and some of his qawwalis were based on his own works. The famous qawwalis like ‘Khwaja Ki Diwani’, ‘Hum Musafir Bade Dilwale’, ‘Palat Palat Tera Dhyan Kidhar Hai’ were all written by him. He also used to make up some funny lines spontaneously during his concerts to entertain the audience. He was a poet by heart and loved reading and writing poetry whenever he got some free time, which was his main avocation and love after qawwali singing.
Fame in Music World:
When Maqbool Sabri started singing as a child professionally, he was more into singing popular movie songs which brought him much appreciation. After a few months when he started his own qawwali party, his performaces were widely recognized in Karachi albeit within the shrines and religious congregations. Then again, the release of their record “Mera Koi Nahi Hai Tere Siwa” made him and his brother famous throughout Pakistan even with common people. All these happened when Maqbool Sabri was still a teenager. At the time when there were no televisions (atleast with common people) and media promotions, it was a matter of great achievement for a teenager to reach that level. With the release of more records and television and radio performances the fame of the Sabri brothers spread to whole Indian subcontinent. Later on, the international performances and concerts brought them close to non-religious and foreign audience as well. All these achievements were because of their talent, relentless hard work, passion and dedication. The Sabri brothers brought class to qawwali which was earlier considered as an art of the masses. With their expertise they proved that qawwali is not just a normal singing type, it is infact a transcendental musical form which is hypnotic and trance-inducing when rendered in its purest form. It is because of the Sabri brothers that the practice of arranging qawwali concerts took over and attending a qawwali concert became a status symbol where once it was treated as an inferior musical form by the common people. They brought qawwali closer to the world audience and it was the magic of their classy singing and ethereal style that even non-Urdu speaking audience who couldn’t understand the lyrics also got influenced and felt touched. On their footsteps followed many other singers like Aziz Mian and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who brought further fame to qawwali music.
Even though they achieved so much fame, the Sabri brothers were never particular about the remuneration they were getting, even though it was their profession. Sometimes they performed for charitable causes forgoing any payment, sometimes out of their own devotion at the shrines, sometimes in private programs where not much was offered nor any proper facilities provided to them and sometimes they got high class facilities and very high remuneration. But at all places their dedication and performance level was the same. They neither demanded nor rejected what was offered to them and were happy with whatever they got. The main thing for them was to keep on with their work and bring more and more people to experience devotional state through their renditions. They were very much different from today’s qawwals whose first question when asked about doing a program is how much they would be paid.
The Sabri Brothers were never annoying about their payments and facilities but sometimes their fame and undemanding attitude was exploited by the commercial organizers who wanted to gain maximum profit from their concerts. This happened mostly during tour programs where concerts were organized without giving proper rest to them. Being qawwali singers it was more difficult as they had to sing for 4-5 hours at a stretch mostly late into the night and then perform again immediately the next evening without proper rest in between as they had to travel to a different place during day time. Sometimes, they even had to perform in multiple programs the same day if they were not travelling. As a result of such stress, the performance suffers and even affects the voices of the singers for few days. But both the Sabri brothers withstood these exertions and still gave their best during their programs with full dedication, a true sign of their being the legends.
In qawwali, the whole responsibility rests on the main singers and the humnawas(team members) aid in their performance. Most of the times, the humnawas at the lower rung like the clapping boys and the chorus members are usually the learners or family members getting trained up. The Sabri brothers too continued the same tradition and supported the trainees and family members by including them in their team. But at times, their team went through some undisciplined chorus and other team members who affected the timing of coordination and in turn the concentration of Maqbool Sabri, who was also the composer. He was a perfectionist regarding his work and couldn’t tolerate any mistakes if they were from the qualified members. He was not at all happy with the lack of concentration of such members and used to show his displeasure directly. But his elder brother Ghulam Farid who was more easy going always restrained him and advised him to overlook such drawbacks. Sometimes they were lucky to have highly competent companions like Abdul Karim who played the dholak and Ghani who was a multi-talented person both in vocals and instrumentals. Abdul Karim was an early member who commanded respect from the whole team for his expertise as well as his good nature. If they had more persons like these in their team, the Sabri brothers would have had a much more disciplined backing to their singing, but it was not always possible to have such teammates. The brothers always endured the shortcomings of their team members and moved on depending solely on their own expertise.
