Album Review: Dominic Valvona



Ustad Saami ‘God Is Not A Terrorist’
(Glitterbeat Records) January 18th 2019


No-one quite sums up the dangerous lunacy of field recording in the world’s most hostile, often deadly, environments better than the Grammy award-winning producer, author and (very handy as it goes) violence prevention expert Ian Brennan. Self-deprecating with it, and candid, Brennan’s linear notes capture the cultures and locations of his many in-situ raw recording sessions with a stimulating honesty.

Probably appearing more than any other producer on this blog, including an interview, Brennan’s prolific career is as long as it is varied. Choosing an international cast (some more obscure and hidden than others; some more poignant and tragic too) drawn from forgotten, even, shunned communities. Whether it’s capturing the roadside roasted mouse sellers turn rustic otherworldly bluesmen Malawi Mouse Boys, or members of the persecuted Albino community in Tanzania, Brennan’s raison de terre still stands: “My concern is not cultural authenticity, but emotional truth and uncloying performances. Purity without baggage!”

And so, letting his subject naturally perform in the purest of settings – usually outside the confines of a modern equipped studio -, he travels to the remotest, hostile of places. Among his most enduring partnerships, the continuing relationship with Glitterbeat Records has taken him to quite a few of the most dangerous hotspots; especially for the Hidden Music series of albums. Previous editions of this series have found Brennan braving Rwanda, Cambodia and Vietnam. But the most foolhardy yet, and subject of Volume 5 of this healing music survey collection, takes him to Pakistan.

As he reminds us, “In the land where Osama Bin Laden last hid”, a “state so feared that the US government does not allow its staff to stay in hotels anywhere in the entire country”, Pakistan is a highly volatile, military heavy state: The most worrying concern being that they’re a nuclear state. If further proof was needed of the trigger-finger tensions, Brennan sets the vivid scene further: “Driving in from the airport I noticed a man cleaning what I thought was a musical instrument, but then realized was a machine gun. Weaponry is another visual motif throughout the city. En route, we passed celebrity-soldier sponsor billboards for house paint. Here, army officers carry a similar hollow cache to reality stars in America.”

Despite the evident dangers, he’s here to record for posterity the mesmerizing atavistic voice of the country’s much-revered classical singer, Ustad Saami, whose specialized Surti microtonal and multilingual expressions, accompanied by dipping buoyant tabla and long-drawn out harmonium drones, may very well die out when he does. Despite the somewhat provocative title, the beauty, serenity and sincerity of Saami’s music seems far from controversial. Yet to the more extremist sections of the Islamic faith, his spiritual yearnings represent a rebellious, defaming voice, an individual breaking with the hardline insistence of a myopic form of worship. For Saami’s blended form of Farsi, Sanskrit, Hindi, the ancient and dead language of Vedic, ‘gibberish’, Arabic and Urdu predates Islam. As the spread of a dogmatic Islam spreads across the globe, and as we’ve seen in Mali, a distrust but violently imposed break from anything outside the doctrine and history of Islam has seen the ritual burning of instruments and ban of most musical forms.


Photo credit: Marilena Delli





With all this in mind, the task of recording, in what was an energy-sapping all-night session – though the spritely vigorous 75 year-old maestro proved he could play all night, even into the next morning without a break, his companions were knackered – such afflatus magical music seems (to put it mildly) daunting.

Almost in a trance, the impressive Hindustani Khayál classical 49-note scale system Saami uses (deriving from the Arabic for ‘imagination’, this style was originally conceived by, we’re told, a mixed race royal whose lifelong endeavor was to make peace with duality through art) can hypnotize and draw the listener in. Though it sounds far from intense, it takes some concentration and endurance to play uninterrupted – at least two of the tracks on this collection run over the ten-minute mark. A predecessor to an even older form called Qawwal, Khayál it seems is more about feeling and atmosphere, the lyrics of the call-and-response performances almost incidental.

Sharing this divine music with the world before it disappears – the inevitability of a tradition only ever passed down possessively between family members -, the God Is Not A Terrorist sessions connect with a thousand and more years of encapsulating praise. Simultaneously uttering earthy deep longings and soaring tribute to a higher plain, Saami and his troupe pay amorphous service to the holy on ‘God Is’; “Om” and in phlegm voiced dedication ponderously elevate with a paean to romance on ‘My Beloved Is On The Way’; woo and yearn in the dusk of ‘Twilight’; and in a swirl of bellowed harmonium, lull entranced on the transportive ‘Longing’.

An incredible recording, thankfully in the hands (more hands-off) of an accomplished producer, Saami Ustad’s endangered music is safely shared to a global audience. As preservation goes, this latest volume in a much accomplished and surprising series of ethnomusicology is a mesmeric study in keeping a form alive in the face of persecution and fate.








Words: Dominic Valvona 

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