The sound of divinity
Music is said to be the language of the divine. Why is the azan so musical? Why do we sing hymns in church? Why are religious services accompanied by music? How does music alter our moods, amplify our feelings and give meaning to our existence? The answer is it’s the very life force of the universe. The soul of the divine. You find music in nature. There’s music in the sky where the birds sing in one accord. There’s music in the rise and fall of waves.
‘Music, the greatest good that mortals know,
And all of heaven we have below’
A stentorian voice in a spell-binding tune resonated in the distance. At that very moment, several heads bowed down in prayer. Further away, angelic sounds of worship emanated behind a closed sanctuary. In another setting, scores of people sat together and were transported to a spiritual realm as they witnessed an amalgamation of rhythms brought forth by men and women playing musical instruments in perfect harmony. In all these moments, there was an awakening of the senses, a connection being established between the physical and the spiritual. A language was being spoken, and for several years, mankind called it ‘expression through sound’, or the ‘dancing voice’. Today, this language is commonly known as music—the language of the divine.
Why is the azan so musical? Why do we sing hymns in church? Why are religious services accompanied by music? How does music alter our moods, amplify our feelings and give meaning to our existence? It is the very life force of the universe, the soul of the divine. You find music in nature. There’s music in the sky when birds sing in one accord and there’s music in the rise and fall of waves. Aristotle had once told the Pythagoreans that heaven was a musical scale and a number—the cosmos was music.
There are several unique individuals amongst us who have been bestowed with the gift of understanding this language and putting it into sentences and phrases so that the witnesses of this phenomenon, may also understand and perceive it. They express themselves through sound, their voices have the unique ability to dance—singers and instrumentalists, whom we shall collectively call ‘musicians’.
A musician combines sounds to bring a message through a song just as an artist combines colours to communicate a message through a picture. In biblical times, they were called the ‘priests of the divine’. There seems to be a cosmic reach into their recesses, for they possess an ability which is almost god-like. Marsilio Ficino, the Italian scholar who was one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the early Italian renaissance, had once said that a musician embodies the four conditions on which the knowledge of the divine depended, the four frenzies in which the human soul is lifted beyond its earthly condition. The frenzy of the musician awakens the dormant memory of divinity when it comes to fruition in the final rapture of love.
Around the world we have such frenzied souls who, through their work, connect with the heavens.
Many have come, and many have gone, but only a select few have had a special impact on listeners. Their lives are monuments which house inspiration and their songs are like lighthouses which help many navigate through the dark portions of existence. In the last two years, the world has lost many such beacons; but even though they have left their mortal homes to go back to where they belong, their voices still echo in our minds and their music still resonates in every heart that let them in. Let us look into their lives as we remember them once more.
David Bowie (1947-2016)
‘Searching for music is like searching for God. They’re very similar. There’s an effort to reclaim the unmentionable, the unsayable, the un-see able, the unspeakable, all those things, comes into being a composer and to writing music and to searching for notes and pieces of musical information that don’t exist.’ Those were the words of David Bowie in an unaired interview with 60 Minutes in 2003.
David Robert Jones was born in Brixton, south London on January 8, 1947. He was a precocious child and showed his true colours at a very early age. It was in 1956 that he first proclaimed that he wanted to become a singer, after going with his father to a Christmas concert where he heard rock and roll singer Tommy Steele. He then joined the local St Mary’s Church choir. Although his choirmaster once labelled him a ‘mediocre singer’, that didn’t stop Bowie from boasting that he would one day be ‘the British Elvis’. Little did he know at that time that his vision would actually come to fruition on a more grander scale than he had imagined.
In July 1969 Bowie released Space Oddity, the song that would give him his initial commercial breakthrough. Subsequently, his music hit success after success as quick as a bunch of toppling dominoes. David Bowie changed music forever. Throughout his career, he reinvented not just his sound but his persona over and over again. He turned pop in 1972 with the introduction of his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust. Everything he touched turned to gold. His impact on the world was colossal. During his lifetime, his record sales, estimated at 140 million worldwide, made him one of the world’s best-selling music artists.
