KARACHI: Some clichés can be underrated. There’s something about four Americans playing the national anthem of Pakistan in front of a hundred odd people that dispels all reservations about the empathetic powers of music.
William Harvey and the String Quartet, also comprising cellist Peter Myers and violinists Emily Holden and Holly Jenkins, have come to Karachi under an initiative of Cultures in Harmony, an NGO that aims to bring people together through music. Their performance at the MAD school on Tuesday was a fundraiser for Nida Butt’s Mad Gift Programme under which the school provides free art and music lessons to children from the impoverished area of Lyari.
When the cause is good, one expects the music to be the same.
After two verses of the national anthem, which the group’s leader dubbed “the single most beautiful piece of music”, got the audience’s attention, Myers introduces the next song. His friend Dan Visconti wrote this song inspired by a story he heard from an old man rowing a canoe on a river. The composition was bleak and sparse to begin with, but picked up when the 12-bar blues kicked in.
The adage of white people not being able to play the blues is no longer true and many musicians have proved that they can own the music regardless of the colour of their skin. The sharecropper’s music, however, is not meant to be played with sheet music in front of you — the quartet might have nailed the notes on ‘Black Bend’ but their interpretation lacked hair.
William Harvey then invited Usman Riaz, the young multi-instrumentalist known for his fretboard wizardry, to play a few numbers with them. Usman started off with an original called ‘Shimmer’. His virtuosity on the guitar leaves little room for debate as he produces all sorts of sounds with ethereal arpeggios and lightning percussive fills.
Usman went on to play a few more songs which he had rearranged with the quartet, before he wrapped the set up with his claim to fame ‘Fire Fly’.
Aften Riaz’s exit, William et al played the ‘5th Quartet’ written by American composer Phillip Glass. The rather lengthy piece was chosen by Harvey because “he wanted to represent America,” but was an odd choice for an energetic young audience.
Emily Holden picked up the guitar to play a couple of her own numbers and after a somewhat nervous start with Conquest, Holden grew more assertive.
Co-ven, a band that has been together longer than others who are far more popular, was minus the bass player who is in Vegas. So while the four-stringer might presumably be living it up, frontman Hamza Jafri, guitarist Omran Shafique and drummer Sikandar Mufti, were trying hard to fill up the lower end of their sound spectrum. After a jazzy jam with the quartet, titled ‘Hold Hands’, eased the audience into the rock and roll that would follow, the string section sat centre stage, instruments in hand, while the band belted out high octane riffs behind them.
It wasn’t Co-ven’s tightest set ever, but they still played so well it was easy to forget their past heroics. Only unique brain wiring could explain Jafri’s knack for singing while playing extremely complex rhythms. The band started off with an unreleased track called ‘Chor’ before they played the more popular ‘Ready to Die’ and ‘Sailing Fast’. Chor is a groovy number and one to look out for when it comes out with a video in mid-October.
After Co-ven’s set, everyone got together for a jam. Despite their virtuosity, all musicians barring Mufti played extremely modest solos: the idea being not to fill the soundscape with too many ideas.
Clad in an embroidered kurta, William Harvey comes across as someone who truly believes in the power of music. He has been teaching music at a university in Afghanistan for two and a half years and is only eager to spread the message of love. “I know the relationship between our countries need to improve, but I really want people to know there are things we share,” Harvey told The Express Tribune after the concert.
MAD school founder, Nida Butt, has a more specific goal. Currently, 12 children from Lyari come to her school for free music and dance lessons — she wants the number to go up and children to come in from other areas as well. “Our aim is to give free lessons to a thousand children, The Guitar School in Lahore is a sister concern and we want to launch the programme there too.”
Her resolve to impart arts education stems from the fact that it is “on the last list of our priorities right now.” The school is looking to get the status of an NGO and she expects the dream to materialise sometime next year. That, she says, will help get more funds and reach out to more people.
Maybe the fascination of the Beatles with this part of the world was not superficial like some say, maybe musicians can’t help but travel in search of Utopia. Perhaps, because they see through fickle belligerence.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 30th, 2012.