Religious-based live performances may not get the attention of commercial shows, but the scene is thriving and regularly attracts large audiences around the UK.
Birmingham-based Abid Iqbal has worked hard to bring spiritual-based shows to UK audiences in genres, including qawwali, Sufi, naat and gospel.
The Handsworth-born music lover saw his first live concert at Birmingham Town Hall featuring Shaukat Ali from Pakistan as a youngster and later volunteered for promoters putting on concerts, but decided to set up his own firm after some negative experiences.
Iqbal was the first to tour Rahat Fateh Ali Khan with his full live band and the last promoter to tour South Asia’s biggest rock band Junoon before their break.
He was not content working within the commercial genre and decided to go down the spiritual path. “I felt qawwali had gone downhill since the untimely death of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in 1997. I have always been close to my faith and recited naats at my local mosque, but never had the voice. So, eventually, seven years ago, I was the second promoter to bring top international Naatkhwaans into the UK. I was also inspired by my mentor Muhammad Ayyub MBE. I feel with religious events you’re making a contribution to this world and the world hereafter,” said Abid.
Today, the hard-working promoter and live show producer brings overseas artists to the UK, including countless undiscovered talents and he hosts some acts for up to two months.
Aside from bringing spiritual-based artists, he also caters to an often forgotten senior section of the British Asian community and bridges generational gaps.
Iqbal is currently working on two international tours featuring 17 musicians. This includes a qawwali group led by Faryad Ali and a Shairkwaani group led by Raja Javed Jaidi. “Both groups have a lot of bookings, including wedding functions, melas and private functions. Private mehfils keep us busy and this is how qawwali has th-rived for centuries. We’re also doing a charity event in Liverpool and doing something to remember Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on his death anniversary, which falls during August”.
He will also be hosting top Pakistani guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Amir Azhar. Although he works with known names, Iqbal’s biggest triumph has been all the undiscovered talent he works with. “I have travelled to Pakistan for 20 years and attend religious and music festivals to find talent there. I have specialists who help me. I have worked with some of Pakistan’s top talent in every field and once you have built the brand and trust, talent finds you.”
Whether it is concerts or the thriving private events scene, Iqbal is keeping history and centuries-old classical traditions alive. “People who forget their roots and culture destroy their identities. Through celebrating the cultural heritage we keep hold of our old traditional values and learn so much. Sufi poetry and music have taught us the message of humanity. Sufi music artists reciting the text of great Sufi saints such as Baba Bulleh Shah, Miyaan Muhammad Baksh, Sultan Bahoo, Allahma Iqbal and Baba Farid help us keep connected with the creator and brings peace to our mind and souls.”
Iqbal has also done a lot of work to bring young audiences to live events and held music workshops in schools. His work has resulted in many young couples getting married booking qawwali groups. “Rahat Fateh Ali Khan has done great work for the qawwali genre and popularised it with the youth. With our events, we regularly incorporate contemporary instruments, so there is something exciting for all music lovers. Music movements in Pakistan like Coke Studio led by Rohail Hyatt and NESCAFÉ Basement led by Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan are giving young people an introduction through these platforms too.”
Iqbal says proper promotion, good artists, organisation and the right timing like coinciding with religious festivals are the secret of putting on a good spiritual show. One of the unsung heroes of British live music has plans to continue bringing overseas artists to the UK and expand into other areas of live spiritual events. “I am looking to work with top musicians to build a house band for Sayarts in the UK. I am working closely with an India-based TV producer. There is a Quran conference coming in September and for October we have finalised Pakistan’s top 13 Naatkhwaans. From 2020 onwards, Sayarts will work with more top qawwals as opposed to focusing on just one. I may return to TV hosting as I have been offered my own show touching Sufi music.”
Finally, Iqbal says his inspirations include Sufi teachings and poetry. “Humanity, simplicity and honesty inspire me along with nurturing new talent with no egos and working with other religions and communities. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and music legend Muhammad Ayyub inspire me as their legacy is immense.”