By Cameron Grieves
Acclaimed Sufi band Chaar Yaar delivered their signature blend of traditional Indian instrumentality, 12th century poetry and modern Western lyricism to an energized crowd in DPAC on Thursday, Oct. 5.
The band, from Delhi, India, performed on campus once before, stopping by back in 2014 on their way to record a song in Woodstock, New York.
Chaar Yaar seeks to provide a musical space in which the audience and performers can freely love one another and to open up a dialogue to fight back against prejudice and strife, according to lead singer and poet Madan Gopal Singh.
Incorporating a diverse array of instruments and musical influences into their repertoire, Chaar Yaar’s eclectic symphony builds bridges across cultural and geographical barriers the band itself exemplifies, Singh said.
“Amjad Khan, our percussionist, is a Muslim. Pritam Ghosal, our sarod player, is a Hindu. Deepak Castelino plays Western guitar and is a Christian. I myself was born a Sikh,” Singh said in an interview with The Gatepost before the performance.
“We all come from different backgrounds, but when we play together, our sound is one,” Singh said.
This blending of culture and sound is intrinsic to what Chaar Yaar represents as a band. From the band’s conception when Singh first met Castelino, the two of them began working on what he referred to as the “in-between language” or the language of the “inn.”
“Historically in Central and South Asia, trade and spiritual creativity were intertwined. If you think of the performance as an inn, in the mornings, the antechamber belongs to the traders. In the evenings, the poet occupies the foyer. We are the beggars that reside outside of and pass between these spaces – this is Sufism,” Singh said.
The band started the performance with a musical rendition of 17th century Su, poet Bulleh Shah’s “Alif Allah.” The more traditionally Su, instrumentation and subject matter is nevertheless interjected by Castelino’s subtle yet masterful guitar-playing.
The song built tension off of minimalist percussion until it broke midway, picking up pace oV of a call-and-response style duet between Castelino’s guitar and Ghosal’s sarod – a traditional Indian string instrument.
The sarod set a driving rhythm over which the brighter notes of the guitar and Singh’s own booming voice hovered. An eclectic model unfurled itself – the drums provided the instrumental framework of the “inn,” the guitar and sarod did battle within, each vying for auditory supremacy as Singh’s commanding vocals traversed the undulating sonic landscape.
The second song in the performance, “Anand,” was one of the band’s most well-known – a Chaar Yaar ode to 15th century poet Kabir. This was where the band really started to emphasize their interpretation of the Su, musical tradition of audience participation, encouraging the crowd to sing and dance along.
“The meaning of the chorus is, ‘Sing bliss, O true one.’ The true one in this case is a woman of course, men are mostly false,” Singh said, to ripples of laughter.
The percussion quickly took center stage at first. Khan provided a fast, pattering rhythm that Ghosal’s plucky sarod easily bounced off of – the frantic dissolving riffs contrasted starkly with Castelino’s sparse, methodical guitar work.
Ultimately, what drove this song were the vocals. This time with both Singh and Castelino singing in tandem as the audience capitulated their own vocal contributions with increasing exuberance.
This is the kind of musical space Chaar Yaar seeks to build in each of their performances – a musical language that transcends cultural boundaries and unites people with love for one another and the power to resist societal prejudices and injustice.
“We live through turbulent times. There was a great deal of ethnic and political unrest in India in the ’70s and ’80s. That was a major reason I decided to rethink what I was doing with my life as an academic. Could I really afford to sit aside as people close to me were suffering and dying for what they believed in?” Singh said.
He spoke of his friend Safdar Hashmi, a cultural activist who performed street theatre, translated poetry and wrote scripts. He was killed by hired goons on New Year’s Eve, 1989, on the outskirts of Delhi, while in the middle of a performance, Singh said.
“There is a certain state of friendship that is concrete and lived. The death of a friend implies also a part of you dying in him. That is what the in-between language is – reaching out, giving up a part of yourself, expecting the same in return, and meeting somewhere in between,” Singh said.
According to sarod player Ghosal, this drive to achieve mutual love and understanding is carried over in Chaar Yaar’s interactions with the audience as well. As a band, it is important that although each member has different opinions, ideologies and morals, they must come together and speak as one.
“We have to understand what the other is speaking. There is unity in diversity, musically speaking – it is important not only to play your part, but to make a space for others to perform,” Ghosal said before the concert.
“We, both the performers and the audience, have to unite. It is a journey we are all on – nobody is an audience member and a performer separately,” Ghosal said.
Singh added, “You might only achieve this feeling for 30 seconds during a show, but when you do, it is like descending from a high mountain pass into a verdant clearing. You just have to keep pushing and pushing until it happens.”
Later on in the performance, more Western musical influences began to seep into Chaar Yaar’s set – a piano performance by Dr. Christian Gentry with vocal backing by members of the FSU chorus on a Sufi-inspired rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
All these layers of disparate instrumental and vocal arrangements look like a recipe for noise salad, but Chaar Yaar implemented each element with grace. The transitions between Khan’s thundering percussion and the twang of Ghosal’s sarod, Castelino’s soft singing voice and Singh’s booming one and the interplay between Gentry’s electronic audio-clips and Chaar Yaar’s traditional Su, instrumentality, retained a seemingly effortless fluidity.
Singh said the language of Chaar Yaar’s music “is like a sapling, fragile. Nurture it and it grows in our being.”