Ustad Saami is the last living khayál master, widely considered a precursor of qawwali music that originated in Pakistan.
That’s no small distinction, as Saami’s voice is able to minutely veer between 49 different notes – seven times the Western scale – to potent, haunting effect.
Saami embodies his own pivotal adage ‘to sing is to listen’ quite poetically as his name translates to ‘to hear’ and his lifelong vocation, kháyal singing, stands for ‘imagination’.
Saami’s goal is to recover the “lost” pitches, particularly valuing those that are the most unstable as containing the greatest longing.
Even under threat of islamic fundamentalists, the 76-year-old master spent his entire existence as a dedicated practitioner of a vanishing art, one passed on from generation to generation since the 13th century.
It’s unfathomable that he is the only practitioner left in the world!
Producer Ian Brennan recorded Saami and his four sons live without overdubs on their rooftop in Karachi, resulting in the his long-overdue debut album, God Is Not a Terrorist, which came out in 2019. In 2021, the follow-up, East Pakistan Sky, was released. One of the songs is a 29-minutes-long track that sounds like an investigation of the notes. Once again, everything is recorded in a single take, and the effect of the sounds is beautiful.
It’s a privilege to have Ustad Saami perform at Roskilde Festival.