Abida Parveen, the great Sufi singer, maybe the greatest of her generation, is talking to me from Islamabad.

Well, actually, she’s talking to Umair Jaffar, performing arts manager for Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum. The Museum is co-sponsoring a rare Parveen concert this Sunday along with the concert’s venue, Roy Thomson Hall.

Through Jaffar, I’ve asked Parveen a question about how secular, Western audiences react to her intensely spiritual, devotional music. The two of them launch into a passionate, intense, lively conversation in Urdu over the transatlantic phone lines. As I listen to this beautiful dialogue, which I do not understand, I feel that I’m participating in this funny, deep, personal conversation from the sidelines.

More than five minutes later, Jaffar tells Parveen that he’s going to try to translate her answer for me. “Are you still there, Robert?” he asks. I laugh, and so does he, at the impossibility of his task. And from across the world, sensing our conversation, Parveen laughs, too.

It’s the moment I remember best from my indirect exposure to this remarkable woman and performer, now in her 60s, who radiates a beatific world of peace and devotion whenever she appears. Because a human connection, stubbornly, across barriers of language, culture, time and place, has somehow still been made.

Our modern notions of multiculturalism and diversity, so often invoked, so little challenged, toy with, advance toward and then retreat from a deep philosophical question. Are there universal values in the world – constants that bind and unite all peoples, all cultures, all races, all religions? We multiculturalists would like to believe there are, I think, although we never explicitly say so – so we’re constantly charged with the sin of relativism, of making no distinctions between things that are clearly different. But the modern theory of multiculturalism has as its unexpressed basis, I think, the notion that we all can get along somehow without the sacrifice of value, custom, psychic bias. That we’re all the same, essentially. That’s why, the theory goes, toleration of various cultural practices does not destroy social unity, but helps develop it.

As comforting as this pious axiom might be, even the briefest tour through the Wikipedia article on Sufism – the great, intense, millenia-old Islamic mystical tradition of which Parveen is a powerful contemporary exponent – reveals how shaky that premise is. Even within the Islamic world, Sufism is highly contentious and has been violently suppressed for centuries. Forget the fact that its language, customs, fundamental beliefs and practices are really quite foreign to the Western mind. The more one delves into this complex world, the more difficult it is to hold on to our simple idea of fundamental human unity.

And yet, that unity is Parveen’s and Sufism’s central message. “I sing the poetry of the Sufi saints,” she says, “who are ‘friends of God,’ filled with ruh [the Sufi concept we could call spirit]. Despite the barriers of language, this poetry and my music reach towards this spirit. I’ve seen people in the West emotionally moved by my performances because the music has touched their spirits, which are the same in all of us.

“When the sun shines, it doesn’t discriminate among people – the light reaches everyone. And the shade a tree throws is as comforting to a Christian, as it is to a Muslim, or a Hindu, or an atheist. It’s the same as my music – the message is for all of humanity, it breaks down all barriers. Because when that sun of spirit shines, all the other stars become dim, you can only see that one light. Which is present for everyone.”

Parveen’s Sufi philosophy has a long history in the mystic traditions of all religions, but she is a performer, not a philosopher. And if the evidence of her CDs and YouTube performances are any indication, that intensity that I heard – overheard – in her conversation from Islamabad is magnified a thousandfold when she is grabbed by her ruh and opens her mouth to express it to us. For a moment on Sunday, the intellectual question of multiculturalism and human unity will be lost in the appreciation of the power of music – the greatest universalizing medium of them all.

Abida Parveen performs at Roy Thomson Hall on Sunday ().

Also on The Globe and Mail



How Katherine Jenkins prepares for a command performance
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Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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