Sarangi, sitar and double bass

NAPA recently organised a fusion concert in Karachi. Noor Jehan Mecklai was at the scene

Sarangi, sitar and double bass
The recent fusion concert at the Karachi auditorium of the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA), organised by Nafees Ahmed, head of the academy’s music department, was certainly a treat for the audience in terms of the variety and the quality of the programme. When the performance received enthusiastic applause, punctuated by loud whistles and cheers of appreciation, it was a bonanza for the performers, who had seen similar enthusiasm from their audience in Jamshoro a few days ago.

This was day two of a music festival titled Sangat. On the first night of the event, the audience was offered a delightful collection of classical music performed by accomplished musicians such as renowned flutist Ustad Salamat Hussain and singer Akbar Ali from Lahore. Four NAPA students also put up a strong performance with Gul Mohammad on thesarangi, and Waqas, Sabir and Babar taking turns on the tabla. A sitar player himself, Ahmed said that organising such programmes was an important part of the efforts to reclaim classical music. “Teaching young musicians how to play the sitar is very dear to my heart,” he added.

Day two’s programme attempted to bridge American and Pakistani cultures. Folk musicians from Sindh and dancers from Baluchistan performed along with the Kentucky Winders, a bluegrass band from the United States invited by the US Consulate-General.

The show opened with a pleasing performance by a Sindhi folk music ensemble, which included a distinct voice of the sarangi. I use the word “voice”, because I am told that the sound of this instrument resembles the human voice more clearly than any other.

Dancers Akhtar Chanal and Abdul Haq were next to appear, accompanied by the impressive Sindhi ensemble. Together, they caused quite a stir among the audience over the combination of two contrary styles of performance.

Akhtar Chanal’s stage presence is altogether magnificent. His Balochi headdress and ornate waistcoat seemed to enhance the grace and quiet dignity etched in the lines on his face. Chanal is a large, bearded fellow but he danced with a ponderous, slow grace confined almost entirely to pirouettes. Somehow, incredibly, his dance never appeared monotonous. His footwork, as he executed his pirouettes, was precise and immaculate. His popular song Danah Pe Danah drew cheers and enthusiasm from the audience as he extolled the virtues and beauties of his home province.

At the same time, slender Abdul Haqm, in his simple garb, moved like a firefly hither, thither and yonder on the stage with his hips gyrating at an amazing speed. Now and then, he would pause to give a staccato interlude on the small, glittering drum placed in the centre of the stage.

Next came the Kentucky Winders, featuring Seth Folsom on the banjo, Nikos Pappas on the violin, Jesse Wells on the guitar and Nick Lloyd on the double bass, giving a nicely combined rendition of Kentucky bluegrass music.

True to bluegrass, one or more instruments played the melody, while at other times only one would take the lead while the others provided accompaniment. It was amazing to see and hear Nikos Pappas, for example, playing his fiddle with such skill or Seth Folsom bringing the best out of his banjo. The group work together with cohesion and ease. Rapid tempos, along with instrumental dexterity, sometimes accompanied by complex chord changes are typical of this genre.

Bluegrass is actually a plant of the Poa genus found in the state of Kentucky.  Its leaves are green but its seed heads are blue. Bluegrass music is a sub-genre of American country and western music. It was inspired by the music of Appalachia, which has been described as “a wellspring of (American) national culture”. It is an area following the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, and includes parts of 12 states including Kentucky. Bluegrass has mixed roots in Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English traditional music, since settlers from these parts arrived in Appalachia in the 18th century, bringing with them their musical traditions. Furthermore, African American musicians, through the incorporation of jazzy tunes, also influenced the genre.

The audience had many expectations from Nafees Ahmed when he took his seat on the stage to perform on the sitar. He collaborated with Jesse Wells on his double bass and Akhtar Chanal and Abdul Haq joined the exotic performance. What they produced together was an amazing combination of instrumentals.

The jugalbandi between the sarangi and the violin was the high point of the evening, with neither instrumentalist making a single error, and the audience marveling at the dexterity and skill of the two soloists.

The grand finale saw all musicians, dancers, Nafees Ahmed and students of NAPA on stage for the performance of the popular folk number Lal Meri Pat along with patriotic songs including Jeeve Jeeve Pakistan and Ye Watan Humara Hai with tumultuous applause from the well-satisfied audience.