“You will not hear a song by me which doesn’t have God in it.” Irfan Ali Taj talks about his spiritual journey
In 2017, Irfan Ali Taj found himself locked away in his home, a dark cloud of depression gathering over him. His classical guitar and wooden rubab lay barely touched by his bedroom wall. His grief brought him to a standstill, turning him away from the art he loved, igniting negative thoughts, the fumes of which seemed to consume him.
“You cannot meet friends, you cannot watch T.V., you cannot talk on the phone, you cannot read a book. You can’t do anything. You just think. You think and you regret, picking at the negative, ignoring the positive.”
It was from this veil of darkness that Taj crafted Ibn E Adam, released last month as the first single in Karachi-based studio AforAleph’s lineup of summer releases on its record label AforAleph Records. Produced by Umair Dar, the song features Aziz Kazi on drums, Saif Abbas Rizwan on the bass, Zishan Mansoor and Zahid Qureshi in the strings section, and Lenny Massey on the keyboards. Its chorus immediately imprints itself — wrapped in the sincerity of Taj’s vocal tone, and set over the affecting notes of Mansoor’s slide guitar, it cuts straight to the heart, speaking to one’s vulnerability. That place inside all of us where we hold our flaws, and the grief they cause us. In this time of isolation, Ibn E Adam reminds us that we are all human, and maybe not so alone after all.
In 2020, Irfan Ali Taj waxes poetic as he expounds on life, the human condition, and the Divine. Woven with philosophy and spirituality, his conversation is peppered with the words of Sufi poets. He quotes from the Qur’an and talks about Mansur Al-Hallaj and Pir Nasir Khushro, always providing context to the views he’s expressing. No matter how many twists and turns his conversation takes, he seems to possess an uncanny ability to always bring it back to point, never getting lost in the many branches of his own thoughts. It is through the lens of his spirituality that Taj sees the world and, in doing so, he has found a kind of personal magic. At one point during the conversation, he animatedly exclaims, “How can one look at a cat and not think this is magical?!”
Ibn E Adam was written three years ago, when Taj’s internal compass seemed to have malfunctioned, broken by the loss of something important to him. The decade he had invested in this part of his life, only to have lost it, began to seem to Taj like a terrible mistake. He saw himself as a, “ghaltiyon ka putla,” – the personification of error – as he sings now in Ibn E Adam. “I was feeling like I’d lost everything because of this mistake,” he now remembers. His love for music was fading, as the circumstances of his loss took over his thoughts, draining his energy to do anything at all.
The bleakness inside him began to manifest in the world around him. The vices of urban society, which he had been witness to since moving to Karachi for his matriculation, became harder and harder to ignore. An educated person breaking a traffic signal, fathers holding a cigarette in one hand and their young child’s hand in the other, his friend’s throwing trash at chai dhabbas. Even now, as Taj talks about these things, his voice raises, taking on a sharpness, and animated hand gestures enter the conversation. “If I’m not talking to [my friends] about [these things] which are wrong, it’s hurting me inside,” he exclaims, “These are terrible things for a Chitrali guy!”
Exactly a day and thirty years before this conversation takes place, Irfan Ali Taj was born to Mohsin Ali and Sabira Mohsin in Passum, a small village nestled in the mountains of Upper Chitral. The village is home to Taj’s extended family — an elaborate joint family system spread out over the mudbrick homes that dot the valley floor. “We are all like brothers and sisters,” explains Taj, “We had a beautiful childhood. The beauty was the people around me.”
Taj’s days would begin at 7:00 a.m. — he would set off for school on foot, with an entire bevy of cousins in tow. After school, he would help take care of the animals and fields, or go off with his cousins, climbing the mulberry and apricot trees that grow lush and green in Passum. When the weather was warm enough, the children would swim in the sparkling, fresh water of the river that climbed down from the mountains, weaving through the village. “Claiming a bull as yours and taking care of it like that’s the only thing you have to do in life,” Taj laughs as he remembers now.