Bowie passed away on January 10 after an 18-month battle with cancer. This was just two days after his 69th birthday and the release of a new album, Blackstar, which immediately shot to the top of the charts. He made Blackstar his parting gift. His music, his classic sound and style will forever be immortal. He helped people who were shunned by others to emerge from their shadows. His often androgynous persona also served as inspiration for countless gay and transgender entertainers. His innovation and courage was a guiding to light for scores and scores of people. His death came as a shock to the millions of fans he amassed over time. It was almost as if a sheet of sadness had cloaked the world that fateful day. In the words of Paul McCartney, ‘David was a great star; his star will shine in the sky forever.’
In his famous hit I Would Die 4 U, Prince said, ‘I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand’. So deep was his dedication to the craft that he did not want to be tied to the social construct of gender. His creativity was almost alchemic and he was able to do what no other artist had ever done: combine several genres of music into one body of art, and make it work.
Prince Rogers Nelson was born on June 7, 1958. Much like his fellow musical brother David Bowie, his intention to be a musician was manifested while he was very young. Prince wrote his first song Funk Machine aged seven. His father bought him his first guitar, which he quickly learned to play along with the piano and drums. He could play as as many as 27 instruments. Prince delivered a unique mix of funk, soul, R&B and rock accompanied by an uncanny, flamboyant stage presence. Prince released 39 albums over the course of his life, and won seven Grammy’s and an Oscar. His album Purple Rain, created for a film of the same name, is ranked among the greatest albums of all time, and includes the hits When Doves Cry and Let’s Go Crazy. He was a trailblazer who cannot be imitated.
However, controversy followed him. His songs were often blended with provocative lyrics about sex to incest. His work was erotic but was intertwined with the divine. Most people may find it difficult to look past the electrifying, erotic nature of his songs, but it was rooted in his philosophy and relationship with the divine. In an interview with CNN’s Larry King in 1999, Prince was clear about the source of his inspiration. ‘I like to believe that my inspiration comes from God,’ he said. ‘I’ve always known God is my creator. Without Him, nothing works.’ He was someone who, evidently, was transformed daily for his beliefs and was completely unafraid to allow his connection to divinity to seep into his music.
Tragedy struck on April 21, 2016 when the artist was found dead in a lift at his home in Minnesota due to an overdose of fentanyl, a powerful painkiller. Prince had undergone many battles in his life. He grappled with controversy, his identity, and sometimes even with his own mind, however, he remained true to the higher truth that filled his mind and soul, which was his music. He was disciplined and knew where he wanted to go. He was able to make big transitions and make them work. There was a spirit in him that drove him and gave the world an incredible reservoir of music. Although he has passed away, his spirit will remain forever.
The story of Prince doesn’t end with his death. Paisley Park is said to be home to a huge catalogue of unreleased tracks, which may be published as new albums, every year.
Amjad Sabri (1976-2016)
When The Telegraph in the United Kingdom posted their obituaries on the 23rd of June this year, they said they lost a worldwide ‘rock star’ in qawwali.
Amjad Sabri, who was born on December 23, 1976 in Karachi, was a gem in the Sufi music scene. To say that music was in his blood would be an understatement. When tracing back his ancestry, one might find his direct ancestor to be one of the most prominent musicians and vocalists of the 1500’s, Mian Tansen; one of the navarathnas (nine jewels) in the courts of the Mughal Emperor Jalal ud-din Akbar. A lineage of singers and musicians came forth from this line. It was Ghulam Farid Sabri, Amjad’s father who, along with his qawwali group called the Sabri Brothers, nurtured his talent for qawwali. Although the Sabri Brothers had already taken the world by storm with their enthralling music, Amjad Sabri revolutionised this genre by adding his signature touches, which gained him a large following not only in India and Pakistan, but also in the West.
