The shehnai, sitar and tabla are famously known to be a part of our heartwarming folk culture and are credited for enhancing the charm of a desi wedding. But who knew that the banjo was also a product of our ethnic musical history. A banjo is a fretted stringed instrument with a hollow circular body and is known for its rather unique tone. While some believe it originated from Africa, others argue that the instrument was an invention of the Americans. Though the original version of the banjo is still in search of its roots, it was Ustad Mumtaz Ali Sabzal’s grandfather Gul Mohammad, who invented a different version of the banjo — far more suited for the purpose of making music.
“His variations made the banjo follow the rules of sur and taal and it eventually became the most eminent sound of Balochi folk as we know it today,” Ustad Sabzal tells The Express Tribune.
The Ustad is a master of the art of playing banjo and was recently acknowledged by the Tehzeeb Foundation at a classical music festival, which he appreciates wholeheartedly. Humble about his ancestry that thrived purely on musical innovation, Sabzal is a Baloch at heart and passionate about the region’s folk music. “Balochi folk is way above and beyond Dane Pe Dana and Laila O Laila,” scuffs Sabzal. “It’s just that the lack of attention given to music by the later generations has narrowed it down to only a few known names.”
Even though Balochi folk melodies can get anybody to tap their feet, only a few songs like Dane Pe Dana have made it to the mainstream. So, why is it that Balochi folk music failed to penetrate the commercial industry compared to its ethnic counterparts?
“Frankly, it’s not because Balochistan has always been sidelined as a province,” elaborates Sabzal. “It’s rather because the generations after my grandfather never took the cause of propagating regional folk seriously,” he asserts.
Revealing a philosophical side, Sabzal offers a rather interesting explanation on the struggle of Balochi musicians and how there desperation makes them resort to other means — a personal theory that can be applied, more or less, to all dying art forms in the country. “Music is only meant either for the king or a beggar as one has everything at his disposal and the other has nothing to lose,” he says. According to him, all musicians lie somewhere within this spectrum and try hard to make ends meet through a lot of other options. “I am neither a beggar nor a king and that’s why I couldn’t do justice to my craft.”
Love from Lyari
Like many members of his family, Sabzal, too, has represented Pakistan all over the world and his admirers range from former President Pervez Musharraf to many other senior dignitaries. Though Balochistan and its music is Ustad Sabzal’s passion, Lyari is where his heart and soul lie because it is the very soil of Mewa Shah Graveyard in Lyari, where the father of his great grandfather is buried. Sabzal becomes a little uncomfortable and sensitive when asked about his hometown and rightly so, because a recent incident made him question his own place of living which was once populated by his ancestors.
This unfortunate incident was actually a recent raid on his house by the Rangers, who suspected some criminal activity. Undoubtedly, Sabzal was baffled over this unprecedented visit. “Why would you suspect that an artist would give refuge to or will know about these mischievous gangsters? Ask me about sur and taal and I’ll tell you everything,” he exclaims, feeling ridiculed. “They should have gone to the local police station before raiding my house. We are creative people and such incidents only handicap us emotionally and in extreme cases, physically,” he says.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 20th, 2013.
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