The exploration of connections between flamenco, the main musical and dance tradition of Andalusia and the Romani people of Spain, and the music of the ‘Islamic world’ has been in vogue in recent years. Countless collaborative and ‘fusion’ projects have brought together artists and musicians from across the Strait of Gibraltar and beyond. Some of these projects, including Tony Gatlif’s 1993 film, Latcho Drom, have attempted to trace Romani routes from South Asia to the Iberian Peninsula. Others, such as Faiz Ali Faiz’s Qawwali-Flamenco, have focussed on the genre’s perceived ‘Islamic roots’ in Al Andalus. Having been born and brought up in Gibraltar with family on both sides of the Strait, I have long been interested in music from across the Mediterranean. My own interest in the Islamic history of Andalusia developed over time and eventually led to my decision to train as an anthropologist specialising in music and sound in Islamic contexts. Although I have been drawn to these attempts to ‘uncover’ lost connections or ‘bridge’ cultural gaps between the place I was born and the music I love, many of these projects have unfortunately failed to impress me. While some productions achieve popular, commercial and critical success they have often represented a fairly superficial and unequal engagement across musical boundaries geared towards particular audiences of ‘world music’ consumers.
This changed in late 2009. Whilst listening to a weekly flamenco radio programme on Spanish national radio, I came across a voice which made a huge impact on me. The radio presenter said little before playing a recording announcing the name of the performer as ‘Abdul Aziz Balouch’ and mentioning he was a Pakistani singer who had travelled to Spain in the early twentieth century. The recording was an immaculate rendition of a Malagueña – one of the traditional styles of flamenco song. Balouch’s voice was moving and though there was little to tell that the singer was not from Spain, the idea of a singer travelling from Pakistan to Spain to study flamenco almost a century ago completely took hold of my imagination.
Years passed and I was unable to find much more information about this singer or any of his recordings. The radio presenter’s announcement gave me little to search with on Google or in libraries. I had given up all hope of listening to this voice again until one day I managed to find, by chance, an online bookseller in England with a lot for sale containing books by an author called Azizullah Balouch. Amongst the various books – with titles like What is a Sufi?, Mystic Songs of Islam, Selections from the Poems of Shah Latif – was one titled Spanish Cante Jondo and Its Origin in Sindhi Music. I realised that this must be the same singer I had heard years ago, purchased the books immediately and waited impatiently for them to arrive at my door. Upon delivery I opened the first page and was struck by an image of Balouch wearing a karakul hat with Spanish guitar in hand. I was sure I had found the man behind the voice I had heard years ago. As I read through the pages, I slowly began to piece together a rich and fascinating life of a fellow soul who had a similar passion for music, flamenco and Islamic history and culture. A life which intersected with mine in multiple ways – not only did we share these interests but Gibraltar, my home town had been a central part of his life journey. While my attempts to learn about this extraordinary life have since been extensive, taking me in the opposite direction, from Gibraltar to Sindh, there are still many gaps in his story.