In a world that can often feel uncertain, music is a source of hope. It’s a universal language; one that transcends cultural boundaries and can unite people of different backgrounds. Just a single chord can touch one’s innermost being, evoking emotions without uttering a word.

These attributes and abilities are one of the many reasons why I believe Mawlana Hazar Imam established the Aga Khan Music Programme in 2000 and the Aga Khan Music Awards in 2018. It was to acknowledge this cultural force and to encourage investment in, and nurturing of, cultural assets and creative expression as a means of uniting people.

“The Aga Khan Music Awards will aspire to fill a unique cultural role,” said Mawlana Hazar Imam in announcing the establishment of the Awards in 2018. The initiative aimed to celebrate devotional music and poetry, indigenous classical music, traditional folk music, and tradition-inspired contemporary music that has flourished in cultures shaped by Islam. It highlights music’s traditional role as a source of spiritual enlightenment, moral inspiration, and social cohesion. 

This year’s laureates hail from nine countries. Spending a few hours diving deep into their music, I was filled with energy and joy. I felt transported across the globe, from villages to concert halls, listening to technical mastery, emotion, and a deep connection to historical roots. The Awards will bring new exposure to these phenomenal talents.

Some of the laureates, such as Zakir Hussain from India, and Zarsanga from Pakistan, have performed for more than six decades and are recognised globally as the best in their fields. When Zakir Hussain plays, you know you’re watching a virtuoso, with a unique mastery and command of the tabla. Zarsanga, known as the Queen of Pashtun Folklore, is another example of preserving traditions. She expertly sings the orally-transmitted music of the Pashtuns, celebrated by millions of people worldwide. 

Others weave together contemporary and traditional sounds to create their music. Afel Bocoum from Mali does this effortlessly with an instrumentation and vocal style that feels accessible, and one cannot help but move to the beat. Peni Candra Rini of Indonesia composes innovative artistic works, representing a new vision for Javanese music based on her knowledge of traditional Indonesian performing arts. Soumik Datta, from the UK, creates pieces interpreting classical Indian music in unique ways, often incorporating pop, rock, and electronica. Yasamin Shahhosseini of Iran plays the oud with technical mastery and soul, finding innovative ways to incorporate traditional Persian music into her compositions.

Some of the laureates have devoted their lives to the preservation of artistic traditions. Asin Khan Langa, from India, sings and plays the Sindhi sarangi, an incredibly melodious instrument. He has remained in his village to nurture the legacy of the community’s artistic craft. Coumbane Mint Ely Warakane from Mauritania also hails from a hereditary line of musician-poet-singers and plays the ardin, while showcasing Berber-Arab vocal techniques and a commanding presence on stage. 

Browsing the list of all laureates in this year’s Awards cycle immediately showcases a rich diversity. In his speech at the Aga Khan Music Awards ceremony in Lisbon in 2019, Mawlana Hazar Imam spoke of the remarkable diversity of music that exists in the Muslim world. 

“It comes in many styles, forms and classical repertoires,” he said. “It includes simple folk melodies, contemplative mystical music and driving dance rhythms; and it reflects the immense diversity of different Muslim cultures themselves, including musical traditions that have been carefully cultivated over the centuries within the Ismaili community.” 

Music can be deeply spiritual. Many musicians speak of a higher plane accessible through music and art. In the Ismaili Tariqah, dhikr is an example of contemplation, reflection, and connection, often through congregational recitation. More broadly, music is one of humanity’s ways of expressing ourselves, and expressing devotion to the divine. A producer once told me that two thirds of all songs are about love. Love of the divine, and songs of devotion or praise would fall into this category.

Some of the laureates in this year’s Awards cycle focus exclusively on devotional music. Yahya Hussein Abdallah of Tanzania uses his vocal technique to demonstrate such devotion, composing and reciting songs of praise. Daud Khan Sadozai, from Afghanistan – though based in Germany – plays the Afghan rubab. His work has contributed to the preservation, development, and dissemination of Afghan music worldwide. Through his music, he takes his listeners on a journey, transporting them to another level via tremendous focus and technical skill.

The Aga Khan Music Awards Master Jury also named Musallam al-Kathiry as the winner of a special award for Excellence in Service to Omani Musical Heritage. Mr al-Kathiry, a music researcher, arts manager, performer and composer from Muscat, Sultanate of Oman, has made important contributions to the collection, documentation, preservation and dissemination of Omani music.

Each of the artists being recognised at this year’s Award Ceremony are storied in their own right. From using music to bring people and communities together, to preserving traditional instruments, styles, and pieces, to channeling devotion through artistic expression, the artists are worthy of the prizes they will receive. Their talent radiates through the screen and speakers. Fortunately, we’ll all be able to hear them live in Oman later this week. The world is in for a treat.

Salima Ladhani studied in the Music Program at Western University in Ontario, Canada, and is an active patron of the arts and music. She grew up singing in the world-renowned Oakville Children's Choir, competing internationally, and was part of the Canadian Ismaili Muslim Youth Choir during the Golden Jubilee. Salima is based in Toronto, Canada.