Pakistani singer Riffat Sultana has arrived. An invitation by the prestigious Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles to perform is a culmination of years of patience, training, and suppression by a conservative society that barred her from singing to an audience.
The Skirball is a Jewish institution that aims to inspire not only the Jewish culture, but also people from various backgrounds. It enables ethnic communities to come together through shared values. The music director at the Skirball, with an extensive knowledge of world music, felt that the Pakistani singer would be a good fit, as her performance ties in with the museum’s current theme of women and oppression. Sultana is presented with the other relevant exhibition, “Women Hold Up Half the Sky” that showcases oppression, liberation, and empowerment.
The daughter of Pakistan’s late Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, Sultana is not a stranger to repression. She grew up surrounded by music, but was chagrined not to entertain her desire for an audience. Generations of men in her family with musical lineage sang, but she says the rules were different for her. “I sang at home. I was not allowed anywhere outside (to sing). But I always had this thing—I want to perform outside,” says Sultana.
With an innate interest in music, she learned Sufi devotional songs from her spiritual mother and gradually built her repertoire to include traditional as well as modern songs—ghazals, folk, and light classical numbers. She sometimes writes her own lyrics but also has her rendition of old masters’ works.
Coming to the United States was liberating and heady for the singer. It was only then that she was able to give a performance to a host of Pakistani fans. She had left a conservative society that had given her no opportunity to further her passion for music as a career, and found herself doubly blessed—not only was she able to share her love of music with an appreciative audience, but she also met a man with whom she fell in love and subsequently married. Her husband, Shiraz Ali, provides accompaniment on guitar at her performances.
While Sultana debuted in the U.S. and Europe with her brother and their band, Shabaz, in 2001, the invitation by the Skirball is a particularly significant one for the artist—this will be the first time that she will perform with her own ensemble. She will be accompanied by several musicians on tabla, flute, harmonium, 12-string guitar, and dhol.
The event, expected to attract scores of Pakistani fans along with a mainstream audience of world music lovers as well as communities from South and Central Asia, will take place in the auditorium that can house approximately 900 people. The artist sings in Urdu and Punjabi, but her performance at the Skirball will be mainly Urdu songs. The 90-minute show will have a medley of ghazals and Sufi songs delivered in the singer’s husky undertones.
The audience can expect to hear popular numbers such as “Damadam Mast Qalander”; “Mera Piya Ghar Aaya,” a qawwali sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan; “Jab Se Tune Muje Deewana,” by Abida Parveen. and “Julay Lal Qalander,” a Pakistani Sufi song with lyrics by Sultana in praise of the saint Hazrat Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. Her songs are varied in tempo from catchy and upbeat to lulling and trance-inducing.
When Sultana came to the U.S., she declared her independence like so many other immigrants have in the past, from stifling societies and cumbersome customs. She was at last at liberty to turn her love of music into a career and her pursuit did end in happiness, with her ability to finally share her talent with an audience.