‘There is no fear’: how a cold-war tour inspired Pakistan’s progressive jazz scene | Jazz

In 1956, a new weapon was unveiled in the cold war: jazz. That year, the US introduced the Jazz Ambassadors Tour, a showcase that sent American musicians overseas to parts of the world that were perceived to be under threat of Soviet influence.

While they initially intended to send ballet dancers and symphony orchestras, the State Department were persuaded that the jazz performers who were spearheading the civil rights movement would help generate a positive image of the US to newly independent nations (between 1945 and 1960, 40 countries gained their independence, representing a quarter of the world’s population). The department saw it as a way of silencing Soviet criticism that racial inequality was a stark issue in the US. The ethics were questionable, but the musicians saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share their music directly with people in countries from Asia to Africa and beyond.

One of the countries the US focused on was Pakistan, which had gained its independence from British colonial rule less than a decade earlier, in 1947: Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck were among the performers at state-funded gigs during the 1950s and 60s. These concerts wove jazz into Pakistan’s musical fabric and through its traditional instruments, resulting in sounds that remain relatively unheralded yet are still flourishing today.

In attendance at Duke Ellington’s 1963 performance in Karachi was a teenager, Badal Roy. He had grown up in the city and was informally learning the tabla, a twinned set of drums. “At that time of my life I was mainly into Pakistani classical music and rock’n’roll – I loved Elvis Presley,” he tells me over the phone from his apartment in Wilmington, Delaware. “But that concert was my first introduction into jazz music. I had no idea what to expect and it was incredible.”

Badal Roy, right, with Ornette Coleman.
Badal Roy, right, with Ornette Coleman. Photograph: Courtesy Badal Roy

In 1968, he moved to New York in the hope of studying statistics at university. He struggled financially and worked as a busboy at A Taste of India, a restaurant in Greenwich Village, where he also began performing tabla each week.

Other musicians would sometimes come and jam. One guitarist, John McLaughlin, returned weekly, and asked Roy if he would join him on his album My Goal’s Beyond: Roy’s tabla became a key part of its sound. A few weeks later, McLaughlin returned to the restaurant and told Roy to pack up his tabla and come to the Village Gate club down the road as his friend wanted to hear him play. Upon arriving, Roy learned that this friend was Miles Davis, someone he knew nothing about. He was instructed to play. At the end of the 15-minute freestyle, Davis turned towards him and said: “You’re good.”

A couple of months after their encounter, Roy was asked to come into the studio and record, and found himself in a room with Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette and more. Thankfully for his stress levels, he had very little knowledge of any of them. Davis told Roy: “You start.”

He began with the groove he played most often – TaKaNaTaKaNaTin – and shortly after, Herbie Hancock joined in, followed by the rest. The sessions ended up becoming Davis’s 1972 album On the Corner, and the simultaneous melody and rhythmic depth of Roy’s tabla helped to hold together its wild mix of funk and free jazz. “I was quite confused at first but when they started to play with me and we found the rhythm, I felt better,” Roy says. “I found it difficult to explain this instrument to them: how the tabla is tuned, how the language of the instrument is different, the rhythm pattern, everything. They are very clever, though, and they picked it up very quickly.”

Roy never received any formal training on the instrument, and this accounts for him having a much freer style than most tabla players. He would often play a set of eight tabla, all tuned to different pitches, offering him both melody and rhythm with a broad sonic scope, and his lack of association to any academic discipline meant he wasn’t bound by the “tala” rhythmic system that most south Asian players used. His liberation enabled a player like Miles to connect with his artistry, paving the way for Roy to join forces with Ornette Coleman, Lonnie Liston Smith, Pharoah Sanders and more in the years that followed. The impact of the tabla and the Pakistani approach made a small but significant impression on the American jazz landscape; Roy was also the only musician to play in both Davis and Coleman’s bands.

While Roy was busy working on pioneering albums such as Smith’s Astral Travelling and Sanders’ Wisdom Through Music, Pakistan was experiencing its own golden cultural age: its booming cinema industry was the fourth largest producer of feature films in the world during the early 70s. Almost every experimental, radical-sounding record that came out of mid-century Pakistan – many of them rooted in jazz – was from a film soundtrack. The elaborate acts of choreographed dancing and decadence expressed both organisation and chaos; sentiments that were reflected in the music, yielding a genre-shattering set of sounds.

