Coming home

For two years, 2015 and 2016, The Dosti Music Project brought together musicians from India, Pakistan and the United States in order to explore the similarities and differences in their respective art forms. This compilation stands as testament to their remarkable creative energy. By Richard Marcus

By Richard Marcus

Apart from those in a complete state of denial, it should be fairly obvious to anyone that musicians from Pakistan and India are likely to have a considerable amount in common. Despite the best efforts of the British to split the sub-continent′s two dominant religions, Hinduism and Islam, their shared cultural roots run deep. One would however be forgiven for not seeing the connection between music from South East Asia and American country and folk, not to mention pop music. Yet that is exactly what we find on Travelers, a new album released on 26 May 2017 by the American-based Found Sound Nation collective under the name The Dosti Music Project.

One of the first things you should do when listening to this release is to abandon any pre-conceived ideas about what you are about to hear. While you may guess which instruments are used, the ways in which they are combined are likely to surprise you.

Shared cultural roots

Take for example the opening song on the disc, "Majare", a traditional song from the Indian province of Bengal. South Indian percussionist Darbuka Siva suggested they use the tune as a group singing exercise.

Cover of The Dosti Music Project's "Travelers" (released by Found Sound Nation)
A captivating blend of South East Asian and American music genres: The Dostic Music Project has managed to combine elements of both to create textured works with depth and intricacy, balancing cultural influence and preference in harmonies that deconstruct the stereotypes

Ironically he can only sing Bengali, not speak it, but he was joined by Pakistani rock singer Danish Khawaja and Debasmita Bhattacharya, a Bengali from Calcutta, who were both familiar with the tune. What started out as a simple exercise turned into a touchstone – a reminder of how much all them had at one time shared and still have in common.

One of the most poignant tracks on the disc, especially for an Indian and Pakistani audience, is the sixth song on the recording, "Homecomings". Here, the musicians have woven together three traditional tunes sung in Marwadi and Punjabi (linguistic regions divided by when the sub-continent was carved up).

The beauty of the two lead voices – Imran Fida and Mirande Shah – as they weave the three melodies together painfully underscores the deep wounds left by Partition, as expressed in the song's final line, "Home is lonely without you, oh beloved".

This same song aptly demonstrates how South East Asian and American music styles can be used to embellish each other. As "Homecomings" develops, we hear American fiddle and guitar work begin to add texture and depth. What's nice is how subtly they've been able to incorporate these different elements into the material. Instead of these elements taking the upper hand, they add delicate undertones, lending the material richness and depth.

While the Pakistani and Indian musicians have centuries of common cultural history to fall back on when searching for points of musical intersection, it was difficult to see how American country/folk could fit into the mix. The easiest approach was naturally the complementary one, such as the guitars and fiddle in "Homecomings", but what was going to happen when an American song took precedence? Being of an age where I have memories of British pop music trying to badly incorporate sitar into songs where it didn't work, I anticipated the worst.

My fears, fortunately, turned out to be unjustified. ″Travelers″ show musicians working together to create a harmonious blend of the two musical worlds. One perfect example of this is the unabashedly country/folk song "The Gift" by Washington State singer-songwriter Abakis (also known as Aba Kiser).

The beauty of ″dosti″

Ms. Kiser's wonderful husky voice and elegant guitar work are complemented by beautiful tabla percussion and other subtle additions, which do the same for her performance as the guitar and fiddle did for "Homecomings". I found it amazing how seamlessly the musicians managed to blend their traditions and styles.

This wasn't a rock musician deciding to play folk music or vice versa, this was two disparate musical worlds coming together in harmony. The irony of the one being the descendant of British folk music and the others having been torn asunder by the same British just made the result all the more beautiful.

Each song on this album is a wonderful example of blended styles and genres. And it goes further than the folk scene of each country. There are contributions from electronic musicians, members of synth-pop bands and others. All of them work together to dispel not only our preconceptions of what music from Pakistan and India "should" sound like, but also how compatible they are with western pop music.

Over the years I've heard many attempts to combine classical music from South East Asia with European music: from Yehudi Menuhin playing with Ravi Shankar to classical Indian musicians playing Miles Davis. ″Travelers″ is not only different because it is a far broader representation of the music from the region, bringing together Pakistani and Indian musicians, but also because it shows how West and East can find harmony without lauding it over the other. It should come as no surprise to learn the word ″dosti″ means friendship in Urdu, Hindi and related languages in the region.

Richard Marcus

© 2017