Sounds of Kolachi is undoubtedly the next big thing in the Pakistan music industry. Dubbed by industry experts and critics alike as an ensemble good enough to rival any great bands of the past, it is a contemporary Fusion Orchestra comprised of some of the finest musicians in the country.
Start with five beats that mimic the stride of a dove before it takes flight. Next take a poem by a revered Sufi poet, Amir Khusrau, rumored to have invented this particular rhythmic cycle. Craft melodies meant for guitar and sitar. Then add the language of groove, of Afro-diasporic funky low end.
The result: “Aey Ri Saki,” one of the many complex tracks by supergroup Sounds of Kolachi. The ten musician-strong band from Karachi, Pakistan harnesses the spirit of South Asian folk and classical worlds, adding layers of jazz chords, a vocal quartet, Western classical tonality, rock and funk drive, with a mix of deliberation and glee.
The band is coming to the U.S. for its American debut tour March 25-April 16, 2017 as part of Center Stage Pakistan (centerstageUS.org).
“We start by assuming that all musical diversity is one language, but with distinct dialects,” explains Ahsan Bari, lead vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and mastermind behind Sounds of Kolachi. “We come with a simple rock riff, say, fine. This is one expression. It has a whole story behind it, the entire story of rock music within it. How can we incorporate and what should we bring in from our side with this riff? We start trying various musical styles. We try a thumri, a South Asian light classical vocal form. Okay fine, that doesn’t work, so let’s try a bandish. We experiment until it works.”
Though flowing and driving like pop songs, Sounds of Kolachi’s pieces hint at folk hymns to Sufi saints one minute, post-rock and jazz-inspired fugues the next. Young and adventuresome, the band unites Pakistani artists of all backgrounds, men and women, rock players and classical instrumentalists with strong command of bowed sarangi and sitar, an exceedingly rare mixture in today’s Pakistan. They are inimitably a live band, and no two performances of the same piece are alike. The group’s robust, structured compositions purposefully leave ample room for play. “We work together with the audience to build an experience in that place, with those people, in that moment,” muses Bari.
At the heart of this whirlwind of a band are the sarangi and sitar players, encouraged by the clarion-voiced Bari, the son of a literarily inclined, Urdu-speaking family that moved to Pakistan during Partition. “I’m the first musician in the family,” Bari recounts. “My grandfather on my mother’s side was a poet. My dad used to write a lot and was into poetry. Gatherings often happened at our home, famous poets coming and reading their stuff; it was very artistic environment. They always encouraged me, but not necessary as a profession.”
An academic junkie and rock head, Bari started playing music with Gravity, one of Pakistan’s underground rock bands a decade ago. He gave up studying quantum physics for eastern classical vocal studies, and entered Pakistan’s National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA).
“A guitar professor at NAPA introduced me to texts and scores,” Bari recalls. “I was mesmerized by Bach’s organ work. How could one think of so many different lines at the same time? All of that stuff got intense when I started studying the basics of jazz composition. I started analyzing Coltrane. I took up guitar as my primary tool.”
After graduation, Bari joined NAPA’s faculty and began composing, teaching, and performing all over town. “My music got really complicated, the time signatures, the harmonies and chords. I started to learn tabla theory. It all mixed up and got really complex.”
Two years ago, says Bari, “I started listening to all this great folk music that was being recorded in Jamshoro,” 90 minutes from Karachi on the banks of the Indus River. When The Sketches, the band that was supporting these folk musicians and presenting their work, called and asked Bari to produce for them, he packed up and headed there for three months with Gul Mohammad (sarangi) and Waqas Ahmed (sitar). Both descended from classical musical families, they are now core members of Sounds of Kolachi.
Inspired by his experiences in rural Sindh, Bari returned to Karachi eager to distill and pare down his ideas, gathering a fluid (and increasingly large number) of music pros and former students. Bari and his bandmates wanted to build new forms to hold millennia of musical practice, the classical and folk traditions of the subcontinent.
“The best moment for me so far has been watching people go crazy for sarangi and sitar,” Bari reflects. “I knew we had set those sounds in such a fashion that it’s easy for people to connect, to start listening to them. In a solo classical format, most young people aren’t going to listen to a whole concert. So instead of guitar or key solos, we decided to have sitar or sarangi solos.”
Bari and the band did more than sub in one set of timbres or solo instruments for another, however. He set about to rethink the entire approach to getting east and west into dialogue and harmony. Working with his band to flesh out ideas, he takes engagement with tradition past preservation or fusion, into uncharted places where concepts as far flung as Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre, funk pockets, and desert saint devotions merge.
Sounds of Kolachi took off in 2013, performing at festivals and venues around Karachi and in other major Pakistani cities. They released their first album, Elhaam (Intuition), this year. “We’re a project, a process – experimenters,” notes Bari.
This experiment stands as a testament to the other side of their home megalopolis of Karachi, one rarely heard among the negative portrayals and reports of violence. “No matter how much turmoil and adversity, you stick together. That translates into music,” Sounds of Kolachi bassist Saif Abbas Rizwan says. “We combine all our other musical tastes and interests interests with what we understand from South Asian classical concepts. Where those two things meet is this magical phenomenon.”
Sounds of Kolachi
Ahsan Bari, band leader -- guitar, keyboards, vocals
Gul Muhammad, sarangi
Waqas Hussain, sitar
Sherjeel O’Neil, lead guitar
Saif Abbas Rizwan, bass guitar
Shams Ul Arifeen, drums
Quaid Ahmed, vocals
Nimra Rafiq, vocals
Iman Shahid, vocals
Waqar Hussain, vocals
About Center Stage
Center Stage (www.centerstageUS.org) invites performing artists from select countries to the United States to perform, meet, and share their experiences with communities around the country.
Now in its third season, by the end of 2017, 24 ensembles from Algeria, Haiti, Morocco, Pakistan, Tanzania, and Vietnam will have made independent month-long tours from coast to coast, hosted by colleges and universities, festivals, music clubs, and cultural centers. Each tour includes residencies in large cities and small towns, and a range of activities from performances, workshops, and discussions, to artist-to-artist exchanges, master classes, and community gatherings. Center Stage artists engage with audiences onstage and online sharing their work with audiences in the U.S. and friends and fans at home to build mutual understanding through shared cultures and values.
Center Stage is a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, administered by the New England Foundation for the Arts in cooperation with the U.S. Regional Arts organizations, with support from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. Center Stage Pakistan is made possible by the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, and the Henry Luce Foundation. General management is provided by Lisa Booth Management, Inc.