Sunday, 20 September 2015

Dub Qalandar - put this in your diary

Two cultures from ten thousand miles apart meet up in Birmingham, which just happens to be EXACTLY midway between. That's grounds for celebration.

Birmingham sits halfway between the centres of two of its most compelling and now deeply engrained cultures. Go five thousand miles one way, and you fetch up in the Caribbean. Go the same distance the other way? You're in Pakistan. 

Since the Second World War, cultures from both regions and elsewhere have been bumping up against each other, in inner city Birmingham suburbs... for seventy years. And now, beats and grooves are coming together, in a very deliberate, conscious way. 

This weekend Birmingham sees a Rugby World Cup games, thousands exploring a revamped New Street station and its shopping mall, and Birmingham Weekender, this year's Artsfest replacement. Add in relentless roadworks, and the city will be... challenging. But find your way to Symphony Hall on Sunday 27th, and you're in for a free but very valuable treat: Dub Qalandar. It's the headline show for all of the weekend. Conscious Dub grooves, and sacred Sufi songs coming together in Birmingham. Well, it's what we do.

Or, rather, it's what Mukhtar Dar and Simon Duggal do.

I produced a documentary a few years back. 'Handsworth Evolution' aired on local stations and online. In it, Apache Indian's striking story was key: an Asian kid with a Jamaican nanny hanging around sound systems and benevolent and wicked record stores, loaded down with the latest dub plates, all contributed to his initial success. 

Apache's first hits were produced by brothers Simon and Diamond Duggal, his cousins; I met them this spring to talk about their Swami project. Simon also found common ground in different cultures. He couldn't get enough reggae grooves - he used to bootleg Steel Pulse live gigs on his ghetto-blaster. 

Now, the Drum Arts Centre's Mukhtar Dar - he's on the right - and Simon Duggal - on the left - are sitting round a table in a back office in Newtown, Birmingham. Dub Qalandar (don't pronounce it Calendar), is Mukhtar's idea. 
Mukhtar: I've been running the Drum for the last seventeen years, and during that time, I've had the opportunity to programme a lot of Reggae artists that I grew up listening to. Gregory Isaacs, a whole heap of artists. Similarly, I've been able to programme a lot of Sufi artists as well. Roots music and Dub and Sufi music are part of my DNA. I was born in Pakistan, in a village called Murgar. My grandfather was illiterate, he couldn't read or write. But from a very early age, I remember him reciting Sufi poetry.  All the trials and tribulations of his life, all the wisdom he had acquired – he was the first Haji in our village – he would espouse in Sufi poetry.  
My father, who came to the UK, he worked in factories and foundries, would sing a lot of the Sufi songs. Growing up in the UK, I saw lots of similarities between Sufi music and Roots Reggae Music. Going to Blues sessions I saw commonality between the two. And Reggae music with messages of unity and social justice, gave me solace during the race riots of the 80s. Late nights, at the Blues, I'd get into a trance listening to the basslines. 
And I just realized the the same thing happens when I listened to Sufi music. 
Rehearsals at the Drum - with pretty much the entire line-up on stage
 How did your dad feel about his young son heading out to Blues and Shebeens at a tender age, Mukhtar?
MukhtarMy father tells me that when he first arrived in the UK – he and twelve other guys crammed into a house, sleeping in shifts and sharing the cooking – next door was full of Jamaicans. And at night they'd have a blues. He talks about how he was disturbed by the music, but on the other hand, he got used to it. And he even went himself. So he was alright about it.
Philosophically, both Sufi Music and Roots music have a lot in common. Sufi music talks about reaching a higher existence, a meaningful existence with God through music, not necessarily through prayer. You can do that through music and though dance.  And similarly, I feel that with a lot of Roots music, it's all about praising Jah. Roots music talks about a higher state of being. 
So that's where the idea came from – to bring these two genres of music together. And where better than Birmingham? We have a whole heap of reggae artists – Birmingham is synonymous with reggae. Similarly, we have a lot of Sufi artists – not so well known, they're taxi drivers, workers, not professionals. But in their spare time, they get together in halls all over Sparkbrook and Alum Rock, where they perform. 
So where does Simon come in?
MukhtarWe've worked together in a number of projects. He's a natural, perfect. He knows the technicalities, he's a working musician.
Amazing. You've picked out a common thread between two musics, maybe ten thousand miles apart. But while Apache Indian did that at a pop level, isn't this at a more educated, or elevated spiritual level?
Simon Duggal:  Definitely more elevated. It's not just about getting musicians together and getting them to play tokenistically together. I'm looking at it musically.
You said tokenistically – and that opens up a whole different area of discussion. A lot of cross-cultural collaborations are very well meaning...
Simon: Yes. There have been areas where people have said let's do a reggae track, and let's throw some tablas on it. This is about proper music integration.
Mukhtar: Interestingly, many people were taken from India went to Jamaica to work in the sugar plantations as indentured labour. Among them were Sadhus, Indian holy men. So there's a connection there, too. Qalandar is a spiritual word. It's about turning your back on the world of worldly desires, and searching for a deeper meaning. 
Legend at rehearsals
Conscious reggae is shot though with those values too...
MukhtarYes. And there's a theory that dreadlocks, if you look at the roots of rastafarianism, came from the Indian Sadhus, in those miserable conditions in the plantations, where people turned to spirituality. So there's linkage there too.
But there's been a collaborative ethos among musicians in Birmingham for decades now, certainly since Rock against Racism, where Punks and Dreads come together against Oi and other unsavoury trends. And Simon, you played a part there with your early production of Apache. Tell me about your role in taking this project on...?  
Simon: We've worked on a few projects together over the past couple of years. I composed music for two of those projects. It was interesting to take Mukhtar's concepts and then go away and score them.   
Who's playing?
MukhtarOver thirty artists. Legend, a reggae group for Birmingham. A whole range of traditional musicians, Serge Sahota, Mendi Singh the master tabla player, dancers such as Sonia Sabri and Sandra Golding. Poets, singer Yaz Alexander, drummers led by Nicky Reid... it's a lot. Percussion, singers, dub poets. 
Stage sketch
Big names. How is this going to show on stage?
MukhtarA ninety minute show. The aim is to move people, spiritually. A lot of the traditional poetry is as relevant now as it was back in the day.  
Simon: The poetry will link between songs.
How much will someone like me get from the show? I speak English French and German... that's it.
MukhtarI think you will still get the essence. Music builds bridges, no matter what language you speak. You'll feel the beat, the heart, the spirituality. Every segment will be choreographed so you'll understand the context. 
Simon: And there'll be a handful of Bob Marley songs, using Legend, the reggae band, and all the Qawwali guys, all the percussion. This goes back to what I was saying about not doing this tokenistically. It's our job to integrate all the musicians together. It's dub – there's a heavy dub influence. 
This is a lot of work – are you going to record? Is it a one-off or are you going to tour it?
Mukhtar: We're still working on that one. The goal was to have a celebration of communities coming together spiritually. Let's see about that first!

Dub Qalandar is at Symphony Hall on Sunday 27th at 6.30 pm. 

Book tickets free through the Symphony Hall or Birmingham Weekender websites.  

Or call the box office: 0121 345 0600

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