An interview by Farah Wit (India) for Wittycraze Evolve on-line Magazine, February 2016.
“Out of Sight and Out of Mind” what was the inspiration behind this nasheed?
The lyrics to “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind” were written primarily by my friend Jawad Jafry ~ a film-maker in Toronto Canada. We were working together on a documentary about the violent crisis faced by the people of Kosova during the late 1990’s. Jawad wrote the initial lyrics and asked me if I would arrange them and set them to music. We used the song in the film “The Orphan Masjids of Kosova” and a version also appeared on a compilation CD entitled “Light Upon Light”.
Do you like to think of yourself as a poet or a song-writer.
Poetry has always been much more of a passion to me than music. All of my songs start out as poems or prose before I set them to a melody of some sort. Long before I began playing music, I was passionate about words. Even songs that appealed to me as a young child were always those with deep lyrics, strong stories or poignant social messages. One of my favourite Canadian poets, Leonard Cohen, began setting his poetry to music in the 1960’s as a means of having it reach out further to audiences of people who were not used to reading poetry in books, but more accustomed to hearing songs. As a young man, I took my direction from his example and began setting my own poetry to music. Historically we actually find that even the earliest poetry around the world was recited to a melody of some sort ~ making it easier to retain and pass on to others.
Where did you first come across Islam. Is that how your love for it began?
The first introduction I had to the concept of islam was through the rap music that I listened to as a young boy in the mid 1980’s. Hip-hop artists giving thanks to “Allah ~ The Creator” on their album sleeves…and Grandmaster Melle Mel mentioned “muslims” in one of his famous raps called “Beat Street Breakdown”. Gradually I began to realize there were many unique ways of trying to understand life and God. My high school religion class helped me appreciate and respect the teachings of Buddha, Lao Tzu and wisdom of Sanskrit scriptures. One of my teachers also brought in a professor to help my class learn about the life of Muhammad and teachings of the Qur’an. What struck me the most about what he taught us was that, at it’s essence, the word “islam” is not a noun or proper name of an institution or “religion”, but it is actually a verb meaning to “enter into peace” or “surrender”. Thus, the Quran negated the idea of just “belonging to a religion” out of custom or tradition, but encouraged people to personally “enter into peace” through surrender to God. Years later, when I met singer/songwriter Cat Stevens/Yusuf in London, he also reiterated that spiritual and linguistic paradigm to me. Their approaches and explanations seemed very natural to me and struck a chord with my very intrinsically universalist approach to faith. To this day it makes me sad when muslims themselves treat the word “islam” like a noun or the proper name to a “religion” they see themselves “belonging to”. In my life, I make a big differentiation between the historic “Empire of Islam” (Upper case “i”) that has existed over the last 1400 years ~ with its sects and wars and “Golden Years” ~ and the “philosophy of islam” (lower case “i”) that is spoken of in the Qur’an. At my heart I am a universalist. I love and embrace the “islam”, taught in the Qur’an, but have no interest whatsoever in “belonging to”, “embracing” or “propagating” what has evolved through the centuries as the “Empire of Islam”. Thus, I do not “belong to” any one particular religious sect, group, movement, school or order.
You’ve written a number of nasheeds. Is there a particular nasheed, whose lyrics you can’t ever forget ?
One of the first hymns I ever wrote was called “The Prophet”. It describes the prophet’s last days before his death, peace be upon him, and his concern for the ihsan, iman and islam of those who would come after him. Sadly, only months after his death, peace be upon him, muslims were at war with each other. To this day we fight amongst ourselves about our opinions and interpretations. When I reflect upon the stories of Muhammad’s passing and sing “The Prophet”, I am reminded to stay true to his wisdom and example, peace be upon him ~ following those in my life and not allowing myself to be bullied into following other twisted brands of religion, wrapped up by others and labeled as “Islam”.
Three things you think people can do better without.
ii) Factory produced/pre-packaged food
iii) hand-held mobile devices (iPads, iPhones, Blackberries etc)
Who is your best buddy?
My wife, Ayesha.
Your trip to England, how was it? You had posted a picture of yourself sitting in what you called a “House concert” so how did the idea for this start.