Maqbool Sabri was the one who contributed the highest for the success of his team. He was in fact, much more talented than his elder brother, Ghulam Farid Sabri, who himself acknowledged that fact many a times. But Maqbool Sabri did not truly get the attention or reputation he deserved because he never tried to present himself above his brother. He never cared for fame and got on with his work sincerely. His life and world was singing and he concentrated completely on it rather than showing off himself. Maqbool Sabri loved being applauded for his work, which he always got from the audience during his programs. The face to face appreciation for his singing was all that he desired instead of money and fame. It acted as a stimulant to him and always brought the best out of him.
Maqbool Sabri never used his contacts or reputation for his promotion which is usually very necessary in music and entertainment field. Moreover, he always kept himself away from the media and quietly went on with his work without any aids of promotion. That was the reason that though he performed in hundreds of programs after the passing away of his elder brother, he was not much in the news or media and unfortunately only a handful of his programs were properly or professionally recorded which was not the case earlier when his brother was alive, who had much support from his contacts and friends in these activities. For many years Maqbool Sabri even lacked quality promoters who were needed during international tours. Still, he got on well with these handicaps and sustained entirely on his musical dexterity.
Maqbool Sabri always maintained traditional style of qawwali though there was popular demand for remixed music. He opined that the true flavor of qawwali which is trance-inducing comes only from the orthodox style and therefore never tried to modernize the age-old tradition. His own enjoyment was in such soulful music and he performed what he believed. Though in his later ages, on the insistence of some producers and organizers he did one or two programs with instruments which are more conventional to western music, still he never altered the basic scales to suit those instruments.
It is a matter of much disappointment to the qawwali world that most of the early Sabri Brothers’ concerts suffered from unprofessional recordings and many times poor, low quality equipment was used. Moreover most of their best performances couldn’t be video recorded and only a few private audio records of those performances exist today which even though low in recording quality give the taste of the rich flavor of their renditions.
Relations with Ghulam Farid Sabri
The Sabri Brothers ensemble was one of the unique groups in which the unity and love among the brothers was remarkable which is why they continued successfully for over five decades. The binding between Maqbool Sabri and his elder brother Ghulam Farid Sabri was particularly more special than other brothers as they worked closely together from the beginning and were great companions who knew the strengths and weaknesses of each other very well. They even lived in houses next to each other after having their own families. From his childhood days, Maqbool used to sit with his elder brother during his practices and their bonding in music was there from the very beginning. When Ghulam Farid joined Maqbool’s qawwal party on the insistence of their father, Maqbool withdrew from leading the band so that his elder brother could lead because he had great respect and love towards him. Though Ghulam Farid was the leader, still both brothers used to sit together to select and compose the poetry as Maqbool was very intelligent and musically inclined even though he was still a very young boy. It meant that they spent their entire time together at home and at work which created even a stronger bond between them. By and by, Maqbool took up the task of composing and selecting the poetry completely on himself, while Ghulam Farid was free with his task of leading the group and taking decisions regarding their programs. Ghulam Farid’s beautiful voice and rendition, the great compositions with well selected poetry and the energetic and delightful performace of Maqbool, all contributed to the initial success of their group.
After Ghulam Farid realized that his younger brother was highly talented and was much capable in delivering the perfect melodies, he did not want to leave him behind and started sharing the lead lines with him. It was from that time, that their true fame started as the listeners were awestruck with the singing of both brothers who always outdid one another. It was their combination that brought so much success to them and it was their combination that contributed to the wholesome experience that took the audience into a deep emotion, while they were still impeccable in their individual self.
