Guest Posts

Shumaila Hemani performing at I-Week 2014 at the University of Alberta. Photo by Terah Jans.

Following the power of music…

I am Shumaila, a second year PhD student in ethnomusicology in the University of Alberta’s Department of Music and I come from Karachi in the Sind province of Pakistan. As a teenager, music was a very close and trustworthy friend during the very difficult moments when society and family pressure challenged my independence of thought and what I should pursue as a career. When choosing an area of study, the limited options that were available included Management, Accountancy, Computer Science, or Engineering — options that could provide high-salary jobs in a technologically advanced world, but did not stimulate or cultivate my imagination!

For several years, I lived an inner battle, caught between these impositions from outside and a compelling desire to understand the power of music, which could absorb me in its rhythmic whirlpool and churn the emotional lava into creative imagination. Music brought me in touch with myself. Thus I took distance from social expectations and immersed my life in a sound world through interactions with people who had a similar passion to enhance their musical tastes and horizons. Styles as diverse as western popular music and Sufi folk traditions, alongside classic and acid rock bands, dub, punk including Pink Floyd, The Doors, Mahvishnu Orchestra, Yes, Lee Scratch Perry, The Clash and Madness have imprinted my heart. Lyrics from Peter Tosh’s “Stand Firm” (Live Clean, Let your works be seen, Stand Firm or you gonna eat worm), Bjork’s “Cetacea” (From the moment of commitment, nature conspires to help you), and world renowned Pakistani Sufi qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Ni mein Jana Jogi de Naal” (But, I will only go with Jogi!) ran in my head during times of trouble and became part of me. If there was anything that could give my life meaning, it was music, and that is the reason I decided to pursue a degree in music.

Shumaila Hemani performing at International Week 2014 at the University of Alberta. Photo by Salena Kitteringham.

Shumaila Hemani performing at International Week 2014 at the University of Alberta. Photo by Salena Kitteringham.

But there was great distance between my imagination and the reality that confronted me. I came from a middle-class background in Pakistan — my parents had struggled beyond their economic means to educate me, and in the absence of a music program in Pakistan, I did not have funds to travel abroad. On top of that, music was not viewed favorably by many sections of society, to the extent that when I voiced my desire to my maternal grandmother and mother — the only people in my family I could express my feelings with — my grandma found the idea too outrageous and asked me to shut up. Both my mother and grandmother told me that this was impossible. “This is impossible” is also the phrase I continued to hear from the so-called “liberal” people in Pakistan’s elite, who made me realize that since I had not received musical training from an early age, I would not be able to enter a music program. These interactions also stifled me because the elite who have the access to musical training tend to assume that talent is natural and not learned.

During my undergraduate study at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), where I entered as a Computer Science major and shifted to Social Sciences and Humanities, I struggled to keep my inner voice alive and unfortunately, did not find a nurturing environment to hone my musical talent. However, Lahore’s rich cultural milieu, along with the independence that came from living away from home, stimulated me to explore around. I visited Sufi shrines and cultural festivals, and received opportunities to touch base with classical and folk poetry and music of the Punjab province. Through the university, I made friends with whom I could converse about politics, philosophy, and literature beyond the classroom, and exchanged books, films and CDs so that critical discourse in the Humanities, alongside music, became the mosque where I began to pray. It was the space to raise questions without fear of authority and I became so immersed that I voluntarily dropped out of college twice to work as a journalist that resulted in a renewed appreciation of the intellectual space that academia offers.

As the renowned Canadian thinker Northrop Frye writes in Educated Imagination, “Nobody is capable of free speech unless he knows how to use language, and such knowledge is not a gift: it has to be learned and worked at.”

So I chose to cultivate this language, and despite not having the cultural capital of a solid musical training or funds, I kept my dreams alive, while worrying about how I would survive with a Humanities degree in Pakistan. It was through another imaginative breakthrough that I discovered an atypical three-year graduate program in Islamic studies in London that offered me a scholarship to study any discipline.

