These in-their-own-words pieces are told to Patricia Lane and co-edited with input from the interviewee for the purpose of brevity.
Shumaila Hemani is singing us into climate awareness.
This Alberta-based Sufi singer and songwriter is Artist-in-Residence at Trico Changemakers Studio at Mount Royal University in Calgary. Her prize-winning compositions mix the sounds of climate change-caused catastrophes in South Asia, youthful protests, and her own voice in spoken word, with ancient lyrics, rhythms and tones of Sufi and other South Asian Muslim poets. She was named to the 2023 Women in Music Emerging Artists Honour Roll.
Tell us about your project.
In the traditional South Asian imagination, the monsoon season is a time of joy and bounty. In my debut album Mannat, I weave soundscapes of rainfall and spoken word with prayers of perseverance rooted in South Asian Muslim traditions of singing at Sufi shrines and pre-modern royal courts of Sindh to create a sense of loss and displacement from the floods.
I want listeners to feel the plight of the 33 million climate refugees of the 2022 Pakistan floods, including 16 million children, who face waterborne diseases, hunger and the threat of human trafficking. My song Living with Purpose is a call to action to spread more peace, love and justice. Trial by Fire is a folk tale of a woman mistreated by the state and later unjustly tested by her own people. It calls for a safer world for women and children.
What people are reading
How did you get into this work?
I came to Canada as a graduate student and earned my doctorate in ethnomusicology in 2019 under the mentorship of Regula B. Qureshi at the University of Alberta. In early 2020, when COVID was spreading, I was at sea teaching college courses to 100 undergrad students from around the world aboard the World Odyssey. When the pandemic was declared, the voyage ended but I could not come back to Canada because of travel restrictions. I was at my home in Karachi when the 2020 monsoons began.
I was enculturated to celebrate the arrival of the monsoon, and I was out on my balcony enjoying the weather when the door slammed shut and I was locked out of my apartment. I was forced to listen to the sounds around me in the traffic-free environment of the lockdown. The thunder and sombre sounds of rain mixed with frightened calls for help, the happy voices of children at play and the resonant calls to prayer compelled me to express the multiple dimensions of the monsoon experience in a new way.
I asked how our musical traditions grounded in celebration can also contribute to raising awareness about climate catastrophes. As an ethnomusicologist and Sufi performer singing traditional poetry in Canadian settings, my work could draw attention to the human suffering caused by climate change in places like Pakistan, which has done so little to contribute to the cause.
I composed Perils of Heavy Rainfall to express the darker side of the monsoon. When I sent it to the Listening During COVID contest organized by the Canadian Association for Sound Ecology, it was awarded second prize.
In the 2022 floods, I was deeply affected by a story of a three-year-old girl who went missing in a refugee camp. Her mother’s cry for safe shelter haunts me still and is captured in another song, Displacement.
Our traditional music and poetry are critical to the resilience of our people. They can hold and amplify stories drawn from our lived experience of joy, suffering and the calls we now make for urgent action.
O my lord, bestow prosperity in Sindh forever,
O my sweet friend, shower your blessings around the entire world.
— From Sur Sarang by Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai
Are you having an impact?
I have been invited to perform songs from Mannat at the New Music Festival in Edmonton (in June). My students in both Canada and the United States tell me they are inspired to make more political soundscapes. I spoke at the first-ever Canadian Climate Music Summit, organized by Music Declares Emergency, in Toronto in October. There are not yet many voices in the Global North amplifying those in the Global South. My work seeks to do that.
What makes your work hard?
Very few audiences appreciate the importance of listening to soundscapes.
What gives you hope?
Music can help us move through darkness when there are no visible maps. Until 2020, I was simply an ethnomusicologist and Sufi performer. That day on the balcony of my apartment, I felt compelled to act but had no idea what I could do. I am learning to “fail forward”. Each poem or song will not be very good at first. But it will not exist at all if I do not write that first not-yet-very-good piece.
What do you see if we get this right?
A more just world.
Is there anything you would like to say to other young people?
Connect with both your traditions and the present. Both have much to offer the future.
What about older readers?
Your work is not done. Age is not a deterrent to fulfilling your purpose.