In 2014, a group of music lovers – “almost accidentally” envisaged a journey of musical discovery across Pakistan. The idea simply to listen and enjoy Sufi music with friends very quickly developed into a project of documenting, preserving and disseminating the rich Sufi culture – which culminated in a collective called Dream Journey, who have so far recorded more than 300 Sufi renditions, many of them in the public domain.

The members of Dream Journey travel from different parts of the world to Pakistan for two weeks each year to discover “Sufi artists” who perform their renditions of Sufi kalaams. They give some lesser known musicians opportunities to present their music to new and larger audiences.

We spoke to Arif Ali Khan – founding member of Dream Journey – about the evolution and experiences of the collective whose work has gained popularity in both India and Pakistan.

How did the idea of Dream Journey sprout? Were the members Sufi music lovers?

You guessed right! Three of us in the group, namely Asif Hasnain, Musab Bin Noor and myself had an ongoing interest in Sufi music and poetry. We were already communicating with each other online for ten years and we each had our own blogs on which to comment on each other’s experiences of listening to music.

At one point we started a Facebook group of Classical Qawwali Lovers: this is when Mushtaq Ahmed, an architect from Islamabad, and Mian Shaukat Husain, an engineer from Karachi, started to engage actively with us too. We built a bond among friends which worked as a foundation for the Dream Journey.

In September 2014 I hosted a lovely small baithak with Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad in my home in Montreal, where the focus was on ghazal in qawwali. The evening went so well that it served as a launchpad and inspiration for the idea to arrange a musical journey.

It occurred to me that a week-long musical journey in Pakistan would help us dig deeper to discover new artists: people who would present their unique renditions of the kalams we already knew as well as totally new material. The idea caught on and within weeks of the initial discussion we were set to go.

We hit the ground running in Pakistan. Asif was to come from Thailand, his second home; Mahera Omar, the documentary filmmaker, would travel with us from Karachi; Musab and Mushtaq were successful in taking time off from their active jobs to join us.

Other friends from Canada, Vaqar Ahmed and Zain Mujtaba, who happened to be in Karachi then also became an integral part of the planning and support since they too were serious music lovers.

Our initial aim was simply to listen and enjoy the experience together. Very quickly it developed into a desire to document, preserve, and share freely this rich culture with all audiences. There was a strong desire to showcase lesser known musicians: basically present a platform for all the above to take place.

We had never intended it to be an annual journey we would undertake over the next six years. Also we had no idea of the extent to which uploading the material on YouTube could be so beneficial to the musicians. How it directly translated into increased demand and income for them came as a very pleasant surprise.

You have shot across locations in Pakistan. Has Pakistan managed to preserve Sufi music traditions? Many Islamic literalists don’t seem to appreciate this art form.

Sufi music is certainly heard all over Pakistan in the dargahs of Sufi sants. The number of listeners too has steadily grown. The ‘mullah element’, who at times look down upon music, haven’t really had a substantial impact on reducing these numbers.

There was a brief period during the Zia ul Haq era that music faced a huge challenge, however, that decade-long struggle is quite far behind us and music appears to be flourishing again.

The advent of music channels like Coke Studio, the Lahore Music Forum, All Pakistan Music Conference, Patari Music and the Tehzeeb Festival have been instrumental in bringing millions of new listeners to Pakistani music. I’d like to feel that we are beginning to make a little difference too.

Has the project changed its members spiritually in any sense?

I think the project has changed us all in the sense that it has become an integral part of lives. It is a subject of daily discussions among us and with our friends. Sufi music by default brings with it a degree of spirituality and peace of mind and body. This is why it is so powerful and has a universal appeal. We all feel deeply connected to it and learn new things from it all the time.

Musab’s translations from Urdu, Farsi and Punjabi have been an educational experience in themselves. Each of our videos contains English translations which will help listeners to feel the songs and connect more closely.

Ustad Fareed Ayaz is one of the most loved artists amongst India in Sufi music lover circles: what do you think distinguishes him from others?

