In Pakistan, a whole civilization is singing the songs of Ustad Saami, celebrating peace and diversity through God Is Not A Terrorist. Recorded at night on a rooftop in Karachi, this album, the first of its kind, is the product of a collaboration between Saami and the American producer Ian Brennan.
In God Is Not A Terrorist, the seventy-five-year-old Ustad Naseerudin Saami immoratilizes the precious gems of the pre-Islamic world. This takes the form of an incredible syncretism between Khayal gayaki music (descended from traditional Vedic ancient Indian songs) and Sufi qawwali (a form of Islamic devotional music), which, albeit very popular in the 70s, has since become threatened by the retrograde fury of a bloody Islamism and the disenchantment of young Pakistanis. This represents a climate that is fast degenerating – notably following the assassination of the famous qawwal Amjad Sabri by bullets in 2016 and the numerous attacks on Sufi Pakistanis. Yet, Ustad Saami, along with his four sons, continues to nobly herald the great tradition of the Sufi musician/poet Amir Khusrau, to whom the compositions of the first ever ragas (13th century) are attributed. Hitherto somewhat of an insider’s secret, and the misfit of national top hits charts, Ustad Saami and his impressive arab-style vocals hit our ears in a way that is unexpected to say the least.
To sing is to listen
“I was deeply and immediately fascinated,” said Ian Brennan. “Ustad Saami’s music is honest, intense, pure and, therefore, powerful. His relationship to each note is very intimate. Where most music systems are based on 5 notes, 8 at the most, Ustad Saami works around forty-nine notes with striking accuracy. He likes to say that singing is, above all, listening. Of course, that changes everything: music has become like a sixth sense for him. The term ‘master’ is used in many cultures, often overused. But for his part, Ustad Saami honors and celebrates it. He has dedicated his life to this very old music. He comes from a small village where it has resonated for over eight-hundred years. Today, he takes great care to pass it on to the young generations, boys as well as girls. He is a very progressive man.”
Ian Brennan was awarded with a Grammy in 2012 for Tinariwen’s album Tassili, where he captured the rebel riffs in the South-Algerian desert. Then, in 2016, he was nominated for I Have No Everything Here, an album composed by the prisoners of the maximum security Zomba Central Prison, Malawi. Through these projects, he strives to amplify the sounds of the marginalized – a notion epitomized by his journey from Cambodia to Ukerewe Island (“Albino Island”) in Tanzania. Driven by humanist curiosity and an all-consuming love of visceral music, he recalls the approaches of Alan Lomax or Nicolas Bouvier. Naturally, he responded immediately to a request made by two of Ustad Saami’s students to fly for Karachi.
Transcendence of ego
Like the man himself, Ustad Saami’s house is utterly dedicated to his art: the upper floor has been converted into a music room that extends to the roof terrace where Ian Brennan laid his pickups for the recording of God Is Not A Terrorist. Saami sat cross-legged under a portrait of a respected ancestor, carried by his sons in harmony with tablas and tampuras, whose heady drones accompany the elevation of souls. Ustad Saami sang “masterpieces in Sanskrit, in Farsi, in Urdu … pieces that sometimes lasted more than an hour! He sang for the entire night,” the American producer reveals breathlessly. “We were all sitting in a circle on the floor, with a sublime view of Karachi and we recorded until daybreak with the greatest respect for Vedic and Sufi rites. That’s what he had always hoped to be able to do: record live, at home, with his family and without overdubs.”
Alongside modern arrangements on God Is Not A Terrorist, the family group preferred the infinitely freer expanses of improvisation and ancestral call-and-response for an immaterial and undulating conversation guided by the master’s hands. “It was like he was playing a Theremin,” adds Ian Brennan, hypnotized by Ustad Saami’s highly spiritual body language. “The energy circulated between them with a brilliant fluidity, they were inspired and managed to harmonize their voices, their bodies. It was a very beautiful union. When he sings, Ustad is incandescent, magnetic, everything radiates around him. He puts himself entirely at the service of the music, he offers himself in a total transcendence of the ego: with courage, vulnerability, honesty … At sunrise, the master seemed to have more energy than at the beginning of the session, whereas his sons all felt tired. It impressed me a lot.”
As the Sanskrit proverb goes: “If one has a diamond in their chest, it will shine on their face.” In opposition to obfuscation and obscurity – Ustad Saami chooses the light.