Sufi music by young voices

Sufi music by young voices

Iranian band

The gentle strains of kamanche seamlessly blend with the strings of tambour, creating the unmistakable Persian melody that wafts across the plush greenery of Mohar kunj, the garden adjoining the iconic Victoria Memorial in Kolkata.

The city where tradition meets change hosts the fourth edition of the Sufi Sutra festival. “In addition to three national bands, we have musicians from six countries this year,” says Amitava Bhattacharya, the founder-director of Banglanatak. Win-Bang from Iran is one among the groups that participated in this three-day musical festival.
Iran is one of the oldest civilisations of the world with a culture enriched by centuries of tradition. There is a calm, mature and diplomatic demeanour about traditional Iranian musicians I have observed over the years, and the members of Win-Bang are no exception. Such characteristics invoke a deep sense of respect, not for the members alone, but for the music they carry. As the five-member band plays traditional Iranian instruments — tambour, kamanche, tombak and dhol — the vocalist Sahar Lotfi croons the works of Sufi poets. The crowd is sparse but relaxed and riveted at this new musical experience.

Modern version

As this outdoor venue scorches in mid-day heat, Sahar rushes me to the shades for a brief look on the musical journey of her band. Coming from the land of masters like Mohamed Reja-Shahjarian and Shahram Nazeri, the name Win-Bang and its music sounded modern to me, and the essence of traditional Iranian music was glaringly missing at the workshop session.

“Yes, we are a young group trying to create a new and modern version of our traditional music. But there is nothing modern about the name of the band as it has its root in Avesta, the holy book of Zoroastrians. The term is pre-Islamic and means ‘divine sound of musical instruments played by virtuous people’.”

That makes me wonder if traditional music can be twisted as such, and how on earth is that received in the land of the masters. It is one thing playing abroad for people who are not too familiar with your culture and altogether a different story playing for the discerning audience in your own place.

“As the new-found love for the term Sufi in India, our younger fans love Sufi over traditional but that doesn’t mean our audience is made up of a bunch of young boisterous fans. We get people of all ages in the halls. My husband Samer Habibi, who played kamanche, has been playing traditional for long and has worked with Shahjarian; and Masoud Arzanlou, who played tambour, has learned Sufi and traditional music from the famous Persian artist Ustad Seyed Khalil Alinejad.

So, we cannot deviate much from the traditional but just enough to play at a festival like this,” she lets out a mischievous giggle. “As a young woman myself, the beats we play have a stronger appeal to me than the traditional ones, and that goes for all Sufi-loving young people of Iran.

Cohesive outlook

Win-Bang has been around for 10 years now, and Sahar attributes that long run to her husband and rest of the members’ cohesive outlook. “Thank God, we have not had any significant glitch so far and if at all any, it is finding gigs,” she chuckles.

“We harp on the thorny issues a musician has to deal with today, of selling music online, piracy, free downloads, radios playing for huge listeners with no royalty payment and so on. I’m happy if people can buy music from their living room, no issues, but free downloads is certainly not fair to any musician, unless he chooses to offer them.” We move on to the ‘fusion’ word that is popular today and Sahar feels that there is a common thread running among musical cultures of the world, especially in the eastern parts, and if one does not step on and step out of one’s own roots, the end product will be a beautiful creation.

She signs off by saying, “That’s what makes me sing — aside from name, fame, reviews, tours and money; when I get those words out of my chest, I feel cleansed at the end of a show. Yes, they may be Rumi’s words, but we take the poems of these Sufi masters and compose music in our style and feelings.” Besides Win-bang, Sahar is part of an all-women Sufi band back in her town and has released three albums, while Win-Bang has released two vocal and three instrumental albums that she says are available in India.

Sufi Sutra festival is an extension of ‘art for life’ initiative of Banglanatak, which is creating livelihood for local Baul and Fakir musicians by tapping their cultural skills. The festival was conceived four years ago as a medium to connect Bauls and Fakirs to Sufi musicians of the world, to promote pluralism and diversity. Today, the festival has expanded way beyond. This year, Sufi Sutra is travelling to Patna and New Delhi and is on its way to stretch across the country in the coming years.

Commanding attention

At the festival site, local handicraft stalls have a sizeable presence too. In the previous years, Sufi Sutra has achieved both local and global attention that include recognition from UNESCO, European Union, London School Of Economics, Planning Commission, ICCR, Government of Bihar, MP and Goa. Unlike other festivals in the country under the Sufi banner, the best part of this festival is that it is open to all for free. “Music for all and music for peace is the motto,” says Amitava, who strongly believes that music is the medium to bring about harmony in the country and around the world. With such vision, we certainly can hope to get insights into many more cultures of the world.