Sunday, October 18, 2009

Reposting: Classical Music in Pakistan

Regarding music in Pakistan, I find myself very happily in that country once again on a musical mission, sponsored by the U. S. Department of State as part of their cultural outreach efforts: meeting other musicians, scholars, educators, students, and many old and wonderful friends. Having arrived early yesterday morning after three weeks of furious planning and a long sequence of international travel, and having moved immediately after arrival into a series meetings and interviews, this moment is literally (again, with the help of my usual insomnia, enriched by jet-lag--it's 3:03 am here in Pakistan . . . ) the first time I have had a chance to return to this blog. Since I should still try to get a little sleep before an equally busy day begins, I would like to repost my earlier musing on "Classical Music in Pakistan" as my first offering from this amazing country I have visited so many times, and where my wife Shubha and I have so many friends and well-wishers:

(Originally posted 11 October 2008):

"Earlier this year, an e-mail from Pakistan brought the sad news of the death at the early age of 59 of Adam Nayyar, described in an announcement from UCLA Professor Emerita Hiromi Lorraine Sakata as "Pakistan's foremost cultural anthropologiest, ethnomusicologist, and cultural interlocutor."

"While I only met Adam once, I'm using this occasion to begin the first of a series of entries on the classical music of Pakistan, spurred by the e-mail, mentioned above, from a musical colleague I had not met, Riaz Ahmed Barni, who is associated with an interesting Website,, which is devoted to traditional South Asian classical music as performed in Pakistan.

"My first full awareness of the state of traditional music in Pakistan was given to me by the late Khwaja Khurshid Anwar (1912-84), a major figure in Pakistani film music who also dedicated a good part of his later life to championing the cause of classical music in Pakistan. Facing the dilemma of what to call this music, he originated the unique yet comprehensive phrase "Ahang-e-Khusravi", or the "the music of Khusrau", referring to the thirteenth-century polymath Amir Khusrau, who is mythically credited with the origination of the sitar, the tabla, qavvali music, and Urdu poetry, among other important cultural expressions.

"As Khwaja Khurshid Anwar (hereafter used with the honorific "Sahib") explained to me when we first met in 1976, the music could not be called "Indian music" for obvious political reasons, nor could it be properly named "Pakistani music", because Pakistan had been in existence only since 1947--whereas the origins of the music, as currently practiced, date back to medieval times. His dilemma was complicated by the fact that most Pakistanis, simply associating the music with historical connections with Hinduism, were unaware of the enormous contributions that Muslim musicians had made to the development of this music over the centuries.

"In order to work for the continued patronage and recogniction of this music, Khwaja Sahib established the Classical Music Research Cell in collaboration with the late Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-84), arguably the greatest post-Independence Urdu poet. Together they established a library and archive which still exists in the offices of Radio Pakistan. But perhaps most significantly, they released through the recording company, EMI Pakistan, two important series of long-playing discs. The first, "Ragamala" ["garland of ragas"], presented the melodic structure of a hundred ragas along with brief performances in khayal style (the dominant form of South Asian classical vocal music) by Pakistan's leading vocalists. The second, "Gharanon ki Gayaki ["the vocal music of the historical traditions"], presented 80 of these ragas in more extended (10 minute) renditions by the same major vocalists.

"Both series--featuring the incomparable melodic accompaniment on the sarangi and rhythmic accompaniment on the tabla by Pakistan's leading masters of these instruments--were subsequently released on cassette, but are now unfortunately out of print. Yet these recordings present the best and most comprehensive anthology of khayal performances by Pakistani Ustads (masters) in existence.

?YouTube includes a number of videos (see the various installments of "Khurshid Anwar Raag Mala Interview") of Khwaja Sahib speaking to his countrymen about Ahang-e-Khusravi, with the back of this writer's prematurely balding head appearing as his one-person audience in some of the footage.

"Khwaja Sahib was not alone in working for the survival of this tradition in Pakistan. The late Hayat Ahmad Khan (1921-2005), who founded the All Pakistan Music conference (in which my wife, Shubha Sankaran, and I had the honor to perform a number of times), devoted his life to the cause. Raza Kazim, a prominent Pakistani attorney, founded the Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts in Lahore, which includes a music division devoted both to the documentation of musical performances and an exploration of the philosophical and aesthetic motives of music.

"But to return to Adam Nayyar. At the time of his death, as noted in obituaries in Dawn and The News, he was Executive Director of the Pakistan National Council on the Arts, and he had previously Director of Lok Virsa, The National Institute for Folk and Traditional Heritage. In his passing, Pakistan has lost a great scholar, and an important cultural emissary."

