The Rhythm of an Ustaad: In Conversation with a Maestro

By Sonya Rehman

Seated in a white cotton shalwar kameez, Ustaad Naseer-ud-Din Saami reaches across and lowers the volume of his electronic tamboura. But he doesn’t lower the volume completely. Throughout the interview, the soothing, intoxicating hum of the electronic tamboura remains consistent, giving Ustaad Saami’s rich voice a certain ethereal quality.

He has been staying at this quaint house in Gulberg, Lahore – that I’ve just visited – for the past few days, and by the end of the week, he will return home – to Karachi. The room has a high ceiling – it’s one of those airy, cool, lovely rooms, where you could easily feel inspired.

Near his feet, on the carpet, a tamboura rests. It is a long, graceful, romantic musical instrument that resembles a sitar.

I am ashamed to admit, I’d never heard Ustaad Saami’s music prior to hearing ‘Mundari’ – his exemplary Coke Studio performance. But I am here today, to talk to this artiste, because I know he has a story to tell me.

Ustaad Saami – Photo: Rizwan-ul-Haq

“I come from Delhi,” Ustaad Saami says, “We trace our lineage back to Amir Khusro.” Moving back to Pakistan in 1957, Ustaad Saami, says that he was 12 when the commencement of his education in music began. It was extremely hard, Ustaad Saami says, different and far more difficult than what was otherwise taught and practiced. “As a child I was quite stubborn and therefore agreed to go ahead with it. I knew I had to do it.”

Along with his older brother, Ustaad Saami began his musical education. “Initially, it was strange,” Ustaad Saami says, “I remember quite clearly, for the first six months, we were only allowed to listen to our teacher’s music! We didn’t sing any Sa Re Ga Ma!”

Listen, Ustaad Saami’s teacher would tell him and his brother. If you don’t listen, how will you sing, their teacher would ask.

“Listen to the sound and the voice that you desire and seek, our teacher would say. So that’s what we did. We listened and listened and listened,” Ustaad Saami states, “After six months he taught us our first sur, but we only learnt one sur every few months. For four hours at a stretch we’d just go ‘Aaaaa.’”

On the Coke Studio set – Photo: Rizwan-ul-Haq

But this long, tedious exercise, Ustaad Saami agrees, proved very beneficial since the tamboura, is a very “strange” instrument. “If someone practices on a tamboura, the instrument itself tells you if you’re melodious or not!”

After a year’s education, Ustaad Saami and his brother performed for the very first time at a family member’s wedding that was attended by a large number of people. From 1960 onwards, the brothers began performing at small, private events.

Ustaad Saami, in person, is an extremely charming man who is also, a great conversationalist. While reminiscing during the interview, he will laugh and you will notice that his laugh has something youthful about it. He will also look at you intently while talking – like a teacher will look at and speak with a young student – and use his large hands, and even longer fingers to poke in the air and wave about, for added emphasis.

In 1967 Radio Pakistan approached Ustaad Saami and his brother to be a part of the station. However, in 1968, Ustaad Saami’s brother discontinued Radio Pakistan owing to certain health reasons.

“Since then, till now, I’ve been singing solo,” he says. It was around the same time that Ustaad Sami began performing at live music shows for PTV as well.

Speaking about Radio Pakistan, Ustaad Saami states that at that time, artistes were chosen to sing on the radio only after they had cleared an intense audition.

“We were auditioned by people who knew and understood music. It was like an examination – we’d be grilled, asked questions. It isn’t like that anymore in this day and age.”

Ustaad Saami attributes the lack of quality in today’s music due to an utter lack of government support. “If some private organizations took an active interest in local music, things would be better. Mind you, the talent in Pakistan is limitless.”

Ustaad Sami states that his true pehchaan as an artiste began in the city of Lahore. “People like Bina Jawad whose house you’re sitting in right now, saw me perform in Karachi and it was through her that I came to Lahore, did many shows and was given recognition here. Funnily enough, it was only when I was recognized in Lahore that my recognition in Karachi soon followed.”

To this day, he frequently visits Lahore for performances and to teach his loyal following of young students.

Ustaad Saami doesn’t care much for the current tsunami of commercial music produced locally. “When someone becomes a victim of commercialism,” he says his eyes widening and his index finger wagging in the air, “That is when truths are hidden. And maybe some people prefer hiding the truth? When I go to India for performances, I only perform what I know I can perform. What I have within me. I don’t sing and perform that which is showy or commercial. What is the truth, I lay bare. And this is what should be practiced. These days the singer doesn’t even know what is being sung! The singer will memorize a few things, practice them and think ‘I’m a singer.’ It is difficult business to truly sing – one has to go through a long process.”

However, Ustaad Saami isn’t against commercialism. “We must look at what can be beneficial to us regarding commercialism.”

Photo: Rizwan-ul-Haq
Speaking about his experience with Rohail Hyatt and Coke Studio, the artiste says that both himself and Hyatt reached a compromise “that our styles would mesh; fuse, without altering either artiste’s style.”

The result of which is a song, ‘Mundari,’ that brings forth the rich vocals of a maestro such as Ustaad Saami, and the tight, thorough production of Hyatt. “Rohail is a lovely man who understands music,” Ustaad Saami says.

It’s almost 10pm, and Ustaad Saami hasn’t tired. He could sit cross-legged like this for a few more hours, talking, with the hum of the electronic tamboura in the background.

“I have learnt music with the primary objective of bringing peace to one’s soul,” Ustaad Saami says with a smile.

Instep, The News International

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