Ian Brennam on producing Ustad Saami: “To him Singing Is Listening.”


Little can prepare you for the power of the music of Ustad Saami, a 75 year old Pakastani singer, the only exponent left in the world of the ancient khayál tradition, that is considered the precursor to Qawwali music. Aside from the power and drama in the music its Saami’s remarkable vocal control over his 49 note Surti scale. Think about that for a second, 49 notes. His music is singular and without precedent. It’s this unique voice that enticed Grammy award winning producer Ian Brennan to Karachi to record him in his home and result is last year’s incredible God Is Not A Terrorist (Glitterbeat). Brennan has previously produced the likes of Malwai Mouse boys, Tuareg icons Tinariwen and the Malawi Zomba Prison Project-album I Have No Everything Here, though there was something special about Saami. Ahead of Sami’s first visit to Australia Brennan spoke to Cyclic Defrost about his experience and understanding of Sami’s incredible music. We began by gushing embarrassingly about how good God Is Not A Terrorist is.

Cyclic Defrost: I’d heard some Qawwali singing before and it always resonated very strongly with me but for some reason there was something about this music that really drew me in, so I’m wondering what it was like when you first heard it before you’d done the production?

Ian Brennam: I think it’s that I really believe in diversity, and we’ve got a problem globally with non representation for so many languages and so many counties. In many ways its so much worse when there is some representation. So Pakistan because of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan because he was supported by Peter Gabriel and because he was an extraordinary artist he has kind’ve come for many people in the west to represent a nation on 210 million people. So when I heard Ustad the darkness of a lot of it, the gothic nature the more dissonant aspects of it the more sombre and moody elements of it were very striking. Because its related to Qawwali, its not Qawwali, it’s related to khayál, which is before Qawwali. It’s spiritual music but its intention and focus is very different to Qawwali which has largely become a commercialised music. It’s largely in essence, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful, it can be in some cases almost wedding music, music for parties, and that’s great and that’s beautiful but I think with Ustad you’re hearing there’s a depth to it. In some cases its almost sinister, some of it can be quite foreboding.

Cyclic Defrost: I don’t understand the nuances of the differences between Ustad’s music and Qawwali, other than what you just mentioned. How would characterise the differences?

Ian Brennan: Well I’m not an ethnomusicologist, I’m not an expert. Ustad can do many music forms. He is considered a master of six, seven, eight different forms. He specialises in Surti, which is his 49 note custom microtonal scale which is handed down from his ancestors, but is actually custom because its his scale. Its his envisioning of what the music sounded like, when there’s no way to know what the music sounded like 1,000 years ago, he’s trying to restore what he sees as the pitches that have been lost by homogenisation and through repetition. It’s interesting because people have said, some experts because Pakistan is travelled to more than some countries and some people have knowledge of it and that can be a dangerous thing, and so sometimes they’re very threatened that there could be something else that they don’t know about. So people have said ‘I don’t find Surti on the internet. Well not everything is on the internet and there’s a reason why its not on the internet, because its his scale. He is the only person who does this, he is the only person in the world who vocally can produce this 49 note scale. He’s singing the equivalent of our scale for every note that we have. It’s seven times more notes than we have generally in our music.

Cyclic Defrost: That doesn’t necessarily equate to more range. I’m sure there is a wide range but it’s about more nuance. I’ve been really curious of this notion of 49 notes because it seems like quite a lot.

Ian Brennan: It’s so dense within the octave in essence what he is really doing is singing the continuum. He’s singing almost every possible note between the base line note and the octave he’s singing pretty much everything that’s between that, but with precision, by design. One of the things he does that is really incredible and its on the record in a few places, and he does it a lot live, you’ll hear him do these sweeps up, and when he’s live he kind’ve conducts everything, almost like conducting himself with his hands a lot, he’ll do these upwards sweeps through many octaves and he’ll do a couple of them, like two, three, four in a row and its amazing because every time he does it he’s hitting slightly different notes along the way. Close to each other but slightly different. I mean I can’t even, mind boggling. This is 76 years of practice that he’s devoted to this activity. When people talk about the voice instrument, in his case its very real. He’s doing something that is just unthinkable. When you think most singers in the west are singing five notes blues scales and using auto tune because they can’t even hit those five notes, he’s very rapidly and with precision hitting which notes he wants between the notes. It’s incredible.

