The melodious life and legacy of Shamshu Jamal (1936 – 2019)

Shamshu Jamal (1936-2019), Ismaili singer, simerg photo
Shamshu Jamal (1936-2019). Photo: Shamshu Jamal family archives.

By KARIM H. KARIM
(with contributions from Dolatkhanu Jamal, Rosemin Karim, Riyaz Jamal, Imran Karim and Irshad Karim)

Shamshu Jamal has left a profound impression on the global Ismaili jamat. His music was “magical,” declared a poem written in honour of his 80th birthday in 2016. The singer, musician, lyricist, composer, and music teacher had innumerable admirers in the countries across North America Europe, Africa and Asia where he performed in a tenure of over 60 years. Shamshudin Noordin Jamal was the unofficial poet laureate and bard of Canada’s Satpanthi Khoja Ismailis. His musical legacy has been passed on to a multitude of students and to his children and grandchildren, with whom he produced several recordings.

It was not only Shamshu’s music but his personal affability, generosity and humility that touched people’s hearts. Despite achieving success and fame, he remained grounded in family and community.

Shamshu was a loving son, husband, father and grandfather as well as a devoted friend. He and his wife lived simply in the same home in Vancouver for the last four decades. It was where he received prominent musicians and legions of admirers. It was also where he taught music and even repaired colleagues’ harmoniums.

Participating actively in the life of the neighbourhood, he stayed in touch with people who left and made new acquaintances. The many close friends and fans around the world are a testament to his compassion and graciousness. His humour was legendary – he seemed to have a joke for every occasion. Shamshu is remembered as having a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eye. These features of his personality shone through in his singing and compositions.

Shamshu Jamal was born in a home whose air was filled with music. His father performed at gatherings and held sessions at the family’s residence. He taught the young Shamshu about the basics of Indian ragas and how to sing and play instruments during the 1940s. This early introduction to music stirred an irrepressible desire to learn more.

Formal Indian musical training was not available in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, so Shamshu began teaching himself through research, careful listening and constant practice. He instinctively understood rhythm, melody and vocal expression. As a young teenager, he would sneak into the concerts of prominent artists visiting from India. Performing at private musical gatherings and then on the stage before turning twenty, he soon emerged as a virtuoso both within and outside the Khoja Ismaili community.

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Shamshu Jamal performing in the 1960's. Photo for Simerg
Shamshu Jamal and colleagues performing in Dar es Salaam in the 1960’s. Photo: Shamshu Jamal family archives.

Shamshu’s attention to linguistic detail and diction drew him into the hearts of ghazal lovers who marvelled at his knowledgeable and precise enunciation of Urdu, which was not his mother language. He performed with a circle of fellow singers and musicians who were Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and other members of the diaspora that had crossed the Indian Ocean to settle in Africa.

In 1973, Shamshu Jamal and his family moved to Vancouver as part of the East African Ismaili migration to western countries. He re-established old musical contacts and made new ones. The larger South Asian community of Vancouver responded enthusiastically to Shamshu’s talented renderings of ghazals and bhajans. He performed with singers and musicians from various cultures and religions. As an accomplished harmonium player, he also shared the stage with renowned artistes from India, such as the classical vocalists Pandit Jasraj and Shrimati Shweta Jhaveri and the master tabla players Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri.

Shamshu generously gave of his musical self to his own and other communities for all of his adult life. He became a much sought-after teacher of Indian music, sharing his time and knowledge with students from various communities. Notwithstanding his success, he continued his own journey of studying music.

In 2000, the Government of Canada recognized his accomplishments and awarded him a prestigious grant to pursue advanced musical studies in India. It was in that year that he retired from his job as an accountant to devote himself more fully to music.

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Shamshu Jamal and fellow musicians performing in Vancouver. Photo for Simerg
Shamshu Jamal and fellow musicians performing in Vancouver in the 2010s. Photo: Shamshu Jamal family archives.

