Greetings of peace dear friends! Eid Mubarak to all of you who may have observed the past month of Ramadan. As the special month of fasting came to a close, I had the pleasure of corresponding with the good folks at Forest City Muslim Magazine in London, Ontario to answer a few of their questions. Their latest Eid 2021 digital issue is now on-line for you to enjoy here.
How did you get into the nasheed/song business?
The very phrase “Nasheed/song business” is so painfully foreign to me! “Anasheed” are simply “spiritual hymns”, traditionally sung with little musical accompaniment or set to the rhythm of basic hand-drums. For over 1400 years anasheed have been written and sung by muslims in numerous languages and regions. Like most religious music, anasheed have predominantly been sung in congregational gatherings. Historic documentation tells us that the companions of the prophet (upon whom be peace) sang while they worked, sang at times of celebration and sang their poetry in sacred sittings. We have record of several poets who were companions of the prophet, but even those individuals did not make their recitation of poetry or song into “business”.
Almost thirty years ago, when I began writing anasheed, they came to me very organically ~ simply as a means of expressing my faith through song in my own, native English language. Having been a musician for several years, I recorded a few of the hymns to share with children and families at my local mosque in Waterloo, Ontario. Later, I sent a copy to educational muslim media pioneers Sound Vision, to see if they would be interested in making the songs available to other English speaking muslim families across the USA and Canada. They were happy to do so and suddenly the songs were spreading around the world through piracy. I had no intention of fostering a “muslim music market” and no idea that, within a year or two, others would begin to turn the singing of anasheed into a “business”, akin to the Christian pop music scene. In fact, I thought muslims would be far too classy to do that! Sadly, I was wrong. Before I knew it, there were demands for more recordings and tours. It was very uncomfortable to watch unfold and even more uncomfortable for me to be wrapped up within.
Now indeed, as you say there is a “Nasheed business” which I am no longer very familiar with or connected to.
What is the difference between traditional pop music and “islamic” songs/anasheed?
“Pop music” is, by it’s nature, not really a “traditional” form of music. It is a “commercial” form of music ~ intended to be “popular” (“pop”) and marketed accordingly. Traditions are passed on from generation to generation over time, but “pop” culture trends are usually fickle, fleeting and based on hype generated by people’s changing interests and circumstances. For tens of thousands years, people have been singing while they worked in fields or put their children to sleep. Musician Pete Seeger described it by saying something to the effect of: “Once upon a time, somebody realized they could sing a song on a street-corner and people would throw money at them, so they kept singing it over and over again until everybody heard them and threw coins accordingly! That was perhaps the birth of pop music!” What happens when people get board of the same old song? They stop tossing coins and new songs must be written so the formula can repeat itself.
Among some muslims, commercial songs of different genres (pop, hip-hop, easy listening etc) that refer to Allah or muslim subject matter have become “popular” and highly commercial, straying from the tradition of sacred music that muslims have upheld for centuries.
True traditional “nasheed” is more in line with what is often known as “roots”, “old time”, “folk” or what we could call “community music”, that is to say: songs that have been written by common people, sung by common people and composed without the intent of commercial gain.
How involved in the writing and producing are you? Do you write your own melodies/lyrics?
Most of the songs I have ever recorded have been self-penned and produced independently ~ I was writer, composer, producer and arranger. It has always been my preference to create music in my studio the way a painter or sculptor would create in their studio ~ by myself and at my own pace. The handful of albums I have recorded with the help of a producer never quite felt “authentic” to me, nor were they embraced very warmly by listeners. Occasionally I have co-written songs with close friends, but that has not happened very often. The song-writing process can be a very personal and intimate experience. That said, it has be fun to work with school children over the years, composing songs with them from time to time.
What’s the hardest part of writing and recording a song ~ and what is the easiest?
The hardest part of writing and recording songs is when the pressure to please others replaces the original desire to write and sing out of sheer love. Writing and singing have always been very emotional experiences for me ~ arising out of a personal need to express my feelings, thoughts or concerns. I’ve often said that, the only reason I write is because I cannot afford a therapist! My friend David LaMotte often reminds folks that, the word “amateur” means, “for the love of” and a “professional” is one who “professes” to be or do something. When I do something out of love, it helps my heart and hopefully, the hearts of those who share it with me. Ideally, if we “profess” to be something we should also remain an “amateur” and do it “out of love”. Whenever I have felt that I am only writing, recording or singing publicly to fulfill some expected “role”, I’ve backed off to reassess my intention and path forward.
Has the anasheed music industry changed a lot since you started?