Up until about 155 years ago, when audio recording devices were invented, the only way people could enjoy music was to either sing/play it themselves or listen to it being played live in front of them. For thousands of years people shared music in their homes and places of worship, participating together in the experience. In our times, I believe we have lost touch with the power of music and have just become consumers of it ~ downloading it, listening to it through our ear-buds, paying large amount of money to hear it played loudly in concert halls ~ and we have lost the beauty of participating in the social act of producing and sharing music with others. House concerts are a way of trying to bring music back to people on a grass roots level ~ in their homes with family and friends, where everyone is comfortable, able to hear the music played live and acoustically…really feel the music and participate in it with the player. Many families in various countries have invited me into their homes to offer up House Concerts and it is always delightful. When I see people of all ages ~ young infants, children, teens, their parents and grandparents ~ all sitting together in a living room and singing with me, it is very special. Recently I was doing a house concert in the home of a family and between songs a young child came right up to me and asked me to sing a nursery rhyme I did not know ~ one which was common in England but not often sung in my native country of Canada. Suddenly, everyone started singing the song to “teach” it to me, which made the child very happy…we were all singing and having so much fun. Then I sang an old Urdu poem which I had also translated into English for the sake of the youth who did not understand the Urdu of their grandparents. The elders began to sing with me and soon memories and tears began to flow down our cheeks as we saw bridges of understanding being build between the generations of families present. We simply cannot recreate those same experiences of song when the only places we hear it live are commercial concert halls, theatres or arena ~ where artists often just lip-sync to their own CDs and do not even truly sing live, or sing through electronic auto-tune programs.
You have collaborated with zain bhikha and many others. If you were given the choice of doing a collab with any of the new artists, who would you choose to do it with ?
A. maher zain,
b. Mesut kurtis,
c. Boona mohammed,
Over the past many years I have met the artists you have listed ~ they are all wonderful people. Until now, however, none of us have really had the inspiration or motivation to collaborate with each other musically. For me, songwriting is a very personal experience and one which I usually carry out independently. It is always a pleasure to sing with anyone who invites me to join them in song and I do sing often with others when they ask me to, but I do not usually write music with others. There have been one or two exceptions over the years, but generally I much prefer singing with my audiences than seeking out other professional artists to collaborate with on a commercial level. To me, musical collaboration is very much like a marriage ~ it is very intimate. You meet many wonderful people in life, but choosing someone to marry is different. Sometimes people might want to marry you, but you don’t feel the same way about them…or sometimes you are pushed into a relationship by others and it feels forced or uncomfortable so you must step away from it. Likewise, there are very few artists I feel intimately connected to on artistic, spiritual and personal levels. It takes time and trust for me to really collaborate with someone else as a writer or record with in studio.
The most inspiring person you’ve met.
Musician and social activist Pete Seeger. He had been a role model to me since childhood and having the opportunity of meeting him before his death in 2014 was a great blessing to me. Without his mentorship and inspiration I would not be doing what I am doing today.
When you were younger and very new to singing, who was your inspiration back then?
There have been many, many musical inspirations to me over the years ~ singers, artists and teachers who helped me “find my voice”, as they say. My approach to writing lyrics was really inspired by listening closely to the work of people like Paul Simon, Stephen Fearing, Leonard Cohen, Jane Sibbery and others. My approach to musical composition was inspired by people like Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Phil Oches, Natalie Merchant (10,000 Maniacs) and even bands like Abba and The Bee Gees. My attention to audio production and musical arrangement was inspired by people like Pete Townshend (The Who) and Prince. My vocal technique and style can be traced directly to singers I grew up listening to ~ people like Don McLean, Johnny Denver and James Taylor. Lastly, my approach to how I use music, express it publicly or interact with it professionally, is deeply patterned on the models of people like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Harry Chapin and other singer/social activists.
What were you like as a kid, a teenager and in your early twenties.