Shamshu’s live concerts were much celebrated events even when he was in his eighties. He performed at public venues, at Ginan mushairas in Jamatkhana social halls and at private music parties in homes. His particularly distinctive vocal style had been developed over many decades. Quite apart from his mastery of the technical aspects of music, the real excitement of Shamshu’s performances lay in the enthralling manner in which he engaged and connected with the audience. The mischievous smile, the impromptu alaaps and variations, and the ability to draw out deeply embedded emotions will be remembered long into the future.

His delivery remained at a sophisticated level even as age modulated the timbre of his voice. He practiced extensively before each performance. Audiences were delighted at the way that Shamshu maintained his vocal range and high notes of alaaps even as evening concerts flowed into the early morning. Apart from devotional material and heart-rending ghazals, Shamshu’s repertoire also regaled his audiences with playful songs like “Aavata Jata Jara” in Gujarati and “Nazar Se Milaa Kar” in Hindi.

From time to time, there arise individuals whose voices capture a community’s most profound feelings. For Canada’s immigrant Khoja Ismailis, one of those powerful voices has been Shamshu Jamal. His musical creativity has vocalized some of the deepest emotions of the community. Various versions of his original composition in Gujarati of “Mara Mowla Canada Padharshe” (1978) continue to be sung to this day. The word “Canada” is changed in different parts of the global diaspora to “London,” “Kenya,” “America” etc. when anticipating Mawlana Hazar Imam’s arrival in particular locations. It is viewed as Shamshu Jamal’s signature song which Malik Talib, former president of the Aga Khan Ismaili Council for Canada, termed as “iconic” for the community. This geet’s literal English translation, “My lord shall make a visitation to Canada” does not do justice to the deeply-felt range of sentiments that it expresses.

When Shamshu composed it in 1978, he creatively captured an immigrant community yearning for its spiritual leader’s first visitation in the autumn of that year. Its members were in a western country, far away from their eastern roots and were uncertain of their future. The Imam had been a constant guide when they had lived in Africa. There was eager anticipation of his advice on how to deal with the difficult situation in which they found themselves. With his finger on the pulse of the community, Shamshu Jamal gave voice to what it was feeling in its heart. The lyricist compassionately articulated the anxiety of uprootedness as well as the aspirations for renewal.

The same padhramni’s book-end composition of “Mowla Sidhaavi Gya” by Shamshu is a profoundly sad geet of the Imam leaving the community at the end of his visit. It vocalizes the bitter-sweet feelings of the Jamat at the end of the mulaqaat and to this day produces streams of tears from listeners’ eyes. This song has also become an iconic expression of similar departures of Mawlana Hazar Imam over many years since 1978.

Jamal went on to produce many other geets in praise of the Imam, particularly commemorating his various jubilees. Ever the perfectionist, he enlisted the participation of professional musicians in London, England for the Silver Jubilee album Jubilee Ke Naghme (1983) and in Mumbai, India, for the Golden Jubilee’s Jashne Jubilee (2008).

One of Shamshu Jamal’s major achievements was to enable Canadian Khoja Ismailis, who have been cut off from their cultural roots, to appreciate the profound depth of their Indian musical heritage. He enabled the Jamat to understand the musical culture and classical ragas on which the ginans are based. Shamshu recorded “Tran Tran Ved Na Dhyaavo” in Raag Malkauns, Joothi Re Duniya in Raag Bairagi Bhairav, Dur Desh Thi Aayo Vañjhaaro in Raag Jaijaiwanti and many others. These are masterful renditions that have now become integral to the treasury of the recorded Satpanth heritage, one of whose founders was Pir Shams (12th-13th century).

Shamshudin Noordin Jamal’s star shines brightly in the firmament of music. He lived a full and accomplished life. His legacy was visible at his funeral at which his grandchildren soulfully sang ginans that he had taught them. Shamshu Jamal’s final farewell is expressed in Shakeel Badayuni’s ghazal, Aakhri Waqt Hai Saans Hai Aakhri, which he used to sing at his concerts:

“Duniya walo mubarak ho duniya tumhe,
Kar chale hum salaam akhri.”

Translation

“This world is yours now, o people of the world,
I have done my final farewell.”

Date posted: July 16, 2020.

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Karim H. Karim

About the author: Karim H. Karim is the Director of the Carleton Centre for the Study of Islam and a Professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

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