The intimate confines of the Charles H. Morris Center played host to one of the top exponents of traditional Sufi music in the world when female Pakistani vocalist Sanam Marvi and her quartet performed a rare U.S. concert on April 8, courtesy of the Savannah Music Festival.
The SMF, which has earned a deserved reputation as one of the most spectacular and eclectic annual showcases of traditional world music in this country, is to be commended for securing yet another artist of this caliber who would otherwise never appear in a secondary market such as Savannah. The level of talent, concentration and devotion gathered on that small stage in front of a near-capacity crowd of adventurous listeners was stunning.
After a brief spoken English introduction by the jovial — yet somewhat imposing — Pakistani singer-songwriter Arieb Azhar, who was accompanying Marvi and her group on this short tour (which serves as a form of cultural outreach between the U.S. and Pakistan), he left the stage and the group proper embarked on an exhilarating, high-energy set of both religious and secular poetry and chanting set to rapturous acoustic music.
Marvi and all the musicians — one sitarist (from “an eminent family of sitarists,” we are told), one harmonium player and two percussionists (on dholak and tablas, respectively) — sat cross-legged on a riser along one side of this beautiful brick and wood room and dove right into a series of highly synchronized, raga-esque explorations that found all involved playing furiously on their respective instruments and watching Marvi closely for the subtle hand gestures and approving looks that helped guide their performances.
The vocalist and musicians were all clad in open-necked black dress clothes augmented with traditional garb (such as a colorful, intricately printed sash for her and silver or gold brocade on the cuffs and chests of the men). They all had studious and intense looks on their faces, save for the table player, Kashif Ali, who often broke out into a wide, beatific grin during his most impassioned moments of drumming fury. The harmonium player pumped his hand organ steadily and relentlessly throughout the show, contributing quick-fingered melodic runs as well as mesmerizing drones which dovetailed tonally with Marvi’s enormously powerful and highly controlled voice.
Many of the group’s songs began similarly, with a sparse run on either sitar or harmonium (or both), followed by exhortitave and exhaustive call-and-response vocals that led into an unexpected blast of percussion, which instantly revealed the complex, secret rhythms of the tunes which are, generally speaking, hidden to most Western (read: untrained) ears. This addition of contrapuntal beats into already dense musical compositions instantly transported the songs into another realm entirely, where they would reside for several minutes until finishing in a blaze of notes and sentiment.
The dexterity and concentration required to play this music at their brisk and unrelenting tempos (which are traditionally used to accompany Sufi “Whirling Dervishes”), is frankly, astonishing, especially for the sitar and harmonium. They bring about an unavoidable feeling of euphoria and ecstasy in listeners, regardless of their religious beliefs or linguistic comprehension of the sacred or romantic poetry that makes up the lyrics to the tunes.
Toward the end of the show, Azhar rejoined the group onstage with an acoustic guitar to collaborate on a few final songs. The familiar tone of his instrument made an interesting and welcome addition to the decidedly foreign groove and vibe of the band, and the musicians were visibly elated at the chance to fuse their well-honed sound with Azhar’s own take on Sufi music. These last few numbers had a much looser-limbed feel to them, and some instrumental passages at times appeared to border on semi-improvisational — despite adhering to a formal and fairly rigid overall structure.
As the show finished, a woman approached the stage from the back of the room and motioned Marvi to lean down toward her so that she might whisper in her ear. It turned out she had requested an encore featuring a specific Sufi song. Marvi, who speaks very little English, was noticeably taken aback to know that anyone in Savannah was familiar enough with sacred Pakistani music to make such a request.
Azhar translated Marvi’s feelings for the crowd, and explained that the tune in question had been the very first attempt Marvi had made at a “fusion” recording of any kind, in that it had been composed with Western musicians. Then, the group gamely performed this unexpected addition to their planned show, before leaving the stage to the second intense and passionate standing ovation of the afternoon.