Tucked away from modern civilization’s ever-onward march, Taj didn’t see electricity till the fifth grade, when it first came to Passum. As the sun went down, Taj’s cousins would get the gas lamps ready for dinner. “I remember making the task an excuse not to pray,” he smiles as he remembers this little detail. Life was, “more human. You could just walk into someone’s home, they knew you won’t harm them, we knew they won’t stop us.” At night, aunts, uncles and cousins would congregate for dinner. Afterwards, the adults would entertain themselves with playing cards and carrom board, their talking and laughter echoing in the warm light of their homes.
Against this backdrop of nature springing forth, uninhibited and free, Taj gave his first performances, reciting qaseedas for his family. This is where his imagination was first ignited while watching Khalifas — members of the Syed family who pray for the souls of the departed at funerals. Accompanying the Sufi poetry that they sang was the gharba, a wooden, string instrument. Taj, in the fourth grade then, declared to his Taya (Uncle) that he wanted a gharba as well.
Chitral’s unfettered display of nature’s bounty inspires Taj’s music even today. “I never had the privilege to listen to great records in my childhood. I didn’t have any such inspiration. My inspiration was my way of living, the nature around me, the water, the animals. I remember every plant in my village, every mountain, every stone.”
His music isn’t the only thing Chitral gifted to Taj. His upbringing was steeped in values that guide his inner compass to this day. Respect, honesty, love of community and nature — these are the building blocks on which he has built his life. In 2017, the contradiction between urban society and his own values began to burn into Taj’s soul. Joining hands with the loss he had experienced, they began to take away the thing most dear to him: his connection to the Divine. “I asked God, ‘If everything is from you, then why is there so much sin? If you are in everything, why is everything so wrong?’”
“When you lose faith in God,” explains Taj, “it feels like you have lost everything, even when you’ve gained everything in the world.” He never stopped talking to God, but his complaints, his prayers, he felt, were going unanswered. For Taj, this distance from God was not just a distance from an entity outside of him, it was disconnection from himself.
Here Taj dips into Sufism to explain his point — inside of us, he says, burn two fires, of Nafs E Ammara, the negative, and the Nafs E Saleha, the positive. Whichever fire we add fuel to, with our actions and thoughts, burns stronger. With his Nafs E Ammara threatening to take over, his disconnection with his Nafs E Saleha, the presence of the Divine within him, left Taj feeling desolate and lost.
It was these feelings that he put into words in Ibn E Adam when he wrote “Tujh ko kho deeya aese, jese baadlon mein urhta chaand, nigahon se ujhal, ek jhalak mein,” – I have lost you God, like the moon in the sky, here one second, out of sight the next. “Ab tau mein hoon, bebasi hai, rooh baru meri khudhi se,” — Now it’s just me and my helplessness, my own soul has turned away from me.
Ibn E Adam, however, is not just a song about loss and disconnection – it’s a song about transformation. Three years later, there is no bitterness, no anger in Taj as he looks back at this time. There is, instead, profound wisdom and gratitude for the transformation that was set in motion. “Every single day in your life is designed for you. If you accept the sorrows and the hard times, they support you.”
In songwriting and poetry, Taj began to find solace. “When you put your energy into what you create, then it’s out of you. When you’re writing, you are giving birth to a feeling and when that feeling is in a physical shape, it will no longer give you the depression it was giving you inside of you. Art helps you when nothing can help you.”
Taj also turned to his love of reading, spending long hours going through books that spoke to his inner-conflict. Returning to the poetry of the Sufi saints in which he had always found guidance, Taj began to rediscover the meaning of connection, to oneself and to God. Looking for ways to help people, Taj began giving music lessons. For some of his students, those that were struggling – with depression, anxiety, or life’s circumstances – building a connection with music proved to be transformative.
Even when he couldn’t hear any answers, Taj continued to speak to God, keeping up with his religious practices. As his heart began to open to himself, he began to hear and see God around him. Then, one day, God’s answer came so resoundingly, that it was impossible to ignore it. After his first single, Ashiqi Angar, was released, Taj did not have the funds to put out anymore songs. Living on an artist’s income, he found himself surviving on bread and milk for days at a time.
