NOToor Mohammad Shah had always happily lived a life of darkness. Born in a small village in the conflict-ridden state of Kashmir in India, Shah had been introduced to the mystical world of Sufi music as a child and, for decades, had gained a meager but fulfilling life by singing traditional songs and playing a lute-like musical instrument on his rabab at weddings and village festivals.
Yet it was a chance meeting between Shah and a group of young men, who passed by as the god-fearing musician played his instrument in a dusty street corner, that would propel him to become one of the musicians of rabab. most famous moderns in Kashmir. .
On that day, the men asked Shah to play for them, and as he leaned against a car wheel and began to sing, in his raw and soft voice, a traditional Sufi song of lost love and cups of wine, one of the band members filmed it. on their phone and uploaded it to YouTube.
“It was my first video,” said Shah, 55, who had previously had no interaction with the online or digital domain. A man of few words, he added: “Since this moving thing happened, my life has changed.”
Unbeknownst to Shah, the grainy clip went viral and caught the attention of several Indian record companies and musicians. Among them was Muhammad Muneem, an engineering graduate who co-founded one of Kashmir’s most popular groups, Alif.
Muneem and Shah recorded a duet together, Ride Home, released in December 2018, which has had over 3.5 million views on YouTube. It was to change the course of Shah’s life, and it was the first of several hugely popular releases since. He became an overnight celebrity in Kashmir and began to be invited to perform across India, in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Jaipur.
“When Ride Home came out, Noor called me a few days later and told me that people on the street were stopping him and wanting to take pictures with him,” Muneem said.
Shah’s rise to fame across India was extraordinary, not only because of his background, but also because of the music he played.
The tradition of Sufi singers in Kashmir who perform in mehfils, gatherings of dervishes, dates back several centuries. However, the music and songs had gradually faded into oblivion, as a violent separatist insurgency enveloped the region from the 1990s and a stricter form of Islam took hold, ending much of it. nightlife and gatherings where songs were traditionally performed. .
Most of the Shah’s generation of Kashmiri folk artists and musicians had retired and government-run TV channels and radio stations had ceased to broadcast the songs, considered archaic and outdated by the next generation. .
Yet Shah’s rise to fame has been credited with giving new life to this traditional music by pushing it back into the mainstream and attracting a new, younger audience. His most recent song, Janaan, was released on Zee Music, one of India’s largest entertainment companies, and the video, featuring him playing his rabab, has been viewed over 2 million times on Youtube.
Shah’s popularity also inspired Muneem to research and document more musicians who once performed Sufi songs in Kashmir and to put videos and recordings of their music on YouTube in order to preserve and promote declining musical traditions.
“We are documenting these old school artists, who are our gems and have been around for a very long time,” Muneem said. “If we don’t, we’ll lose them. “
His fame barely touched Shah, who still leads a simple life and said he was grateful that people now want him to perform in places outside of the remote villages of Kashmir. “When I started, the Kashmiri people were forgotten by many, the language was forgotten,” he said. “Now that feels good. “