“I cringe at the term fusion”

Eight years after the release of his tremendously successful first album, Sun Re, Abbas Ali Khan is getting ready to release his second, Tamam Alam Mast. In an exclusive interview with Ally Adnan, Khan talks at length about his new album, life as a musician, his ...

“I cringe at the term fusion”
It has been eight years since you released your first album, Sun Re. Why did it take so long to make your second album, Tamam Alam Mast?

Sun Re was hugely successful. I could have released a second album quickly to cash in on its success but I decided not to do that. Instead, I decided to work on an album which was a true labour of love, something I believed in and cared for. Sufism has always held my interest; I wanted my second album to reflect my belief in Sufism. I wanted to grow both as a person and as a musician before I started recording for the second album. The eight years that you talk about were spent rediscovering myself, reading about Sufism and focusing on my training in classical music. It took a little longer than I had anticipated but I was in no particular hurry. I had to be ready before I started recording. And as soon as I felt that I was, I was back in the recording studios.

Tell us about Tamam Alam Mast?

Tamaam Alam Mast is a product of my ongoing spiritual journey and intellectual growth. The songs in the album feature Urdu and Persian Sufi poetry - both, traditional and modern - and are based on raags of the music of Pakistan and India, or Hindustani sangeet,. The subject of all the songs is true love, Ishq. It may be worldly love, or Ishq E Majazi, for some listeners while others may feel it is the love for the creator, or Ishq E Haqeeqi. I composed the songs thinking of my love for God but each listener will have his own personal and unique experience. I purposely avoided making a distinction between Ishq E Majazi and Ishq E Haqeeqi in my songs and believe that this deliberate ambiguity added a new dimension to the songs.

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Sufism and anything Sufi - Music, Dance, Literature, Painting - is fashionable these days. Do you plan to cash in on this popularity with your album?

Yes, yes, yes!

That being said, I do not believe that it is a bad thing to cash in on the success of a popular vehicle of communication. The popularity of Sufism allows me to take my message of love, peace, tolerance and understanding to a wider audience. I am not ashamed of that; quite the opposite. I feel that I made a judicious decision to use Sufi texts to communicate my beliefs, values and through music.

[quote]I can listen to raag Charukeshi by Ustad Amir Khan Sahib one day and Gravity by John Mayer on another[/quote]

Sufi texts have been used for centuries for singing qawwali and kafi. How is your Sufi music different?

My music is nothing like qawwali and kafi. I am a lover of both the genres but the sound of my music is uniquely Abbas Ali Khan. The sound is clean, soulful, uncluttered and based largely on the poetic texts it carries. I cringe at using the term fusion to describe my music because the widely used classification has come to represent sub-standard music produced in a rush by people without a proper education in music. Sure, some work done under than banner of fusion has been of very high quality but this has been more the exception than the rule. The truth is that my album features fusion music but I believe - and sincerely hope and pray - that it is superior to a lot of music out there being classified under the genre. I have used both Eastern and Western music to create fusion music that is intensely personal, deeply contemplative, and highly nuanced. This sound is new to South Asia and bears remarkable fidelity to both oriental and occidental sound. The use of instruments is judicious and the primary focus is on capturing the mood, atmosphere and aura of the poetry being sung. Each song features prominently a single ethnic music instrument such as the shehnai, sarangi and sarodh. The selection of the base raags of the songs was dictated by the poetry. The album has an unplugged feel. The songs cover a whole spectrum of emotions. Kaheen pe jamaal, kaheen par jamal.

Ally Adnan, Abbas Ali Khan & UStad Fateh Ali Khan
Ally Adnan, Abbas Ali Khan & UStad Fateh Ali Khan

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You worked with a lot of celebrated musicians, both from Pakistan and from other countries, for your album. What was the experience like?

The experience was amazing; all of these musicians added a lot to my album. Every artist brings his own soul to music. I gave the musicians very little direction about the music and spoke to them mainly about the essence, mood and meaning of the song. Once they understood those, I let them play however they wanted to play. I would often hear myself saying, “Khan sahib aap raag bhi jaantay hain, shairi bhi samjhtay hain aur main jo kehna chah raha hun wo bhi pata hai aap ko. Ab bas mazay se bajaiye.” My co-producer and friend, Taimoor Mirza, was a veritable asset in properly utilizing and recording the music of the celebrated musicians that you talk about.

