The rhythm of the tabla drum and the sound of Urdu song floated down the hallways and out the door of Kessler Elementary School Wednesday morning as some of Pakistan’s most revered musicians shared their music with students.
Guest artists tabla master Ustad Tari Khan and the Qawal Najmuddin Saifuddin and Brothers are renowned in Pakistan, where they are considered national treasures.
Muslim cultural and musical ambassadors, they are visiting Helena as part of “Caravanserai: A Place Where Cultures Meet,” a five-city artists’ tour to promote greater understanding between American and Muslim societies organized by Arts Midwest.
They will be performing a concert at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Myrna Loy Center, which is sponsoring a series of Caravanserai artist visits to Helena.
Ustad Tari Khan shared how his two tabla drums talk to each other, getting the children to chant in time with him as he sat on a cushion on the floor and his fingertips flew across the surface of the two drums — his left hand playing the larger metal bass drum, the bayan, while his right played the smaller wooden drum, the dayan.
“The tabla has its own language,” he told them. His left hand played “ka” and his right “ta,” the names for two of the basic strokes. Adding strokes and speed to the rhythm, he had the students squealing with delight as they tried to chant fast enough to keep up with his flying fingertips.
Some students were equally enchanted with his Pakistani dress — loose trousers topped by a rich, deep-green patterned tunic and a golden white brocaded knee-length jacket and woven shoes with curved-up tips.
Two of Khan’s students, Abid Sain and Abdul Rasheed, were in a rhythmic duel, playing their long, barrel-like dhol drums. Slung on straps over their shoulders, the drums are played standing up — with one hand beating it with a curved wooden stick and the other using a straight wooden stick.
Growing up in a family of musicians in Lahore, Pakistan, Tari Khan was 7 years old when he started playing tabla drums. Khan, who is based in the United States, is now considered one of the greatest tabla performers of all time. He has performed all over the world, earning the President’s Pride of Performance award, Pakistan’s highest artistic honor.
Equally impressive were the Qawal Najmuddin Saifuddin and Brothers, a Qawwali choir. Helena is the first stop on the choir’s inaugural visit to the United States.
This family of musicians — five brothers and a cousin — are torchbearers for a type of Sufi devotional music created 750 years ago during the 13th century by legendary musician Hazrat Yameenuddin Abul-Hasan Amir Khusrou. He trained a group of 12 elite young men in the art of Qawwali.
The visiting musicians are the only direct descendents remaining of that original group. They live in the same historic alley of their ancestors in Karachi, which is now a historic site protected by the Pakistani government.
Wednesday morning they taught the children one of their songs celebrating spring, having them chant the words accompanied by drums and the harmonium, a cross between an organ and an accordion.
Although the music is sacred in nature, it’s also sung in concert halls and for special occasions, said Zeyba Rahman, producer and artistic director for Caravanserai. She compared it to U.S. gospel music, which originated as sacred music.
“Qawwali music has a call and response like gospel music,” she said. There’s also an interplay of voices and rhythms. The music is sung in a variety of languages, including Urdu, Persian, Arabic, Hindi, Sindhi and Punjabi.
And the students appeared to be quite delighted with the music and colorful performers.
“I thought the music was really interesting,” said fifth-grader Mazie Sappenfield. “I thought it was just amazing to hear what they can do.”
“I thought their outfits were really cool,” said Sophie Steinwand. “I love their outfits.”
Fifth-grader Calvin Knudson said the music reminded him of his own heritage. “I thought it was cool how the first drummer could go so fast. It was really interesting. It was sort of like what my tribe does. I’m Chippewa Cree. I do drumming and dancing.”
And this was really what the Caravanserai cultural exchange is all about, speaking across cultures through the language of music.
“Music is a universal language,” said Tari Khan. “It’s like a gift of peace. It is a message of peace and love. Music is my life. Music is the same all over the world; the beat is the same.”
The name of the cultural program, “Caravanserai” was carefully selected, named for the safe havens where caravans stopped and cultures met. Helena is the first stop on a five-city Caravanserai tour that includes Oswego, N.Y.; Providence, R.I.; West Long Branch, N.J.; and Littleton, N.H.
To read more, visit their blog, caravanserai-art.org.