Numan Azmi: Social Entrepreneur, mentor and Islamic Songs performer.
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Entrepreneur, Mentor, and Islamic Singer:
Numan Azmi is a well-established Bangladeshi born social entrepreneur whose main focus is to see positive transformation of people from ethnic minority background in Greater Manchester. He does this by providing support, advice and guidance to the BME community to help them maximise their potential whether as business communities or individual enterprises. Even though his business commitments currently take most of his time, Numan engages in singing religious spiritual songs that praises the prophet and Allah, as well as songs that talk about his Islamic faith. Numan was born to a very well-known Islamic scholar which exposed him to Islamic songs which he sang in family gatherings at a very young age leading to his taking part in various religious song competitions during his teenage years. Later in late 70s, he joined a group, Saimum Shilpi Goshti (Saimum Artist Group), which was formed by Poet Motiur Rahman Mollik, a prominent reformer of Islamic cultural activities in Bengali diaspora, and performing all around the country. Later in the early 80s, while he was in his 20s, he became the Director of the group.
“I was born and bred in the capital of Bangladesh in Dhaka. I started taking part in various competitions and I started winning. Not becoming first, but second or third. I never became first…(these were)..singing competitions, religious songs. There’s no instruments involved and it was predominantly singing songs originally composed by certain people who were very well known in our country. One of them is our national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam. And then, in my mid-teens, my father was, as well as being a scholar a very well-known politician and his party formed an Islamic choir, a group that performed Islamic songs. When his party formed it, they knew about my involvement, so they wanted me to join. So I joined the group as a teenager in 1978, and then I was involved with the group and we started performing all around the country. Then in the early to mid-80s, I became the Director of the group when I was in my early 20s. …….. That group is the most famous and popular Islamic spiritual group in Bengali in the world. Wherever there is Bangladeshi diaspora, they know that group’s name.”
Numan described the group as:
“……...It’s called Saimum. The two other words are Bengali words: Saimum Shilpi Goshti. Shilpi means – artist, Goshti means group. So, in other words, Saimum Artist Group. And the name. was given by the founder. The guy who founded the group, Poet Motiur Rahman Mollik……. he’s passed away now. He is known as the most prominent reformer of Islamic cultural activities in Bengali diaspora. Singer, songwriter, composer, organiser, writer, poet, he was many things. He was a man of many talents.”
This group, according to Numan, has inspired hundreds of similar Bangladeshi artists’ groups which have since sprung up around the world wherever there are Bangladeshi diaspora including such group in London. When it became dangerous for Numan to continue staying in Bangladesh due to his political involvement, having been involved with his father’s party in Bangladeshi politics, he relocated to England, along with his British wife, in 1990. While in London, he started mentoring and helping the Bangladeshi singing group there.
Numan had earlier joined his father who was in a political exile in Manchester along with his brothers in 1976. He however went back to Bangladesh, where his father later joined him when it was safe for them to return. He later returned to London in 1990 before eventually coming to Manchester in 1993. His return to Manchester was to help his brother’s business even though this has also afforded him time to start a singing group which he has not been able to continue due to his increased business commitments. Numan has a very interesting story surrounding his return to musical performances which at this time has been slowed down because of the pandemic. His consideration for a return to active musical performances supported by his wife has also been very circumstantial according to his story:
“So, for the last 27 years, I’ve been in Manchester. Initially, I formed a group here, and I tried to help and support, but then family and work commitments, I just could not maintain….So kind of from 1995, I kind of stopped, apart from family gatherings and at home no singing was involved anywhere. But I continued to provide mentoring and support to all those groups that was in the UK. And there are also some members of the group that I was a member of in Bangladesh. Some of their artists came to study in the UK and formed groups and I was mentoring them. And then, one of them wanted to pursue a career in music. I then helped him, guided and advised him, which I still do. He is now an international superstar. He is the most famous Bengali singer in the world. He’s based in New York. He’s got a platinum plaque from YouTube. His songs are multilingual. So, it's Bengali, it's Urdu,……., it’s English, it’s Arabic. 2, 3 4 languages in the same song. All his songs, I do the English translation and told him not to give credits. Initially, he used to give me credits. So, he uses a pseudo name, he still wants to put my name. But anyway, I give him mentoring, I give support, advice, guidance, how he should progress, what he should do. ……..in London there are people who have their own record label, their own recording studio, and I mentor, advise and support them as well. And I’ve been doing it for at least ten years. I never thought of doing it myself. I came into it myself,……. in 2018, Muslim Arts and Culture Festival in short known as MACFEST. MACFEST was launched, which is ……. in Manchester………… It’s not Islamic, it's about Muslims. Artist who are of Muslim heritage doesn’t necessarily mean its Islamic. You understand the difference? There are people who are of Muslim heritage, doing performances that is not necessarily Islamic. So it could be mainstream,…… all kinds of musical instruments are used. So, it’s not Islam based, it’s Muslim based. In 2018 it was just in Manchester. 