Riffat Sultana channels the musical wisdom of 500 years and eleven generations of master musicians in her family in India and Pakistan. But in all those years, she is the first woman to sing in public. For a Muslim woman in a traditional country, such a career simply was not appropriate. Perhaps one reason her performances today have such overwhelming emotional power is that she sings for all the woman in her distinguished family who never had that chance before. For Riffat, it took moving to the United States to free her musical soul. Now, her amazing voice is being heard around the world, including a featured spot in the 2004 We Are The Future concert, produced by Quincy Jones in Rome, Italy. Where doors were always closed to her, now they are opening everywhere, and Riffat has collaborated with singers and songwriters from all over the world. At last free to create and perform as she pleases, Riffat now leads a unique, intimate acoustic ensemble featuring tabla, world percussion, and her husband Richard Michos on guitar. The Party, as she calls it, is the perfect vehicle to showcase one of the most passionate and exciting new voices in world music.
Riffat’s father, Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, is a musical icon, one of the most respected classical singers in India and Pakistan. In 1947, when Pakistan became a nation, he walked hundreds of miles from his Punjabi village, Sham Churasi, into Pakistan. At the time, Sham Churasi had no fame, but soon it would be widely known as the name of Ustad Salamat’s school & of music, or garana. Riffat’s mother Razia is also a gifted vocalist, from India, descended from a line of highly respected Shiite musicians. However, as with all other women in the family, she was never allowed to perform in public, only in Sufi ceremonies held in the family home. For Riffat, one of four sisters and four brothers, this prohibition became a torment. Music is in my blood, my soul, she says. I saw my father wake up early in the morning and practice, my brothers sitting next to him, and me standing outside the room, so interested. I didn’t want to go to school, I didn’t want to do anything. I just wanted to be like my brothers and learn music.
Denied the chance to study classical music, Riffat took to learning romantic ghazals and other traditional/ popular songs from relatives, tapes and the radio. Family friends recognized her unusual talent and remarkable ability to hear songs and sing them readily.
Some offered to teach her, but her father always refused. Riffat’s troubles compounded when her engagement to a cousin, also skilled musician, was unexpectedly broken, leaving her heartbroken and desolate. Despite his insistence that women not sing, Riffat’s father was a kind and loving man, and always a friend to her. It wounded him to see his daughter so unhappy, so he made the unusual move of offering to take her on tour with him in Europe and the United States in 1990-91. For a young woman who had not even seen much of Lahore, the city in which she lived, this was a remarkable opportunity. Riffat would still not be allowed to sing, and would have to work very hard to fulfill the domestic needs of her father and brothers during the tour, but she was allowed to play the tambura (a stringed, drone instrument) onstage, a great honor, and also an eye opener.
I had never seen any of my father’s shows in Pakistan, recalls Riffat. The first show was in Holland, a big show in a beautiful church. I was so happy. I didn’t care how much work they gave me. I just felt that I was sitting in heaven.