East meets West | February 10, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - February 10, 2006

East meets West

Rich blend of musical styles and influences expected at Pan-Asian Music Festival

by Diana Reynolds Roome

Salman Ahmad builds bridges with a passion, which is fitting because the name of his band, Junoon, means "state of passion" in Urdu. He's the founder, lead guitarist and singer of the pioneering Pakistani rock band that has attracted thousands of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh fans to its concerts.

"Music is the soundtrack to peace," he said. "Music connects everybody. It's about unity, freedom, love."

Ahmad will have the opportunity to connect with a stellar gathering of other South Asian musicians and musical scholars starting this weekend, when the second annual Pan-Asian Music Festival comes to Stanford University. The event takes place from Feb. 11 to Feb. 18, including concerts, symposia and a tribute to Indian composer A.R. Rahman.

Though the artists hail from many parts of the India/Pakistan subcontinent and represent a variety of music styles, their messages converge on a shared desire for harmony in an even wider sense than the musical.

Like many of the musicians, Ahmad brings a mix of influences with him. He's an East-West hybrid, influenced by Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin as well as the Islamic devotional Qawwali tradition in which he trained. His lyrics derive from Sufi poetry, which is primarily an ancient tradition of mystical and spiritual love that strongly influenced Western love poetry. And his band contains sitar, tabla and dholak (types of Indian drum), as well as guitars and bass.

Junoon, like many other Pakistani groups and musicians, has been banned by hardliner Muslim clerics, although Ahmad keeps campaigning to be allowed to play in Pakistan. Ahmad says the ban was not the reason why he moved to the United States in 2002; he says he lived here for part of his childhood and wanted to return.

Ahmad's combining of influences and crossing of boundaries is exactly what Dr. Jindong Cai, a Stanford music professor and director of the festival, had in mind when he first got the idea of an annual Asian music event.

"Music can bring people together, make people understand each other better," he said. "With South Asia, we think of politics or disaster -- only complex problems. If you focus on cultural things you see people's lives."

Cai's own life led him from Beijing to California by way of his training as a Western musician during China's Cultural Revolution. These changes have made him acutely conscious of opportunities to appreciate and adopt music outside one's own tradition. Having guest-conducted the Beijing and Shanghai orchestras, which excel at music from the Western classical tradition, he now feels a responsibility to introduce the best of Chinese and other Asian music to American audiences.

"Asian people have adopted European music. Maybe Western people need to know music beyond their own tradition, though they may think it irrelevant because they don't yet know it," he said.

When Cai moved here from Louisiana in mid-2004 to conduct the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, he realized that the diversity of cultures in the Bay Area might make such a festival possible. He started in a small way last year, with events that included a Chinese and an Indian musician playing on the same stage.

This year, he invited a line-up of top Indian and Pakistani musicians in the hope of finding out "what people are listening to and loving" in South Asia.

It turns out that all of the musicians are finding ways to mix Eastern and Western traditions in new forms. A.R. Rahman, lionized in Asia for his successful film music, will be arriving from Toronto after the opening of the musical play "Lord of the Rings," whose music he co-wrote with Finnish folk group V”rttin”. A Feb. 14 onstage interview with the Tamil composer will be followed by a performance of his music.

On Feb. 18, composer Naresh Sohal's three-movement orchestral piece "The Songs of Five Rivers" will have its first North American performance. Cai will conduct the Stanford Symphony Orchestra, and the evening will combine Indian percussion and rhythms with the sounds of an American coloratura soprano (Nikki Einfield).

Also on Feb. 18, Sanjay Subrahmanayam, a multi-award-winning vocalist in the Carnatic tradition, will be performing morning ragas at 9 a.m., an alien concept to Western music listeners who tend to go to concerts in the evening.

Classical Indian ragas, which evolved from the Vedic hymns of the Hindu temples, "are governed by strict, precise parameters, yet are largely improvised based on emotional factors, the feel of the hall, the pulse of the people," said Kartik Seshadri, a disciple of sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, who also teaches at the University of California at San Diego.

In a Stanford Lively Arts performance that's also part of the festival, Seshadri will play classical ragas on Feb. 17 with tabla musician Swapan Chauduri, the director of percussion at Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael. Seshadri says they will probably not plan their program until that day or even until they are on stage.

Like Ahmad's rock music, the Qawwali music of the Farid Ayaz Ensemble, who will perform Feb. 12, emerges from an ancient mystic Sufi tradition. It has been described as passionate, loving and a little like gospel.

While music sounds harmless, Farid Ayaz and his musicians, like many others trying to get into the U.S. from the east, faced great difficulty obtaining visas to come here, Cai said.

"There's this stereotype that all Muslims are terrorists and all terrorists are Muslims," said Ahmad, who also trained as a doctor and is the United Nations' goodwill AIDS ambassador to Pakistan. He believes live music can dispel these stereotypes like little else.

"Nothing beats that old-fashioned bond between players and listeners. It comes alive in such an interaction and such a connection," Ahmad said.

He added, "This idea of civilizational conflict is a distortion. Ordinary people yearn for peace." He recalled a concert he once played in Delhi where members of the young audience held up a sign saying "We want cultural fusion not nuclear fusion."

What: Pan-Asian Music Festival: eight days of concerts, films and lectures featuring A.R. Rahman, Kartik Seshadri, Swapan Chaudhuri, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the Farid Ayaz Qawwali Ensemble, Salman Ahmad and other musicians and music scholars.

Where: Dinkelspiel Auditorium, Campbell Recital Hall and other locations at Stanford.

When: Feb. 11-18.

Cost: Most events range from free to $20. The Kartik Seshadri concert is $42/$38 for adults and $21/$19 for Stanford students.

Info: Go to panasianmusicfestival.stanford.edu or call (650) 723-2720.

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