As a child I had a very vivid imagination. Movies, television and music really had a powerful impact upon me. In those days we had no computers, video games, CDs or any means to re-watch a film or program, so when I saw a show on TV or went to the movies with my family, I would watch and listen very intently ~ virtually memorize what I saw and heard ~ then come home and spend the next year drawing pictures of the scenes or characters from the film, piecing together costumes of the characters from things around my house. Then I would dramatize the film with friends day after day ~ often directing the neighbourhood kids as to what to say or how to act. (Admittedly, I was a pretty bossy sometimes ~ as I would demand we re-create the film exactly as I had remembered. All the neighbourhood parents thought I was a pretty weird kid.) My parents gave me a recording machine (tape recorder) when I was five and I would spend hours recording original skits or songs I liked on the radio. By my teens, all my time spent drawing, acting, recording and writing as a young boy had evolved into heavy involvement with high school drama and music programs. By the time I turned twenty, I had performed on stage in numerous plays and productions, written a ton of poetry, taught myself to play several instruments and was working professionally as both a musician and educational puppeteer. The irony through it all though, is the fact that I have always been very introverted. I have never felt comfortable in crowds or around people ~ always happiest working alone and spending long period of time by myself to read, reflect and write. My temperament is also generally rather reflective and serious. Though I love to joke around and am often very silly ~ my often sarcastic humour is usually rooted in very serious opinions I have about life or rooted in my observations of inconsistencies I see around me in the world. My childhood habit of really observing things in great detail, then translating those observations into artistic expressions is still very much a part of me ~ my songs always grow out of my observations of the world, experiences I have had or people I have met. Throughout my life, I have always had a hard time letting people into my world. Because I write, sing and laugh a lot in public, many people often assume that I am highly social and fun-loving all the time ~ when in fact, I am a pretty broody, pensive, anxious, moody, melancholic fellow a lot of the time.
What is your idea of fun?
If you could revisit your past, which moment would you choose?
It is hard to decide: Either age 3 when I was spending time alone with my parents while my older sisters were at school… or… the day I met my wife for the first time… or the days my daughters were born. Those were the best times of my life.
If singing hadn’t worked for you as a profession what field do you think you would’ve gotten into?
When I was younger I had dreams of being a farmer, a private investigator, an actor, a film-maker or a priest ~ but music just sort of came out of me and people seemed to want to hear me tell my stories and sing, so I accepted their invitations and kept writing and singing. I did not really plan to be a professional songwriter or singer ~ it sort of just “happened”. Music was just always an important means of documenting my life and expressing myself. Often I joke and say that, the reason I write songs is because I cannot afford a therapist. Even to this day, though I have a website and use platforms like iTunes to share my music, I try to remain accessible to listeners. I do not work with a manager, agent, music label or benefactor ~ nor do I promote my songs with videos or seek out places to play live. If people contact me and request me to share my music live, I am happy to oblige ~ but if people ever stopped calling me, I would just work in my garden, take up another trade, cut lawns or clean toilets for a living. In many ways ~ I do have many “jobs” besides music. Weekdays, I work professionally as an educational puppeteer… I occasionally do voice-overs and soundtrack music for films…at home I keep chickens, farm bees and grow vegetables…often I am called upon to give mentorship to people who want to know more about my spiritual path, study or habits…and several years ago I also did a course in private investigations which has helped me assist friends family members in many ways. So really ~ all of the professions I dreamed of having as a young man, are professions I am involved with! My music just provides the soundtrack to a very strange life!
The most difficult phase of your life would be?
Honestly, the phase in life I am in right now is one of the most difficult ones I have ever had to work through. A middle aged father of two young children, a son to an aging parent who needs my time and assistance, living in a world with great social pressures/violence/economical imbalance, going through changes and re-assessments (spiritually, socially, professionally and personally)…all of these tests have me desperate to simply maintain integrity and peace of mind these days. But I am happy and grateful to God for the new experiences I am experiencing.
Three things you would change about yourself.
