Up Close: Interview with Dawud Wharnsby Ali

Posted: Apr. 02, 2015

Br. Dawud Wharnsby Ali is the brother behind the beat of many of Sound Vision's nasheeds. He joined Sound Vision in 1996 and since then has recorded “Whisper of Peace," “Colors of Islam," “Road to Madinah," “The Letter," "Sunshine, Dust and the Messenger," and now "The Prophet's Hands." 

An Ontario native, of English-Scottish descent, Dawud (formerly `David') Wharnsby Ali, left a brief career as a singer/songwriter and performer in Celtic and traditional Folk circles, after embracing Islam in 1993.

The latest recording by Wharnsby Ali is "The Prophet's Hands" which is to be released on July 14, 2002 in Chicago. 

Sound Vision interviewed him to probe the mind behind this Muslim artist.

SV: How do you come up with ideas for recordings?

DWA: It is hard to explain exactly what will inspire ideas for songs or poems I write.  Some things that the average person might think would be inspirational, may not effect me in the least.  Something very insignificant to others may effect me deeply and inspire me to write. Vary rarely do I pick a theme, or take a suggested theme, then sit down to write about it.

Usually I am effected by something that I see or experience.  My lyrics often come out all at once, in a sort of `burst'.

If I do not write them down quickly or record them in some way, they are gone from my head.  After I write a song, I tend to move on, seeking out a new inspiration and do not look back.  For this reason, I tend to forget the lyrics I have written to many of my songs. Sometimes I re-read them or hear them and it seems that they came from somebody else, not from me.

A primary source for my inspiration comes from Quran and Hadith. This is why I tend to included Quranic Ayat on my recordings – to show the Ayat that inspired the poem. 

A book which I am currently working on presents nasheeds I have written from Whisper Of Peace and Colors Of Islam, alongside the Quranic Ayat or Hadith that were the initial inspirations. This book should be out, Insha Allah, early next year.

I am also very inspired by nature and children.  When I embraced Islam in 1993, I felt as though I had returned to my Fitra – the natural understanding of my purpose in life and my relationship to the Creator. I found new love in celebrating the innocence of children and the beauty of Allah's creation.

SV: What and/or who are the influences on your works (i.e. children, family)?

DWA: All praise is due to Allah Subhana Wa Ta'la who has guided us and made us among those who surrender to Him.  As I have mentioned, my inspiration comes from many places: Quran, Hadith, children, nature.

Even before embracing Islam I was always influenced by my environment, my reactions to certain situations and circumstances, my family and my peers. The style in which I sing is a combination of many elements as well. I enjoy melodies from around the world and I am fascinated by
rhythms and percussion. 

Some of my influence comes from my past–various styles of music and song that I once listened to. Being of Scottish/British background, much of my style is noticeably traceable to folk music from that area of the world. I do not consciously ever try to copy any one style. I write and sing in a way that feels true to myself, trying always to keep my focus on relaying a message or a mood with value.

SV: What is your favorite Dawud Wharnsby-Ali production and why?

DWA:  Unfortunately I cannot answer that question.  I do not have a favorite.  After embracing Islam I decided to write and record again based solely upon the intention of pleasing Allah and providing education.  There are some songs I have written which `say more' than others–songs in which the message is very strong and I feel very
passionate about, but I do not really have a favorite song.

“Little Bird” means a lot to me. I wrote it after a visit to Madinah in 1995. Following Salat in the Prophet's Mosque, I exited the Masjid and met an eight year old girl of Nigerian decent who had been put to work selling heavy bags of bird seed. She was abused by other older beggars
and spent her days alone in the sun working very hard. This was her life only a few yards from the grave of the Messenger Of Allah. I was repulsed to see her circumstance. I found her far more beautiful than the marble and gold architecture around me. We smiled and tried to communicate for a long time before she left to go about her work. “Little Bird” is her story and I asked my eight year old friend Zainab to sing it on “Colors Of Islam”.

Other songs that mean a lot to me are “The Veil”, “Colors Of Islam”, “Alhamdulillah (I'm A Rock)” and of course “The Prophet”, which I wrote soon after I embraced Islam. 

The whole “Whisper Of Peace” recording is very personal to me as it was recorded very intimately in my own studio, without much gloss or technology.  It was simple and pure just as Islam is simple and pure.

SV: Why did you decide to work for Sound Vision as opposed to striking out on your own as  a performer for Muslims?

DWA: I had been a performer and musician for most of my late teens and it was not a lifestyle that suited me. 

Although I liked traveling and meeting people, I was too preoccupied with my spiritual path to take music and performing as seriously as others wanted me too. I would get rushes of adrenaline and go on stage to sing, but I was very uncomfortable as a `performer'. I would get terrible stage fright and always felt like people were captured by the `performance' and not really listening to what I had to say.

When I embraced Islam I did not feel inspired to write any longer. Allah answered all my questions in the Quran.  The songs that I did begin to pen were simple verses to help me learn about my new life as a Muslim and to help children and youth understand their responsibility to
the Ummah.  I had no desire to be a performer and put myself on display before people simply as entertainment.

I approached Sound Vision in 1996 to seek their assistance in reaching Muslim children with my efforts of education through song. I felt that having the assistance of an established organization would ensure a wider market then producing the recordings independently.  

It takes far more money and resources than most people think to market products on a large scale.  This is why such emphasis is put upon purchasing original copies of recorded work, instead of illegally duplicated ones. 

In our educational/Islamic niche market, we estimate that 10 illegal copies are made for each one copy we sell. Illegal duplication at this rate is hard enough on a well established organization like Sound Vision.  As an
independent producer, my educational efforts could have been cut very quickly – Allahu Aliim.