In the ibadat gah (place of worship) one day, Taj asked God for any guidance, any help at all, on his musical journey. With this prayer still in his heart, he came outside to a call on his phone from an international number. Calling him all the way from Memphis was Anwar Aman, a Chitrali settled in the United States. Just that morning, his son had shown him a video of Ashiqi Angar. Touched by the song’s power to connect his son to Chitral, while so far removed from his home culture, Aman reached out personally to thank Taj. The interaction led to Aman sponsoring the production of Taj’s next two songs, and their videos.
After his second song, Dunya Jo Baso, was released, he met a girl in Lahore who revealed that she had been suffering from depression for years. When she heard Dunya Jo Baso, she found herself listening to it constantly, it’s music and lyrics healing the wounds inside of her. “This is more than anything to me. More than success, money, luxuries. It’s the inspiration and energy taking me forward.” It is these connections that keep Taj going and remain the motivation behind his songwriting.
And so, with time, Taj began to move forward from the despair that had once plagued him, his Nafs E Saleha glowing brighter. The journey brought him important insight — “You’re complete as you are, you’re unique. Being disconnected from yourself and being disconnected from the truth is normal in a human. When you accept your [circumstances] and embrace [them], you uplift your energy, you uplift your soul. That is when you hear God.”
The presence of the Divine, within him and around him, is more resounding to Taj than ever before. It is a relationship that’s now based on love and gratitude, rather than desire and dissatisfaction. “Having luxuries and then being grateful is not gratitude. Gratitude is embracing whatever you have,” Taj now feels. “I just love Him. I don’t pray, or praise Him for anything in return. I praise Him because He’s great.” And this Greatness is manifest to Taj in the trees, in the winds, in mountains, in the cat passing by him that he decrees, “magical”.
“God is inside you. When I choose to do wrong, it’s not because He’s wrong. I’m neglecting Him,” he states. Music, for Taj, is the most profound expression of the Divine inside him. “Every time I’m playing a melody, He’s there. You will not see a song by me which doesn’t have God in it. My lyrics are always around spirituality. I cannot make songs so truly as I can about things which are inside me and God is inside me. Whatever I write, it is all his blessing. Not my efforts. I’m just trying to be aligned with Him.” Taj explains that his God, “is musical. He talks to me. He’s very merciful. Even when you’re complaining, he’s knocking at your door. He’s very personal to me.”
Ibn E Adam came with Taj to AforAleph in 2018, when he struck up a friendship with founder Umair Dar. Sitting on his bedroom sofa one day, guitalele in hand, Taj began to play the song for those gathered. Dar was immediately drawn in by the lyrics and the melody, and encouraged him to work on it more. Taj has gone on to become an integral part of the team at AforAleph, currently an artist-in-residency at the studio. Ibe E Adam was one of the first songs to be recorded at AforAleph’s facilities, an apt collaboration, considering that it mirrors the vision behind the space.
“Ibn E Adam speaks of us being one race, one collective and at Aleph we’re driven by the vision that we’re all part of one consciousness,” explains Dar, “We need to respect each other’s ways of expression because it helps us grow together. This song is about the human journey, about learning, which makes it ideal for our first release.”
The team at AforAleph built over Taj’s folk roots, importing a more varied harmonic and chordal vocabulary from jazz and the blues to give Ibn E Adam a sound that sets it apart from the barebones, acoustic sound of Taj’s previous singles. As the Universe would have it, post-production delays led to the song being ready for release just as the entire world has come to a standstill, forced to go inwards and examine what it means to be human, making the song more pertinent now than ever.
It was only recently that Taj wrote the last stanza of Ibn E Adam, with the perspective gifted to him by time. “Kiun saazishon mein khoya, asal se dur jaata, khudee ko azmata Ibn E Adam” — drowning in conspiracies, distant from the truth, the son of Adam wears himself out. To Taj, Ibn E Adam, is no longer a song about grief or being lost; it’s a song about acceptance and forgiveness, towards oneself and others. On this path, he found the truth, of himself and of the Divine.