Shahabaz Aman melds Malayalam Sufi poetry and music with rock for his new album

The first words from Rumi that stuck in Shahabaz Aman’s mind were, “The wound is the place where light enters you.” Like dust grains in an oyster, the line harboured within him, slowly growing into a full-fledged exploration of Sufi music and poetry. The pearl born of this period is Shahabaz’s new album KEF 1126, a compilation of six songs comprising Sufi poems translated into Malayalam, interlaced with his stories and images, and set to music with a touch of rock.

Sufi poetry in Malayalam hasn’t had its due, says Shahabaz. “In Hindi, Urdu and English, it is widely translated and read, but while the works have reached Kerala, they aren’t ingrained in our collective conscious as elsewhere.” And that’s the bridge he hopes to cross by putting the poetry to music, through the unfamiliar genre he has fused together called ‘Malayalam Sufi rock’. “Kerala has a history of listening to new ideas through music. Even if we’re eating at a chayyakada, a radio will be playing music alongside,” he laughs

The choice of rock music to tell these stories is driven by his desire to reach Kerala’s youth, Shahabaz says. “Sufi as a genre is steeped in worship and philosophy. Traditionally, audiences meet at a satsang filled with people familiar with these ideas and thoughts. You would hardly find youngsters there,” he says. Hence the decision to take the ideas from these locales and present it to youth in a language they understand. “Guitars, jazz drums and wind instruments are so well associated with the general music that youngsters listen to that I’m sure they’ll be drawn to the poetry when it’s presented this way,” he says.

And there’s much in Sufism that could inspire the youth, he believes. “There’s only so much change that the aged can accept. But if the youth accept and imbibe these ideas, our future could be different,” he says. But how well does rock music take to Malayalam Sufi poetry? That’s where Shahabaz has tweaked some of the translations and added his own anecdotes to create an amalgam that blends well when sung. The album title itself, KEF 1126, harks back to a story of his childhood, when he played football with his friends in his hometown Malappuram. The team always returned home, after wins or losses, in a jeep with this registration number. The number plate remains in his memory as a symbol of a time where play was all that mattered.

Times have since changed and Shahabaz finds a present-day world where children have no playgrounds to play at all. “In the absence of movement, today, there is stillness, and this album is about the thoughts that come to you in a time of stillness.” The six songs take the poems of Rumi, Darwish Mahmoud, Rabia Basri, among others, and link them to prevalent issues. For instance, an untitled song takes one of Rumi’s poems of the blessedness of the night and compares it to the violence and insecurity of urban nights. Another uses Rumi’s lines “When you plant a tree/every leaf that grows will tell you, what you sow will bear fruit” to contemplate the communal side of religion-- “our religious traditions have strong roots of peace and love, but why do the leaves we see today not reflect that?” he asks .

As much as Shahabaz hopes the album will inspire youth, he calls it an internal journey for himself too. “Thus far I’ve been known as a ghazal singer, a film music director and a playback singer. But this Malayalam Sufi rock side of me is a new beginning, a way for me to find more clarity and freedom both as a musician and a person.”

Shahabaz will debut the music of KEF 1126 at a concert today at Cafe Papaya at 7 p.m. For details, contact 8138905333