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Sax and Pakistan

What does it take for Norwegian jazz to mix well with traditional Pakistani Qawaali music?

November 9, 2002

What does it take for Norwegian jazz to mix well with traditional Pakistani Qawaali music?

Jazz can be counted as one of the greatest cultural exports of the United States, but it has taken root in Europe as well. Among Europe's foremost jazz figures is Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek.

Inspired by hearing the music of saxophone giant John Coltrane on the radio, Garbarek took up the instrument as a teenager. By the age of 18, he was playing saxophone professionally.

Initially, Garbarek's work was strongly influenced by that of Coltrane. But by the early 1970s, Garbarek was beginning to develop a new and much "chillier" sound that relied in equal parts on improvisation and on his explorations in the folk music of his native Norway.

It was a music that substituted silences and slower paces for the frenetic barrage of notes favored by Coltrane.

Jan Garbarek's collaborations with classically-influenced jazz composer Keith Jarrett also had a tremendous effect on the Norwegian saxophonist's career.

The collaboration with the U.S.-born Jarrett pushed Garbarek into a more rigid and sophisticated style of music. It was a friction of styles that created sparks of inspiration — and stretched Garbarek's concept of collaboration.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Garbarek stuck close to his Scandanavian roots. Albums such as Dis, Eventyr and the Legend of the Seven Dreams mined the rich folklore of Norway for his inspiration.

Yet, when the Norwegian jazz legend decided to venture abroad for new sounds to explore, he undertook a voyage not to the United States, Latin America or Africa. Instead, he went to Pakistan — and its cultural capital, Lahore.

As a musical journey, 1992’s Ragas and Sagas could not have been a greater leap. Other than Garbarek's saxophone, there is little connection to traditional jazz music.

Instead, the Pakistani musicians on Ragas and Sagas — vocalists Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and Deepika Thathaal, tabla player Ustad Shaukat Hussain and sarangi player Ustad Nazim Ali Khan — create rich and exotic sonic landscapes for the album's five compositions.

As the capital of the Punjab region, Lahore is a densely crowded city that mixes the secularism of the bazaar — and its famous "dancing girls" — with the sanctity of the mosque. The music on Ragas and Sagas reflects this duality perfectly in the four songs (called "Ragas I, II, III and IV") written by vocalist Ustad Fateh Ali Khan.

These compositions mix the fervent religious intensity of "qawaali" music with a more liberal use of a folk music steeped in the traditions of animal charming and small group performance.

Garbarek's genius on Ragas and Sagas is to enter fully into this landscape from the album's first notes. Listen carefully to the opening of "Raga I," for instance, and you can imagine the thin, plaintive notes of Garbarek's soprano saxophone as a muezzin's call to prayer from a minaret.

It is a haunting sound that calls the voices, tablas and the sarangi (a violin-like instrument producing a high and tremulous tone) together into a quietly meditative and moody piece of music.

The image of the call to prayer is an apt one for Ragas and Sagas. Qawaali music is one of Pakistan's cultural treasures — rooted in the peaceful Islamic traditions of Sufism.

In Qawaali, the art of music was used to evoke a deeper spirituality in both the performer and the audience.

The rising rhythmic intensity of Qawaali music — the repetition of notes against the rolling beats of the tablas — dominate Ragas and Sagas.

And yet, the secular world has its place on Ragas and Sagas as well. Though Garbarek's saxophone often blends into its rhythms, the listener is always aware of the difference — and even oddness — that it brings to the sonic landscape.

At times, Garbarek's instrument is like the perfect tourist — traveling from afar to observe and learn. And then be moved to fervent emotion, acoustically capturing the wonders that he has seen.

Garbarek's only composition on Ragas and Sagas — "Saga" — is also the most "Western" influenced song on the record. Manu Katche's rock-influenced drums and Garbarek's flowing tenor saxophone solo create an echo of similar cross-cultural collaborations between rock artists such as Peter Gabriel and the legendary Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Garbarek has led many jazz combos. But it is when the saxophonist follows the lead of the musicians from Lahore, however, that Ragas and Sagas ascends to sheer brilliance.

Minutes pass on "Raga II," for example, before Garbarek's sweet soprano saxophone insinuates itself into the rhythmic storm created by voice and tabla.

On "Raga III," the singers and tablas again set the mood as Garbarek's saxophone trades fierce bursts with the shimmering notes of the sarangi.

After recording Ragas and Sagas, Garbarek moved on to collaborations with musicians from other countries — including Greece and Eastern Europe. But Ragas and Sagas remains a special work in Garbarek's oeuvre — a seamless blend of jazz and qawaali created by the Norwegian musician's musical courage and bold willingness to experiment.