* * * * * * *

So this is a beginning, albeit initially on a sad note.. As Internet access (and breaks from a very busy schedule allow), I'll be sending further postings from this musical odyssey, from which I hope to find many new friends from Pakistan. Again, I urge you to send your comments and feedback.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Falu's video interview from VOAWorldMusic

Falu, a.k.a. Falguni Shah, was kind enough to give me a television interview last year when she was in Washington as the opening act for the Pakistani supergroup Junoon (see my last posting, which promoed her 1 October concert at Joe's Pub in New York), and at that time my colleague Ravi Khanna (photo at right) produced a fine brief video feature based on my interview, with a short excerpt of "Copper Can", one of her most compelling songs.

Now that I've developed the necessary video editing ability, I'm happy to offer more extended portions of the interview, videotaped by the ever-capable Ilyas Khan of VOA's Urdu Service.

I began the interview by asking Falu who her first music teacher was:

In the course of her answer, after crediting her mother for her initial training, she refers to her next teacher, Ustad Sultan Khan. (The term "ustad", on one level, is roughly equivalent to "maestro" among Muslim musicians, and is used on another level to describe one's honored teacher, equivalent to "guru" among Hindu musicians.) She also appends the honorific "Sahib" after his name, again as a sign of respect. You may notice her touching her ear when she says his name--this, too, is a customary indication of humility when speaking of one's ustad or guru, or of some great musical figure of the past. (The gesture is distantly related to the practice in South Asia of having naughty children cross their arms and pull both ears, sometimes while bouncing up and down as though sitting on their heels, as penance for bad behavior. . . .)

Ustad Sultan Khan is one of the world's leading masters of the sarangi, a fiendishly difficult box fiddle with a skin head, four main strings, and up to 40 sympathetic strings, with a haunting sound and expressiveness close to that of the human voice--which accounts for the fact that it historically has been used to accompany classical vocalists, mimicking almost exactly their improvisations after a split second.

Falu next mentions that she studied singing in the purely classical style with Vandana Katti, a disciple (the customary word for lifetime student) of Kishori Amonkar, one of the greatest vocalists in the Hindustani (Northern South Asian) style of classical music. She represents the Jaipur gharana, or musical/hereditary tradition associated with the princely Indian city of Jaipur. (I'll have more to say on the phenomenon of gharana in a later post.)

Next I asked Falu whether she remembered her first lesson, playful or formal:

Demonstrating how she was taught as a baby being fed by her mother, she sings (very quickly) the seven basic notes of the basic musical scale, or sargam, prevalent in South Asia (the same basic musical system exists in Pakistan and Bangladesh as well, but in common parlance--and hereafter in this blog--the music is generally referred to as "Indian" music.). The word sargam is formed from the first three of the seven basic notes, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni (Sa), which correspond roughly to the western Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti (Do). Click here for my more detailed description of the Indian sargam.)

She then sings the sargam--in a scale corresponding to the western major scale--shifted up one tone, in a musical process called modulation (key or chord change) in the west, but keeping the same names for the notes, since there is no absolute pitch in Indian music.

Then she changes the scale to that based on another mode or raga, Bhairav, with a flatted second (flat Re/Re) and sixth (flat Dha/La) and the rest of the notes natural. A raga is the format for the basic melodic structure in Indian music; click here for my brief definition of raga.

When I asked her what brought her to the U.S., she replied that while she felt extremely loyal to her classical Indian roots, she was attracted by western music and its various genres: jazz, blues, rock and pop, and the opportunities they offered her for innovation:

Knowing that improvisation is an integral part of Indian classical music, I was curious as to what circumstances led to her writing her first song. Her answer was immediate!

The next logical question was: "What was that first original song?"

Toward the end of her answer, I couldn't suppress a brief off-mike reference to "Both Sides Now", the seminal song by the legendary Joni Mitchell, and she agreed: "Yes, blame the clouds!"

She notes that the song was based on a classical raga, Bairagi Bhairav, a pentatonic (five-tone) raga, with the scale Sa Reb Ma Pa Nib (Sa) (Do Reb Fa Sol Tib (Do)--the "b" indicating the flat interval. In the course of the song, for a brief passage she actually sings the sargam of the scale, with the names of the notes as the words! (If I may be permitted a comment in my capacity of ethnomusicologist: the blending of Indian elements--including the raga--with a western pop sensibility and instrumental idiom in "Hey Baby" is stunningly effective, to the extend that no western listener is likely to hear anything foreign in the song, while at the same time someone familiar with South Asian classical music will most probably recognize immediately, at least subconsciously, the modal structure.)

Finally, I referred to one reviewer's description of her as the happiest singer he had ever heard. Her response:

This is the first of two installments of excerpts from Falu's video interview. The second will follow in a few weeks, focusing on some more details of her development as a performer, and additional discussion of ways in which she has brought her eastern heritage into her music.