Fareed Ayaz in particular has that ability to deliver spellbinding performances. It is a combination of the manner in which he expresses his emotions with the extent of his knowledge of kalams and raagdari. He is a true master of his craft and it shows.

Our job with him was to research what his forefathers were singing and explore the finest works that had not been sung in recent years: those that deserved to be recorded for future generations to enjoy.

I’d like to believe that we have achieved that to some degree after having recorded him on five occasions.

You travelled across Pakistan for this project: you must have a lot of anecdotes to share with us?

One such anecdote is from the summer of 2016 and the person was Shafi Muhammad Faqeer, to whom I was initially introduced a few years earlier by Shabnam Virmani’s film Had Anhad, of the Kabir Project based in Bangalore.

We reached out to the Kabir Project to try to get his phone number. We waited a bit, followed up and since we did not get a positive response we decided to call around some more to reach out to contacts in the music world and in Sindh.

I had found out from a friend in Toronto that Shafi Faqeer was from Umerkot. As a result, among other ways I started to look for establishments in his hometown in the hope of finding some link.

Out of sheer frustration I called up a couple of local hotels off the internet to ask if they knew Shafi Faqeer. The folks at the other end sounded quite bewildered, and likely thought that this man calling from Montreal needed something better to do. Sadly, there was no luck there either.

Finally, a wild idea! I called the local police station in Umerkot. A well-educated sounding gent attended the phone and spoke very respectfully. He identified himself as the SHO in-charge and was overjoyed to learn that I was looking for Shafi sahib.

Over the phone I could sense him smiling widely when he responded, “Saeen unko kaun nahin jaanta. Ji bhai mere paas unka number hai. Mein aapko abhi deta hun.” (Who doesn’t know of him? Yes I have his number, let me just give it to you.)

And then the SHO lovingly went on and on about how proud the people of Umerkot were of this amazing musician. It was truly heart-warming to get Shafi Faqeer’s number from someone completely unknown to us: one who could literally be called a thanedaar.

Another incident had to do with the late Ustad Ameer Ali Khan of Dipalpur, Punjab back in 2014. I am reminded of this due to several recent comments from viewers.

We had a brief discussion with Khansaheb about content and quite easily agreed on how we would proceed. A few of the traditional gharana pieces from his repertoire were highlighted. Things that were unique to his ancestors and a few others including a Faiz ghazal, a Ghulam Fareed Kaafi and some sufiyana poetry including a manqabat on Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti.

He started to sing and after ending each track he would pause, talk some and then continue with the next. Close to the start he asked if we would want to listen to Chaap Tilak. We unanimously declined, mostly because we had heard so many versions of Chaap Tilak and also because it is so easily accessible to listeners.

After he had sung a couple of other pieces he again expressed the desire to sing Chaap Tilak. Yet again the offering was politely declined by us. He seemed a trifle disappointed, but Khan saheb was one who wished to please his audience so he didn’t protest.

After another two qawwalis, he said for a third time that he would like to sing Chaap Tilak. At this point we felt it would be downright rude to decline again. When the recital began we were all quite taken by it. In a magical rendition with his own personal twist, he added girahs in Punjabi and Urdu that were completely new to us. We have often looked back on how silly we were to not want it to be recorded.

How do you manage this project and how you intend to continue it?

The project is mostly self financed. All recording costs, artists’ fees and travel costs are borne by the team themselves. Most of the editing costs have also been borne by team members with a little help from a few friends who have made contributions. We do not have any corporate or government funding. In fact, we have hesitated in seeking this with the fear of future interference into our independent ability to record artists and dictate our content.

Since its inception several of the Dream Journey videos have been used in class by universities in America and Canada to act as a tool for teachers of the Urdu language as well as for Islamic Studies courses.

Quite frequently we get phone calls from India appreciating the work we are doing. Some have expressed the desire to emulate a similar project in India because it appears like a lot of fun and an enriching experience.