Ustad Saami devotes his life daily to keep alive his customized microtonal, pre-Islamic, multilingual (Farsi, Sanskrit, Hindi, the ancient and dead language of Vedic, Jibberish, Arabic, and Urdu) music. Handed down by his ancestors for over a thousand years, he is the only vocal practitioner of Surti left in the world and when he passes, this music will die with him as well.
Now age seventy-seven, Ustad still practices from 4 AM to noon most days, drilling himself with exercises. Though his physical hearing has declined and he requires in-ear aides for daily communication, his powers of perception continue to rise.
All three of Ustad’s albums have been produced by Grammy-winner, Ian Brennan (Tinariwen, The Good Ones [Rwanda], Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Zomba Prison Project). Accompanied by the master’s four sons, the albums were recorded live without overdubs at the master’s rooftop home in Karachi.
As a child, Ustad was the chosen one from his family and his master forbid him to speak for years. During this period, he was only allowed to express himself vocally, not verbally. He studied for thirty-five years to perfect this system before he ever even stepped onstage.
Ustad explores the subtlety of human emotion through microtones, an attempt to turn “negatives positive” through the reclamation of those tones deemed out-of-tune.
“To sing is to listen.” These are the words of the master. The translation of his own last name, Saami, even means “to hear.”
For Ustad, everything centers on one note. From that, all else grows and music is seen as a sixth sense for people to better communicate with each other. With great precision, Saami utilizes 49-notes versus the West’s mere seven. The scale was founded by a mix-raced royal whose lifelong endeavor was to make peace with duality through art. This predecessor of Qawwali music is called Khayál, the Arabic word for “imagination” and in it the melody carries the meaning. The lyrics are almost incidental during these call-and-responses.
Neophyte, urbane media-moguls repeatedly told the master that he didn’t know how to sing since his notes failed to align on a sanitized and dumbed-down grid. Engineers, unable to see his notes on their Pro Tools system, assumed that it was the artist not the machine that is mistaken. But it is precisely the uneven pitches that the master values as being the most searching, while those with even numbers tend towards being too stable.
Following Saami’s recent debut album at age seventy-five, a World Music “expert” in Los Angeles was flummoxed that she could not find any reference to the master’s system on the internet. Ironically, this absence of reference actually stands as proof rather than refuting his rarity. It cannot be found elsewhere precisely because it is his system— a customized work of recovery— with Ustad the only living vocal practitioner.