Monday, August 22, 2011

Pakistan's Take on Brubeck's "Take Five" - First Take: The piece itself

In the last week of July a Pakistani orchestra's version of jazz pianist Dave Brubeck's epic hit "Take Five" reached the top of the iTunes charts for jazz single and jazz album in both the UK and the United States. You can see the Sachal Orchestra performing the piece in the official video below, used here with permission:

The solos are played by Ustad Nafees Ahmed Khan on the sitar, and Asad Ali on the western guitar, with Ustad Nadir Hussain "Ballu" Khan on tabla; not on camera are Tanveer Hussain on sarod, and Baqar Abbas on bansuri (the South Asian bamboo flute).

Upon first seeing this video, I contacted Izzat Majeed, the founder and creator of the Sachal Music Project, to learn more about the origins of this video, as well as the major project--Sachal Music--which generated it. Majeed explained that his motive for starting the project was to assist Pakistan's classical musicians, who had been languishing following the decline of the once-thriving Pakistani film industry (known as Lollywood, since it was located in the Pakistani cultural capital of Lahore, as opposed to Bombay's Bollywood in India), which decline had begun during the reign of the military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (r. 1977-1988):

In order to help revive the music--and musicianship--of the old films (and as Majeed notes, "all our films are musicals") after the destructive "tsunami" of Zia ul Haq's puritanical Islamic regime, Izzat Majeed began in 2002 to look for a suitable venue for recording. As he began to produce music himself, he toured the extant recording studios, which he discovered had, like the musicians themselves, suffered from neglect and a lack of resources and support. He quickly realized that he would need to have a new studio constructed with all of the latest equipment and technology, in order to provide the musicians, who had begun to emerge from oblivion to approach Majeed when they heard of the project:

Determined to settle for nothing less than a state-of-the-art studio, Majeed asked for the assistance of the Abbey Road Studios, where the Beatles had found their fame.

I asked Izzat Sahib (lapsing now into my customary Urdu idiom, where a person is honorifically addressed as Sahib, or Mr., after either his first or last name) where his interest in music had been born. He immediately spoke of his father, Mian Abdul Majeed, who though he came from an upper-class non-musical family, was trained, at the insistence of his own father (Majeed's grandfather, Khan Bahadur Mian Allah Baksh), by the ustaads (maestros) of traditional Hindustani classical music--a phenomenon not unusual among upper-class families in the richly composite culture of Delhi, where musicians, patrons, and aficionados from both the Muslim and Hindu communities interacted freely:

At this point it will be useful to clarify some definitions of the sorts of music we are discussing. The "classical" music that was learned by Majeed's father was the traditional classical music of northern South Asia--the present day Bangladesh, North India, and Pakistan, and to a slight degree Afghanistan--which is generally known as Hindustani music, to distinguish it from the classical music of South India, generally known as Carnatic music. This is music performed in the melodic structure of ragas, and the rhythmic structure of talas.

(For my own explanation of these topics, click here for the Indian scale, here for raga, here for tala, and here for the general historical background of modern Hindustani music, all on the Gardens of the Mughal Empire Website, part of a major archeological project sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution.)

Traditional Hindustani music was, and is, almost always performed with a single solo melodist--either a vocalist (usually in the khayal style, much less commonly the dhrupad style)--or an instrumentalist on sitar, surbahar (to the sitar as is the cello to the violin), sarod, sarangi (box fiddle), bansuri (bamboo flute), santur (hammered dulcimer), or the now nearly extinct rudra vina (a double-gourd stick zither), with a single percussionist accompanying, usually on tabla (or on pakhawaj in dhrupad.)

Yet the "classical" musicians you see on the "Take Five" video are playing predominantly on violin and cello, which are western instruments imported into India in the 19th and twentieth centuries (along with many other western instruments) to be played in ensemble for filmi music, which has evolved intro a sophisticated amalgam of both eastern and western instrumentation, and eastern (raga and tala) and western (harmony and counterpoint) theory and practice. Among the soloists on this video, only the classical guitar, played with a plectrum, is western. The others--sitar, and sarod and bansuri (not shown)--are eastern.

