Monday, July 14, 2008

Farrah: Searching for 500 Faces of Islam

Farrah 13 - by Simon Toplis

I first met Farrah through this very blog, when I wrote about urban crime and she got in touch. We chatted and became mates before working out she'd grown up a few school years below Dusk.

Then one day she sent me the shittiest recorded loop of her singing an Indian scale. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. As a journalist you learn to trust this reaction instinctively and absolutely. I suggested the three of us try record some of her singing. She features on three of our album tracks.

But since then she's taken on the most amazing challenge for Channel 4. Here in interview, Farrah explains all...

Farrah 76 - by Simon Toplis

Blackdown: So Farrah, obviously you’ve sung on several of the tracks on our album “Margins Music”, but recently you’ve got yourself involved with a proper project: travelling the Islamic world for Channel 4 to find 500 men called Osama. So with that in mind, introduce yourself those unfamiliar with your voice…

Farrah: Well, I’m genuinely passionate about the electronic urban sounds that come out of this, undoubtedly the greatest city on the planet. By trade I’m a junior doctor, but I’ve always loved music and have sung since I was at school, writing with friends or more latterly, singing on electronic tunes created by a friend using software like Cubase. Though I am of Pakistani blood, I’ve never had any training in classical Indian music. On “Margins Music,” the vocals I’ve done are definitely reaching back to my subcontinental roots, but in a pretty freeform fashion. As an amateur, essentially, I’ve not really developed any sort of concrete vocal style so it was a refreshing challenge to sing to spec for “Margins Music” in terms of style.

B: Can you explain to everyone a little about your cultural, national and ethnic heritage? (Southend massive, stand up!)

F: My parents came over to the UK from Pakistan as economic migrants and I was born in Essex – Southend on sea. I grew up listening to jungle on the pirate radio and of course, was in the heart of the 2-step garage phenomenon in the 90s. I consider myself British and proud, but I’m lucky enough to have some extra cultural elements from my eastern parentage that are really positive – respectful attitudes towards the elderly, strong family values, impeccable hospitality. Ethnically, I’m pureblooded Punjabi with Kashmiri ancestry. Overall though, the part of my identity that is the strongest is my Britishness – perhaps not the sort of Britishness of stiff upper lips and twitching net curtains, but more the kind that you feel in the air of London town, unrivalled in its rich diversity and tolerance.

Searching for 500 Faces of Islam

Farrah with her camera man/producer Masood

B: You’re about to begin filming something quite unique for Channel 4. Explain the outline and it’s purpose of the trip you’re about to embark on?

F: I’m about to go round the world in 50 days looking for 500 people called Osama to ask each of them what they love. Why am I doing it? Cos I’m irritated at the way people see Muslims. I’m not doing this to chat about Islam – in fact, I’m personally pretty secular – but to show that people that belong to the Muslim community are the same as people everywhere else. We all want the same stuff – we love the same things. I guess it’s a sort of rehumanising project. One key thing I want to emphasise is that it’s going to be lighthearted in spirit – something that I feel has been lacking whenever Muslims are mentioned for some time. I’m sure it’s going to be a positive project, and at the very least, an incredible experience for me personally.

Now let me ask you a question: Do you know anyone called Osama? If so, please hit me up on the website:

B: What are the countries you plan to visit and what are your expectations for each one?

F: Right now we’re planning to start in the UK and then take ourselves down to Northern Nigeria for the first foreign leg of the mission – I’m damn excited and my expectations are that it’s going to be hot, hilarious, delicious, thought-provoking and a heady whirl. I am very keen on getting some Nigerian threads inna area. Next time you see me I’ll be wearing one of those lush headdresses with a fishtail cotton print skirt and eating some fufu.

Farrah 70 - by Simon Toplis

B: Looking at the trip in its entirety, what are your expectations for the impact on you as a British Muslim for the journey?

