It's always with a certain amount of trepidation that I take on the task of reviewing anything from a culture other than my own. Much of what I take for granted when it comes to the creative process is wedded to my cultural background, meaning I lack the context to place something in outside of those circumstances. For all I know, the indicators I'm used to looking for to recognize the emotions expressed by a composer are different in another culture's music than what I've come to expect from my own.
In the past few years I've been fortunate enough to have some exposure to the culture and philosophy of the Indian subcontinent. It has become increasingly obvious to me that trying to understand some of the basic differences between the two cultures is a task sufficiently large to keep me occupied for the rest of this life, and maybe even the next one or two lifetimes as well. So when I do attempt to review something like Asad Qizilbash's Sarod Recital/Live In Peshawar (Sub Rosa), the first thing I try and do is find out as much as I can about the music and the instrument the performer is playing.
Thankfully Asad Qizilbash has made a career out of performing his music not only at home in Pakistan, but around the world in an attempt to establish bridges between musical traditions. His website is a valuable resource for anybody wishing to learn about him and his music. One of the first things he makes clear is a key difference between our society and his: Indian culture, he says doesn't divorce spirituality from everyday life, so there is a spiritual dimension in all artistic creation. As music, at least traditional classical music, is regarded as a reflection of the divine spirit, the musicians role is often spoken of in terms of a sadhana, or spiritual quest.
Rāga is a melodic concept within Indian classical music based upon a scale of five or more notes organized in both ascending (aaroha) and descending (avroha) directions with two notes (vadi and samavadi) acting as the "destination" in either direction toward which the rāga flows. This framework allows for endless variation, as the musician creates an improvisation around the basic scale and pattern movements. According to Asad, the life one lives becomes the essence of the rāgas one sings or plays, which is why a musician must have an amazing sense of self in order to carry out their sadhana. Like any artist, the musician will draw upon personal resources for their inspiration, but unlike most art in the West one of those elements is the artist's awareness of his or her connection with the divine. While its true that a great deal of Western classical music has been composed as an expression of an artist's adoration of God – think of Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" in his Symphony No. 9 – this only emphasizes how we compartmentalize spirituality and keep it separate from our day-to-day existence by not expressing anything else about the composer.
Asad's chosen instrument, the sarod, is likely Persian in origin as its name appears to be derived from the Persian word for music. Unlike many of the stringed instruments associated with Indian classical music the sarod has a goatskin head – much like a banjo's – over top of a deep wooden bowl attached to a fretless neck. Of its nineteen strings, four are designated for the melody, four to play rhythm, and eleven are sympathetic strings which resonate with the other strings. Unlike a guitar where the player depresses the strings with their fingertips, a sarod's strings are depressed with the fingernails or a combination of the nail and fingertip. With all the concerns involved, this sounds like an insanely difficult instrument to play.
Listening to Asad Qizilbash performing on the disc Live In Peshawar you would never know that it requires any particular skill to play a sarod as it seems like his fingers skip and fly over the strings without any difficulty. Even more amazing is the fact that this is a live concert performed under less than ideal conditions. For those who haven't been paying much attention to the news in recent years, Peshawar is on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan and has long been a destination for refugees fleeing the conflict in in Pakistan's northern neighbour, and a target for both the Taliban and the forces opposing them.
Accompanied by tabla player Mustafa Khan, Asad performed three separate rāgas that night, "Darbari", "Bihag", and "Piloo", in the space of about an hour. As my frame of reference for this music is limited I concentrated on trying to listen to the way Asad extrapolated upon the base structure of a raga. It was like he played in ever expanding circles that spiralled outwards from a core made up of the ascending and descending notes. After establishing the initial pattern he began playing increasingly complicated improvisations that rolled out like concentric waves of sound from a core point that expanded on each pass.
At times it was difficult to believe that it was only one instrument being played, so distinct were the melodies and the rhythms he was playing. Listening to him you begin to gain some understanding of what is meant by filling the song with the stuff of one's own life, as he sounded like he was pouring ever increasingly amounts of his heart and soul into the music. Perhaps it was the environment that he was playing in colouring my perceptions, but there was a palpable sadness to the music. It was like he was tapping into the feelings of the audience and incorporating it as part of his experiences.
I think the key to this music is not to let yourself get tied up into knots over trying to discern elements that are beyond your capacity to appreciate. Not being native to the Indian subcontinent or part of that culture, there are obviously aspects of Asad's performance that will escape us. On the other hand we can still appreciate the emotional intensity and the passion of the music as much as we would in any other performance. In the end, music is still music, and no matter how alien the instrument being played or how foreign the ideals behind a song's conception might be, we are still able to appreciate it for those things that music stirs within all of us, no matter who we are or where we come from.