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Album Of The Week

Raags Against The Machine: Pakistan Is For The Peaceful By Ustad Saami
Richie Troughton , October 8th, 2020 08:59

Microtonal Sufi mystic musical master returns with second album of surti music, of which he is the last living practitioner

Photo by Marilena Umuhoza Delli

While only heard on a recording for the first time last year, the music performed by Ustad Naseeruddin Saami has roots dating back to the thirteenth century. So rare is this music that there is a risk it could become a lost art. Today Ustad Saami is the last known surviving practitioner of this modal form of khayál technique, devotional music pre-dating the qawwali style of playing popularised in the West by perhaps Pakistan’s most well-known musician, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Khayál translates as “imagination” and stems from the Qawwal Bachon ka Gharana music school, based on mystical Sufi poetry. An article from last year published on The Quietus said: “When Ustad Saami dies, these forty-nine notes die with him”. However, as Saami is joined by his four sons as backing musicians for these recordings, there is perhaps some glimmer of hope for the future preservation of this music in some form. Saami’s sons Rauf, Urooj, Ahmed and Azeem add their voices in layers beneath their father’s droning mantras, with additional harmonium playing and sparse but effective percussion on tablas and tambura.

Recorded live from Saami’s rooftop apartment in Karachi with little in the way of post-production beyond what was captured in the moment by Ian Brennan (a Grammy award winner from his work with Tinariwen), the selected tracks are performed specifically for different occasions and times of day, as on the blissful ‘True Notes (Happy Morning)’. Opening track ‘Prayer For A Saint’ begins with a few notes of harmonium before Saami’s vocals enter, ushering a long solemn tone, that soars into another space working in harmolodic tandem with the instrument. When the additional voices join the chorus later it takes the melodious drones up a notch further. The minimal and transfixing music weaves mesmerising multi-layered intricate passages, that have no beginning or end, almost warping time to encapsulate the feeling of the near thousand years of musical discipline contained within the grooves.

Now aged seventy-six, Saami, whose name translates “to hear”, continues a daily routine of exercises, from 4 AM to midday, to preserve this ancient technique. He is regarded as the last living surti master, or ‘Ustad’. While he does have students, including his children, none have been initiated with his level of absorption to the form from such a young age. An example of Saami’s teaching practices can be seen in the film Closer To God (2018, directed by Annette Berger and Grete Jentzen), when he asks his student: “Are we singing or fighting? We are singing, so create something like singing.” He later adds: “The one who finds oneself gains knowledge of the self. What is the knowledge of the self? What things has Allah placed within me.”

The message within Saami’s music is that of peace and devotion, with the subtleties and minute detail found within the intricacies of his vocal intonations. On second track ‘Aman (Peace)’, there is a longing in his voice that conveys the importance of his message. Album producer Brennan said: “[Saami] strongly believes that nearly all of the world’s problems are derived from a lack of listening. In other words: if people would listen to each other more, there would be world peace.”

The playing could evoke the wayward and searching mystical improvisations on harmonium by G.I. Gurdjieff (undoubtedly inspired by similar practices). It manages to be loose and meandering, while not lacking direction. The vocal lines have the same barrier-smashing cosmos-shifting effect as the euphoric synthesizers on Alice Coltrane’s late period ecstatic music recordings. The vocal performance itself is somewhat akin to the kirana-style ragas of Pandit Pran Nath, with whom there are some parallels to Saami. In addition to teaching at Delhi University, Pran Nath spent time sharing his technique and practices to influence minimalist composers including La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and Terry Riley, who studied under him. Young’s recordings with Pran Nath released in the early 1970s represented the first time the sacred music had been permitted to be recorded. Of the twenty-minute long tracks, Young said: “It achieves a degree of feeling that is rare for the short period of time possible on one side of a record.” The same could be said of Pakistan Is For The Peaceful, which is composed of three tracks, two of which are around the twenty-minute mark, providing long-form renditions of the music, compared to the shorter tracks on last year’s debut, God Is Not A Terrorist that allows the music space to be heard closer to way it may be presented in full performance. When Saami made his first forays into international touring over the last year live shows were often notably composed of one extended track over an hour duration.

Like Pran Nath, Saami devoted himself to a similarly strict discipline to practice his music. Having been identified as the son from his family to continue the musical tradition as a child, for years he was forbidden to speak – expressing himself only through song. It is believed that non-verbal prayers can get closer to reaching God. Saami devoted himself to a strict discipline to practice his music, under the teachings of renowned qawwali scholar Ustad Munshi Raziuddin.

The musical system deployed by Saami is made up of forty-nine microtones, breaking down the conventional theory of seven notes in Western composition into microscopic detail. While this style of notation is not unique, the classical vocal master’s system of use is, having been personally customised over years of practice. As such, much of the compositional process is reimagined by Saami, based in part from memory, and continual reconstruction. In addition, the language used in his vocalisations incorporates elements of Urdu, Persian, Sanskrit, gibberish and the ancient Vedic language that dates back to the Bronze Age. The effect is that a wide range of tones waiver throughout his vocals on the recordings, to convey as much human emotion as possible. The sounds created by the musician exist within and around the natural rhythm of the surroundings, and the vocals express a sense of the environment, breathing and life itself.

The hope of the musician in making these recordings is to preserve his musical knowledge so that its component parts can be examined in more detail than previously possible for future reference, and, most importantly, that the sounds live on.

For open ears the recordings on Pakistan Is For The Peaceful offer immersive ever-spiralling tracks that reach ecstatic heights as they open up endless waves of spiritual harmonies, beyond the drone and into the unknown.