2019 it went a bit outside few other areas like Oldham and Stockport and now the pandemic would have stopped it. ……….Anyway, the lady who founded the festival and who is Executive Director is someone I personally know through my other involvements because I’m also a community activist. So, I’m involved with some other community activities, like, we stand together, which is about anti-racism, anti-radicalization, I’m a member of that, she’s a trustee of that and I met her through that and we know each other. So, one day she rang me, and told me about the festival and said “I want to have singers from different Muslim heritage”, and given the fact that Bangladeshi community is the 3rd largest migrant community in Britain, after Indian and Pakistanis, I want to have a Bengali singer. She didn’t know I sing. She just said “you are a Bangladeshi, can you help me find a Bengali singer.” I don’t know what caused me to say this, but without even thinking, I just belted out, well, I can do the singing for you and as soon as I said it I said Oh my God, why did I say that? And she goes…..”you can sing?”, and I thought, I put my foot in the mouth haven’t I? I said ok, I do sing. Then I told her about my background. So, she said “why don’t you give me a rendition?”. So I sang because she is of Pakistani heritage……. Allama Muhammad Iqbal (who) is the most famous Pakistani philosopher and scholar, well revered. So, I sang one of the songs written and composed by Allama Iqbal. Very famous song. And I couldn’t even finish the song, she said, “hold on a moment, you just blew me away. Tell you what? I want you to be my resident singer” I said “what does that mean?” She said “it means wherever I can fit you in, I will fit you in. You will be singing at the launch, at gala opening, at gala ending, you will be singing……” I ended up singing at five different events, in different languages, in Bengali, in Urdu, in Hindi, in English, in different languages. And the response from the audience inspired me and brought the passion back to me."
"But also, my wife was not very keen for me singing in public. That was another reason I didn’t sing in public for a long time. So, when Qaisra (Shahraz) the founder of MACFEST asked me to sing, I said I have to ask my wife first. So I asked my wife that is what she wants me to do what do you think? she said…….(My wife knows Qaisra), She said “let’s see how it goes. Go on then.” Because she did not want me to sing in public. But once I did that, now my wife is encouraging me that I should release an album. Now, I have recorded some songs but …. I did not feel comfortable but I’m now planning to…... (in fact my wife is encouraging me) to do,….. some voice coaching and take some music lessons so that I can sing with instruments like guitar or keyboard, and then release some songs, because the genre that I sing, the kind of songs that I sing….particularly the person whose song that I sing, is our national poet. These songs were written in the 30s and 40s, and still as popular as it has been before. People sing new songs now, they don’t sing old songs. People who used to sing these songs are no longer alive."
"So, I was in a social event in Oldham…….Sometimes in social events, ……..I go there as an attendee, and the people and the organisers recognise me and they want me to sing. There’s a saying in our language, what it effectually mean is ‘the doctor will treat a patient even in heaven.’ So, because they know I used to be a singer, so whenever I go to an event, social event, and people, organisers recognise me, they will bring me in and ask me to sing. we would like Numan Azmi to come and sing us a song”. How do you say no to that? …………So, this guy, ……….. has his own record label and own recording studio,...I’m going back about ten years. So, he heard me sing on one of such events in Oldham…...He came to me and said ...(brother Numan), I want to record your song. I want to test the market. So, I said fine. I said I have a recording; I can send you a copy of my recording. So, I sent him a recording. This one, I did just for myself…..You know this guy that I met, helped and support like a friend in London?, He has his own studio. Occasionally, when I go to London, I hang out in his studio. One such occasion, this is 2012, I was hanging around, as we call it, jamming. In his studio, there were few other guys, who are all singers. ….we normally start about 12 O’clock in the night, till sunlight. So it was half past 2 in the morning. Suddenly he asked me “did you ever record a solo song?’. I said no. He said “well, we are in the studio, all the equipment is there, why not do it now?”. So I recorded one song. When he played it back, I could not believe that was me. I said “are you sure this is my voice?’, He said “who else’s is it?, I just recorded and we played it back”. So I ended up recording six songs. And then, those I shared with a lot of my family and friends…………...So, this guy, what he did, he put that in a CD. He rang me back few weeks later, he said: “Numan, without your permission, I did a market survey”. I said, “what do you mean market survey?”. He said “I put your songs in CD, and I played it in different age groups, and different settings, and asked them their view, and everybody loved it. “So, there’s a great market for your kind of song, you need to release an album.” But unfortunately, he then had some tragic events in his personal life which meant that he had to sell his studio and everything is completely gone as if t never happened. So, I’m now trying to get back to it, but in the meantime, what I have done is maintain my connection, links with people who are members of my group. Now, we are all in our 50s, but in different professions. I have a friend who is a retired air force officer. He retired as a Wing Commander in Bangladesh Airforce; he now lives in Toronto. Then, there is another one in London, and some in Bangladesh, one in Malaysia. So, we have virtual connection and every now and then there will be events that we organise, and they are releasing albums. They are all challenging me………..We are all releasing album, why aren’t you doing it. But because I am so much involved with my professional commitments, I haven’t had the time to do it.”