A producer such as M Ashraf composed 2,800 film tracks in over 400 films across his 45-year career, aiding the careers of Pakistani singers such as Noor Jehan and Nahid Akhtar who would become some of the country’s most beloved singers. “An independent music space didn’t exist like it does now; radio was sticking to a more patriotic agenda and labels were limited in what they would champion,” explains musician and ethnomusicologist Natasha Noorani. “So, film is what you would rely on to see the deeper side of Pakistan’s culture. You could experiment with film, and that’s where the craziest records would come from” – ones where jazz clashed with pop, psychedelia and more.

The Lahore-based Tafo Brothers brought an entirely fresh dimension to Pakistan’s film music in the 70s, incorporating drum machines, analogue synths and fuzz pedals over the jazz infrastructure, allowing a more electronic, dancefloor-inclined energy to emerge. However, Pakistan’s cultural momentum stagnated in 1977 when military dictator Zia-ul-Haq seized power, and saw cinema, provoking different ideas and thoughts within the population, as a threat. Censorship laws curtailed creative independence. “If you study south Asian culture, the minute film is doing well, then your music industry is doing well too,” Noorani says. “By the late 70s, film began to be doing terribly and that was the moment the music industry collapsed.”

Session musicians and jazz players fell into unemployment and poverty, and gradually lost respect in a society where the creative arts were not a desirable field to work in. This had a damaging impact on the families who had preserved certain instruments for centuries, through a social system called gharānā. Suddenly, the attitudes towards some of the most historically respected figures in Pakistani society had completely shifted, and parents were contemplating whether or not to teach their children the instruments that had been the pillar of their family’s story.

Zohaib Hassan Khan is a member of one of Pakistan’s most esteemed sarangi-playing families from the Amritsar gharānā, which had been passing the instrument down each generation since the early 1700s. Khan is now continuing the tradition in the superb Pakistani jazz quartet Jaubi, part of a tiny yet imaginative new generation that also includes artists such as Red Blood Cat and VIP.

Zohaib Hassan Khan.
Zohaib Hassan Khan. Photograph: © 2015 Dosti Music Project

The sarangi is a bowed instrument made of wood with generally 35 to 37 strings – it hails from the 16th century and is known for its difficulty to master and richness of sound. “My grandfather’s generation did not teach their children instruments such as the sarangi,” Khan says. “That generation encouraged their children to pursue a more achievable path in order to get a job. My father was the first member of my family in six generations to not play the sarangi and he became a bank officer.”

Likewise, Khan grew up hoping to be a doctor. However, in the early 90s, prime minister Nawaz Sharif privatised the banks. “My father lost his job and ended up working in a small grocery shop. We had to forgo our dreams of higher education, so we were told to go into music in order to try and make money at such a desperate time.”

Khan’s little brother took up the drums, and his twin brother picked the harmonium. Khan opted for the guitar before his uncle intervened, urging his father to ensure he played the sarangi instead, saying: “If he is not playing it, then our family’s tradition comes to an end.” They unearthed and fixed a 100-year-old sarangi from the family’s attic.

Despite the richness of the sarangi’s history, Khan noticed a lack of respect towards traditional Pakistani instruments. “When I worked at Radio Pakistan, they’d pay me 300 rupees to do one song, as they would for any of the other acoustic instruments such as the tabla and sitar. But if you are the keyboard player, bass guitar player or drummer, they would pay you more than double.”

For Pakistani jazz guitarist, Ali Riaz Baqar – another member of Jaubi – this regressive attitude towards the country’s rich musical heritage is a product of colonialism. “The colonisers have left, but they have colonised your mind. That mindset is still very prevalent today,” he tells me from his Melbourne home. “When I am in Pakistan, I make sure I speak Urdu and not English. But you have a lot of people who want to speak English and dress western and listen to western music because it seems prestigious.”

Noorani analyses why she also believes this is the case: “When the British left in 1947, the white man was essentially replaced by the brown, rich man.” This paved the way, she says, for an elite upper-middle-class to detach themselves from the majority of Pakistani society, absorbing western culture and releasing it back into their homeland.

While Khan was conscious of the unfair treatment of his instrument, he became frustrated. “My friends who played the tabla learned it in three years, but in order to truly learn an instrument as complex as the sarangi, it takes 10 to 12 years. Musicians who were playing other instruments would start to make a bit of money. I would be practising so much and I wouldn’t have enough money to even get food.”