SV: Why did you decide to work for Sound Vision as opposed to other Muslim organizations also aiming to provide entertainment for Muslims?

DWA: When I approached Sound Vision in 1996, I was also familiar with a handful of other Islamic media organizations. Unfortunately I noticed that many of these companies commonly resold illegally duplicated products of other Islam artists and organizations. 

I wanted to ensure that I would be associated with an original group of brothers and sisters who were not involved in such activities. Other Islamic multimedia organizations which I did respect, were, however, more focused on Islam entertainment than Islamic education. Being more excited about the educational needs of Muslim children, I contacted Sound Vision.  At that time I had seen some of their early catalogs and was familiar with the wide selection of books they carried. Having also been a puppeteer and children's educator for many years, I was further intrigued by the Adam's World series. 

I am not against entertainment, I just felt that I wanted my intention to remain purely for education. Sound Vision's product line and overall philosophy was very compatible with my intention.

SV: What is it like working for a Muslim organization (like Sound Vision) professionally, as opposed to a non-Muslim one?

DWA: Alhamdulillah, it is wonderful to be involved with an
organization where my peers are all focused on the same goal of pleasing Allah. We pray together, we eat together and we help one another beyond just a working relationship. 

Coming from a background in the arts, and seeing that many Muslims are geared more towards science, technology and business, I was not sure if I would ever find a group of brothers and sisters who would be patient with my creative, passionate, temperamental, moody nature, but Alhamdulillah, they are very patient and motivating. 

We all make a humble effort to urge one another towards developing our efforts and talents, while gently and patiently correcting our shortcomings for the sake of Allah.

SV: What are your three (or more) favorite recordings by Muslim artists? Why?

DWA: I do not really listen to a great deal of material on a regular basis. Within our home, nasheeds and song are enjoyed but not really focused upon.  

I do, however, love to listen to songs written by children I meet or hear songs written and sent to me by brothers and sisters who have enjoyed or learned something from my recordings. This is what truly inspires me to continue. 

In “Animals Love To hear Quran” I made an attempt to urge children towards practicing their Quranic recitation on family pets.  When a child tells me they have been practicing and lets me hear their progress, or an adult for that matter, I am fulfilled far more than I could be if I were to listen to other recordings.

My top three Muslim artist list would be:

1. “I Have No Cannons That Roar” – Compilation produced by Br. Yusuf Islam. This recording touched me very deeply – the words, the melodies, the strength of the lyrics, the sincerity, the hope. 

The year it was released I happened to spend some time with some Bosnian children at a summer camp. This recorded effort awakened me to my own laziness during the Bosnian war and inspired me greatly. May Allah reward the Martyrs of Islam in the region of Bosnia and Kosova.

2. The nasheeds of Brother Miraj. I first met Br. Miraj while visiting Florida a few years ago.  We sang together in his living room, in an improvisational outpouring of song and poetry. His original compositions and lyrics were so moving and beautiful that I, to this day, sing them to myself often. I am patiently waiting for the day when he and I will record his work so others may benefit from his true talent.This goes for several other talented individuals I have met over the years who possess great passion for Islam and express their concern for the Ummah through song and poetry.

3. The nasheeds of Malaysian group Raihan are very enjoyable. Their vigorous percussion and gentle voices are delightful.

SV: Did song and/or music/art have an influence or impact on your decision to become Muslim?

DWA: No. I wrote poetry and songs as an attempt to sort out my mind and relay my experiences searching for ultimate truth and contentment. The art was not `The End' the art was a means to `The End'. 

When I discovered Quran, all of my questions were answered. I was content to put down my pen and begin reading to learn more about my responsibility as a Muslim.  

Why do I write now? I see a lack of feeling in myself sometimes and also in the Ummah, where we get so caught up in `brochure Islam' that we forget how to feel the beauty of Islam and appreciate the gift Allah has given us.  I do not consider my songs now as `Art' I consider them as a tool. Just a means.

SV: Do you sing to your children? If so, which songs (any of the Sound Vision productions?).

DWA: My four year old step son is far more interested in writing his own songs to sing then listening to mine.  However, we do sing as a family. He likes “We've Scanned The sky” (Which he refers to as a `jumping song'). Each night it is family routine to recite from Quran, then see him off to sleep with “Muslim Lullaby” from “Road To Madinah”, which is simply the beautiful Dua before sleep, taught to us by the Messenger Of Allah (Peace and blessings be upon him). 

I also enjoy singing him a limited number of folk songs from my past that pass my Islamic `enjoin the good' rule, and my son also likes to hear my renditions of nasheeds by other Islamic artists.

SV: What is your favorite color?

Living in a city now, I don't see forests as much as I used to when I was living in a small town. My favorite color is green-deep forest green. It is warmer than blue and cooler than yellow - comfortable and calming.

SV: What are your favorite places among those you have visited and why?

Easily, my visits to Makkah and Madinah were wonderful - meeting so many brothers from around the world in one place - Masha Allah, however, I also have fond memories of my walking adventures throughout Britain and Northern Scotland in my early twenties. 

There is something about rain, sheep, grass and quiet that I love.I love to travel and learn about the people and places I visit-but I love to come home.

SV: What is your favorite book, Islamic or otherwise and why?

Quran is my favorite book. I do not often read fiction.  Other than Quran, I read mostly reference books on subjects I am interested in-Hadith, Botany/gardening, beekeeping, poetry, world faiths, culture, science,
astronomy, psychology, natural healing, I am not too fussy. 

I enjoy just flipping through the encyclopedia for amusement. I love children's books as well-there is a very nice collection of Inuit Poetry for children which was given to me as a gift-recently, I enjoyed putting little tunes to the verses and singing them to my stepson.