His music completely resonated with the love between mankind and divinity. He embodied this bond completely while he performed. Qawwali music is derived from Sufism which involves repetitively singing the praise of Allah, or of Muslim teachers and saints. Each verse in a qawwali is rich with emotion and the songs often convey a relationship between the singer and God that is precious and pure. Amjad Sabri’s music swayed everyone who heard the interpretation of the devotion he felt. In his earlier years as a young boy, he was said to be so devoted to learning this art form that he would wake up at midnight to practice and then wake up early the next morning to do the same.
He was particularly renowned for performing songs such as Bhar Do Jholi Meri, Khwaja Ki Deewani, Savree Savree and several others. As part of the Sabri Brothers, he established himself as a titan of the qawwali world. Things changed for the worst on the June 22, 2016 when the 45-year-old Sabri was on his way to a television station, where he was scheduled to give a performance to mark the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Two men riding a motorcycle fired at Sabri’s car. He was shot five times.
In 2014, Amjad Sabri was named in a blasphemy case in Pakistan, after he had gone on a morning talk show to sing; the qawwali he chose to perform reportedly referenced members of the Prophet Muhammad’s family which did not sit right with a splinter group of the Taliban.
The world lost a man who was in tune with the intention of the Supreme and had functioned as a conduit for experiencing the divine. Amjad Sabri’s death has left a void in the world of qawwali, one that, perhaps, can never be filled.
Mohammad Abdur Rob Fakir (1955 – 2016)
The sound of the dotara (a traditional long-necked lute) comes first. The harmonium and percussion follow; and then a hypnotic voice saunter through the music, taking your breath away. For Rob Fakir, this is how every song went.
The Baul are a group of mystic minstrels from Bengal. The origin of the word ‘baul’ is derived either from the Sanskrit word vatula, which means ‘lashed by the wind to the point of losing one’s sanity, god’s madcap and seeker of truth’. Lalon Fokir is regarded as the most important poet-practitioner of the Baul tradition, in addition to being a saint, mystic, songwriter, social reformer and thinker. He composed numerous songs and poems, which describe his philosophy and aimed at an indescribable reality. He believed in the power of music to alter the intellectual and emotional state in order to be able to understand and appreciate life itself. He left behind a rich legacy.
One of his most devoted disciples, one who was considered to be Bangladesh’s treasure in Lalon Shai music was the enigmatic Mohammad Abdur Rob Fakir.
Growing up near Lalon Akhra, Kushtia, Rob Fakir lived and breathed the spirit of Lalon Shai. He emerged to be the forerunner in upholding the legacy of the authentic akhrai-style music. Although he kept the original tunes and flavour of the songs, he managed to add his own signature spin to them, making them special renditions for anyone who was fortunate to hear him. He immersed himself wholly in Lalon’s spirit, allowing it to shine through his music. The heart of Lalon’s philosophy is the search for the divine within and Rob Fakir imbibed it through and through. He once said that ‘It is not “singing” unless one sings straight from the heart.’ Rob Fakir was a conductor of divine energy and he let it flow through himself and his songs. His music attracted widespread attention for their mystical approach to humanism as well as their melodic appeal.
This larger-than-life, celebrated artist of Bangladeshi folk music passed away on August 7, 2016. The news of his death devastated the Baul community, some of whom termed his passing a ‘great loss’. He was said to be a man of compassion who always looked at the positive side of every situation.
Rob Fakir’s music and love for the divine will continue to uplift the community and by extension, the world.
B B King (1925-2015)
‘The thrill is gone
The thrill is gone away
The thrill is gone baby
The thrill is gone away’
– The Thrill is Gone by B B King
The thrill had certainly gone on May 14, 2015 when B B King, the undisputed ‘King of the Blues’ was laid to rest in Las Vegas, Nevada. On his death, former President Obama remarked that there was going to be ‘one killer blues session in heaven.’ Such was his mastery.