As I mentioned earlier, when I began sharing my songs with muslim families in the mid 1990’s, there was no commercial “nasheed industry”. There were just families hungry for new ways to help inspire their children spiritually. In those days I intentionally chose to have my songs distributed by Sound Vision because their media outreach was focussed on “education” and not “entertainment”. I respected that. The word “entertain” comes from the Latin, meaning “to hold” ie. to hold people’s attention. But the word “education” means to “lead out” or “lead forth”. There is a big difference between those two concepts. Lately I’ve heard Sound Vision and others uses the phrase “Edutainment”, which is a cute hybrid.
Over the past twenty-five years that a “muslim pop music niche” has developed, we’ve not only seen a growing number of muslim artists, we also find a whole gamut of mangers, agents, music labels, publicists and PR firms! None of that is my cup of tea.
Though there are many wonderful new songs circulating by muslim singers, a few of those well intending artists have been sadly taken advantage by the “industry” building up around them. In some cases their creativity, their idealism and even their faith has been crushed. That worries and saddens me.
I’m sure I sound like an old man who’s out of touch with current trends, but it must be understood: My early influences ideologically and musically were people like The Weavers, Harry Chapin, Phil Ochs and Natalie Merchant ~ artists and social activists using music and song to try fostering positive social change, sometimes even risking their own popularity or professional careers in the process. I am much more a proponent of “community music” than “commercial music”.
Yusuf Islam/Cat Stevens: his return to music was much talked about, mostly positively. Would you like to comment?
As a teenager I was deeply moved by the music of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam. What inspired me more than his songs however, was learning that he had left the commercial music business, embraced the Qur’an and shifted his focus toward establishing schools for Muslim children in the UK. Around 1993, when I too embraced the Qur’an, I met Yusuf and within a couple of years he became one of many valuable mentors to me.
Over the years, I personally watched brother Yusuf struggle with easing back into mainstream music, even with the support he had from his family, close friends and numerous scholars. It was a decision he didn’t make or take lightly.
Given brother Yusuf’s history and affluence, he naturally has a different set of opportunities to reach people than someone like myself, who takes a more grass-roots approach to music. Yusuf’s circles of influence enable him to inspire social change to a degree that most independent artists or writers never could. With that comes great pressure, great responsibility and very difficult choices.
It has been delightful to see Yusuf re-connecting with those who have embraced his songs around the world for so long. His latest Peace Train initiative has been doing wonderful work and my band Abraham Jam and I were delighted that he gave us his blessing to cover “Peace Train” on our last album “White Moon”.
What advice could you give to attract or interest muslims toward anasheed and away from the lyrics and not-so-halal music out there?
My dear friend and teacher Abdul Malik Mujahid of Sound Vision often says, “If it is haram to do, it is haram to watch or listen to.” Simple advice, but clear and true. It is important for us to be critical thinkers ~ not just take what we see or hear at face value. I would advise music lovers ~ young or old ~ to really think about what they are consuming with their eyes, ears and hearts. There is indeed a lot of mainstream music out there that is very destructive to the soul, but there is also a lot that is well crafted, inspirational and motivational ~ being offered up by people with great integrity and social concern.
In like fashion, there is some wonderful spiritual music available by muslim artists which is well composed, rich in meaning and offered up with great dignity. . . AND there are also a lot of commercial “nasheed” available that aren’t so well done, being offered up by individuals who should read the ayah about “the poets” in the Qur’an before they get into a studio to record.
Don’t look at the Youtube stats or Spotify stream counts to gage quality. Shop for music to consume the way you shop for food to consume. Do not look at the labels or logos ~ look at the ingredients.
My recommendations: Subscribe your young children to wonderful sites like the Adam’s World App, Muslim Kids TV and Jamil and Jamila. . . Get your family hooked on the programming of Muslim Network TV and Deen TV. Balance those platforms with the music of dignified artists ~ muslim or otherwise ~ who put deep thought into their lyrics and melodies, while also speaking out for causes of great concern in our world.
Your latest work ~ song and/or album?
My latest musical work has revolved heavily around two projects:
The first is my involvement with Abraham Jam, an interfaith trio I am in alongside my friends David LaMotte (who is Christian), and Billy Jonas (who is Jewish). We have been travelling and recording together now for over ten years as a way of showing people what it looks like when three brothers, from the three Abrahamic traditions, sing together to put more love in the world. When it comes to music and faith Billy, David and I believe that, singing in harmony (where we all sing our own different but complimentary notes) is more important and beautiful than always singing in unison (where we all sing the same note.) We have two albums now, our latest being “White Moon”. There was also a documentary film made last year about our work called “Braided Prayer”. Folks can learn more about us at www.AbrahamJam.com
The second project, I have been devoted to now for over twenty-five years, is my ongoing work with Sound Vision. The popular Adam’s World series of the 1990’s has recently been rebooted as an App and I have written/recorded over twenty fresh songs for those new episodes. Our production team has also completed over thirty lovely videos for all of my old songs which should be released on-line soon. Lately, I am also in the planning stages of producing an internet based program for children and families focussing on the environment, social justice and community bridge building. Lots to keep me busy.
