Melodic embrace
The haunting pitch of their voices echoes through the concert hall, each reverberation lingering on the skin a while before floating away. Each voice flows in stark contrast. The trained ear picks out the distinctiveness of the soprano, the alto, the tenor and the bass. Each pitch remains distinct in a melodic embrace. They sing together without the aid of instruments — this is a quintessential a cappella performance.

Hearts and minds
Dear All,
It is Ramadan again.
This is becoming a time of the year that makes me sad more than ever. Mostly because now we seem to see people during Ramzan at their worst rather than at their best. People become grumpy, lazy and just downright martyred and sanctimonious. Nobody really wants to work, and most people are not really that nice to others. Not only do they become short-tempered and irritable they also act in as intolerant a manner as possible and make anybody who is not fasting feel as dreadful and furtive as possible.

Food crisis in store

Food items aren’t easily available in the markets due to the
destruction of standing crops or the lack of logistical support to move them from one part of the country to the other

By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

The countrywide floods which have played havoc with the prime agricultural lands of the country, rendered millions of people homeless and left thousands dead are something we would not forget for times to come. The losses caused by this calamity are simply colossal.

Presently, the most urgent need is to save people from dying of disease, drowning and hunger. For that they have to be fed at a time when food items aren’t easily available in the markets, either due to the destruction of standing crops and stocks or the lack of logistical support to move them from one part of the country to the other. There are fears this dearth of food items can lead to a much-dreaded crisis which, if not tackled properly, may result in total chaos and anarchy in the country.

Residents of the areas which were not inundated by the floods have also started to feel the heat as prices of food items available to them are constantly on the rise. A discouraging factor in this respect is that there is no immediate letup in sight and the crisis seems to worsen with every passing day.

Muhammad Asim, a Karachi-based executive with a courier company, tells TNS he has seen fruit prices double and in some cases triple within a span of just one week. The same quality apples which cost Rs 80 per kg days ago now cost Rs 150 per kg.

The quality of the fruit on sale is also low, he says. "Every fruit-seller cites the inaccessibility of fruit-growing areas in the north and Balochistan as the main reason of price-hike. Prices will further rise once the stocks with local cold storage houses are exhausted."

No doubt there are more mouths to feed — supplies are diminishing and demands are rising. The World Food Program (WFP) says 1.8 million people in the country urgently need regular food supplies. This is a daunting challenge at times when standing crops on million of acres and stocks available with farmers have been destroyed by floodwaters.

Food experts believe the provision of food supplies to these stranded people will automatically reflect on the prices of the food items in the open market. An example of this is the sharp increase in prices of dry/powdered milk being provided to flood affectees by relief workers. The commodity is high in demand in these areas as it does not perish early and can be consumed over longer periods of time.

Dr Anjum Ali, Director General, Agriculture (Extension) Punjab, says it is not possible to estimate the loss of crops and livestock at this time. However, "one can guesstimate the losses based on the number of people displaced by floods."

Elaborating his point, he says, if it is assumed that 10 percent of people in an area that produces 10 million tonnes of wheat are displaced, the loss of wheat crop and stock would hover around one million tonnes.

Anjum Ali says saving lives of people is the first priority during flood rescue operations, then come animals, followed by seed, stocks and in the end the standing crops. "They have observed that loss of standing crop and livestock in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) was much more than that in the Southern Punjab where people had time to load their belongings on trucks and leave for safer places. A lot of livestock could be saved, though a huge number is still stuck in the floods. In KP, people had little time to gather their belongings as gushing floodwaters swept away everything that came in its way."

Ali is closely monitoring the relief camps, many of them set up in government schools, where displaced people are kept and in many cases with their livestock. "The animals are being provided fodder by the government as their owners have also lost their stocks of wheat straw (bhoosa) to flood waters."

He tells TNS the situation of wheat is better than other crops as it was produced in abundance this year and the country was considering exporting it — a policy which will have to be revised now. He’s sure the wheat stocks, despite the wastage, are enough to meet its domestic demand. But, "there will be shortage of other food items like vegetables, pulses and livestock which can be countered to a small extent by sowing seasonal items like maize, canola, barley etc once the floodwaters recede".

While ringing alarm bells over the emerging situation, United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announces not less than 700,000 hectares (1.73 million acres) of crops are underwater or destroyed and many surviving animals face death as they are without feed. The organisation is working on a plan to salvage this livestock whose survival is must for the food security of the country.

Akram Wattoo, Secretary General, Pakistan Goods Transporters’ Association, holds the loss of road infrastructure across the country a major reason for the escalation of food prices in the market. He says a truck which would normally make a round trip to northern areas in a week is taking two weeks to complete the journey. Lately, he says, Pakistan Army has constructed some makeshift bridges and roads for the traffic to ply on them. They allow one truck to move on such bridges at a time which makes travel time and queues much longer."