F: I don’t think that this trip will have much of an impact on any personal religious or spiritual beliefs I have. At least, I hope it won’t turn me towards being more ritualistic about religion and spirituality. I do hope that it makes me a better doctor – I think that the more people you meet and the more diverse and broad your experiences are, the ability to empathise increases. I think I’ll be shocked by attitudes towards women in some areas. Luckily, being a doctor means that often in such societies one is treated as an honorary man, but not always. If I get sidelined for being a woman and people refuse to engage with me or talk to me on that basis, it’ll make me really cross. For 6 years now I’ve been regularly immersing myself in the Islamic world, mainly in the Middle East, and I find it an incredible enriching and vibrant part of the world, but I’ve never been to south east Asia or sub Saharan Africa. I’m hoping I will come away a wiser person with a little more depth.

B: Who are you most excited about meeting? Where are you most excited about visiting?

F: Honestly? Honestly?? I’ve gotta tell you the truth – I find most people utterly fascinating if you scratch the surface. Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has tender secrets, dark secrets, hopes and desires, bizarre dreams, ambitions. Having met a couple of very famous people in my life, it’s become quite clear that what they have is really no more fascinating than an unknown Joe Bloggs with a comparatively pedestrian existence. The key is teasing out those tantalising nuggets and fascinating details that make up each person. I cannot wait to begin meeting ALL the Osamas, but I suppose the ones who are “featured” Osamas will be people with whom I can spend more time, get to know and bond with. I’m most excited about visiting our first stop – Nigeria!!

B: Conversely, what are your concerns for the trip?

F: I’m bloody scared of cockroaches. I have a penchant for sampling gnarly looking street food that may leave me confined to the water closet for days if I’m not careful. I loathe religious extremists and find it difficult to bite my tongue when I see people being unjust and unreasonable and forcing their opinions down other people’s throats.

Farrah 102 - by Simon Toplis

B: From this vantage point, pre trip, do you expect your sense of identity or outlook to be affected in any way at a result of the journey?

F: As a Londoner, one constantly lives in a microcosm of the world, so long as you venture across postcodes, so I’m constantly saturated in ethno-cultural diversity here at home without even venturing out of the city. I think the main change in my outlook is a heightened appreciation of the liberties we enjoy in this country compared to many parts of the world – e.g. places where Shariah law applies.

The other thing I think I’ll have a heightened sense of is how much anger and resentment there is towards our government for what we’ve done and joined with the Americans in doing around the world. We all know this is the case anyway, but coming face to face with the bubbling frustration and rage that so many people feel towards our government will be sobering and may make me a little bit more committed to making my voice heard on political issues back in the UK.

B: Do you expect to encounter much music on your trip?

F: Hell yes – I hope so. To start with Nigeria, the land of Afrobeat and Fela Kuti, the region of body-shaking West African drums, is a music lover’s wet dream isn’t it? I am ready to be educated about Nigerian music and hungry to hear it and maybe even help make some. I hope that if we get to the Middle East, I can have the unparalleled experiences of listening to the throaty, emotional, melodic sounds of Umm Kalthoum singing on the banks of the Nile with a shisha and a fragrant Turkish coffee.

Arab music gets a bad rep for being melodically uninspiring and unambitious but I think that the backbone of Middle Eastern percussion is such a pure and primordial aural pleasure that I’m willing to overlook any number of repetitive string section sweeps and boring song structures just to hear that Bedouin drum beat. Don’t worry Martin, I’ll bring back a selection of cross pollinating transcultural sample sources for your next project!

B: Damn girl, now you’re talkin’: I’m gonna hold you to that!!!

“Searching for 500 Faces of Islam” is due to air on Channel 4 this autumn. For regular updates check including her daily journal.


Unknown said...

really nice interview. i hope the show goes well and gets syndicated in the states. muslim culture here still gets stigmatized and unjustly over-generalized in the midst of dubya's 2 ongoing crusades...obviously. we all need a little rehumanizing more than ever.

Anonymous said...

Damn, brilliant interview,and good to see someone looking to present Muslims as people first and foremost, far too many people in public and the media treat them as a homogenous group of "outsiders".

It's amazing how much ignorance there is about Muslim culture, I hope this helps.

Would love to have a chance to chat to Farrah at some point, really interesting woman, pretty inspirational. Singing isn't bad either!

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