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theartsdesk in Lahore: Music, mysticism and fistfights | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Lahore: Music, mysticism and fistfights

theartsdesk in Lahore: Music, mysticism and fistfights

Susheela Raman's guitarist and partner on the trials and rewards of bringing a show from Pakistan to London

Susheela Raman (with Qawwals): 'A goddess' according to Richard DawkinsTom Owen Edmunds

On Wednesday I will strap on a guitar and take the stage at the Royal Festival Hall for the opening night of this year's Alchemy Festival. I am the musical director and happy accompanist to a line-up of spectacularly talented musicians, all with roots in different parts of the Indian subcontinent. As I write, visas are being stamped and air tickets finalised for 11 musicians flying in from India and Pakistan.

I am part of the London contingent: Susheela Raman (pictured below right), whose concert this is, is a Tamil Londoner. Aref Durvesh, a longstanding colleague and the UK’s funkiest tabla player, grew up in West London. Alongside them will be three musicians from Rajasthan and eight Qawwals, Sufi mystic singers from the Pakistani Punjab.

Its the second year we have done this. Last year's show at the Queen Elizabeth Hall was the most enthralling concert I have ever played in; even stepping on to the stage I had not been sure if the whole unlikely ensemble would gel, but it did. Sublime at moments, and raucous and ramshackle at others, it was overwhelmingly alive and merrily bulldozed all the artificial but daunting India-Pakistan-East-West-Hindu-Muslim-Sacred-Secular boundaries in its path. We had the Queen Elizabeth Hall on its feet (see video below). There were five-star reviews in the Guardian and the FT; Southbank seemed to concur, booking us immediately to open this year’s Southbank Alchemy in the larger Royal Festival Hall.

Last year's Qawwali contingent were the Mian Miri Qawals from Lahore. They and the Rajasthani master musicians sent over by the Jodhpur RIFF festival are all are such dedicated crowd-pleasers that I shouldn’t have doubted. So repeating that should be easy, right? Wrong. The ground beneath our feet was not as sure as we thought.

Qawwali is a kind of ecstatic singing in praise of Sufi saints and the Prophet. That does not mean the singers are themselves mystics but the Qawwali performance style is very intense with moments of near frenzy. At a saint’s tomb when Qawwali is sung, people can enter a trance states and there is a feeling that the entombed saint becomes more present and active as the complicity between audience and performer heats up. People shower the musicians and any living descendant of the Saints in banknotes.

In recent years in Pakistan there have been bombings in Sufi shrines resulting in mass casualties. To hardliners like the Taliban the Sufi saint cults are anathema, as they compromise the monotheist unity of Islam. Sufi doctrines of love and ecstasy and its attacks on religious hypocrisy do not go down well either. As a result performing at Sufi shrines has become more awkward and less commonplace; nevertheless it remains a hugely important part of popular Muslim culture and a valued counterweight to extreme Islamism.

The Qawwals we have invited to play with us this year are Rizwan and Muazzam and their eight-strong group. Both are nephews of the most famous of them all, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who died in 1997. The two brothers are musically and physically formidable. I am over six feet but feel dwarfed in their presence. They have powerful, resonant voices and are backed up by a phalanx of vocals; harmoniums, tabla and handclaps propel the music forward. They may be as many as 12 onstage. It is an inspirational, blockbusting sound and all the more so at close quarters. Rizwan-Muazzam inherit a family tradition that is 600 years old. Qawwali is usually thought of as originating in the 13th century as a fusion of certain Persian and Indian musical styles. The Khan family places its origin close to the historic roots of Qawwali, so they take their spiritual calling very seriously. The night before they arrive in London they will be singing at the annual celebration of the Saint they follow, just outside their hometown of Faisalabad in the Pakistani Punjab.

After a couple of days, swivel-eyed paranoia soon gave way to the thrill of being in Lahore

Working with the Qawwali had been an ambition both of mine and of Susheela Raman, with whom I have worked since 1998 and to whom I am married. We are, like countless others, ardent fans of the Qawwal Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, one of the greatest singers of the last century. Playing with his successors was also something I could only have dreamed of when watching Nusrat perform at the Hackney Empire in the mid 1980s. I was 50 metres from the stage, utterly transfixed as he sent out vocal thunderbolts which seemed to abolish the distance and tap directly into my nervous system.

I do appreciate Susheela’s audacity. As a singer, it takes some guts to put oneself against the awesome power of the Qawwals whose voices are battle-hardened by singing for hours on end at Sufi shrines. Those who can't deliver get short shrift. The same is true of the bars of Sydney where Susheela learnt her craft as a teenager after running away from the classical recitals and devotional bhajans of the small Tamil community in Australia. In the last few years, she has been spending time with the some of the real non-classical "soul" singers in India and Pakistan; Bhakti singers of Tamil Nadu, the Bauls of Bengal, the Manganiyars of Rajasthan and the Qawwals. From these encounters her voice has matured and she has developed into an extraordinary live performer. Luckily for Susheela, the Qawwals, whose music has the purpose of driving people into an ecstatic frenzy and who sometimes zone out themselves, recogniaed one of their own.