Ghulam Farid Sabri and Maqbool Sabri were both consummate performers who complemented each other which resulted in a very high quality rendition. As they were highly talented, both had to keep up to the standards of each other and that resulted in both of them doing their best to be at par with one another. But both had unique singing qualities quite different from each other. While Ghulam Farid Sabri had a highly energetic, loud voice with expertise in enchantingly rendering deep and long notes, Maqbool Sabri had a soft voice which was more melodious though not as loud as his brother and his proficiency was in rendering and expertly changing the difficult notes. There were more of such distinctive qualities in each which resulted in a great performance when combined.
Their association which lasted till the death of Ghulam Farid Sabri was firm though there was a little time when they had their own differences. They were not only brothers, but great friends, companions and partners in work and they were bonded strongly thus for four decades. Even though so much successful, Maqbool Sabri showed great respect towards his brother and never tried to project himself. He always stood back and let his brother have all his way whenever their work got attention either in media or any felicitation programs, but did all the hardwork behind. In a way he was always overshadowed in limelight by his elder brother. That is the reason, though much talented and being the most important member of the Sabri Brothers group, his name was always behind his brother and sometimes was not even mentioned at all. But Maqbool Sabri never cared for such things, had he, he would have got separated from his brother in the early stages of their career. In fact Maqbool Sabri was happy and considered his brother’s fame as his own. Such was his love and respect towards his elder brother.
It was not that Ghulam Farid Sabri, enjoyed his fame by putting back his brother, he tried to give as much importance to his brother as he could and always mentioned that his brother was more talented than himself. He was the one who had shared the responsibility of his little brothers and sisters with his father when they were going through very hard times after moving to Pakistan. The affection he showed and the hardwork he put for all of them was commendable and that was the reason for the younger ones having so much respect and love towards him. That respect did not come just from the family background of having good manners but also because of his own character.
But, their great bonding too had a little hiccup regarding their work. They were parted for a few months during 1990-91 and went up with their careers individually. It was an unfortunate development as this parting was because of others’ influences rather than on their own account. Though they performed separately, they still maintained good relations and the problem was only with their work. The complete reason and events which led to their split was a family matter which was never revealed publicly, but one reason was the egoistic contention as to who was contributing more to the success of the group. Since the reason was undisclosed, taking the opportunity, many made up their own stories about the split either to their own advantage or to defame either any one or both brothers. But whatever was said, the truth was that the brothers had great affection on each other and their parting was a minor blot on their relationship.
During their breakup, the family members in the band had to take one side or the other. Ghulam Farid Sabri’s sons took on their father’s side, while the brothers Mehmood and Kamal took on Maqbool Sabri’s side. It was not a pleasant situation to any of the band members or even to Ghulam Farid Sabri and Maqbool Sabri themselves. The brotherly affection and the bonding of over four decades was much stronger and they wanted to come together once again. But the situation was that neither one of them opened up because of which the division continued for few months more. It was on the initiative of another Sufi singer Abida Parveen, who was a friend of the duo that the ice was broken between them and they patched up without any further delay.
After coming together, they tried to make up for their mistake by supporting one another even more. While Maqbool Sabri tried to give more importance to his brother during the intermediate conversations with the audience in between the concerts and also lessened his lead lines to accommodate more lines for his brother, Ghulam Farid Sabri encouraged Maqbool Sabri to speak during any media interactions, which, he used to do solo earlier. But the union did not last long as Ghulam Farid Sabri passed away two years later. Even few days before his passing away, both brothers performed Umrah in the month of Ramadan, which proved to be their last one together.
The love between the brothers was also evident during the passing away of Ghulam Farid Sabri, when he complained of chest pain in the early hours of 5th April 1994. He sensed that his time was up and called upon his beloved brother to speak, though he had his own grownup children at home if help was needed. When he saw that Maqbool Sabri was completely shaken, he did not immediately tell what he wanted to convey so as not to agitate him further but calmly asked to get a doctor. Ghulam Farid Sabri was immediately rushed to the hospital in a car and on the way he had his last talk with Maqbool Sabri. Few minutes later he passed away while his brother was still holding him.