Jaubi. Photograph: Uzma Rao

He began playing the drums. One day a few weeks later, upon returning home, he found his father sitting down, crying. While telling me this story, Khan becomes overwhelmed with emotion. “My father turned to me and asked: ‘Even if you don’t make much money, can’t you do this for me?’ He asked if I could continue what his own father did, and retain the family’s legacy.”

Khan was inspired and decided to give the instrument another go in honour of his parents and everything they had sacrificed for him. He would wake up at 4am and practise for 12 hours a day, while his father would pray towards him in the mornings to offer him strength. In 2010 at a sarangi festival in Lahore, which united almost all of the country’s players, Khan showcased his talents in front of a large crowd including his father. Despite being one of the youngest musicians present, he was lifted and thrown up into the air at the end of the event because of how impressively he played. The memory of the event is of particular significance to Khan, following his father’s death the following January.

He continues to play the sarangi in his honour and a few years later he joined forces with Baqar, as well as tabla player Kashif Ali Dhani and drummer Qammar Abbas, to form Jaubi, which translates to “whatever” from Urdu. Baqar’s lack of formal training alongside the classically trained band members creates a fascinating framework, balancing the emotional, introspective and spiritual sensibilities of the strings alongside a more hard-hitting dance energy from the percussion.

Jaubi put out their first EP, The Deconstructed Ego, in 2016, and released their debut album last month, Nafs at Peace. They have pushed the boundaries of both western jazz and classical Pakistani music by fusing the two approaches together, and have collaborated with London-based flautist Tenderlonious, AKA Ed Cawthorne.

Hailing from a classical background that is built around rigid rules, I was fascinated by how Khan adapted to the more fluid jazz approach. “Whenever you get used to something in life, you often feel a natural urge to change things,” he says. “Learning music through a classical lens is all I had done since I was a child and while I had those boundaries set, I was always ready to cross them and experiment with western musical approaches.”

The key difference is that western jazz caters for total flexibility when it comes to the notes that can be played, allowing the improvisation to take any direction. However, Pakistani music is rooted in the raga format, which is a melodic mode that allows only a certain number of notes to be played, creating a rigid template to paint different human emotions known to “colour the mind”, as Baqar puts it. The two apparently divergent approaches are united, though, in using oral improvisation, trusting the ear to listen and respond. No sheet music was written down in the creation of Jaubi’s music, illuminating how two seemingly disparate musical cultures share common ground. “Through learning the western approach, I learned so much about the notes that I had never known before,” Khan says. “Having to learn what C-sharp meant pushed me musically.

“People are very scared,” he continues. “Scared of making a mistake or playing outside of the boundaries they’re used to because of the strict training. Among the jazz musicians I have watched, there is no fear. They are very broad-minded. Their music reflects their personalities. They thrive off mistakes – they don’t feel guilty to make a mistake.” The self-taught Baqar, meanwhile, found a great virtue to working within the template of the raga: “You have to find freedom within the discipline.”

It is this paradoxical freedom within the stringent rules that appealed to Tenderlonious. “You’ve got this scale which comprises six notes and those are the only six notes you can play. You can mess around with the order but you are restricted. Ironically, that restriction gives you more freedom of expression. I approach it thinking: I am going to try and flip this as much as possible within the six notes. It worked in my favour – my improvisational approach thrived and it was really freeing for me. Less is more.”

Dizzy Gillespie charming a snake while on tour in Karachi, Pakistan.
Dizzy Gillespie charming a snake while on tour in Karachi, Pakistan. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

It was the same in 1956, when Dizzy Gillespie also appreciated the freedom within the rules. He spent afternoons between performances jamming with locals and street performers, trying to understand their musical approach, resulting in the track Rio Pakistan released the following year. It is arguably the first raga to be incorporated into American jazz, unfolding over 11 and a half minutes as Gillespie’s trumpet combines with the violin of Stuff Smith, combusting in a unique track that is noticeably limited in its melodic range.

The fearlessness of Khan, Baqar and Tenderlonious in working with their opposing approaches has resulted in similarly groundbreaking music: merging without ego or hierarchy, aided by the magic of improvisation, appreciating both rules and fluidity. It is the same approach that Gillespie took, and that Davis exemplified so boldly, incorporating Badal Roy’s tabla, an instrument known for its strictness, into an experimental free jazz album. Pakistan’s jazz players show that at a time when so many are conscious of what separates us, music can find a common ground in that very difference. As Roy puts it: “Our musical languages are different, but with patience, we learned to understand each other. That is when the real magic occurred.”