Our first meeting with Pakistani musicians came as part of the tour with the writer William Dalrymple that featured music and readings at venuea like Barbican, Sydney Opera House and, most excitingly, in Karachi and Lahore. We had just finished a performance at the auditorium in Lahore and stepping out into the courtyard we encountered a local Qawwali group the Mian Miri Qawwals singing and playing at full throttle. A bond was formed and we invited them to perform with us at the Jaipur Literary Festival in January 2011. The show nearly caused a riot and was stopped by a police noise curfew. We all just carried on acoustically. Then we received a commission from the Southbank to bring the Qawwals to play at the Alchemy Festival. To prepare for London we returned the next winter to Lahore and stayed for a month.

Being a newspaper reader, I was nervous about an extended stay in Pakistan but, after a couple of days, swivel-eyed paranoia soon gave way to the thrill of being in Lahore. The friendliness of the people, the old city with its astounding fort citadel and the amazing street food along with our favourite singing in the world, courtesy of the Qawwals and artists like Sain Zahoor, made converts of us. We set up a rehearsal studio in a crumbling but picturesque former film studio. We performed together in Lahore where concerts are publicised by private invitation for security reasons but 800 of the city’s best-groomed turned out and gave their approval.

In April the warm reception of the Queen Elizabeth Hall was a delight for us and for our host in Lahore, Faizaan Peerzada, as we were taking Pakistani artists he had nurtured and giving them international exposure. Plans were made for concerts in India, Pakistan and in London at this year’s Alchemy festival. Two weeks before we were due in Lahore, Faizaan, who had mentored the collaboration, suddenly died. It was huge loss for his immediate family and friends, for all the artists he had promoted like the Mian Miri Qawwals who were now bereft. For us, it meant that our best mate in Pakistan, patron and facilitator of our work, was gone. But there was no question of stopping, we would continue even if only in Faizaan’s honour.

In early January 2013, we walked across the Pakistani border at Waga, the famous checkpoint halfway between the partitioned twin cities of Amritsar and Lahore, barely 50 kilometres apart. In spite of their bereavement, the Peerzada family still welcomed us. It was bitterly cold and the houses are built for the searing heat of summer rather than the chill of winter, so we shivered our way through rehearsals. Power cuts happened many times a day. The country was full of conspiracy theories, mass gatherings and political intrigue. There were drone strikes and sectarian attacks on Shia Muslims. Lahore itself was quiet. Faizaan’s empty house was next door and the family were immersed in their grief.

The disaffected second singer had discovered the unaccustomed pleasures of the open bar and arrived on stage sloshed

We were due in Jaipur and Mumbai to play, sponsored by The Times of India. The concerts were optimistically called "Hope for Tomorrow", designed to celebrate cross-border ties of which our collective of Indian, Pakistani and UK musicians was a glowing example. As our luck would have it, tensions on that border were suddenly ratcheted up because of trouble in ever-worrisome Kashmir. Shots were exchanged, soldiers on both sides died and some were gruesomely decapitated, the reporting of which inevitably aroused nationalist feelings. There were street demonstrations in both countries. In Mumbai feelings about Pakistan are conditioned by the 2008 attacks and are easily inflamed by the Hindu chauvinist rhetoric of local political activists, the Shiv Sena. It was announced that no Pakistanis were to set foot in Mumbai! The Times of India understandably pulled the shows, which left us high and dry workwise with only our regular but cherished Jaipur Literary Festival concert to perform in. With much string-pulling, visas for our team arrived. In India, the local government in Rajasthan was trying to have the show cancelled. The Jaipur festival management stood up to them heroically and the show went ahead.

We had invited the superb French cellist Vincent Segal to collaborate with local Rajasthani musicians, which worked sublimely. We were up next, at which point human frailty intervened. There was rivalry in the group between the two main singers, one of whom was more "classical" and technical, while the boss was more "feeling", more about the melodies and less about the improvisations. They were competing for dominance and it was this tension that actually made them interesting. This time, however, the disaffected second singer had discovered the unaccustomed pleasures of the open bar and arrived on stage sloshed. The teetotal and devout lead singer (whseo own vices were limited to chewing pan and smoking two packs a day) was incensed. They hardly sang but rather snarled at each other throughout. A fight ensued, names were called, punches were thrown. There was blood. We were forced to come to the conclusion that our mystic Sufi Qawwals were just too rock'n'roll for us.