But the point that Majeed was making in the first sound byte above is that most of the musicians playing in filmi music, whether on western or eastern instruments, had their basic training in Hindustani music. The designation of this music as Hindustani classical music in Majeed's father's time was not an issue, as the time he describes was before the partition of historic India (sometimes known as British India) in 1947 into two countries: India and Pakistan (East and West, with the eastern portion breaking off in a 1971 war to become Bangladesh.) In present day Pakistan the question is problematic but not really relevant here--for a further discussion of what this music is called in present-day Pakistan see my earlier blog on the late Khwaja Khursheed Anwar.

Then, of course, the piece under question is jazz--played on both western and eastern instruments, and in jazz' true spirit of freedom and amalgamation, the improvisations (with the distinctive gliding ornamentation known as meend) on the sitar are entirely consistent with the eastern idiom. When I pressed Majeed about the degree that "classical" Hindustani music was represented in other projects of the Sachal Orchestra, this was his response:

Next: Izzat Majeed--the man behind this extraordinary phenomenon.

But to return to the subject of jazz itself. In addition to his exposure to traditional Hindustani music in his childhood, Majeed spoke of the regular visits, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, of such American "Cultural Ambassadors" as Dave Brubeck, Duke Ellington (see my previous posts earlier this month), Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Miles Davis, among others, who performed at an auditorium next to his house in Lahore on a location where now stands the Avari Hotel:

But up till now, I've said nothing about the circumstances which enabled Izzat Sahib to undertake the construction of the multimillion dollar Sachal Music studios, as well as the Sachal Orchestra project. In the flood of publicity following the release of "Take Five", in articles in such newspapers as Britain's august Guardian and the business publication Blue Chip, which notes in and extensive and illuminating interview that Majeed "is famed for his landmark investments in Pakistan, most notably the purchase of Union Bank which was transformed into one of the top seven banks of the country. After establishing Union Bank as a leading player in Pakistan’s banking sector, Izzat Majeed sold the bank to Standard Chartered." In that article, Majeed, with his typical modesty, attributes much of the success of that venture to his colleague, Shaukat Tarin, Similarly, as noted before, a question about Izzat himself leads back to his father, who was clearly a decisive role model. Speaking of his businessman father's ventures into music, he says:

And while (again modestly) making no claims about his own musical pedigree, nor mentions of eminent teachers with whom he might of studied, he admits that he played a central role in the production and arrangements of many of the Sachal Orchestra recordings, though again, crediting his collaborator, Riaz Hussain:

(One can discover much more about this remarkable man in the aforementioned Blue Chip article, e.g., "As an advisor to leading Saudi entrepreneurs on energy, he gained renown for his honesty, reliability and trustworthiness." Majeed has also shown an indefatigable dedication to furthering the visions of moderate Islam--when I was scheduling my interview with him, he explained that at the time I had requested, he was scheduled to give a public lecture on the subject. And Blue Chip also reveals that Majeed is a poet as well, with his third volume, "Random Prose", has received high acclaim in both Britain and the U.S. (yours truly, an incorrigible bibliophile and occasional poet himself, is already lusting after a copy . . . .) When I asked him about the book, his answer was perhaps the most understated and self-deprecating example of self-promotion I have ever experienced from a writer:

"Allegedly", indeed!

And what of the future? Several of the articles mentioned a documentary film in the works, about which Majeed spoke with cautious non-commitment. When I asked about future plans, he said that he'd like to see a U.K. and American tour of the Orchestras at some point in the spring of 2012, but that planning was only at the exploratory stage, and which would of course have to take into account the increasing difficulty for musicians to obtain visas to perform in the U.S.

But in the meantime, the viral popularity of the Sachal Orchestra's Take Five continues to soar, as evident in the daily increase of views on the YouTube video above. In due course, I hope to write further on the Sachal Music Projects adaptation of my own particular interest,--the traditional ragas and talas of South Asian music. "

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