It has long been my opinion that if a person truly wants to change something about themselves, they must just set their mind with the right intention and start the process. Each day I am trying hard to reassess myself, improve myself and change for the better. Even things about myself or my life that I had no control over and may have made life hard over the years (like the learning disability that effects my ability to read, write and focus well, or my tendencies toward anxiety, or even my crooked teeth!) have contributed to who I am today, so if I could have changed them, I might not be who I am, have written what I have written or even be able to sing the way I sing! But, if I had to pick three things I would say:
i) My hight and muscle tone ~ I have always been a small, fine boned person and as a kid I hoped I’d grow up to be tall and muscular. Alas, I’m a more like a small scarecrow.
ii) My beard ~ it rather resembles a messy bird’s nest and I would rather it be full and not so wiry.
iii) My outlook on life ~ as mentioned, I am a rather broody, moody and melancholy fellow. It is hard for me to loosen up and just relax ~ I am always thinking, worrying, stressing and feeling at blame for all the world’s problems and can’t seem to just be content.
The best lesson you’ve learnt in life?
If everybody else is doing something, do not just follow along blindly without first consulting your own heart.
Have you ever had a very bad fan-experience? Maybe a stalker?
Yes, a few times I have had people lash out (sometimes violently) at me for choosing to express myself in ways they did not expect or like ~ for example, people viewing music as “unlawful” or “haram” and angered by my use of the guitar. On a couple of occasions, I have had death threats, but was able to personally engage with the individuals and diffuse their aggression with discussion and patience. There have also been a few circumstances where people who supported my music became acquaintances or friends through correspondence, but then began to expect more of my friendship than I was able to give and became very abusive. Sadly, a few times I have had to “step back” from people who have overstepped their bounds with my family or I. As a rule, I do not think of people who share my music with me as “fans” ~ I think of them all as “friends”. That cause problems some times when people want to push into my life too deeply, not respecting the fact that I am a pretty introverted man who travels extensively, is very busy with family and requires a lot of time alone. I do not email, text, like talking on the phone or take vacations ~ and that is hard for people to understand sometimes, so their feelings get hurt when I come off as anti-social. That’s why one of my first songs was called “Antisocialsong”.
One thing you would like to accomplish or change before you leave this world would be?
God willing, I pray my children will be content and conscientious contributors to this world and it’s people. Personally, would like to find more spiritual contentment before my time to leave this world. Lastly, I would love to see a change in how the majority of muslims in the world view modern day warfare. Naturally, muslims world-wide condemn terrorism and violence ~ BUT I feel we must be brave enough and faithful enough to categorically renounce modern day weapons of war overall, to truly show that we want global peace. It is my belief that modern day, technological warfare goes blatantly against the words of the Qur’an and the sayings of Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the Hadith. Perhaps it is too much to ask that I live long enough to see a world without war…but if I could live long enough to see the majority of muslim individuals, leaders and theologians adopt a formal stance against modern day weapons of war (bombs, guns etc) in favour of non-violent methods of conflict resolution (passive resistance, civil disobedience, creative conflict resolution, diplomacy, economic divestment etc) I would die with more hope for my children, grand children and great grandchildren. Allah Alim.
Your favourite nasheed would be?
To be honest, I do not really know many traditional anasheed and do not have a favourite one. Of the more contemporary religious hymns or pop songs composed by muslims, Yusuf Islam once wrote a song called “Mother Father Sister Brother” recorded and sung by Abdal Latif Whitman in a more traditional “nasheed” style ~ that is one of my favourite more “modern” nasheed.
If you were to write a novel, what would it’s storyline be?
Funny you should ask. At the moment, I am working on a short story ~ sort of a sci-fi/time travel tale with very subtle spiritual undertones. Unfortunately, I can not divulge more than that or it will spoil the surprise!
Favourite colour. I enjoy looking at lilac, pink and orange but I prefer to wear beige, brown and dark green.
Favourite food. Milk ~ I simply could not live without milk…And toast.
Favourite item of clothing. My old green gardening hat.
Favourite quote. “Take it easy…but take it.” ~ Woody Guthrie
Would you call yourself short-tempered.
Though I call myself “passionate”, my my wife calls me a “Hot-head”. In all honesty, yes ~ I am short tempered…but mostly with myself.
How would you describe life as?
A powerful learning experience and step along the path to divine, spiritual purpose.
What is love according to you. Do you think you would write a song for youth and their dilemma with love.
