Faraz Yousufzai - SilkRoad
The guitar can be a source of my most intimate expressions, but it started out life as nothing more than an educational necessity and teenage whim. School demanded 12 subjects at GCSE and having chosen all but one, I made the whimsical decision to choose music for no greater reason than that I liked the ‘idea’ of playing the guitar. What followed, in short, were 2 years of dedication, (some say obsession) and an enduring love affair with all the torture and rapture of a wonderfully fulfilling and passionate long term relationship.
I diligently studied classical guitar and was preparing for my grade 7 exams when, at 18 years old, my parents reluctantly allowed my sister and I to take a life changing road trip across the US of A.
Now I had listened to many of the blues, folk and rock legends in the comfort of middle England suburbia but it was only on hearing the live sound of raw blues on the streets of Chicago and San Francisco that I knew I just had to get me an electric gee-taar and start rockin’ out. 20 years later my band SilkRoad is playing at the O2 Academy in London to a sell out audience. By His Grace I’m still rockin out with heart, soul, faith and ego happily singing together… to paraphrase Gibran, ‘like the strings of a lute, though separate, yet they quiver with the same music’.
But it almost never happened.
So there I was... on a Friday afternoon after juma prayers on my way to a mosque to meet a friend when there was this chap on the stairs at the entrance. He was talking about going to Afghanistan to train and fight against the Serbian army who were in the process of ethnically cleansing the land of Bosnian Muslims. As a politically conscious teenager that felt the rage of all the injustices in the world and a young man of proud afghan heritage, I was rather moved by his polemical rant and politely enquired whether or not I could go. He took one look at me and said… ‘you’ll have to get rid of that’ pointing with brazen contempt at the guitar in my hand. It was an easy choice. God saved me from a very different life journey with a 6 string musical instrument.
As per all Muslim musicians it seems, I did go through a phase when I thought that all music was haram (forbidden) and gave up playing for a while. My sister who happens to be a brilliant poet, recounts this period to great comedic effect but it really wasn’t as angst ridden and dramatic as she would have you believe. It was a sincere though ultimately flawed decision to be closer to my Lord and the right one for me at the time, though with knowledge, wisdom and maturity I was able to return to music with a conscience at peace.
So I came back from the States at 18 with my black Les Paul Gibson Guitar with glistening gold humbuckers and life quietly carried on. By my early twenties I was married with my first child. The first of my four stars. But the financial pressures of raising a family while still studying law full time at university compelled me to sell my treasured instrument. Nonetheless, the music played on without it. Inspired by the beautiful man that is Dawud Wharnsby, I began singing his acapella nasheeds to my kids and sometimes to small audiences. Dawud was my artistic lifeline in those years that followed and I don’t think I could ever thank him enough for what he gifted me.
It was not until several years later in 2004, when I was working with a new acquaintance by the name of Atallah Fitzgibbon that I would pick up the guitar again. Together with the world reknown photographer Peter Sanders we set up an organisation called the Reflection Network. I spied a beautiful old Spanish guitar in the corner of a room in Atallahs house and couldn’t bare not to pick it up. And as if we had never been parted, the years of seeming silence burst into song and we found that life in between had actually prepared and matured us so we could fall in love deeper and truer than ever before. No longer was I the young boy who sought out blistering solos to be played for his ego but rather a father and husband who had something to say and wanted to share it.
In the early days it was just Friday night relief from a hard working week. Myself and two other guys – Atallah and Abdussamad Summers would jam together at each other’s houses playing acoustic sufi-inspired blues, folk, rock and soul into the wee hours of the morn. In late 2005 a chance meeting saw a brilliant tabla player, Zia Hashmi, join the jam sessions and before long ‘SilkRoad’ was born.
Our debut performance was in March 2008 at a pre awards private dinner with the legend that is Jermaine Jackson as part of a writing competition I had co-founded called the Muslim Writers Awards. I had the opportunity to spend the day with him and on a road trip to London absorb lots of invaluable advice. That really gave us the impetus and direction we needed to become serious about our music and take it to the next level. But it was through the unfailing support of people like Rooful Ali and his ground breaking global group – the emerald network that SilkRoad was given the opportunity to play far and wide at events, weddings and festivals all over the UK from Glasgow to London. It was during this period that we really started to come together as a professional live band. We were soon picked up by BBC radio and played a few live sets to critical acclaim. My eldest son Isa joined me for one of them with his djembe – a proud moment indeed.
We hit the recording studios in 2009 and produced our first CD single entitled ‘Only You’ with producers Miguel Seco and Ashley Sayyed Abdelgawwad. It was a big deal for us and helped to get our music out to a wider global audience. In 2010 a brilliant American graphic artist called Nadia Janjua was organising a show in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia and invited me as a solo artist to perform at the prestigious World Islamic Economic Forum. The audience included presidents and world leaders in business and politics and I had the good fortune to mingle with some of the most inspirational and talent drenched Muslim artists I have ever met – people like hilariously clever film maker Iman Zahawry, visionary artist Reem Hussain, all round genius and PR guru Jason Cottam and of course the Kashmiri New York rockers Zerobridge. Before going back home I hopped over to what was the Tsunami stricken land of Aceh with the late and great Haji Ayman Ahwal as my guide. There we wrote a song with a local but very famous artist called Rafly and played an exhilarating open air night café concert to over 300 Achenese youth. So much to be grateful for.
More live gigs followed in great venues like St Ethelburgas Church and the House of Lords and while I was working in London I played solo gigs in countless blues and jazz clubs to rapturous audiences. Singing about God, His Prophet and all the universal feelings that we share as human beings, it opened up channels of conversation and sharing that ordinarily do not occur. For me, that is the most valuable part of performing – sharing stories and bringing people together. Corny sounding but very true.
2010 ended with a high octane best ever performance at the O2 Academy in London to a sell out crowd. Guitars, drums, bass, tabla and vocals reached a soaring climax with an Irish folk inspired diddy and rumi like musings in a track entitled ‘wind and the reed’. Was a great milestone for us and the doors have opened…
We’ve spent the first quarter of 2011 rehearsing and writing new material. Its been a refreshing break from the pressure of constant performing and a chance to remind ourselves that its the sincerity of our music that people come to see and listen to. The ego always tries to take over, particularly as you build your fan base but Atallah, Zia and I are not just band members, we are brothers, friends and mirrors to each other. We know whatever magic we have the fortune to make, its all from Him and so we keep ourselves firmly grounded.
Music is important to us as individuals and as a community. The creative arts are part of the human story and when you take them out, there is a gross de-humanising effect on people and their communities. You need only glance at our present state and peruse our histories to see how this has happened. What we have is a socio-dynamic for whom politics and religion is naïve, simplistic and drowned in dogma. When creative arts are nurtured as they once were in Muslim society, more children have the opportunity to grow into adults that understand the complexity, beauty and diversity of the human condition and value and respect our shared experience. That’s when the ‘other’ disappears and becomes ‘us’. The music and lyrics that we write are not to please others but to please ourselves that we have added something positive to the shared experience and helped to weave something of our tall tales into our collective stories. Something we can face God with on the day of standing with a sound heart, InshaAllah. Don’t underestimate the power of education and teenage whims to shape an entire life!