Musings of a nomad artiste


I walked into a recording studio in Karachi recently to find Dawud Wharnsby Ali (formerly known as David Howard Wharnsby), one of the pioneers in the genre of English nausheed on a global level (along with the likes of Yousuf Islam, Zain Bhikha and the more recently popular, Sami Yousuf) in the vocal booth recording his vocals for a local project in which he was actually singing in Urdu. Repeatedly tutored by the music producer there on the nuances of pronunciation, Dawud would eventually get the song right.

A bit of history here: Dawud initially began pursuing music in 1991 in Canada where he began as a solo artiste and eventually collaborating with the band members of the folk band, Crackenthorpe’s Teapot. He ended up releasing two independent albums with the band. An ardent observer of world religions and the concept of spirituality, he was exposed to the Quran in 1993 and decided to study it.

In 1995, he released his first inspirational album, Blue Walls and the Big Sky, through his own independent label and has since then released over 10 English nausheed albums. Not only is he gifted vocally, but he’s also an instrumentalist and has produced music and collaborated with the likes of Yousuf Islam, South African songwriter and nausheed Zain Bhikha, Mumbai-based sitar player Ustad Irshad Khan among others.

He’s also an avid advocate of education for children and has done several television programmes (predominantly for Canada’s Vision TV and the BBC) targeted at educating children worldwide. A prominent feature in the nausheed circles abroad, Dawud, whose wife is Pakistani has now also established his base at Abbottabad which he calls home. As an educator, his wife moved back to Pakistan to help run the school her grandmother established 20 years ago. Dawud himself has established a private trust fund supporting educational programmes in the northern areas of Pakistan.

Here, Images on Sunday talks to this incredibly polite artiste about his perception of music in religion, peace, life in Pakistan, his collaborations and what he has planned in store for the future.

Q. When you embraced the Islamic way of life, did you have any doubts about music?
No. I mean, the music that I was involved in up until that point was very personal to me anyway. It was very much a part of my journey into life, my spiritual journey. So I started to see, as I was performing at different venues that music, as faith and knowledge, can be often misused.

When I embraced the Quran and when I read things about humility, integrity and about poets not preaching what they didn’t practise, I felt that this was a sign to me. It wasn’t music that I needed to stop doing but it was something I needed to utilise even more for my spiritual growth. And that’s why I think my shift in the approach of my music changed at that time as well.

I was never doubtful about music being a powerful method for expression or it having a powerful effect on people. I was never doubtful of it as a medium. The only thing I was doubtful of was the environment; where was I going to begin to share my music? How was I going to use it? In an environment which would enliven people, empower people, as opposed to an environment which would let you escape from life.

In terms of the ideological contradictions, or the ideological opinions, I didn’t buy into that from the beginning. I knew that the Muslim community was very sensitive to it. But I attributed that more to cultural approaches to music. For example, people would come to me and would say western music sounds very aggressive. And yet I would listen to music from Uganda and it sounded very aggressive to me. Culturally, some of the rhythms and the loud chanting, it was very aggressive. So it was all very much peoples’ cultural educations and that didn’t scare me.

Q. For seven years you did music in the traditional capella nausheed style (singing without any musical instrument). Why the change now?
I started that way because the recordings I was doing at that time, I was aiming specifically at children. So I wanted to keep them very simple, rhythmic and very lyric-based. They were educational songs and I was also aiming directly at the diverse, multicultural community of Muslims specifically in Canada. And I knew that culturally speaking, people had very different opinions about the permissiveness of musical instruments.

So I thought if I were to use a very traditional approach, just lyrics and percussions, people will… they won’t focus on the debate, they’ll just focus on the words. And that’s sort of why I began that way.

Ironically I recorded all those songs with the guitar, but I just took it out of the mix when I released it.

Q. What about the general reaction to you picking up your guitar again? Did anyone object?
Oh yeah, but nothing heavy duty. People have been very kind. They would send me letters, messages or emails and say ‘brother I don’t know if you know or not, but you’re going to hell because you play guitar!’ and I’d say thank you a lot for the advice. But they were only saying it out of love. When people are certain of their own ideological opinions I think they mean it out of love and sometimes they mean it out of a need for their own validation. And there is a fear that now they’re challenged and suddenly out of that fear they feel the need to instruct or correct you. So I’ve tried to be patient with that.