Once in London, I discovered the rich culture of contemporary music, and visited several sound installations at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) and free world music and poetry events at the South Bank Centre. This experience pioneered an experiment with field-recordings—a soundscape composition titled “Forgotten Ways of Thinking”- that recently received the honor of being played at the R.L Stevenson Concert at the Society for Ethnomusicology in Indiana.

In London, I also began to take part-time courses in Hindustani art music at the Bharatiya Vidhya Bhavan, courses in keyboard and voice at the London School of Contemporary Music, as well as a full graduate course load in Islamic Studies. The graduate study at the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) was the turning point in my life because I found a very supportive environment. The librarian in the A/V Department, would inform me about the CDs and DVDs coming from Africa, Middle-East, Eastern Europe, and South Asia. The Course Director, Dr. Alnoor Dhanani, gauging my interest in music, encouraged me to look into the discipline of Ethnomusicology, and study music ethnographies for different anthropology and religious studies courses. For my graduate research project, I also traveled to Tajikistan to study the ritualistic music of maddoh of the Ismailis.

In 2008, I became a graduate student in the Music Department at the University of Alberta with Dr. Regula Qureshi, a world-renowned and respected ethnomusicologist of Indo-Pakistani music, as my supervisor. After plodding up a very tall mountain, I felt I had reached a summit, but this was only the beginning. Although I had nearly no formal music training, Dr. Qureshi, along with other Ethnomusicology faculty, helped me recognize the critical acumen that I bring to Ethnomusicology and showed that, in the absence of any good works on the music of Pakistan, I have a major task ahead.  Thus, I took the journey back to Pakistan for field-work and in the process of interviews I also received access to the culture of traditional music-making at Sufi shrines and the culture of music-making in urban classical settings.

I began to acquire the formal musical training that I would have loved to receive from an early age. Since I grew up singing the religious hymns of the Ismailis ginan from Sind, Pakistan and Gujarat in India, I have a very deep connection with classical and folk music of Indo-Pakistan. I can now play the harmonium and sing the classical Khayal and Sufi songs, and gave my first recital at the Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology in 2012, as well as performed at the University of Alberta’s International Week 2014.

What I have come to realize through this continuing struggle is that the people who opposed me initially, including my mother, became my greatest sources of support and patron, because my struggle convinced them what I was pursuing was meaningful. While earlier my mother shunned this activity, today she prays that I receive the closeness to music that I aspire. I now have access to musical training, and can develop my voice to sing the kinds of musical phrases that evoked jolts inside me as a listener. I credit this to my teachers, namely Ustad Hameed Ali Khan who has trained me in the Mughal courtly tradition of Khayal gayaki, Sindhi Kafi in the tradition of Ustad Manzoor Ali Khan,  and Ustad Jumman Shah (Bhitshah, Sind) who sings the 300-year old Sufi tradition at the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai in Pakistan called the Shah-jo-Raag, which is also the topic of my dissertation.

While the journey and the struggle continues, I have learned aspects about Pakistan’s music history that have not been documented in scholarship, and I hope to publish it in the near future to initiate a discourse about the patronage of music in Pakistan in Ethnomusicology.

~by Shumaila Hemani, PhD Ethnomusicology candidate, University of Alberta


4 replies to this post
  1. Hi shumaila, I always used to think that you were different and used to wonder what you were upto. So happy for you that you found out and were able to pursue what you wanted to do. Best of luck for all your future endeavors.

  2. […] As for her own artistic practice, Elsa’s works reflecting on how people transition from different emotional, spiritual or physical places were recognized by the Edmonton Arts Council with a 2015 Cultural Diversity in the Arts project grant. Fellow U of A alumni Emmanuel Osahor, Ben Gorodetsky and Malcolm Azania were also Cultural Diversity Award recipients, as well as U of A PhD student and sufi-singer Shumaila Hemani. […]

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