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Ustad Saami
East Pakistan Sky Jim Hickson , September 27th, 2021 08:31

Karachi's surti master returns with a pair of new extended cuts on this digital only release from Glitterbeat records

Naseeruddin Saami is a master – an ustad – of khayal, a highly-ornamented style of Hindustani classical music. His delicate voice and intricate command of a centuries-old tradition is capable of casting spells. Saami’s style is unique. His personal system divides each octave into forty-nine surti (microtones). For comparison, European music theory divides the octave into twelve, and Hindustani theory has mostly agreed on twenty-two. The core melodic elements of each piece – the raag – only use seven notes, Saami’s forty-nine surti gives him many times more options to inject the slightest nuance into every syllable, introducing changes so small that the conscious brain may not register them, but that are instead felt in the emotions of the listener. Now seventy-seven years old, Saami is still considered the only master of this surti system.

East Pakistan Sky is Saami’s fourth album, his third for Glitterbeat Records in as many years, and the first to be given a digital-only release. Those expecting one of Saami’s legendary hours-long performances without the restraints of a seventy-eight-minute CD may be somewhat disappointed to learn that this is, in fact, the shortest of his albums, but let’s not begrudge that: the album still features two performances, the first of which nudges the half-hour mark.

The recording sessions that produced this album and its two predecessors capture the atmosphere perfectly. On the rooftop terrace of his home in Karachi, Pakistan, at nighttime, Saami is joined by his sons – known as The Saami Brothers in their own right as a qawwali party – who accompany on harmonium, tabla and tambura. The recordings are made live, in single takes, and capture the close, unspoken communication that is passed between musicians through music and looks and body language.

It is hard to do justice to Saami’s music in written word. Every sung note is imbued with such subtle passion, grace, and musical wisdom as to defy true description. The main event of the album, the twenty-nine-minute ‘Night Falls (Desert Melody)’, is mostly comprised of a twenty-two-minute-long alaap, an unmetred, improvised section in which the singer explores the piece’s raag, the intricacies of its tonality, and in-built melodic shapes. This alaap is truly glorious, an interplay of three melodies – two voices and harmonium – all interweaving and overlapping while following Saami’s improvised lead. It builds slowly, ebbing and flowing through registers and rhythms. The arrival of the metred section, and the addition of the tabla, comes not as the climax but rather an evolution, retaining the mood and energy of the alaap while transforming into new shapes before those, too, echo into the night. The second piece, the six-minute ‘Prayer for Peace’, is more upbeat and succinct but no less beautiful or profound, and serves as a pleasant re-awakening from the meditative experience of the one that came before it.

Naseeruddin Saami is a master, and that is abundantly clear from these recordings and those of his previous albums. His music rewards calm, conscious listening, perhaps experienced in solitude, or else in rapt company. The clarity of his voice and his expert control of his system’s many tonal colours allows his audience to breath in that same silent night’s air in Karachi.