Pakistani Singer Riffat Sultana Breaks with Tradition, Sings in Public

Riffat Sultana is the first woman in her family to sing publicly. Ever. Given that the men in her very conservative Muslim family have a 500-year history of making music, it's safe to say that music is in her blood. Tradition prevented Sultana, the daughter of the late classical singer Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, from performing in public until she left Pakistan.

She took her first step towards a career when she accompanied her father and brothers on a world tour in 1990 -- not as a performer, of course. She was a caretaker, cooking and cleaning for her family on the road. "I don't care how much work they gave me, I was happy," she tells Art Attack in a heavily accented lilt. The experience allowed her to learn her father's repertoire and whetted her appetite for performing.

Eventually, her father returned to Pakistan, but left Sultana and a brother in United States. Sultana met and fell in love with Richard Michos, an American guitarist who had studied with her father during his visits to the west. The two were married in 1996. Today they perform Sufi, folk and fusion music together...just not in Pakistan.


"Pakistan is not too liberal for woman, they not respect much," says Sultana. "That's why my brother and my dad not allow me to sing in Pakistan. In Pakistan, they don't think of art, they think of [it] some other way. They take it I say...prostitute? Any Pakistani women singer, they don't respect them. We are classical family and we have very big image in Pakistan. I love all my brothers. Two of them are very strict, but they know I am singing in America. They say, 'Sing in America where nobody see you. Don't come here to our country to sing.' They don't allow me to sing because they don't want people disrespect me. I don't feel this is bad thing. It's our culture."

She might not think the prohibition against women performing in public is a "bad thing," but it wasn't something Sultana was willing to live with; she says her need to sing and perform was too strong to resist. "It's very good time when I'm on the stage. I feel very happy and relaxed. Music is in my soul. Anytime I singing on the stage or doing practice, I feel like I am praying. This is beautiful. My brothers, they can't stop me doing this."

"When I am ten year old, I am trying learn all that stuff my dad is teaching to my brothers. My dad not allow me. He say, 'If I am in India, maybe I teach you, maybe I give you permission to sing.' But by myself, I am listening to what he is teaching my brothers.

"In the beginning, when I starting touring with my father on his world tour, I am just taking care of him. But I push myself. I don't just stay in my country and not sing."

With encouragement from Michos, Sultana, a talented and engaging performer, eventually began singing in the United States for Pakistani-American audiences, albeit without the knowledge or permission of her family.

The singer credits her move to the United States with making her career possible. "This opportunity America gave me. If I don't came to America, I don't get to sing. It's very good for me living here."

Sultana's success has had a ripple effect on the other women in her family. "My cousins and sisters, they all have beautiful voice, on both my mother and my father side of the family. But they are not allowed to sing. They wish they are like me. Now my cousins see me and a few more of them are starting this career, they stand for themself. I am telling all of them, 'If you have a talent, don't be shy and don't be scare.' They listening me right now. They are leaving our country and starting their life and they are good artist, too."

Over the years, Sultana has performed and recorded with a variety of musicians, including Algerian DJ, Cheb I Sabbah, Ben Harper, Khaled, Hakim, Jeff Beck and Simon Shaheen, becoming a leader in both traditional and fusion music. But for all her success in the west, Sultana still dreams of performing in her home country.

"I start my career in United States, but someday I want to go to Pakistan or India to sing. One day I'm going to go and sing over there."

Riffat Sultana appears at the fusion concert The Full Circle Tour: dj Cheb i Sabbah and Riffat Sultana & Party at 7:30 p.m. on August 25 at the Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore. For information, visit the center's website or call 713-496-9901. $20 to $25.

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Olivia Flores Alvarez