Born on September 16, 1925, Riley B King was nicknamed as the Beale Street Blues Boy—later shortened to B B King, was considered one of the most influential blues musicians of all time. He had majestic stage presence as well as a repertoire in the blues, second to none. He also believed that he was the voice of divinity. He once said ‘I believe all musical talent comes from God as a way to express beauty and human emotion.’ King’s classic hits include Don’t
Answer the Door or The Thrill is Gone or Why I Sing the Blues and they made him immensely popular. His distinct dirt-road voice and exuberant guitar work brought the blues to mainstream audiences.
King worked harder than anyone in the industry and was a luminous beacon for blues aficionados. His music was relatable—every lament and every cry of joy resonated with listeners. He defined an entire genre of music and will always be the undisputed champion of the blues.
George Michael (1963-2016)
George Michael, the music legend best known for his hits during the 80s and 90s, both solo and with the duo Wham! was found dead on Christmas Day, 2016, at his Oxfordshire mansion at the age of 53. The news brought an outpouring of grief from his fans around the world.
His beginnings as a musician is much like the plot of an adventure novel; it started with a head injury, which changed his life forever.
Born Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou to Kyriacos Panayiotou, a Greek Cypriot restaurateur and Lesley Angold, an English dancer in 1963, he was barely interested in music. However, when he was eight years old, he suffered a head injury which, in a sudden turn of events, led him to being obsessed with music. He lived and breathed music ever since and the rest, they say, is history. Michael then went on to meet musician Andrew Ridgeley, at secondary school in Hertfordshire when he was 12 years old and by 1982, the two were recording together as Wham!, a British boy duo. By 1984, Wham! was one of the most popular acts in the world with hits including Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go and Freedom. The band broke up subsequently and George Michael started to work on solo projects. Michael’s first solo album, 1987’s Faith dominated the charts for much of 1988, and sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. By the late 1980s, George Michael was a bona fide superstar, garnering awards, hanging out with celebrities and royalty and delivering hits like Father Figure and One More Try, and Careless Whisper, which is now a staple played at every wedding.
The speciality of Michael’s music is that even his simple songs contain a secret code—implicit signals of the yearning of his heart. His songs are timeless because he manages to capture heartbreak in his tune and wear poignant melancholy like a robe in his choruses. He amplified every emotion which led him to sell 100 million albums worldwide during his four-decade long career.
Despite personal and psychological struggles, throughout his life, Michael became almost as well known for his outspoken views in support of gay rights as he was for his best-selling music, using his 1998 arrest as a platform to make light of common prejudices within society. He was an advocate for AIDS education and the LGBT community. Most of his lyrics pushed the envelope and caused controversy. However, he kept at it unapologetically, which made him an authentic force in the industry. With his songs and performances, George Michael transformed pop music and found personal faith. ‘I still believe that music is one of the greatest gifts that God gave to man’, he once remarked and that statement was made true by his masterful artistry. The world was once again emptied of a unique voice, a talented musician and a creative spirit and the ones who still remain miss him sorely.
‘Remember that song is the most powerful imitator of all things. For it imitates the intentions and affectations of the soul, and speech, and also reproduces bodily gestures, human movements and moral characters, and imitates and acts everything so powerfully that it immediately provokes both the singer and hearer to imitate and perform the same things,’ Marsilio Ficino, Italian scholar and Catholic priest who was one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the early Italian Renaissance, had once stated in a statement that cannot be any truer today.
The world has lost eminent musicians, some of whom could stand, and speak, for the entire genre their work represented. Despite their passing, their names will forever live on through their incredible contribution to the world of music.
Sonali Sylvia is a law student by day and writer by late afternoon. She currently lives in Bangalore, India and finds solace in writing, singing, composing tunes and reading obscure fantasy novels.
Music is said to be the language of the divine. Why is the azan so musical? Why do we sing hymns in church? Why are religious services accompanied by music? How does music alter our moods, amplify our feelings and give meaning to our existence? The answer is it’s the very life force of the…