The people who are genuinely confused, I try to give them a very clear answer. People who are genuinely upset, I try to remind them that they need to be tolerant of different ideologies. For people who want to condescend or judge, I try to remind them that I only believe that there is one being that has the right to judge me and that is my Creator and so their fear tactics don’t work with me.

For the most part I don’t run into too much hassle. The only trouble I run into is when I am invited to an event and where people will say to me ‘Oh yes brother, whatever you want to share is great’ and then 10 minutes before the performance they’d say, ‘by the way we’ve had some complaints and you can’t play the guitar, you can’t play the drum.’ And I find that frustrating only because it’s a form of censorship. They know my website, they know what I do, they should know better than to try and monopolise my art.

Q. You’ve collaborated with quite a few artistes including Zain Bikha from South Africa. How did that happen?
Beautiful. We both had a mutual friend in England, Yousuf Islam. I was invited to his studio, I was aware of Zain’s music, Zain was aware of my music but neither of us had met. We all have a soft spot for children and education for children. Coming together it wasn’t just as artistes but as people who had a love for children and trying to see songs come alive more than we had any interest to market them, create a new music industry or seek any sort of support or validation from the community, we really just wanted to create songs that young people could identify with.

Zain and I really clicked and since that time we’ve been working together.

Q. All three of you are considered pioneers in what you do.
Yeah, so we all started around the same time. There were plenty of spiritual songs drawn from the Quran before that time but most of them were in Arabic or in Urdu and there wasn’t really much in English. And the three of us did sort of, apart from each other, begin distributing songs.

Q. Considering that you don’t speak Urdu or any of the local languages, has language been a barrier for you?
Just where I live. I don’t do much artistic work. That just seems to be the way it is. When I’m home I’m primarily writing/ recording. The language isn’t a barrier for me. When I’m in the bazaar or with the neighbours, they’re very patient with my broken Urdu. And if I just keep my mouth shut and wear shalwar kameez everyone thinks I’m Pathan and they’ll ask me where I’m from in Pashto and I’ll say ‘Canada’ and they’ll say ‘Kandahar?’

Q. You also started your own record label Enter into Peace. Tell us about that?
Well it started out as a publishing entity because I’ve always felt very strongly about artistes holding on to their work, not allowing other people to monopolise it or use it to make money off them in commercial ways.

So when I started my first publishing entity back in the early ’90s to really secure the rights to my work. It makes distribution a lot harder because it means I have to actively be on top of who’s distributing. It’s a lot easier now with digital distribution. When you run your own independent label, the networks don’t really take you seriously, because it’s a very who-you-know sort of business.

Q. What inspired the name Enter into Peace?
A. Yousuf Islam, who had explained to me many years ago that ‘Islam’ means ‘enter into peace’ and I thought ‘what a beautiful concept’. So that’s why when people ask me if I’ve converted, so I tell them it’s not about conversion it’s about the meaning, to embrace the concept of peace into your life.

Q. Are you planning to collaborate with any of the artistes you’ve worked with professionally?
I am working on a collaborative project with a few other artistes. One of them is Idrees Phillips. He’s produced and composed most of the music. I’m doing most of the lyrics and the vocals. Zain Bikha from South Africa, he’s written some incredible songs, very unlike what he’s done in the past. So that’s what we’re working on over the next few months as well. It’s kind of like three-way collaboration.

Q. What about your own independent solo projects?
I’m working on a new recording now. The actual process will be starting in September. It’ll be my first album recorded in Abbottabad. I’ve been nomadic for the past 3-4 years which is very hard considering my job entails that I travel already. So being at home is very important to me, to finally have a place to land. I really want to utilise that environment. And it seems so ironic because when you hear what happening in the northern areas of Pakistan and we’re so close to it.

Just up the road in Mansehra, a couple of weeks ago, a store that sold CDs and music items was destroyed and so a lot of people overseas are like ‘are you nuts?’ It’s going to be very exciting to record it in Pakistan.

– Photography: Shahzad ‘Shahi’ Hasan

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