The Dawn: 28th June, 2013

Music: live performance designed to be a social signal!

Mushtaq Soofi 

In his celebrated book on Muslim mysticism ‘Kashful Mehjub’ (Revealing the veiled) the great saint, Ali Hajveri, popularly known as Data Ganj Buksh, narrates a story to tell us what he thinks of music.

The Arab camel drivers leading the goods caravans used to chant to keep their camels in good humour, urging them to move faster. At the stopover the animals, tired and exhausted, would refuse to eat fodder and drink water. The camel drivers would start a different chant to induce the animals to eat. And eat they would. The moral of the story, says Ali Hajveri, is that music moves even animals.

Among humans, a lack of love for music betrays a killer’s instinct, hints Shakespeare. Remember Julius Caesar? When the conspirators come to see Caesar, he senses the danger and addresses Antony about Cassius: “He hears no music.”

Can you imagine Ranjha without his flute that makes him human and humane. Music is an essential element of human culture that is at least 5,000 years old in Punjab.

In older times we only had live music. It had to be played live and listened to in an open or closed gathering. The audience’s interaction
with the musicians created an ambiance of intimacy. With the introduction of technology relationship between the listeners and musicians has undergone significant changes. Patrons of music have been replaced with record labels/recoding companies and listeners with anonymous buyers making it all a bit impersonal. Studio recording has increased the reach of music immensely creating a whole new lot of listeners to whom music was inaccessible five decades ago. Now we buy and ‘consume’ music like any other disposable
commodity without necessarily ever coming face to face with the one who makes it. It is a fetish that has no mystery about it. ‘Video’ i.e. music or song, accompanied by images fills the gap created by recorded audio giving us a feeling of a presence of the performer. But this presence is virtual, not real. Hence the need for live performance persists. Perhaps it satisfies the deep-rooted psychic yearning for human contact with someone who produces sound that resonates with implications.

Punjab’s elites occasionally feel compelled to arrange live music performances at their often ostentatiously decorated houses. Going by what frequently takes place there one can safely say such events have nothing to do with the tradition of patronage that was extended to classical and folk musicians in the past by aristocratic feudal families usually dubbed as ‘decadent’ by our urban nouveau riche.

Let us reconstruct a so-called music evening. The musicians arrive early evening but the room or small hall where the performance is going to take place is not yet ready. Furniture has to be pulled back and cushions are placed for the comfort of the guests. The musicians wait with stoic patience overawed by the opulence around them. They finally settle down and wait for the guests to arrive. The performance starts. All of a sudden you hear the jarring sound of nuts being cracked by a gentleman. He continues fiddling with his nut-cracker, unimpeded.

That is just the start to the ‘cultural event’. The big moment comes when the most important guests – the most well off among those who have been invited? — ‘drop in’ with a bang in the middle of a performance. No one is perturbed but the musicians who, somehow, manage to continue with what they must. When it seems that finally things are in place, you are rudely distracted by some impromptu inspired performance by the cell phone. These ladies and gentlemen love the ring tones relayed by their expensive cell phones more than they love the music they are there to supposedly enjoy. One call follows another and nobody intervenes on behalf of good sense and culture.

The performance comes to an end and the guests ignore the artistes as if they do not exist. The hosts are too busy being hospitable to their guests or they do not have the courtesy to introduce the artistes to the glitterati gathered there.

On their part the musicians may believe the crowd they are playing for is ‘Kurh’, philistine in their lingo. That is why they are not pushed to give their best, assuming that the ordinary do not deserve the best. This creates a lazy attitude towards music with far-reaching consequences for the musicians themselves. They let the music drown in the noisy waves of electronic sound produced by the keyboard, they get paid and they leave. As it turns out, the so-called music evening is not a serious artistic matter demanding creative execution. It is rather a mark of social prestige that the rich ones wear on their sleeves as the promoters of culture ‘vulture’.

The basic problem stems from the relationship that exists between the musicians and those who pretend to patronise and love music. In our part of Punjab where the Muslims have been predominant, traditionally, music has to a very large extent been the exclusive preserve of the ‘musicians’ families’. These families for many religious and ideological reasons are considered to be placed on the lower rung of social hierarchy because of their profession which is wrongly thought to be a cultural remnant of our ‘Hindu past’. The net result of such an attitude is that the more we get rid of our past, the more impoverished we are as far as music goes. Punjab’s elites suffer from the same malady. They pretend to like music but dislike musicians, conveniently forgetting that there is no music without musicians. You must love the musicians in order to have music that you can love. And loving music, as great Ali Hajveri tells us, is what makes us human.
Without love for musicians, humans cannot enter in the words of Bulleh Shah, “The Lord’s pavilion where thousands of conch shells play.”

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