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The sound of music

Updated December 12, 2014

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DR Stephen Slawek and Nafees Ahmed perform at Napa on Thursday.—Whit Star
DR Stephen Slawek and Nafees Ahmed perform at Napa on Thursday.—Whit Star

KARACHI: Two sitar players belonging to two different cultural milieus — one from Pakistan and the other from the US — sharing space for a concert is an exciting but a difficult to execute idea. On Thursday evening Dr Stephen Slawek, visiting professor of the University of Texas, Austin, and Nafees Ahmed, a faculty member of the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa), played raga aiman in tandem at the academy and proved, yet again, that the language of music does not require any interpreter or interlocutor to put a message across.

However, it has to be said that the high point of the show, in terms of execution, was the second performance of the evening which was Dr Slawek’s solo rendition of raga kirwani. Before playing the composition, Dr Slawek told the audience that the raga was popularised by his teacher Pandit Ravi Shankar.

Once he started playing the alaap, it was more than evident that the professor was profoundly influenced by the great Indian sitar player as his posture while holding the instrument was quite similar to his guru’s. His rendition of the raga was soulful and had a calming effect. Music lovers listened to it with rapt attention. It didn’t take him much time to get into the madh lai in teentaal (16-beat cycle), ably supported by Ustad Bashir Khan (tabla).

The show began with Nafees Ahmed’s presentation of raga jaijaiwanti. He looked a little on edge and therefore his performance was a bit scratchy. He didn’t seem to be particularly happy with the tabla nawaz when he thought the tempo needed to be upped.

The rendition of raga aiman was the final and longest item of the evening. It was a difficult undertaking because it featured two sitar and two tabla players who hadn’t played together before. But gradually, once the jod (beat) was introduced, things began to take shape and the performers warmed up to their task. In fact, Dr Slawek appeared to come into his own in the climactic part of the composition and was beginning to enjoy his stint on stage. The little less than half-an-hour piece was very well received by the audience.

Talking to Dawn, Dr Slawek, who is also a scholar of ethnomusicology, said his association with Pandit Ravi Shankar spanned more than 30 years and he only had this to say about him: “He was the greatest.”

Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2014