To me, love is at the core of life. It is my belief that humanity was created out of divine mercy and love, to learn divine love ~ appreciate it and share it with others ~ with the hope of living within it for eternity. A few of my songs deal with this belief (e.g. “Love Strong”) and indeed, several also deal with the struggles many young people face in their dilemmas trying to better understand true love. (eg. “Midnight”, “For You In Fez”, “No Time For Rhyme”, “Dark Heba/Light Heba”).
“The colours of Islam” This nasheed, even though might be for children in their pre-teens, it’s a subject which everyone must ponder deeply about – racism which sadly exists even in muslims. My question to you is, what must we do to uproot this evil?
My approach to try and pluck the weeds of racism from our world has been to focus on working with children. Their purity and openness help me keep my own heart clear, as I try to help them hone the craft of bridge building with others. Children see differences in others, but they are naturally inquisitive and from what I have seen over the years, they generally want to learn about differences, not just fear or judge them. It is we adults who allow our own fears, insecurities, egos or self-righteousness to divide us. My daughters were very excited to meet an elderly lady in our new neighbourhood. However, she was cold to their greetings when she walked past our house. We discovered she was from Portugal and could not understand English. She’d lived on the street for over 14 years but everyone just called her “The Portuguese Lady” and nobody even knew her name! One day an ambulance came to her house and took her away. My daughters were so worried about her. A few days later she was brought home again and my daughters were eager to find out if she was alright and why she had been rushed to the hospital. We decided to write our neighbour a letter, use Google Translate to print it out in Portuguese then take it to her door. The lady was so touched and surprised ~ she hugged my girls and taught them some words in Portuguese! Since that day, we’ve all become friends and naturally, now our whole neighbourhood knows Maria, thanks to the heartfelt initiative of my daughters. We must truly understand and believe in the equal worth of all human beings regardless of colour, culture, creed, religious affiliation, economic circumstance, sexual orientation…whatever….then demonstrate that understanding in our behaviour so we are in line with our children’s natural inclination to learn about differences but not fear them.
We’ve heard about your daughters through your blogs and facebook but we haven’t heard much about Mrs. Dawud wharnsby. With homeschooling and travelling, it must be really challenging because after all it’s the woman of the house that keeps all the chaos under control. Do share a few words about her.
A few words would be impossible! There is so much to say about my partner Ayesha. We have been married for thirteen wonderful years and she is truly the anchor in my life. She holds a masters in Middle Eastern history, works as a research assistant at a university near our home in Canada, overseas the continued development of a non-profit school in Pakistan started by her grandmother 30 years ago, home-schools our two daughters, is a tremendous mother, friend, daughter, daughter-in-law and home-maker. Ayesha is a true artist ~ focussed, frugal and in favour of surrounding herself with only what is necessary and functional ~ yet highly skilled in making such things beautiful. She is the primary interior decorator of our home, a talented chef, gardener, photographer, writer, teacher and lovely reciter of Qur’an. Above all, she is even-tempered, forgiving, understanding and patient with her erratic husband and his eccentric ways.
Would you rather be on a hot air balloon with a book or at home with a pen. At home with a pen.
Chocolate dates or a honey-flavoured miswak. Chocolate dates.
To die young and able or at a very old age. At a very old age.
If you were elected as the president of the most powerful country in the world. What would your first action as president be?
Give this speech Charlie Chaplin gave in his 1940 film “The Great Dictator”:
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men – cries out for universal brotherhood – for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world – millions of despairing men, women, and little children – victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.
Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!
In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people have the power – the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfil that promise. They never will!
Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!”
Hypothetically speaking, if you were given a clock from Jannah and told that you could add a few more hours to your day. What would you do?
a. work on your blog.
b. add a few hours so you could have a goodnight’s sleep
c. spend with your family and friends with whom you haven’t met in a long time.
b. Add a few hours to get a good night’s sleep.
It was an absolute pleasure interviewing Mr. Dawud wharnsby. I would like to thank him for taking time for this interview despite his extremely busy schedule. It’s beyond me how he managed it, between the tours and events. One thing I’ve learnt from him is that if you want to make a positive change in the world, you must be ready give it your all. – Farah Wit