Aziz Balouch – Sufi Hispano-Pakistani 

Friend of the show Omer Tariq sent over a recording with an amazing story, that we had to share. I asked Omer if he’d be kind enough to share a little about it, and he wrote the following beautiful piece. Thank you, Omer.

In the world of record collecting, waiting for releases from Pakistani musicians is a bit like waiting for a bus - you wait for what seems like ages and then two come around. 2019 saw Ustad Saami’s sublime yet horrendously titled Khyaal album ‘God is Not a Terrorist’ (Glitterbeat) and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s live album ‘Live at WOMAD 1985’ (Real World Records). The beginning of summer 2020 brought with it a couple of EPs featuring Pakistani musicians - English flautist and saxophonist Tenderlonious’ collaboration with Lahore based classical music instrumentalists Jaubi ‘Tender in Lahore’ and a reissue of Spanish-Pakistani flamenco practitioner Aziz Balouch’s 1960s EP ‘Sufi Hispano-Pakistani’. While Tender in Lahore is a noteworthy fusion collaboration with performances by Kashif Ali Dhani and Zohaib Khan on tabla and sarangi respectively, Aziz Balouch’s EP stands out for its ethnomusicological value. 

Born in Baluchistan and raised in Sindh, Aziz Balouch moved to Gibraltar in 1932 as an economic migrant but dedicated his life to spreading the message of Sufism and the practice of flamenco. He learnt and performed the music and developed a theory aiming to link the genre to Islamic / South Asian influences. 

Fascinated by the brief description accompanying the EP, I felt compelled to find out more. I reached out to Stefan Williamson Fa, a Gibraltar-raised anthropologist and ethnomusicologist mentioned on the liner notes, who was kind enough to share a piece he had written on Balouch. (All text in quotes is excerpted from Stefan’s article on Aziz Balouch for criticalmuslim.io)

Having heard a recording of Balouch on Spanish radio many years ago, Stefan has tracked Balouch’s fascinating journey from Sindh to Spain. Having grown up in ‘Pir-jo-Goth, the centre of the Hur Sufi community headed by the Pir Pagaro’ where he learnt Sufi poetry and music, Balouch ‘had his first encounter with flamenco when he listened to the record collection of a successful Hyderabadi Hindu businessman Hotu-Khemchand, who had established a business and house in Gibraltar. Balouch was so enamoured by the voices of the singers he heard that he did not have to think twice when he eventually received a job offer by the said businessman to go and work in Gibraltar.’ 

While initially working at the business premises upon arrival in Gibraltar in 1932, it was only a matter of time before Aziz’s musical talent drew attention leading him to study under the great flamenco singer Pepe Marchena and start a musical career in Madrid. The ‘outbreak of the Civil War quickly disrupted his activities. As the fighting intensified Balouch was injured during a bombing in Madrid and had to flee the country in order to receive treatment in the United Kingdom.’ Balouch set up the Sindh Sufi Society in 1948, ‘organising regular events, writing and publishing from his small home in Notting Hill, West London.... Balouch’s passion for music meant these events were always complemented with a musical programme, with live recitals of Persian and Indian Classical music; Balouch gave renditions of Sindhi lyrics, accompanying himself on guitar or harmonium’

Balouch moved back to Madrid In 1952 on the invitation of the Pakistani Ambassador, being appointed the Cultural Attaché at the Pakistani Embassy. ‘With the support of the embassy he founded an association called Amigos de Pakistan and continued to perform alongside Pepe Marchena and alone across Spain. However, this time his performances had the particular aim of demonstrating the similarity between Cante Jondo and the “profound singing” of Sindhi Sufi songs of Pakistan.’ 

Balouch passed away in 1978 and Sufi Hispano-Pakistani is a reissue of a 1962 EP of the same name, the only known recording of Balouch. Released by London-based label Death Is Not The End records, the EP comprises four tracks with Aziz singing and playing Spanish guitar.

True to it’s name, the Death Is Not The End catalogue includes releases from late artists. Another interpretation of the label’s grim name can also be how it documents musical genres that seem to have disappeared from living memory. Albums on the label’s bandcamp page span genres such as Jamaican doo-wop from the 1950s/60s and Japanese ryūkōka (1930s crossover marrying western jazz and blues with Japanese folk). The label also catalogues spiritual/supernatural music including gospel music recordings (circa 1940s/50s) and an album titled ‘Mushroom Ceremony of the Mazatec Indians of Mexico.’ 

Sufi-Hispano Pakistani seems to fit well with the label’s previous releases. Each of the four tracks starts with Aziz reciting poetry in an eastern language - Arabic, Farsi, Sindhi and Braj Bhasha - before breaking into singing in Spanish with accompanying flamenco guitar. There is similarity between the non-Spanish halves and the flamenco songs. Though the songs may not seem evidence enough to prove the roots of flamenco, the genres do fuse well together. The opening track Granadina Arabe del Siglo IX starts with what sounds like a bandish in Braj Bhasha before seamlessly breaking into Spanish vocals and guitar. 

Writing about the original 1962 EP by Parlophone Records recorded in Barcelona, Stefan notes that ‘the short four track EP recorded, his only catalogued release, was a first on many levels. It was not only unprecedented for a young man from South Asia to record an album in Spain, but it was also the first example of experimentation and ‘fusion’ in flamenco music.’ 

That Balouch sings in Spanish during the flamenco parts seems to show his reverence to the tradition despite his theory of its eastern lineage. Balouch’s mastery of the guitar and his ease of delivering Spanish vocals, along with command of Farsi/Arabic indicates an openness towards foreign cultures and influences. 

In conclusion to his piece Stefan notes: 

‘Despite his deep-rooted love for Sindh and his homeland, Aziz’s life, work and efforts were characterised by an incredible openness to the worlds, cultures and love of others. In a lifetime riddled with struggle, strife and oppression –living through World War, Partition in his homeland, civil war in his adopted home of Spain followed by fascist dictatorship and life in London, which was still plagued by institutional and everyday racism- he stuck by what he believed to be a key principle of Sufism- love and equality for all.’ 

My favourite track from the EP is Seguiriya - comprising Arabic poetry recited in a strong Pakistani accent, followed by some lovely flamenco arpeggios and effortless Spanish vocals.