Return to Music – Grand Plan
Numan is now planning a grand return to music with an album launch at his 60th birthday anniversary in 2022. He has been inspired by the famous Cat Stevens who converted to Islam and now known as Yusuf Islam. He was a famous pop star in the 70s. The two met yet circumstantially according to another of his interesting story.
“Where I am now is a, as I told you is a five and a half thousand square feet unit. It’s about textile training and design. And I don’t know whether I told you, we have just won National Lottery Award……………Because of my involvement with this, and also as if this wasn’t enough, I also moved house in the middle of the lockdown. Because of all that I just did not have time to give in this particular area. My aim is,…….I initially targeted 2020, now I am looking at 2022 which is my, I hasten to add….. will be my year of…. Diamond. I will be 60 at 2022. So, what I mean is I want to celebrate my diamond anniversary, birthday if you like with the releasing of my album. I’ve given myself about a year a year and a half to prepare, to get the right coaching, instrumental coaching and all that. But I’m still keeping in touch ……... I’ve been planning to do ……... which is one of my dreams, that is, ……..do you know Cat Stevens. Cat Stevens was a famous 70s pop star……………….. Anyway, Cat Steven was the most famous pop star in the seventies. He then became Muslim., and then gave up music for over 20 years. He’s come back to music now. He’s now known as Yusuf Islam. You can google Yusuf Islam and you will find all his songs………. A lot of people know him as Yusuf Cat Stevens. Cat Steven was his name before Muslim. I met him first time in the 80s when I was Director of our group. He went to visit Bangladesh. He’s the founder of large UK-based Muslim charity called Muslim Aid. So, he went for a charitable work and we invited him to be Guest of Honour in our annual event. It still happens like an annual event where different performance and all these, like a concert. So, he was guest in our annual concert, I met him there. Then I met him again about 10, 15 years ago, at my brother-in-law’s wedding because my brother-in-law’s wife worked as a teacher in a school which he is chairman of, and I had a conversation with him. This is something I’ve been planning. That is, have an international music concert based on Islamic spiritual songs. There are people around the world who do that kind of thing, based in Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan all around the world in the Muslim world. There are groups like this who sing religious Islamic spiritual songs. I want to bring them all in London, and do a week-long celebration of, like a conference, seminars, and discussions, and concerts, and what have you. It’s a big budget thing. It’s a dream…………... That’s one of my ambitions, but the thing is, when I have all these social entrepreneurship commitments, I can’t do that. So, in 2022, by which time I want to officially retire, and then get into all these kinds of things.…… So these are all my dream and …. ambitions. So, when you talk about music, I’m passionate about singing, I’m passionate about music, but I’m passionate about spiritual music.”
