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Vieux Farka Toure


Go to a place far away where nothing exists but the sound of heavenly music.

Thursday 16th November 2017, 7.30pm

The HUBS, 6 Paternoster Row, Sheffield

All pics by Neil Walker
Click to listen to an excerpt from Allah Hoo

My thanks to Nicky Crewe for her reflective review ...


Talking Gigs has settled in to the HUBS as its regular venue. It’s proving to be both popular and convenient. Ruhaani’s concert on Thursday 16th November was going to be an opportunity to try something different with the space, setting it out cabaret style. However a last minute rush on tickets meant a quick change to the layout.

Musical chairs! It’s great to witness the growing appreciation of the TalkingGigs format, as regulars and new audience members support the programme of concerts.

Ruhaani are a trio who met through their continuing involvement with Rafiki Jazz. The name they have chosen translates as ‘Serene’ or ‘Soulful’, and that was very much the mood of the evening. 


For the first half Sarah Yaseen (aka Sarah the Sufi), John Ball and Vijay Venkat took their places on the stage, instruments by their side. Charles Ritchie took the role of interviewer. 


Ruhaani began by playing some music before the conversation and questions started. Vijay Venkat was the first to tell us about the background to this weaving together of the threads of Sufi folk music traditions and Indian classical music. It’s an interesting process in any musical tradition. It’s particularly intriguing in the Indian tradition, not least because many of us are familiar with the influence of Indian instruments and musical patterns on Western music, from the Beatles to Yehudi Menhuin, without really knowing what musical traditions lie beneath those lovely sounds.

Here was our chance to learn more from a master musician in the Indian classical
tradition. Vijay explained the role of the root note, in this case provided by an ipad and modern technology, but traditionally played or plucked on a string instrument. It’s a drone that provides a guide to pitch, it’s a note to return to, and it sets the atmosphere, the spiritual mood. In a classical concert it sets the musical key for the whole piece. In the west it’s all about harmonics, but in Indian music it’s melodics that are important. Raga is the name for an Indian melodic scale, and there are hundreds of them.


Playing his violin to demonstrate, Vijay told us about the different tuning he used. The language he used was fascinating. There are ‘mother’ and ‘daughter’ ragas. And then each raga has its own ‘grammar’, making intricate shapes with minute variations. Now we recognise the Karnatic system in the South of India and the Hindustani classical system in the North, but at one time, six hundred years or so ago, it was the same system, in the melting pot of India, with influences from surrounding countries and their traditions. Folk and tribal music is the mother of Indian classical music.

John Ball is known for his deep involvement with classical Indian music, and plays tabla and the Kashmiri santoor. The tabla drum is an instrument with thousands of years of development behind it. Tuned to the melodies, it gives so much more than rhythm to the music. As ragas have their ‘grammar’, tabla has is own language. All the sounds have names. It’s a vocabulary that has to be learnt through repetition, and then expressed in phrases. From this incredible discipline, this ‘spine’, comes the freedom to improvise and be instinctive in live performance.

John also demonstrated playing the santoor. Ninety strings to tune, this traditional
Kashmiri instrument is part of the dulcimer family. It is a relatively recent addition to the Indian classical tradition, added in 1955. It has a staccato sound, you can’t slide or bend the notes. There’s an apocryphal story about a forty five minute tuning session at the first concert it appeared in.

Sarah is known as Sarah the Sufi, and her father was known as Sufi Yaseen. She’s from Ashton Under Lyne, but her families’ roots are from Kashmir and post 1947 Pakistan. She talked about the universal mysticism of the Sufi tradition. Her own musical tradition lies in Naad unaccompanied songs and Punjabi and Urdu poetry. Sufi transcends faith and race. It’s universal, like music. It’s all about searching for the love. The music goes back eight or nine hundred years, but came to the notice of the west because of Peter Gabriel’s interest in Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Qawwali music. She’s walking her own path as a woman singing in the Sufi and qawwali tradition and she’s busy exploring how she can use her beautiful voice to bring together tradition and innovation.

Charles then asked each musician in turn about their inspirations. For Vijay it was his gurus who are no longer on earth, but continue to inspire him, as does every hard working musician or artist. For John, it was those musicians who both hold tradition and push the boundaries, the ebb and flow of music, including jazz influences. For Sarah it was exploring different styles of singing. She and her daughter had recently learnt to do overtone singing with a Danish throat singer.

The first half ended with a spontaneous piece, Sarah reciting poetry, Vijay on violin and John on tabla.

After the break and the raffle to support Assist, the musicians returned to the stage.  The first piece was sixteenth century Sufi Punjabi love poetry, set to music, with Sarah and Vijay taking the vocals.

The second piece took a naad song, which would normally be performed unaccompanied. Ruhaani had set themselves the challenge of using instrumentation, including Vijay on flute.

The third song was Allah Hoo, voice, tabla and flute taking us through this well known Qawwali piece. Sarah dedicated it ‘to all the South Asian men out there, with respect’. She described performing it as both tiring and euphoric. Body language and hand movements added to the hypnotic quality of the music. Attempting to translate the deep meaning of the lyrics, she distilled to this essence, ‘Nothing was here, You were always here’.

Then we had their first public performance of an old Kashmiri lullaby, with John on the santoor and the intriguing refrain, ‘Hocus Pocus’.  The next song was a ‘ghazal’, a sung poem full of yearning at the loss of love. Another naad accompanied by music composed by John and Vijay followed.

The evening ended with an inspiring version of Mustt, Mustt, familiar from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s recordings.

Ruhaani’s appearance on the Talking Gigs’ stage was a perfect fit to the format. The music was wonderful and the insights into the music and culture were fascinating. Definitely a serene and soulful evening.

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