If you’ve expressed any curiosity for the procession of wonderfully eclectic non-Western music that has been released over the last few years, you will unquestionably have spotted that a large percentage of it has come courtesy of the Hamburg record label Glitterbeat. Responsible for putting out revelatory contemporary albums by the likes of popular Turkish psychonauts Altin Gün, Saharan Banga rebels Ifriqiyya Electrique and the infectious Middle Eastern disco of TootArd, they continue that winning streak with what is only the second official album by 73-year-old Pakistani musician Ustad Naseeruddin Saami.
Music writers have a penchant for describing certain long-in-the-tooth performers as ‘risk takers’, customarily because they’ve added a couple of synths, to flesh out their exhaustive arrangement of guitars, or they’ve precipitously embraced song structures that veer from the tried and tested 4/4 beat so prevalent in the rock and roll canon. Radiohead, just to use the first example that springs to mind, are nothing in comparison to this Pakistani based vocalist. Recognised as the last Surti scale Qawwali singer in the world, Saami is wanted dead by the Taliban. Indeed, back in 2016, the terrorist organisation announced they were responsible for the execution of his fellow Pakistani native Amjad Sabri, gunned down for his participation in sharing the peaceful Sufi Muslim musical tradition.
Over three tracks in under an hour, the microtonal performer traces a luminous and defiant path against the historic threat of religious tyranny, delivering a provocative expression of devotional purity. The album is a continuation of the thematic journey undertaken on last year’s God Is Not A Terrorist, opening with the reflective Prayer For A Saint. A droning harmonium provides the quivering firmament upon which Saami’s voice begins to soar. Tabla drums and stringed tambura, that replicate the fluster and speed of urban living, courteously perforate yet never intrude on the 19-minute observance once it’s underway. It’s not clear which particular saint is being honoured, it could be any one of a thousand martyred souls from Pakistan’s fraught past, but it calls for complete silence from the listener. It invites, with its simplicity, an opportunity for the listener to participate in the subconscious pursuit of veneration.
WIth living under constant threat of assassination and commemorating fallen brothers and sisters, there’s an expectation that the album might be filled with excessive melancholy. Yet it is far from mournful, instead radiating vitality through Saami’s technical prowess. Reflecting on the intimate relationship he has with his homeland, Aman (Peace) is a 20-minute drone that communicates a desire for a change of pace, or a quiet space. The tumultuous hustle and bustle of the streets is swapped for the intimate isolation found in nature or within sacred spaces. Time is given for contemplation. Gradually as the track lingers on, as you marvel at the breathless pleasure Saami takes in song, you notice the slowing of your own breath, the calming of restless thoughts, and you begin to embrace the beatitude of existence.
The record closes with the reasonably brief True Notes (Happy Morning) in which Saami calmly opines his dauntless yearning for a new day filled of benevolence and wisdom. The mesmerising draw of heavenly vocal and buzzing strings may last for a mere six minutes, but it resonates in the mind long after the track decisively fades away.
Avid readers might recognise Qawwali through its most famous practitioner, the beloved late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. A giant in the world music scene, having worked with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Michael Brook and even grunge rocker Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Khan’s passing in 1997 was a devastating blow to the singing world and to honour him, he was bestowed the posthumous title of Ustad. For those not versed in the language, Ustad is the Pakistani word for Teacher, or Master, and considered the greatest accolade possible. It’s no coincidence that the title has recently been given to Naseeruddin Saami. Qawwali is comprised of a mere 49 sacred notes passed from generation to generation, and Saami passes tranquilly across them all. With only that framework of notes at his disposal, the master Ustad Naseeruddin Saami has shared a new musical language that is universal, one of invigorated love, rebelliousness and the bravery of kindness.