How was Ramadan 2021 for you? How different was it from last year’s lockdown?
This year Ramadan flew past faster than any year I can ever recall. On the first day of Ramadan, just before the most recent COVID “Stay at Home” order, my wife and daughters left Canada for the USA due to a family circumstance that needed attention. This special month was, therefore, an even more somber and solitary time for me than last year. But the quiet was beneficial and gave me much time for reflection. My 85 year old father and I are in the same “bubble” and we’ve had some wonderful quality time together during these past weeks.
Have you ever fasted Ramadan outside Canada? If so, how was the experience and would you recommend?
Over the years I have had the blessed opportunity of spending Ramadan at the homes of various friends (Muslim and Christian) in different parts of the USA. My wife and I have also experienced Ramadan together in Damascus Syria, Cairo Egypt and many times in Northern Pakistan. There are delightful memories from all those times and places. Anytime we take our routines out of their “usual” environments, we open ourselves up to tremendous adventure, learning and growth. My time in Syria inspired my song “Hear Me Beat My Drum”, about the drummers who walk down neighbourhood streets at sahur time, chanting and waking folks up to eat! That song would have never come to me had I not travelled and spent Ramadan abroad.
Do you have any eid songs? If so, which ones?
The only Eid song I’ve recorded was one called “Days of Eid”, which was really just an English adaption of the traditional Takbirat often chanted on Eid day. Many years ago (about 2004) I also produced a full album called “The Days of Eid” which included the Eid songs of many muslim artists from around the world ~ including Irfan Makki, Zain Bhikha, Qatrunada and others. That album included an Eid song written by my dear friend Saad Omar called “Days of Joy”, which I also sang.
How do you deal with performance/on stage anxiety?
Not well. A Social Anxiety Disorder has plagued me for over three decades and at times has been quite debilitating. Before it’s formal diagnoses, I had no idea why I was struggling so hard with being on the road and in social gatherings. What I have learned is that, as an introverted individual with very sensitive hearing, I am deeply impacted by what goes on around me and highly susceptible to sensory overload. Though I love people, crowds are very hard for me to maneuver through. After public events I require a great amount of down-time alone to sleep and process all I have experienced.
In addition to that, my musical tradition, as I have mentioned, is rooted in Community Song ~ where people gather intimately to sing together. Being the centre of attention on a stage in front of people is pretty contrary to that tradition. In order to find a balance, over the years, I have tried to adopt the “sing-along” approach of performers like Pete Seeger or Raffi by getting audiences to sing along with me instead of just performing to them ~ creating the atmosphere of a “Song Circle” instead of a concert.
It must feel quite frustrating being unable to promote your work properly through touring and such. Are you making a big plan for post COVID that you’d like to share?
About a year before the pandemic hit, I actually embarked upon personal hiatus from touring and performing, with the exception of occasional Abraham Jam events. The lock-downs and stay-at-home orders have not really impacted me emotionally very much as I was already preparing myself for some quiet time to assess my professional and personal path forward.
These days I have been focussing on caring for my father, homeschooling my daughters and puttering with my experiments in urban farming. Post pandemic ~ we’ll see where my heart and creativity take me. One thing I am certain of is that, I am embarking upon a new season of life. That excites me and has me looking forward to what rests ahead ~ insha Allah.
A touching fan story?
Oh, there are too many to share! Just a few days ago I received a lovely note from a young lady in the UK who grew up sharing my songs with me. She explained that, growing up with with Aspergers Syndrome she often felt (and feels) “different” from others ~ causing anxiety and depression. She told me that, somehow my little songs have helped her. I keep every note and letter that I’ve ever received over the years. They are treasures to me and I try my best to personally respond to them. . . It’s hard sometimes, but I try. These letters don’t come from “fans”, they come from “friends”, folks who sing along with me and pray for me from afar. I do not take that lightly. The songs connect us. Their prayers and knowing that they are singing along helps me with my anxiety and depression when life’s test get to be too hard to handle sometimes. We’re all helping each other to change the world for the better. . . one song at a time.