Being a sensitive person Maqbool Sabri could not bear the death of his most beloved brother, companion and great friend of his lifetime. It was difficult for him to overcome that grief but his comfort was his music. He felt left alone without his brother who had always been a source of great strength and support to him, but took the responsibility of taking forward their musical mission and always made it a rule to chant ‘Allah’ in his brother’s own style in every performance as a tribute to his elder brother. Coincidentally, later on Maqbool Sabri also passed away on the same day as Ghulam Farid Sabri according to the Islamic calendar which was the 23th day of the month of Shawwal.
Family & Personal Life
Maqbool Sabri was married to Fathima Sabri, who was an Indian girl residing in South Africa. They had five children, a son and four daughters. Earlier he had remained childless for several years which made him much disheartened as he was very much fond of children. To his great joy, after so many years, a baby girl was born as his first child but the infant survived only two days which left him grief-stricken. Next time when he lost another baby even before birth he was very much scared. According to him, he offered special prayers for children to God through his Chishti saint Khwaja Moinuddin at his shrine in Ajmer and vowed that if a son was born to him, he would name him Ajmeri Lal (as Khwaja was famously called) in gratitude. To his great comfort and happiness, his next child, a son, survived and Maqbool Sabri felt that the jinx was broken. His faith was strengthened and as promised he named his son Ajmeri Lal who was also given another name Shumail Maqbool. Maqbool Sabri was always thankful to Khwaja for granting his prayer and many times he used to overcome with emotion and shed tears while singing Khwaja Ki Deewani, one of his famous qawwalis, which he wrote himself with great devotion. Later on, he had four more children, the daughters, Tunanza, Ameema Shah, Gulerukh and Kanza Iman who all survived without any further tragedy. Maqbool Sabri was very much fond of children and as he had his own after such a long wait, showered all the love he could on them. All his children till today remember him as a very loving father who always let them have their own way and never did anything to displease them. When the children were growing up, for the sake of their education and trouble-free life he made arrangements for them to stay in South Africa. As he could not leave his career in Pakistan, he kept distributing his time between South Africa and Pakistan.
The best thing about Maqbool Sabri that made him charismatic beside his singing was his interesting speaking ability. He was a jovial person, humorous, quick-witted, sometimes mischievous and was the center of attraction in any gathering. Another speciality about him was that he used to narrate beautiful poetic lines either his own or of others as per the situation and made his conversations even more appealing. In short, Maqbool Sabri was a good-humoured and cheerful person. But at times he was also very reserved, especially when involved in deep work or reading, a very different aspect about himself that he displayed contrary to his being a lively and talkative person.
Maqbool Sabri was also a very amiable person who easily made friends and kept up that friendship all his life. Though so famous and successful, he lived just like any common person without putting on any airs and made friends with people of all classes. He had many friends in various countries, most of them his own admirers. He remembered each and everyone of them and always continued the friendship even though he couldn’t meet them frequently.
Maqbool Sabri was a jovial person, favourite of everyone, but there was one thing about him which made others to fear him and that was his anger, which he showed mainly when he did not like anything during his work. He was a quick tempered person who easily got angry with others if they did anything wrong, but his anger was as short-lived as it arose. Though he showed that little anger, he never kept any grudges against anyone. The anger that comes would end there itself, and it was no wonder if he was speaking lightheartedly with the same person a minute later on whom he showed his anger. But for those unfamiliar to him, it used to create a sense of fear about him, but after knowing him their opinion always changed. Those who knew him well and who experienced his anger themselves never had anything against him and their relationship with him was never affected because of that reason.