Birth of South Asian Musical Heritage
Being passionate about South Asian faith and heritage, Numan launched an event called Musical Expression of South Asian Faith and Heritage on the back of the already established annual South Asian Heritage Month. He has been driven by his passion to harvest the music of South Asia. His story:
“……..There was an event that happened this year, In July and August, called South Asian Heritage month, like the Black History Month. Now what a lot of people don’t know, South Asian as we are is 8 countries together. So it's India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Afghanistan. 8 countries. The 8th country in 2012 Afghanistan was added. South Asians as a group is the largest homogenous group in the world. We are 26% of the world population, 35% of all migrants in the UK. The largest migrant group basically. This South Asian heritage month is a …..basically what happened is,……..you know in 2017, it was the 70 year of partition. 1947 was the partition of India/Pakistan, and about a million people died? So, BBC did a documentary about the partition, where a lot of Muslims from India had to migrate to Pakistan, a lot of Sikhs from Pakistan went to India, a lot of Hindus went from Bangladesh to India. BBC started looking for families of people - One Hindu who went from Bangladesh to India, one Sikh who went from Pakistan to India, one Muslim who came from India to Pakistan. As it happened, the producer’s friend is a friend of a friend of mine. That’s how it was. Friend of mine, well, she became friend now……... Manchester Museum, has a South Asia Gallery………. What they have done is, instead of them setting it up, they set up a South Asian collective, a group of community leaders and community advisers within Manchester of South Asian heritage. Two years ago, they invited them to be engaging with the museum to help shape the gallery. …(They said).. “This is your gallery, you’re South Asian, you help to shape it up, we will be as facilitator”. I’m one of …..the Community Collective member, and we all lead on different themes. I am leading on a particular theme. I would have liked to lead on Music and Language………. it cannot be on two themes, so I’m leading on the Language theme. That’s where I met this lady, Dr. Binita Kane, NHS consultant……..Her father was born in Bangladesh, and then as a little boy, migrated to India. She’s the one who got featured into it., and the programme is called……..My Family, Partition, and Me. That inspired her to do something about it. She then teamed up with another South Asian heritage very prominent barrister in London. He is from a Sikh heritage. Together, in 2019, they launched a campaign called South Asian Heritage Month, launched in the Houses of Parliament. I was there at the launch. And the idea was, to coincide with certain historical dates. So, 17th of August is when the agreement of partition was actually signed. 18th of July is when the partition actually happened. So they decided that every year from 18th of July to 17th of August they will celebrate South Asian Heritage Month. I was part of the organising team for the Greater Manchester part of it which was supposed to be an event happening all over the country. (Then) came the pandemic. So we had no choice but to do it digitally. But it also meant that it actually opened up more opportunities. So, I ran three different events. I ran a South Asian music event, a South Asian Language event, and a South Asian Textile heritage event. Now what the organisers then did is, show BBC a range of different events clip and say we want you to feature on our festival. BBC chose the textile one. So, my wife was actually featured on Sunday morning live on the 16th of August talking about South Asian textile heritage and how it is embedded in British textile heritage.”
Birth of South Asian Musical Heritage
“The music one, I started because we need to harvest the South Asian music, because music is an integral part of our culture in South Asia. So, I did the event titled ‘Musical expression of South Asian faith and heritage’. And guess what? We had 20 different performances singing in 10 different South Asian languages, all spiritual songs…(SA: Do you have the recordings of the music?) NA: No….The organisers of South Asian Heritage month….. have the recordings. It was put on YouTube, and then……. The guy in London, I said, I want you to sing one of your songs. So, he sang one of his songs…………. He sold the copyright of that song for a short period to another organisation. The time has lapsed, so, they do not hold the copyright anymore. But they still made a complaint to You Tube, and I said, “the original writer and composer of the song did the singing, what is your problem”. So, they withdrew the complaint and they didn’t go back to YouTube again. But I can get it back. It's a 2 hr video. I have the link to private viewing anyway. So, I can give you that if you want.. So, imagine 20 different singers, singing in 10 different languages, so it's Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, Punjabi, Sinhala, Gujerati, Nepali, ……….ten different South Asian languages, all spiritual songs. Wonderful. So, as a result of that, we’re now looking at setting up a South Asian Musical Network. A network of South Asian musicians in the UK. Nothing really spiritual, just as long as they are South Asian musicians. So, I am involved in the musical arena in some shape or form keeping in contact, and in terms of my own singing, I’m still carrying on with this but its pretty much South Asian language based. I have full links and contacts beyond South Asian singers. There are some other South Asian singer, there’s a group in Manchester who sing purely Bangla songs. (SA; What’s their name?) They’re called Krishnachura. The name is the name of a tree in our country, which is a massive big tree with flowers, and it's very well known, very famous and it's available in South Asia. So they named it after that. And its very famous, very popular, very well known phrase. So, that’s why they named it. So, they perform brilliant Bengali songs, they sing Bengali folk songs…..and all kinds of other things. So, there are some other groups in South Asian Heritage, that I know of, but I have no connection to others. But as I mentioned to you, I’ll introduce you to Geli Berg who runs the Lingua Franca World Music. Geli is mixed-race. Her mother is from Peru. What she does, she’s an agent. She’s a singer herself, but she is an agent for migrant singers. She only works with migrant singers. She will have details of Manchester-based migrant singers. ……….she will be able to connect you with a lot of migrant singers based in Manchester from Africa, from Middle East.”
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Numan Azmi: Social Entrepreneur, mentor and Islamic Songs performer.
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