Cyclic Defrost: I understand he has students too, but you cant pass this on can you, you’ve either got the ability to do it or you don’t?

Ian Brennan: It remains to be seen. Again some of the pushback is that the narrative is maybe exaggerated or something like that. It’s not, and the reason is that its so difficult to learn to do this. It’s difficult to learn to do on an instrument, but its easier than the voice because at least you’ve got visual cues and tactile cues. He does have students but they haven’t mastered this. Maybe they will but they have not. His sons play with him and they’re musicians too. They do Qawwali, and they’re quite successful too. But they haven’t mastered this. To some degree they don’t want to. There’s a certain ambivalence to it which is that its not necessarily something everyone wants to take on, it’s a bit of a calling. He has one son Aruj who is the co lead vocalist who is maybe the closest to doing that but its not clear whether it will continue.

Cyclic Defrost: It’s pretty amazing that this is his first recording. Is that true?

Ian Brennan: There have been Bengal recordings here and there. It’s the first official album that he’s ever done. At age 75 it was his debut. Part of the problem for him has been because he was unwilling to, because he is embracing duality and complexity of the history of the sub continent it kind’ve made him unpopular on both sides of the partition. So when Pakistan was created in the years after his birth each country created a popular narrative about why they were different, why they were superior. So what happened with Indian music to a large degree, and this is an oversimplification, is that they tended to expunge the influence of the Muslim population and put Hindi singers, Ravi Shankhar being a prime example, not as a singer but as a musician a handsome guy. He’s kind’ve perfect for the role as a national narrative. Ustad refused and continues to refuse that oversimplification of the history and so its been at his own professional jeopardy. If he took the simple path and performed the more commercialised genres the way they’re supposed to be performed, and was willing to kind’ve toe the line in terms of what the history of the music was, instead his system and the system passed down from his ancestors was from an ancient royal who was bi racial and was trying to make peace with duality. It was really about embracing the complexity and its such a complex place.

He’s singing multi lingual in Persian, he’s singing in Arabic and he’s singing in Erdu and he’s singing in Hindi and he’s singing in dead languages ancient languages, so just that alone is non commercial, because you’re singing in a foreign language in your own country and also for some people unpopular, because you’re on this side of the border so why aren’t you singing our language? Again that’s an oversimplification, but he’s been very courageous in terms of his belief and conviction. So that made him unpopular to some degree even though respected professionally. Additionally with pro tools when he would go into record, the younger engineers would tell him he didn’t know how to sing because when you put 49 notes into a system that’s designed to identify seven, and only precisely the centre of those notes and you have someone who is deliberately flattening and sharpening those notes it looks wrong. So with great sincerity a lot of them told him he didn’t know how to sing and he needed to learn, and refused to record him. Obviously it’s ironic. He sang too well.

Cyclic Defrost: So how did you approach it? You obviously had some mobile system that you took out because I understood you recorded in his place upstairs?

Ian Brennan: He lives on the top floor in Karachi, the whole family lives there. I record pretty much everything. I’ve been making records since 1987. The last 10 years I record everything live with very few if ever over dubs and very few if ever corrections. I like to record outdoors. I like to record onsite, I like to record in places that are meaningful to somebody if possible. So some of his students asked me to do this, and I said, yeah okay, lets record at his house and he was kind’ve shocked but happy. It was his dream. He was like I can record in my house? I can record with my sons? Because it was like the opposite of everything he had experienced which is the same thing that musicians in Australia and everywhere else experience where the technology begins to dictate.

You gotta be at this place at this time from this hour to that hour and you’re spending money by the hour and the engineers stopping and starting things to get the sound a certain way. It’s not necessarily very conducive to performance, especially when someone is performing pieces that are an hour long in some cases. He was really happy about it so that’s what we did. Certain songs are performed to honour certain times of day, so we didn’t fake that. We recorded the sessions at different times of day, we recorded at dusk, and we recorded at night and we recorded all night long and we did it at dawn and we did it at his home. A wealth a material. Because some of the pieces will make up an entire record. We thought we might do a two or three cd debut, but then we thought we should focus it, put out the cd and then if there’s interest put out more later. And I think that will happen, we’ll put out a cd with some of the longer pieces like the final track on the debut record is 19 and some minute long. The second might have two 19 minute songs and another 10 minute song something like that.