Maqbool Sabri, contrary to what he appeared, was a very emotional person who couldn’t contain his feelings. He showed his happiness, his emotions and even his anger readily because he could not keep anything inside. Moreover, he used to get carried away with his own devotional renditions. He was a great lover of Prophet Mohammad and cherished singing his praises. He used to get too much involved during such renditions and himself felt like having moved to a different world. Many times when he sang about God (Hamd), Prophet(Naat) or Sufi saints(Manqabat) he used to get emotional and started shedding tears, especially when he sang about the Prophet or Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti whom he believed showed miracles on him. He was one of the very few singers who truly feel what they are singing and themselves get affected by it.
Maqbool Sabri’s family was well-disciplined with good manners and also inclined to learning and gaining knowledge. Maqbool Sabri was very intelligent from his childhood and he learnt very quickly whatever was taught to him, be it music or languages like Arabic and Persian. Though he could not continue his studies, he liked reading books, especially the poetry-related and religious books in these languages as well as in Urdu. He later on acquired knowledge of many other languages and it was said that he could speak nearly fifteen languages, some very well and some satisfactorily. Urdu was his mother tongue, Punjabi and Sindhi were the native languages where he lived and Hindi was the widely known language in Indian Subcontinent and so these languages were known to him from early childhood, while Arabic and Persian were acquired because of their knowledge at home. Due to their usage in qawwalis, he gained the knowledge of Pashto, Balochi and dialects like Seraiki, Purbi and Brajbhasha, while he also knew Gujarathi and Memoni through friends. He could speak English because of his wide international travels and his stay in South Africa, though he never learnt it specifically for the purpose. He also spoke Konkani and Marathi as his wife was a Konkani.
As Maqbool Sabri belonged to a family who took affiliation to Sabri Chishti order of Sufism during the 1950s, he was also affiliated into it during his childhood. Being a Sufi meant a deep rooted qawwali inclination and familiarity with the works of Sufi saints like Amir Khusrow. His family was religious and adhered to their order faithfully. Due to the family background Maqbool Sabri also gained his knowledge of Sufi saints and practices and his qawwali was also a part of all that. He drew his strength and inspiration from his faith. In the late 1970s Maqbool Sabri along with his elder brother Ghulam Farid Sabri took affiliation of Warsiyya order of Sufism and was conferred the name Chand Miah Warsi.
Though a deeply religious person, Maqbool Sabri was at the same time much modern in his outlook. He believed in dealing gently with everyone, respecting everyone’s opinions, never abusing anyone, showing love towards everyone and many other such things which are all the results of his faith and family background and also the positive things he learnt during interactions with people of other countries and cultures. He respected all the other faiths and cultures and was interested to know more about them and share his own too. He used to participate in various cultural exchange programs whenever requested and was in a way a true missionary of his own faith.
Not only giving performances, Maqbool Sabri was a great Ustad(teacher) who mentored and prepared a number of music students with his genius and instructions regarding finer aspects. It was his mastery that just from the age of around thirty years he had been mentoring learners while others at his age would be still struggling to build up their career. He always dealt with his disciples in a very loving manner but at the same time strict with the lessons. Because of his approach, he was and is still highly respected and loved by all his disciples.
Ever changing Voice
While usually singers try to keep up their voices in best form and are selective in their food and drink habits, Maqbool Sabri dealt very roughly with his voice. He never bothered about the quality of his voice and continued his little vices of paan (betel leaf with tobacco) and cigarettes. It is normal for qawwals to have these habits but for Maqbool Sabri it was a bit on the higher side. But sometimes these were also needed to him as he used to take paan while singing to embellish his voice and bring some needed effects. Cigarettes were needed to bring warmth when the throat turned sore which was painful while singing. Many times Maqbool Sabri had to give performances continuously for hours being the main singer of the most sought qawwal party of his time, which kept affecting his voice. He had to sing through his sore throat and sometimes even when in great pain, but he never refused to perform in whatever condition he was in because he considered it a blessing to sing. His joy and happiness while singing was more than obvious and that euphoria used to get transferred to the audience too who also got affected by it.
