Review
Words: Dominic Valvona




Ustad Saami ‘Pakistan Is For The Peaceful’
(Glitterbeat Records) Album/9th October 2020


The only living master of an ancient Sufi devotional form in transcendence, the seventy-six year old Ustad Saami lives in hope that his transportive blessed “Surti” music may yet bring peace to a most turbulent and dangerous Pakistan. In a region in which fundamentalism holds a powerful grip of fear on the population, most forms of music that don’t conform to a strict Islamic code are banned or at the very least pressured to go underground.

The danger is all too real and prevalent, and in venturing to Pakistan a few years ago to record the great adorations of Saami, the in-situ American producer Ian Brennan (no stranger to this blog) was taking a huge risk. Brennan is of course used (to a point) of luring out forgotten, ignored and obscure voices from some of the most inhospitable places and warzones in the world. The Hidden Music series for Glitterbeat Records, of which this is the second Saami album to be appear, has seen the Grammy Award winning producer already travel to both a post genocide Rwanda and Cambodia, and also to a mine-riddled Vietnam to coax out the most striking emotional of open and frank recordings. Now capturing for posterity, he once again facilitates the most intimate conditions for another deeply immersive liturgy of heavenly Surti adulations.





Pakistan Is For The Peaceful is, considering the geopolitical tumult and violence, a hopeful title. But then the exalted master has spent a lifetime in the service of his music; learning the forms 49-note microtonal system of vocal prayers since being singled out for the pathway to devotion. It has been a harsh learning at that; the pupil Saami forbidden by his master from speaking or communicating verbally, instead guided towards lyrical expressions. He wouldn’t even get to step on stage to perform this eight centuries generational hand-me-down veneration until the age of thirty-five. And then, until only in recent years, more or less confined to his home of Pakistan. Now in his mid seventies, a more worn Saami still manages to rise every morning at 4am to practice and perform his drill exercises until dawn.

Following on from the well-received 2019 album God Is Not A Terrorist this second brassy resonating, concertinaed and bellowed magisterial rich suite of incredibly hypnotic lengthy performances is even better.

Joined by his four sons (Rauf, Urooj, Ahmed and Azeem), who both vocally respond to Saami’s paeans and provide an assortment of dipped, purposeful and reverberating harmonium, tambura and tabla, the master conjures up a holy out-of-body experience. Performing from Saami’s rooftop home in Karachi, this ensemble entrance and send the listener off into the inspired heavens.

The leading voice of Saami comes from the gut, but isn’t so much guttural as aching in its reverence and otherworldliness. Those shimmering nodes of resonance and sorrowed drones meanwhile stir up a spiritual epiphany: something extremely special.

This album is why I started this whole damn blog; a search for those uncynical real performances that get lost in the daily hubris of incessant noise and divisive outrage. This is music from another dimension in comparison to all that. And thanks in part to Brennan; it will now exist as a recorded testament forever, even if it this form of Islamic spiritualist music is set to die out with its leading light. As sad as that sounds, that dying art has never sounded so ethereal and yet alive. So I say: soak it up; bathe in the glow.





Also…

Ustad Saami ‘God Is Not A Terrorist’ here…

Glitterbeat Records 5th anniversary special here…

The Ian Brennan interview here…


Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.


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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