The Harmonium’s Voice

An Exclusive Interview with Harmonium Player Sahawat Ali

Sahawat Ali, a seasoned musician, has spent much of his life on the harmonium. Playing the harmonium has been his passion, skill and the only way to earn a living. But nowadays, more than ever before, he needs these skills to survive in times when Pakistan is under a Western musical invasion. He now spends most of his time teaching a few but eager students to make a living for himself and his large family. It has been a long time since he learned music from his teacher, the famous music director Akhtar Hussain Akhiyan. He has played on the radio and the televison, as well as recorded several music cassettes. He has also played at  Sachal Studios, a group working to restore Pakistani classical music by mingling it with jazz, and has worked with famous music directors Mohsin Raza, Wazir Afzal and many more as well.

Talking about his childhood and youth, he told us that he was taught music at an early age (about eight years old) by his chacha (paternal uncle), Liaquat Ali, a famed tabla player. He was then taught by Abdul Rashid, a buzurg (elder) for some time. He has participated in many musical festivals as well, such as the Jashan-e-Kabul in Afghanistan and the Jashan-e-Iran. He has toured the Middle Eastearn countries such as Oman, the U.A.E, Bahrain etc. as a part of musical groups. In his opinion, people from abroad treat music much better than Pakistanis do, which is a sad reality.

Alongside discussing his life as a musician, he also talks about how he teaches music nowadays. He tells us that he is quite optimistic about his students, who are enthusiastic about music, and hopes that they will pass on the long musical tradition that he has inherited. Yet he also expresses disappointment at the work being done by the government and other organisations for classical music, stating that ‘Laikan aisa kam nahin ho raha hai jo hona chahiye hain’ (But the work which is being done is not at the level that it ought to be).

He thinks that this decline is reflected in the condition of former classical musicians, saying that most of them have either stopped being active, emigrated from Pakistan or have passed away. In this way, the ancient traditions of classical music are being forgetten. Moreover, the young musicians replacing them are coming at too slow a pace. He repeats his claims that the government, who should have supported the former musicians in old age, did nothing for them, as it has done nothing for classical music as a whole.

In his opinion the golden age of classical music came in the 1980s, after which a general decline came. This is rather surprising as martial law was imposed in the 1980s and a general crackdown on musicians ensued. According to him, a decline occured after this time, with only a few major musicians performing nowadays, of whom Rahat Fateh Ali Khan he considers to be the best. He believes that Coke Studio and other such music shows, despite their numerous failings, are producing good music, and are helping classical music to survive, in contrast to singer and music director Tanveer Hussain’s opinion. Indeed, he believes that these shows are the only lifeline for classical music in a country where it is ignored.

In the end of his interview, Sahawat Ali wishes to tell us that he considers himself to be a musician from all the musical gharanas, or schools of music. He believes that he has been influenced by the Patiala and Sham Chaurasi gharanas, and by various musicians such as Amanat Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan. On a parting note, he gives a message to the young generation, emphasising the importance of dedication and quality of work.

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