The magical, meditative khayaal gaiki of Ustad Naseeruddin Saami
17 November 2019

Saami-Brothers ustad

بره بره… الفسد والحسد ما بقى أمانة

Out! Out! Sadness, hate and the reign of arbitrary

These lines from Rachid Taha’s hit number Barra Barra echoed through the speakers in the moments leading up to Ustad Saami’s 11pm performance at the 2019 WOMAD Festival earlier in the year. A clever choice for pre-show playlist. Like the Ustad, the late Rachid Taha was a towering figure in global/fusion/world music. Fitting words too – for what was also the first weekend of a Boris Johnson government.

The huge, beautiful Siam tent is full as Grammy winning producer, and promoter of under-represented ‘World music’ artists, Ian Brennan introduces Ustad Saami on stage. Brennan mentions the unique surti technique practised by Ustad Saami – a 49-note scale with seven microtones between each of the standard notes. Backed by his four sons – musicians in their own right who perform as part of the Saami Brothers qawwali ensemble – the Ustad delivers a mesmerising single piece 60-minute performance. The audience is in thrall – you could hear a pin drop. Accompanying the Ustad on vocals, tabla, harmonium and two adapted, portable tanpuras – the sons too appear in awe of what they are helping create. It is heavenly, other-worldly, ethereal, sublime.

Ustad Saami’s mastery of his voice seems unsurpassable, and the extreme ends of his delivery defy his age. From the low electrifying notes to the way his vocals effortlessly flow into the higher ranges – he seems super-human. For the most part, the performance is measured, calm, delivered with a sense of profound serenity. The audience listens motionless throughout, and it wouldn’t be too much to say that we are enraptured, elevated, in oneness. Indeed this is the Ustad’s philosophy – that music flows from the heart to the heart, and language and culture is no barrier. Necks crane as the performance picks up tempo in the last few minutes, and as the performance concludes at the stroke of midnight, the tent (sans the sleeping toddlers) stands in collective appreciation.

In his seventies now, the Ustad is a master of classical music, who has spent over six decades practising khayaal (imagination) gaiki. Hailing from the Delhi gharana and then trained by his uncle, the great classical singer, qawwal and scholar Munshi Raziuddin after whom one of the one of the five lanes of Karachi’s famous Qawwal Gali is named.

Khayaal gaiki is an improvisational form of North Indian classical singing. Like other Indian classical music forms, khayaal is based on raags (melodic frameworks) but it’s less rigid than earlier forms such as dhrupad, and places less emphasis on lyrics, allowing the vocalist to explore the chosen raag more freely. Ustad Saami is amongst Pakistan’s most well known teachers of khayaal, and his students include well known artists such as Ali Sethi and Zebunnisa Bangash. His eminence in traditional music circles is evident through his performances with the All Pakistan Music Conference and his contributions to Tehzeeb Foundation’s Indus Raag project, a carefully curated anthology of South Asian classical music. The Ustad also memorably appeared on Coke Studio (Season four) in 2011.

Yet he has only recently received international attention thanks to his 2019 album God Is Not a Terrorist. Recorded in Karachi, produced by American producer Ian Brennan, the album is released on the global music label Glitterbeat. Don’t let the unfortunate marketing tactics put you off – the title of the album and the liner notes are indeed ill-judged and belie a preoccupation with reaching Western listeners over a more truthful representation of the cultural context in which Pakistani music is created, performed and distributed. But one listen to the album – a collection of six khayaal songs of varying lengths (the longest is a 19 minute piece called Longing is below), and it is clear that this is a sincere, gorgeous effort. And an important one – new Indian classical albums are rarely released nowadays, and Khayaal albums even less so. God Is Not a Terrorist is a rare project to capture and share a declining but unique art form.

This Sunday 17th November, Londoners will have the opportunity to experience the magic of Ustad Saami. Having just performed at the Le Guess Who festival in Utrecht last weekend, the Ustad and his sons will be at the Tileyard Studios for a khayaal gaiki performance at 3pm, courtesy of Sama Arts. Expect to be transported into a meditative state by a master musician, and look out for God Is (Allah Hu) – a stunning devotional piece. The khayaal performance will be followed by a separate qawwali performance by the Saami Brothers in the evening.

When: Sunday 17th November 2019, 3pm

Where: The Gallery, Tileyard Studios, Tileyard Road, London N7 9AH

Admission: £20

More information and tickets: Sama Arts – Ustaad Naseeruddin Saami


When: Sunday 17th November 2019, 7pm

Where: The Gallery, Tileyard Studios, Tileyard Road, London N7 9AH

Admission: £20

More information and tickets: Sama Arts – Saami Brothers Qawwal


By Omer Tariq

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