The Sabri Brothers are undoubtedly one of the most influential qawwali groups the world has ever known, and their stature prevails throughout the culture of Sufi music. Led by Ghulam Farid Sabri (lead vocals) and Maqbool Ahmed Sabri, the Sabri Brothers, closely tied to the Chishtī Order, performed devotional Sufi music for over thirty years.
Hailing from Pakistan, the Sabri Brothers are famous for their soulful vocals, mesmeric harmonium drones, rhythmic percussion, and thudding tabla compositions, brought forth in praise and devotion to God.
They are notable in the history of qawwali music as the first Sufi musicians to perform in the United States and other Western countries, leaving a lasting mark on the qawwali music industry. Together with this, the Sabri Brothers received numerous prestigious awards in honor of their artistry, including the President of Pakistan’s coveted Pride of Performance award in 1978. They also performed at various special events and spiritual ceremonies.
Early Life and Training
The Sabri Brothers were part of a Sufi family of singers and instrumentalists, originally from Kalyana, East Punjab, India.
Ghulam Farid Sabri, born in 1930, and Maqbool Ahmed Sabri, born in 1945, were trained in both qawwali and Indian classical music by their father, Inayat Hussain Sabri. They were joined in this training by their brother Kamal Ahmed Sabri. After the Partition of India in 1947, the Sabri’s were transported to a refugee camp in Karachi, Pakistan. Conditions in the camp were dismal, and life was very difficult for the elder brother, Ghulam Farid. He had to take on a job carrying bricks to help provide for his family. Continuous physical exhaustion did not agree with his health, compromising his singing ability. However, with time, prayer, and commitment, he persevered and recovered his incredible voice.
Maqbool Ahmed, many years his junior, was not yet of age to labor. From a young age, both showed musical promise. Ghulam Farid joined the Ustad Kallan Khan’s Qawwali party in India and performed publicly for the first time in 1946 at the age of sixteen, before the family’s relocation to Pakistan. Maqbool Ahmed’s talent was spotted by a schoolteacher, who encouraged Inayat Hussain to direct the boy into a life of music. His first public performance was in 1955 at age eleven. That same year Maqbool formed the Bacha Qawwal Party with the help of his father. Their introduction to music included mentorship by Ustad Ramzan Khan, Ustad Fatehdin Khan, and Ustad Latafat Hussein Khan Bareilly Sharif, and their spiritual master Hazrat Hairat Ali Shah Warsi.
Formation of the Sabri Brothers
In 1957, the Sabri Brothers duo formed when Ghulam Farid joined Maqbool Ahmed’s Bacha Qawwal Party as its leader. To this point, Ghulam Farid had sung as a supporting lead in a different group called the Ustad Kallan Khan’s Qawwali group. Maqbool Ahmed was performing Hindi movie songs at a theater in Karachi. In 1958, they were signed to EMI Pakistan.
Balancing the Spiritual with the Musical
A beautiful balance began to develop when the brothers joined forces. Ghulam Farid was a profoundly religious man and a Sufi mystic. He was dedicated to his family and slept very little, devoting his time instead to zikr. His spirituality emanates in videos. Maqbool Ahmed Sabri was the more musical of the brothers and is famous for his writing ability and improvised vocals. He is considered a master of wordplay and a talented poet. His reverence for his elder brother is evident in the Sabri Brothers’ recordings, and they performed together until Ghulam’s death.
The musical style of the Sabri Brothers is distinctly qawwali, and it is renowned for its distinct percussion and powerful vocals. A signature of their music, too, is Ghulam Farid’s gentle refrains of Allah between songs. In their delivery of various qawwali numbers, they are often considered original, raw, and adventurous.
Their first album, an Urdu qawwali compilation called Mera Koi Nahi Hai Tera Siwa, was released in 1958. By the 1970s, they started to experience prominence and success in the world of qawwali music, with several of their recordings featured in films. During this era, they released some of their greatest hits, including the famous songs Bhar Do Jholi Meri Ya Muhammad Laut Kar main Na Jaunga Khaali, Tajdar-e-Haram Nigah-e-karam, O Sharabi Chord De Peena (a rumored response to Aziz Mian), and Main Deewani Khwaja ki Deewani.
Although the careers of the Sabri Brothers were initially slow to start, the early 1970s saw them shoot to fame and gain international prominence. In 1970, they were sent to Nepal by the Pakistani government to perform at a royal wedding. From 1972, they went out on the Western international circuit and began to perform at charity events in various cities in England. Indeed, their talent and prominence were wholly felt when they became the first qawwali group to perform in America and Canada, invited in 1975 to Carnegie Hall, New York. This same year, they performed extensively in South Africa. For the rest of their careers, they successfully toured the world. Their extensive discography includes 7 concert albums and 85 studio albums, although some were recorded by supporting chorus members of the Sabri Brothers after the deaths of the original members.
End of an Era in Qawwali
Sadly, both Ghulam Farid and Maqbool Ahmed died of heart attacks. Ghulam passed away in 1994 in his beloved brother’s arms while traveling to the hospital in Karachi, Pakistan. Maqbool Ahmed succumbed to cardiac arrest while on tour in South Africa in 2011.
The brothers are buried close to one another.
One of the greatest Qawwali Proponents, the Sabri Brothers, and their Legacy
Bhar Do Jholi Meri Ya Muhammad is still performed prolifically today. It is believed that this spiritual masterpiece was gifted to the Sabri Brothers, at that time still struggling musicians, by the poet Poornam Allahabadi.
Following their deaths, the Sabri Brothers’ legacy was upheld by other family members, including younger brother Mehmood Ghaznavi Sabri and his elder brother Ghulam Farid Sabri’s son, Amjad Sabri. Since their passing in 2021 and 2016, the Sabri Brothers are no longer a performing group. Few musicians have had the colossal impact of Ghulam Farid Sabri and Maqbool Ahmed Sabri. They showed qawwali music to the world, and the world responded with awe.
Frequently Asked Questions
Were the Sabri Brothers married?
A: Ghulam Farid was married to Asghari Begum at 18 and had five sons and six daughters. Maqbool Ahmed was married twice. He bore no children with his first wife, and she passed away during his lifetime. In 1977, he married a South African named Fatima, with whom he had a son and four daughters.
What is their musical lineage?
A: It is believed that the Sabri Brothers are direct descendants of Mian Tansen, a legendary musician of the court of Akbar the Great. Both their paternal and maternal grandfathers were master musicians.