George Howlett interviews Jaubi about their recently released ‘Deconstructed Ego E.P’, Hindustani Classical music, J Dilla, Pakistan and much more.
- Zohaib Hassan Khan Sarangi
- Kashif Ali Dhani Tabla & vocals
- Qammar Vicky Abbas Cajon & vocals
- Ali Riaz Baqar Guitar & kalimba
- Your EP teaser clip is a Hindustani-infused cover of J Dilla’s Fall in Love. The internet has made it easier than ever to engage with a huge variety of music, and so musicians who want to fuse diverse traditions are spoilt for choice. Hindustani Classical training has given you a high level of technical proficiency, so very little is off limits – why Dilla in particular?
[Ali]: I started realising how important Dilla is through current day musicians looking up to him – like Robert Glasper, D’Angelo, etc. Then I went back and listened a lot to his catalogue and it’s amazing. J Dilla’s ear was incredible. He wouldn’t only take samples and give them a whole new life, but he was also a hardworking and humble musician. He let the music speak for itself. ‘Fall in Love’ was one of the songs that caught me. Our song ‘Dilla Taal’ happened by accident. Zebi and Vicky were at my house and I had been listening to ‘Fall in Love’ earlier, so I started playing the groove. Then we switched the taal (rhythmic cycle) and recorded it in one take the next day.
- It seems to me that hip-hop and Indian Classical music actually have a fair few things in common. Both styles are often performed as duets (MC & DJ, sitar & tabla), and both feature complex vocal syncopation – whether it’s the ‘flow’ of a talented MC, tabla’s bol syllables, or the Carnatic konnakol rhythm language. In fact you have a video which features bol vocalisations over a hip-hop style breakbeat – do you see space for more interaction between Indian rhythm languages and Western MCing?
- Sampling is fundamentally about reinterpreting the ideas of others and I guess Dilla would love that your cover of Fall in Love strays far from his original, but radical fusions are not always welcomed by Indian Classical music audiences. Your stated musical philosophy suggests a relaxed approach (‘whatever sounds good and whatever feels good’), but there’s often a fine line between paying homage to a tradition and rebelling against it. How do you see this tension functioning in your creative process?
[Zohaib]: Yes, we’re aware of the traditions and the fine lines. Indian classical music training is very tough and requires a lifetime of dedication but at the same time masters before us like Pandit Ravi Shankar, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ustad Zakir Hussain and many more have done fusion projects. This has helped to make the music known to countries other than Pakistan or India.
[Ali]: I don’t feel we are rebelling against it, but rather bringing elements of Indian classical music to a totally different audience. I am very conscious of the traditions and respect in Indian classical music, but at the same time we are only sampling elements of the tradition. It’s impossible to convey the true mood of the raga – doing so requires more than 5 minutes. There’s not really any tension in the creative process unless we decide to strictly stick to the taal or raga (then it becomes a bit more difficult especially for me).
- You have the situation and the chops to try out a huge variety of fusions, and I sense that Dilla might just be the start. I for one think that Jungle/DnB and Hindustani classical tabla playing have a lot in common – what else do you have in mind?
[Ali]: There has been quite a positive response for the Dilla-inspired stuff, so for the next project we will interpret maybe 3 or 4 hip hop beats in a pure Indian Classical style. Currently we’re arranging Nas and DJ Premier’s classic ‘NY State of Mind’. The emphasis is and has always been on original music though. After this hip-hop inspired EP, we’ll go back to composing original music. Also a record company by the name of Astigmatic Records based in London will be releasing our EP on vinyl later this year.
- The first full track on the album (Dha-Vi) puts percussion right at the centre of the listening space, rather than melody. Tabla fans are used to this, but many others are not – do you think they will hear the music very differently?
[Vicky]: Dha-Vi isn’t really a pure percussion track – it starts out with vocals and guitar and gradually gets more complex in the rhythmic cycle. The guitar actually acts as a lehra (melodic loop) instead of the traditional instruments like sarangi or harmonium, which hasn’t really been done before. Also this one of the very few tracks if not the first track recorded in Pakistan that puts cajon and tabla at the centre.
[Ali]: – The tracklisting was deliberate – Dha-Vi came first, because to me rhythm is the most important thing in music. It is the one element that people can relate to regardless of your musical background.
- How much is your sound influenced by living in Lahore as a city?
[Zebi]: – Living in Lahore we try to make each other laugh, and have a relaxed attitude to everything. I guess that comes out in our music because if we are around people who we feel relaxed with then the music will come out a lot better.
- What are your ambitions for the band?
[Zebi]: We hope to continue more songs and explore the possibility of bringing more elements of our classical music to a new audience.
[Ali]: My ambition is to get the respect of people who I look up to musically.
[Vicky]: Just to keep recording tracks and hoping people like it, and getting exposure and opportunities to play outside of Pakistan.
- What are some of the challenges of being on the music scene in Pakistan?
[Zohaib]: We love music here, but unfortunately the respect for musicians especially classical music and sarangi is dying. In Pakistan there are only few sarangi players. Guitar, drums and keyboard are prominent. I hope that people listening to the EP will get interested in the sarangi and want to work with us, and I hope that it promotes our music in a positive way. I don’t understand why western instruments are taught around in schools but our classical instruments like sarangi are rarely taught. And it is quite expensive living here. Whatever money we earn it goes into rent, feeding our family and fixing our instruments so we hardly have any money left for recording our ideas.
[Vicky]: People who belong to musical families struggle financially – we have the hard work and talent to learn things but there isn’t much support. There should be pure music and pure family. There should be a open studio for struggling musicians who should be able to record their music freely and be supported by institutions who promote the arts and artists. The west should give people in Pakistan a chance rather than getting musicians from India. We should get international support.
[Ali]: In the West, there are so many festivals, open mics and concerts to get yourself out in the live scene. There’s also a lot more emphasis on the arts and financial grants given to support a project. Here, you will lose money and it’s almost impossible to get exposure unless you have connections (which I don’t).
- What was recording the EP like? The processes and interactions that give rise to fusion music are always fascinating.
[Zohaib]: It was very challenging for us to understand each other at first. It was difficult to learn guitar parts on the sarangi but despite that I really enjoyed flying with Ali’s mind and melodies and I accepted the challenge. I liked it how we could improvise and move freely around the basic composition. There was a free will to play music with an open mind and heart.
[Vicky]: It was a great process – whatever we wanted to do we just did it. It’s the first time in Pakistan that both cajon and tabla have been recorded together as a pure instrumental piece. We all followed each other and supported each other. Dhani and I had the same mind and were on the same page rhythmically but we performed different instruments.
[Ali]: Some earlier songs like ‘Remorsefully Proud’ and ‘A War With My Ego’ were very structured, but as we spent more time together we just started to improvise a lot more around a basic idea or groove. We would rehearse at my house and record the sessions on my laptop before we would forget the song. The hip-hop inspired stuff came right towards the end.
- Do audiences in Pakistan readily support live shows of traditional and classical-infused music?
[Ali]: I think there is such a lack of live music that whatever style the bands are playing, people will come out and see. I do think people who play western based music here will get a bit more exposure as it’s easier to market but at the end of the day if it’s good music then people will support it.
[Vicky]: More people come to shows where Western music is played, as compared to traditional classical concerts. Also the audiences are much younger if non-classical music is being played. But we should never forget our culture and our roots.
interviewed by George Howlett