Even though Maqbool Sabri never took care of his voice, it always remained conditioned and beautiful. He was one of the very rare singers whose voice kept changing excessively and improving all his life except in his last ten years. His voice could be noticed as being much different just in a gap of 2-3 years but could be recognized because of his style and its heart-touching quality. He had a very beautiful, young and flexible voice during his teens and in his twenties picked up much energy and speed to become sweet yet soft. In his thirties it was the most beautiful, deep and manly with great versatility, which continued till his late forties, but during this time he concentrated more on note variations in lieu of his former energetic speed. In his fifties the voice became more rich and intense but by that time he had health ailments because of which he couldn’t utilize it fully and his singing ability was also affected. After the 2000s, his voice suffered greatly because of his health and he could not bring up much energy to sing and at the same time could not work on his notes expertly like earlier and restricted himself to only uncomplicated renditions.
For Maqbool Sabri, his life, his love, his passion and everything to him was qawwali which he performed with true devotion and himself enjoyed it immensely. It was this quality in his singing that intoxicated and created an experience of spiritual ecstasy in the audience. His love for qawwali and willpower to continue can be best understood by how he still went up with his passion after some major setbacks. In June 1995 just a week before he was about to start to UK for participating in the Meltdown festival, he suffered a major accident which was a near fatal one. He was travelling on a bike with a friend in Lahore when a truck hit them. Maqbool Sabri was lifted ten metres into the air and fell on a gate with spikes which pierced into his body and legs. He was in a serious condition and the doctors were not sure that he could survive. Miraculously, he recovered after a few days but his right leg was left damaged. To lessen the impairment, rods were fitted into the leg because of which he couldn’t bend it and had to walk with the help of a crutch. Maqbool Sabri’s passion for singing was so much that he came back to perform as soon as he was better, but there was the problem that he couldn’t sit on the floor like earlier which is needed for a qawwali singer. He could have done his work whilst sitting on a chair but he didn’t want to do that as it would mean disrespect to the tradition of qawwali where all the members share the same floor area and sing as if they are in prayer sitting down in front of the Almighty. To be able to sit on the floor he underwent multiple knee surgeries because of which he could manage that but had to keep his leg straight without bending. He calmly went through all this ordeal and even used to get up by himself from the floor without anyone’s support, which was difficult when he couldn’t bend the knee. Though his team members respected and loved him a lot and tried to do whatever they can to help him, his pride did not allow him to take anyone’s help in such matters or show off his weaknesses to gain sympathy. That was the reason why his injuries and problems were never known much to general public. He needed crutch to walk, but after a few years managed to walk without support.
For qawwali singers it is very much essential to sing in high pitched loud voices which puts much pressure on their lungs and heart. Maqbool Sabri was a heart patient but still continued his passion and though his health affected his singing ability, he always tried his best. In 2003 he underwent a bypass surgery and two years later he had another tragedy. In 2005, during a tour of India he slipped from the stairs in the hotel he was staying and broke his hip. He had to undergo hip replacement surgery at Leelavati Hospital in Mumbai which deteriorated his health further. After hip replacement he had more problem with his leg as some rods had to be replaced because of which he again needed crutch to walk. Still undeterred, he continued to sit on the floor like earlier for his qawwali performances. After a couple of years he underwent another bypass surgery and his condition was quite critical at that time. But fighter as he was, recovered even from that serious state. Along with all these problems, he was a diabetic, the condition which always hampered in his recovery. All through these beatings on his health, he calmly bore the pain and suffering but never left his qawwali and always found happiness in it. He in fact believed that his recoveries were the blessings of God to continue singing and it was always his willpower and faith that kept him going. If it was any other person in his place, he would have taken to bed quite long back, but Maqbool Sabri was the one who could not live without his singing. His life was qawwali and his happiness and medicine was qawwali. He was a great artist who dedicated his complete life for this art with true passion and devotion.
Whatever be his condition, Maqbool Sabri’s zeal to sing and the sweetness and heart-touching characteristics in his voice were never lost and always captivated the audience. He continued singing till his last days and his last concert performance was in 2010 in South Africa organized by the Hilton Hotel. Later on, in his last year 2011, his health did not permit him to sing or rather to even move out and he used to spend time doing Zikr (reciting the praises of Allah or Prophet).