With this year’s Southbank Alchemy show in view, fingernails were being chewed. We decided to find some other Qawwals to work with. Susheela asked the Peerzadas to approach the revered Rizwan-Muauzzam group instead. They agreed, which meant we would be heading back to Pakistan.

Were we biting off more than we could chew? Introduced to the world as teenage prodigies trained by Nusrat himself, Rizwan-Muazzam have since grown in stature to become perhaps the leading Qawwals in the country. Muazzam is these days making himself felt as the true successor to Nusrat (see Nusrat video below). He is an astonishing singer, perhaps even more than he realises. I was cautioned that he is unmarried and absolutely focused on his art, sitting up all night to practise and rising late in the day to do the same thing. He would eat my puny guitar chords for breakfast.

We returned to Pakistan and drove two hours to Faisalabad, down the motorway which in Pakistan provides an anomalous vision of orderly modernity, more reminiscent of Switzerland than the subcontinent, a smooth contrast to the chaos of the city roads. The lush farmland of the Punjab, irrigated by a network of canals from the Indus, spread out on either sound. Faisalabad is a big but rather featureless town, a centre of textile manufacture. Perhaps there was nothing to do here but work on music.

We found Rizwan-Muazzam’s back street where their uncle Nusrat had lived before them. In their front parlour we were welcomed with tea and cakes. We began playing tentatively but as they started singing their voices blasted right through us. Like Nusrat they have the ecstatic abandonment of shrine singing allied to a rigorous classical training. This gives them the facility to tear into a song, to attack it as if trying to tear away the veil of separation between devotee and beloved. The high chest voice, without falsetto, gives a serious rock singer's power and delivery. They were friendly but quite conscious of their prestige. It was going to a very different experience to work with our street toughs. Muazzam was still boyish and charming although serious and disciplinarian with his own musicians. Rizwan was more roguish and funny and would mostly let his brother sing, intervening occasionally with a very high-pitched melismas of quite staggering volume. When Susheela sang, however, they would hang back and did not dive in as the previous group had. They enquired with an air of caution about the meaning of her lyrics.

The high level of musicality was making me looking a bit like every bit the superannuated rock guitarist I am

We eventually broke the ice when we started with “Maste Nazron". It had been the highlight of our 2012 gig, when we found that it dovetailed perfectly with our arrangement of a Tamil devotional song about the god Murugan. "Maste Nazron" ("Drunken Eyes") is a song about being saved from the beguiling gaze of those who feign piety and make a show of their orthodoxy but have evil designs and "infidelity" in their heart. It’s a kind of Sufi equivalent to "Backstabbers". They know the song well from their uncle’s definitive interpretation and immediately took us up to a far higher level. We had a struggle to keep up with their sinuous movements and subtle inflections but the spirit was right.

Next we tried the Qawwali standard "Mein Sharabi". The song means "I Am an Alcoholic", and makes great use of the celebrated Sufi allusions to drunkenness as a metaphor for spiritual intoxication. The song has countless verses and can go on for two hours. Susheela had learned this from a singer who comes from a different Qawwal dynasty. As it carried associations of a rival lineage Rizwan and Muazzam were reticent at first but eventually joined in, gradually becoming unstoppable, devising new melodies as they sang. We had been playing this song with a Tony Allen-style Afrobeat rhythm. After a while their tabla player locked into this and it started sounding like a hit. Our repertoire was growing.

All this was good but the high level of musicality was making me looking a bit like every bit the superannuated rock guitarist I am. I needed to pull something out of my hat and my lucky salvation came from an odd place. A few months previously in London Susheela and I had exited South Kensington tube to find a busking saxophonist who looked a little down on his luck but was playing a stunning Ethiopian melody with which we were well acquainted, having borrowed it ourselves. We got talking and a lengthy conversation ensued in which he extolled the virtues of 20th-century French composer Olivier Messaien and his nine-note scales into which many of the modes of Ethiopian music and Indian classical music mysteriously fit.

In order to restore some musical credibility I deployed this occult tidbit and started to riff on the nine-note scale the mysterious saxophonist had shown me. Muazzam instantly fixed his eye on me. “Keep playing that,” he ordered. He wove around it a spellbinding melody which sounded ancient and utterly modern, adapting the words of the mystic poet Bulleh Shah. Susheela bent one of her own songs around the same theme. We had docked craft in some kind of musical space. We returned to Lahore overjoyed and the Peerzada family organised a concert in memory of Faizaan with us and Rizwan-Muazzam at their auditorium, to which about 1000 people came. The local newspapers gave us ecstatic reviews. Having taken a strangely diverted path, we were now on course for London. Now, anxious waiting descends and we have to murmur incantations to our various gods that our whole ensemble clicks to make magic again...

Watch the video of "Raise Up"

There was blood. We were forced to come to the conclusion that our mystic Sufi Qawwals were just too rock and roll for us

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