Updated 25 Feb, 2019

Remember when news of Ustad Naseeruddin Saami collaborating with Grammy-winning producer Ian Brennan made headlines earlier this year?

Well, the project finally started taking shape last week when Ian flew in to Karachi and the two have been inseparable since. Although they are faced with a language barrier, it didn't hamper their connection; their hotel room jamming sessions are a testament to that.

The duo just needed one sitting together with their instruments to get a feel of each other's music aesthetic, and everything instinctively fell into place.

As the Grammy winner said, there was an instant connection between the two as soon as they got into their element.

However, their chemistry shouldn't come as a surprise; they each come with their own prowess and mastery in the field of music. Ustad Naseeruddin Saami is the leading representative of the oldest tabla gharanas, the Delhi Gharana of music. He traces his roots back to Mian Samad Bin Ibrahim who was the principal disciple of Amir Khusro in Delhi in the 13th century. Ian, on the other hand, has worked with musicians all over the world; from Italy to Cambodia. His collaboration with musicians from Rwanda and Mali for an album called Tinariwen won him a Grammy for World Music in 2011.

Ali Sethi, Zeb Bangash, Ustad Sammi, his sons and Ian Brennan
Ali Sethi, Zeb Bangash, Ustad Sammi, his sons and Ian Brennan

It took two years of back and forth with Ali Sethi and Zeb Bangash for Ian and Ustad Saami to finally meet this month, which has now led to the final work on their music for the multi-CD album planned for a 2019 release.

Images caught up with the music legends for an exclusive Q&A and here's what the duo had to say about their upcoming venture.

Images: How do you communicate your ideas and thoughts with each other given your language barrier?

Ian Brennan: Interestingly enough, Ustad Saami has expressed his belief in information being passed from heart to heart and not through the intellect. And I've always felt the same way with music, that people should listen to music in languages other than their own because it's good for them neurologically and they're often times able to pay attention to the emotions [of a music piece] and not worry about the other aspects.

We decided to come here and we decided to do it in his home instead of a studio. The intention is from the world perspective to do a debut that's very substantial, which is very difficult for record companies to do. Our intention is to make a statement that this isn't just another world music record and this is not just another singer.

Ustad Saami and Ian Brennan
Ustad Saami and Ian Brennan

The importance of this is for people to understand the diversity. Most Americans in the modern day react to Pakistan with negativity or fear. This is common to most Muslim countries.

This album will not be for the benefit of Pakistan, you guys are fine. It's for the benefit of the rest of the world, to understand we should have more interests, we should have more understanding of people.

Images: So you hope to change people's perception of Pakistan through this album?

Ian: That's how it starts and most change starts with artists and that's usually the best way because it's not an intellectual argument. If somebody hears something and they're moved by it or if they're moved by a human action or a performance of some sort then it becomes harder to reconcile their prejudice with that.

I just think it's perverse that people would define an entire culture by one singer and that's essentially what usually happens. One of the things we're trying to do is to help people distinguish [music] and not hear this [album] as something [from] the past or hear it as something in the present and not just go 'Oh that's Middle Eastern music,' like this generalised category. To me these are not world music records, these are records that are narratives and that are vocally oriented and great vocals are timeless and rare.

"Most change starts with artists. If a person hears something or sees a performance or human action and they're moved by it, then it becomes harder to reconcile their prejudice with that." — Grammy-winning producer Ian Brennan

The importance is that we can put the emphasis so squarely on his voice and the complexity of what he's doing that people can hear past that. The beauty is that you set up a microphone, you hit record with him, his family and sons, and we could've recorded the little warm-up in the hotel room last night. So we can't really go wrong in that sense.

Images: What were your thoughts when you were approached for this collaboration?

Ian: I have great respect for vocal tradition. There is a Pakistani-American singer whom I worked with for 20 years on and off. He always said something that I thought was very funny: "India had a region that was known for vocalists, it's a great region and it's known as Pakistan."

Ustad Saami: (Nods head) It's the truth. From Sindh to Punjab, their voices have a sweetness, a softness, a melody — what can I say beyond this?

Images: Ustad Saami, how do you feel about this collaboration and what do you hope to achieve from this?

Ustad: I've been to India and many other places, they all felt it (our music) but when I went to Europe and America, these people (gestures towards Ian) noticed it the most. I cannot express my happiness at knowing that these people felt it more.

Ian Brennan at Ustad Saami's home.
Ian Brennan at Ustad Saami's home.

I wish to spread our music beyond borders, beyond Pakistan and not because I wish to immortalise my name in history, but because I want to grow Pakistan's name in the world. People should know about our music.

I feel I have a moral duty to pass on my knowledge of music, everything I have learned must not die with me, it must be passed on. Otherwise the few people who practised the true art of our music will die and take that knowledge with them.

Ian: Pakistan is one of the few countries in the world that a small number of people outside of Pakistan might care about. Even those people who listen to music that's not in English are more prejudiced than they realise and that's the danger.

And Pakistan has always been sort of a pet peeve for me, that the entire [country] is sort of represented by one individual - one singer. So I felt this project was particularly adventurous. Absolutism is a very dangerous thing, and Pakistan is a huge country and a powerful country, and emerging even more for people to not understand the complexity and diversity of its cultures. I think it's dangerous for the people that don't understand it.

It's kind of a curse in the sense that Pakistan is viewed by some people as being musical but they can't tell you anything beyond what they listen.