Your new album, like most, if not all, other albums produced today, employs post processing using sophisticated audio software. If these programs had not been available, and all you had available was an analog microphone and a recording machine, would this album have been possible?

Yes, it would have. Absolutely, it would have. I have mostly used actual musical instruments in the album. Very rarely have I used synthesized music and that only when budget and logistical constraints made using actual instruments impossible. I would have loved to use a seventy-person orchestra but did not have the kind of money that requires. It was in these situations that I went for virtual sound.

My new songs have a very lively acoustic feel. I did use software for post processing but only to make the sound cleaner and up to the standards of the music industry today. Maybe the use of analog recording would have made the sound a little warmer, a little more natural, but the difference would have been small.

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Tell us about the videos that are being produced for the songs in this album.  

I hope to be able to make a video for each and every song in the album. I have many ideas for the videos but first I need to take some rest. I will start work on the videos two months after the release of the album.

A few years ago, you held some highly successful live ghazal mehfils. Why have you stopped performing live in recent years?

I have not stopped performing in mehfils but most of the shows that I do are corporate events. They don’t get much coverage in the media. Once the album comes out, I will tour both within Pakistan and overseas. I also hope to be able to perform in Sufi festivals over the globe.

Your Ustad, Bade Fateh Ali Khan, is a well known and highly regarded exponent of khayal and thumri. Yet, you primarily sing geet and other lighter forms of music. What does he teach you?

I have learnt khayal gaiyaki from Ustad Ji and occasionally sing both khayal and thumri but inclination, like you said, is to sing lighter forms of music. These genres allow me greater creative freedom and afford me an opportunity to experiment – mix and match – and have fun while composing music. I like it this way. That does not mean I do not like or have given up khayal and thumri. I will continue to sing all forms of our music.


[quote]Bade Fateh Ali Khan listened to me sing and made me a ganda-bandh shagird on the spot[/quote]

You are an atayee which means that you do not belong to a family of musicians. Was learning from Bade Fateh Ali Khan as an atayee difficult?

Oh yes, I am totally an atayee, even though my family understands and appreciates music very well. They just do not hail from a traditional gharana of music. My father understood music well and as soon as he was convinced that I have talent, he took me to Ustad Ji for proper training. Bade Fateh Ali Khan listened to me sing and made me a ganda-bandh shagird on the spot. He has never treated me any different from the dhahris (members of a family of musicians) he teaches. he has been honest, understanding, generous and diligent as a teacher. It has been a great experience. Has it been difficult? Not really. I actually enjoy learning from Ustad Ji.

[quote]Ustad ji says, "Beta, khali pait Darbaari yaad nahi aati"[/quote]

Tell us about your education in music.

I did not attend a music school to learn western music but I worked very hard on my own, using both books and the internet to learn and understand it. I have been studying classical music with Ustad Ji for more than ten years now. I started learning at a relatively older age than is the norm but feel that I have done well. I have a decent understanding of both eastern and western music. I relate to both.

[quote]I can listen to raag Charukeshi by Ustad Amir Khan Sahib one day and Gravity by John Mayer on another[/quote]

What music do you listen to yourself?

I listen mainly to classical music from Pakistan and Northern India, but, every now and then, something simple appeals to me and I listen to it endlessly for days. It is safe to say that I listen to any music that has soul and with which I feel an emotional connection. This can be raag Charukeshi sung by Ustad Amir Khan Sahib one day and Gravity by John Mayer on another. Virtuosity and skill catches my attention but for a very short periods of time; it’s all about the soul for me.

Singing has been both your passion and your profession for many years. Has it afforded you satisfaction and a good living?

It is extremely hard to make a living as a performing artist in a country where people are more interested in the news than in music. I don’t blame Pakistanis, but they do not value music much. Very few musicians in Pakistan make a good living. Ustad ji sometimes says, “Beta, khali pait Darbari yaad nahi aati.” Art only flourishes in countries where the basic needs of people are taken care of.