Meeting of Maestros

Special report for the TFT Features Desk

Meeting of Maestros
The tail-end of 2017 was witness to the collaboration of the decade: Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami, a classical music maestro, and Ian Brennan, a Grammy-winning music producer from the US, were brought together in Karachi (last month), to flesh out a multi-CD album, due to be out in 2019.

A plan in the making for over a year, it was Ali Sethi (one of Saami’s students), who, after hearing a world music album that Brennan had produced, reached out to the producer over email in hopes of facilitating a meeting between Brennan and his ustaad. The rest, as they say, was history!

“Working with him was an honour and a joy,” Brennan stated in an email, once he had arrived back in the US after his rushed, jam-packed trip to Pakistan, “Saami’s 49-note system and the mastery and precision that he brings to it have forced me to re-evaluate what a ‘singer’ really is, as the majority pale in comparison.”
Ustaad Saami's forefathers, along with the legendary Sufi poet and musician Amir Khusrau, formalised the schools of Qawwali and Khayal in Delhi in the 13th century

Apart from winning a Grammy for the Best World Music Album in 2011 (and being a Grammy-nominee in 2006, 2007 and 2015), for producing the album Tassili by a band of Tuareg musicians (from the Sahara Desert region of Northern Mali), called Tinariwen, Brennan is also an author and a public speaker.

Having made it his life’s mission to travel to a number of countries and collaborate with under-represented artistes who haven’t had the opportunity to have their work heard in the international arena of music, Brennan mentioned that he will be returning to Rwanda in the new year to record the third album of a local band called The Good Ones.

With collaborations and music projects with a plethora of artistes from Romania, Italy, Cambodia, Rwanda, Mali and now, Pakistan, under his belt, how does the producer overcome language barriers when working with local musicians and vocalists from other countries?

Sharing a light moment

“One of the most beautiful things about music is that it transcends mere words. Music’s destiny is freedom,” he responds, “It is invisible and when people try to restrict what is or is not music and dumb it down to just a 7-note or even only a 5-note scale from the breadth of sounds that we are surrounded by, they do a disservice to the world and themselves. These sorts of somewhat arbitrary and culturally-biased limitations are ultimately acts of violence.”

A dedicated practitioner of the ancient Indian classical tradition of Khayal, Saami began his lifelong journey into the field of classical music in the 1950s, when he was only 11 years old. Under the guidance of his uncle, Ustaad Munshi Raziuddin (the renowned Qawwal, classical musician and music scholar), Saami, today, represents the handful of rare gems – classical music living legends – in not just Pakistan, but across the world.

The art of classical music is as much a part of Saami as he is a part of it; his forefathers, along with the legendary Sufi poet and musician, Amir Khusrau, formalised the schools of Qawwali and Khayal in Delhi, India, in the 13th century.

Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami

Speaking about his interaction with Saami over the course of the days spent in Karachi, Brennan reveals that the music will be nothing short of ‘epic’.

“Many of the songs are more than an hour long and are multi-lingual, Brennan states, “The breadth of even some of the individual songs is breathtaking.”

“When I met [Brennan] for the first time, I got the impression that he is a serious individual who tries to understand the subject with immense depth – I really appreciated this quality about him,” Saami had stated over the phone.

During Brennan’s trip, the producer discloses that both he and Saami pulled an all-nighter during one of the recording sessions, and only took a short break for a meal. “In the morning after the sun had come up, the other musicians were understandably exhausted, but the master had more energy than when we had started the night before and he wanted to keep going!”

“Both cultures of the east and the west can greatly benefit from each other’s music,” Saami said, “If they have something worthy to offer, we should take inspiration from it, and vice versa. In the same way, both cultures shouldn’t be compared in a manner where you consider one to be wrong and the other to be right – that’s not correct. Each has its unique qualities, and if valuable to both sides, it should be shared.”