I got the chance to talk to Nosher Ali Khan, who along with the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute at Harvard University is creating a web-series of Hunzai folk music. The resulting project, Khimor-ê-Maraka, aims to “document and preserve folk-music in Gilgit-Baltistan in its traditional form”, according to Khan. The project also hopes to provide a platform to emerging folk music talents.
The project’s name, conceived by coordinator Saad Ata Barcha, means “a gathering (mehfil) of desire”, Khan tells me. It is musical gatherings, traditional to Hunza, that Khan and team are hoping to preserve. He writes for the Harvard South Asia institute:
Hunza’s folk music is unique in the sense that the performers merely initiate a performance. Within a few seconds into a performance, the distinction between the audience and performers fades away, and everyone equally participates in the show. This form is colloquially known as bazm. These bazms have played a significant historic role as resistance poetry to the monarchy system in Hunza, and contemporarily as revolutionary anthems in light of the lack of political representation in the region. In the last few years, bazm has emerged as the most popular music form in Hunza, owing to its energetic and passionate nature.
Elaborating further on the tradition of bazm, Khan tells me:
Bazm’s were the social center as well, where people could come and let loose. Bazms continues to be a fairly frequent occurrence in Hunza. They are performed everywhere! Be it at weddings, a boys' night out, or even a trek to one of the pastures! The beauty of a Bazm lies in its communal nature. Anyone and everyone can join! The artists are merely those who initiate the performance, and then the audience takes over and sings together. There are no certain fixed times, but are very popular in the summers with the majority of the Hunzai diaspora returning to Hunza.
Khan explains that bazms are ideally structured around a rubab and some percussion, but many bazms happen without them. “The secret ingredient to a great bazm is the energy of the room”, he says. “Bazmi music's nature is improvisation”, and as such the recordings from this project have been kept undirected and recorded as it unfolds.
The young musicians part of this recording, mostly students, are part of a larger process to preserve the oral tradition of Burushaski poetry. Burushaski is a spoken language, with no official script and Khan narrates that the musicians are introduced to the poetry through bazm and then over time become participants in the performance as they master the words and music. “Most of these musicians have trained together through LLMC, under established musicians such as Zia Ul Karim. They also run a folk-band together named ‘Gurgu’”, he says. The LLMC refers to the Leif Larsen Music Center, which along with Bubuik, offer training in Hunza’s folk music. Together these efforts look to further a historically vibrant musical tradition, that has received renewed attention among Hunzai youth, Khan says, because of “ease of access to instruments, musical knowledge, and an audience”.
This particular song, Asulo Gumaiyme Saburey, is written by the late Ustad Ghulam Abbas Hasanabadi. It is a somewhat “unexplored” tune at bazms, Khan says, “there are a few live versions I’ve come across in Azeem Hunzai’s mehfils but none of them recorded”. The song was chosen by the artists due to “its immaculate energy and the way it incorporates multiple aspects of a bazm into one song”.
To preserve in the recording the communal nature of a bazm, sound producer Sohail Rumi utilized a number of directional microphones to capture the performance and ambient sound from the audience in a traditional Hunzai Hall, specifically designed to host musical gatherings.
Khimor-ê-Maraka hopes to inspire more people to engage with Bazmi music, and plans to travel and record more music in a number of languages. You can follow the project on Instagram.