Cyclic Defrost: I wanted to ask about mic placement. Because you can hear some real texture in his vocals. I was listening to it this morning and I was really marvelling about your ability to capture this amazing texture in his voice. So did you do a bit of close micing or is he just really powerful?

Ian Brennan: Yeah I believe in close micing. Everybody has different methods. Some people do the close and the medium and distant and mix them. Some people do the close, medium and distant and use the medium, and the close mics more there to make the individual stay in place. But I really believe in keeping things as simple as possible. As honest as possible and raw as possible. When you’ve got great performers its possible to do that. It’s something that can only be done with people that really are comfortable and practiced with what they do. I’ve been very blessed with lots of the performers I’ve worked with, and a lot of them are older performers. They can do seamless performances. They can do a song once and its great, they can do it 10 times and its great all 10 times, maybe slightly different. In the case of Ustad what’s what we did. 10 minute pieces, 20 minute pieces, 40 minute pieces, 60 minute pieces without interruptions, without overdubs. I’m not even a really good engineer. I just try to have as good as mics as I can have with a portable system, which are not as good as the mics as you can have when you’re hooked up to electricity, it limits, you can’t have your ten or twenty thousand dollar tub mic when you’re running on batteries. So I try to get as good as mics I can get, close mic everything, keep it simple and let the music speak for itself.

Cyclic Defrost: Talking to you I get the sense that they’re great musicians they know what they’re doing all you have to do is capture it and not make them uncomfortable.

Ian Brennan: Yeah, a lot of it is negative modelling. I had a lot of bad experiences. I made a lot of bad records as a performer and as a producer. I really believe out of all the elements that arte involved the most important is the human element and its about communicating emotion. I don’t think the idea is to create in some idealised space. Some stars get to a place where they don’t want to sing if they feel a little under the weather or a fly flies through the room and puts of their energy. It can get very precious. It’s not bad, but its more about trying to create momentum and utilise momentum. I really believe in not letting someone think if its good or bad just do it. The thing about recording is you can spend the rest of your life dissecting it.

But I think the switching back and forth from the right side of the brain to the left that goes on with most modern recording is not very helpful. The person is trying to wear both hats and I think its extremely taxing. One of the thing about the studio that is very intimidating is that it’s a bit of a reality check. You’re looking in the mirror and you’re seeing what you like, and for most people when they do that they’re like I don’t look like that. I think there’s a certain maturity in people realising if they do a song 20 times it’s not really in most cases going to be that different. It’s pretty indulgent .I’m pretty against the idea of multiple takes. Maybe two or three takes if you have that luxury. But in general it’s going to seem different only to the artist. It feels different to them. But often the alchemy of recording is that what feels better is not necessarily better.

And when you listen to stuff back some of the stuff that felt great is really bad and some of the stuff you never thought worked sounds good. There’s a real mystery to recording I think, and I think the artist themselves is often the worst judge. That’s where a producer comes in. The producer is not necessarily objective, but they’re a little less subjective. If they’re doing it well they’re bringing a level of objectivity or point of view that’s strong that isn’t based on ego, but trying to be cohesive and use the energy that’s there to bring out results and put the individual in a strong light shows where their strengths are. Because most artists don’t know where their strengths are and often times they’re very attached to elements that are not necessarily the truth in themselves.

Cyclic Defrost: What about the cross cultural element of you as a westerner coming into work with Ustad who has a totally different tradition but you’re a producer doing all the things you just spoke about. How do you reconcile that?

Ian Brennan: I don’t know if you do, but the beauty of music is that it’s a universal language and he was so happy about the method of recording and he trusted what I’ve done and he was very moved by the results. To have these opportunities to come to Australia for the first time in his life to go to the UK and perform for the first time in his life. When he performed in the UK he performed in front of 10,000 people he did a 60 minute piece designed from midnight and got a standing ovation for minutes at the end. He couldn’t sleep all night and he said that is the audience that I’ve dreamed of performing for my entire life. An audience that would really listen to him closely. Because to him, singing is listening. So music bridges all those differences and its been a beautiful thing to work with him.

Ustad Saami plays Womadelaide 6-9th of March 2020. You can find it here.
You can find God Is Not A Terrorist here.


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Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.

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