Maqbool Sabri was not keeping good health from the year 2010 and in 2011 it worsened as his heart was weakened and his blood sugar was also not under control. He spent that time in South Africa where his children were living. He was not fit to travel back to Pakistan and moreover his daughter Kanza’s wedding also took place in May 2011 because of which he remained there. During that period Maqbool Sabri was able to spend time with his children and two grandchildren whom he loved a lot and that was the comforting thing to him in his poor health condition. He was hospitalized in the middle months of 2011 but regained his health enough to get discharged. But when in August he was hospitalized again, he couldn’t recover and on Sep 21, 2011 passed away peacefully in his sleep. With him ended the greatest and the last of the true traditional qawwals. The man who dedicated his entire life for qawwali left this world peacefully and silently. Three days later his body was brought to Karachi and was laid to rest in Paposh Nagar cemetery near the grave of his beloved elder brother Ghulam Farid Sabri.
The Sabri Brothers always had many interesting facts to tell about, kind of wonderful things that happened to them. Following are two such incidents which were witnessed publicly and Maqbool Sabri considered them nothing less than miracles and always felt blessed to have experienced them.
The first incident was of early 1980s when they went to perform Hajj while returning from an international tour. When they were at Madinah, they were invited to perform qawwali at Roza E Rasool (Sacred chamber where the Prophet is buried) by Zainul Abidin, an influential dignitiary, who was a former instructor to King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. They sang ‘Tajdar E Haram’, ‘Sar e La Makan Se Talab Hui’ and ‘Bhardo Jholi Meri Ya Mohammad’ all through the night with great fervor and devotion. At a time when music was illegal in Saudi Arabia and at a place where people are not allowed to offer prayers, where people are not given time to stand for even a few minutes, performing qawwali for hours sitting in front of that place was unthinkable, but the Sabri brothers got that chance. As great lovers of the Prophet they felt it nothing less than a miracle and Maqbool Sabri considered it the greatest privilege in his entire life.
The second incident was from the year 1977 at Ajmer, India. The Sabri brothers were performing qawwali in front of the Jannati Darwaza (the gates which mean ‘Door to Heaven’) within the premises of the shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti. These gates are opened only four times a year and are usually closed and secured with a heavy padlock. When the Sabri brothers started singing the qawwali ‘Savere Savere’, the padlock suddenly snapped and with the sudden pressure of the breakage the gates swung open. Thousands of devotees present at that time witnessed the incident and believed that Khwaja was pleased with their qawwali and came out to bless them. Maqbool Sabri who himself was a great devotee of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti considered it a miracle and a great blessing conferred on them by the saint.
Unbelievable they may seem, these are two incidents out of a few usually narrated by the Sabri brothers which happened to themselves and strengthened their faith.
- The signature chant of the Sabri Brothers ensemble ‘Allah’ was actually started by Maqbool Sabri himself which he used to utter in a whispering voice but it gained notice when Ghulam Farid Sabri started chanting it in his loud voice.
- Maqbool Sabri started composing the music for his band when he was still a teenager.
- While his family was migrating to Pakistan during the partition of India in 1947, Maqbool Sabri was left behind at home in the confusion and rush that ensued. Had he not been found by some known person, who handed him over to his parents, his fate would have been questionable in those fearful times.
- In the 1970s, during a concert of the Sabri Brothers in Cape Town, South Africa, a woman after hearing them went into a deep trance and passed away in the ecstasy.
- Maqbool Sabri did qawwali programs(either with Ghulam Farid Sabri or with Mehmood Sabri or solo) in every major country of the world, except China.
Note: Some information has been removed because of privacy reasons on the request of a distant relative of Sabri Brothers, who wants to remain anonymous. Though I cannot name the person, I would like to thank him for the great help he provided in various ways. Thank you