BY KARIM H. KARIM
Shamshu Jamal passed away in Vancouver on December 27, 2019, leaving behind a substantial musical legacy. He was a virtuoso singer as well as a lyricist, composer, musician and teacher with admirers around the world. His vast repertoire of ghazals, geets, bhajans and ginans was performed in numerous countries on several continents.
Born in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanganyika, 83 years ago, Shamshu learnt the rudiments of Indian music from his father but did not receive formal training. As a teenager, he would sneak into the performances of visiting artistes from India. Shamshu’s passion drove him to expand his musical knowledge through research, careful listening and constant practice. His circle of performers were members of the diaspora that had crossed the Indian Ocean to settle in Africa.
Emigrating to Vancouver in 1973, he soon emerged as a prominent singer in the growing South Asian communities of Canada. Overflowing audiences attended Shamshu’s concerts, where he sang in Hindi, Urdu and Gujarati. His fellow musicians were of Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and other backgrounds.
Jamal’s performances were celebrated events even into his eighties. Audiences were delighted at the way he maintained his vocal range and the high notes of alaaps as evening concerts flowed into the early morning. Apart from devotional material and heart-rending ghazals, he also regaled his audiences with playful songs.
Shamshu achieved particular distinction as a lyricist and composer of geets honouring His Highness the Aga Khan’s jubilees. The signature Gujarati composition “Mara Mowla Canada Padharshe,” written four decades ago, continues to be sung to this day. It articulated the newly arrived community’s anxiety of uprootedness as well as its aspirations for renewal.
Despite his success and fame, Shamshu remained grounded in family and community. His natural expression was a smile on the lips and a twinkle in the eye. His humour was legendary – he had a joke for almost every occasion. He was a loving family man and a devoted friend to many. His musical legacy has passed to a multitude of students and to his children and grandchildren, with whom he produced several recordings.
Shamshu Jamal’s final farewell is expressed in a ghazal of Shakeel Badayuni, Aakhri Waqt Hai Saans Hai Aakhri, which he used to sing: “Duniya walo mubarak ho duniya tumhe, Kar chale hum salaam akhri.”
(With contributions from Riyaz Jamal, Imran Karim and Irshad Karim.)