Besides, Wattoo adds, many trucks are engaged in relief activities in flood-affected areas, leading to shortage of goods’ transport. "It’s a noble cause but the fact that trucks often get stuck in marshy land is disturbing."

Reportedly, perishable items such as fruits are available to locals at cheaper rates. "If you can’t transport them to lucrative markets across the country you might as well dump them in the local markets," says Wattoo.

The option to import food items is there but would be workable only if availed in time. "Twenty-eight trucks carrying Indian tomatoes crossed the border via Wagah on Wednesday (Aug 11) and more are following," says Chaudhry Muhammad Ijaz, President Anjuman Aarhatiyan, Fruits and Vegetable Markets, Lahore Punjab. He hopes tomato prices would come to pre-flood rate soon as supplies will outdo their demand.

Ijaz urges people to buy vegetables and fruits on daily basis. "In Ramazan, people tend to buy large stocks in one go, resulting in an artificial shortage of food items. Bulk buying usually worsen the situation."


Stretching out bowls for a rare commodity — Food.

In the course of music

The participants of a workshop in Alhamra took home a greater awareness about issues that arise out of the particularity of music

By Sarwat Ali

Alhamra held a workshop on classical music last week in which a number of exponents took part in interactive sessions with the participants.

It was indeed a commendable step because music and particularly classical music is considered by most to be something wholly mystical, beyond reach and understanding. Such close interaction between the practitioners and the debutants helps in thinning the air of inhibition that surrounds a musical form tending to be abstract.

The abstract nature of classical music with emphasis on the purity of sur has always limited its audiences to a small, highly-informed section of the population. The question whether it be made to fizzle out due to its specialised appeal or should be supported and patronised because of its high quality in purely musical terms has been the dilemma of societies in the last 50 years. The technological breakthroughs, reaching out to larger and diverse groups not only in one country but globally, have made music eclectic and polyglot.

But many societies have opted for preservation and support of the classical forms due to the significance of the form and its relationship with the interiority of culture, rather than allow it to be drowned in the tidal wave of an overriding cultural change now sweeping the world.

The pedagogy of music in the recent past has really been an enigma with the educationists especially in the subcontinent where musical traditions were much evolved. The teaching of all subjects was made impersonal when the universities and colleges were set up during the course of the late 18th and then 19th century — under colonial dictates and influences backed by the European vision based on scientific breakthroughs. As the system became impersonalised with school, college and university, the switchover in many of the subjects was easy, in some not that easy and in a few dysfunctional. When the study of music started in colleges and universities, despite the enthusiasm and support, the switchover was perceived to be rather cumbersome, and the same reservations persisted when more universities introduced music as a subject and started to treat it as an academic discipline, characterised by specified time period and assessed through an examination.

After independence in Pakistan, especially in West Pakistan, no effort was made to include music in the curricula and as part of the academic structure of education in schools and colleges. In India as the universities embraced the teaching of music wholeheartedly, the upshot of the last 50 odd years has been that it has produced many scholars of music, a whole lot of initiated listeners, a crop of good critics — but failed to come up to the required standard in the making of musicians. Very few top class musicians have been produced and the top ranking musicians, vocalists and instrumentalists have come out of the traditional system of ustad-shagird or guru-shishya parampara.

Many institutions in India have tried with varying degree of success the amalgamation of the two systems. The courses are spread over five to ten years while the number of shagirds per ustad is limited. The method of teaching too is personalised and the shagird is supposed to live on campus. An independent jury assesses the progress of the shagird after certain duration. This experiment too has had mixed results but seemed to be more geared towards the making of a musician.

In Europe too the study of music is still the preserve of the conservatories fashioned more on the medieval monarchical models where the duration of the courses are very long and the process of education is not that impersonal. The Europeans still insist that this is the best method of transferring musical knowledge and the best way of making a musician.

It is easy to gather that the understanding of music and the making of musicians is still going though a number of experiments. It is difficult to say that a satisfactory system has been arrived at especially where our music is concerned. But it is important that the efforts at arriving at the satisfactory system should continue in the light of the huge changes that have taken place in our society as the old system cannot. At least, there is now an awareness that the conscious effort is involved in creating an artist and that natural potential and inheritance have to be balanced with proper honing. The participants of the workshop would have taken home a greater awareness about issues that arise out of the particularity of music.

Omair Rana-directed Noises Off proves that a successful production, no matter how challenging, can be a reality

By Usman Ghafoor

Within minutes of the opening of Act I of Noises Off, you have this rather tingly sensation of watching a cardboard stage set, with its multiple doors and levels, which for once is actually a stage set: here, the final dress rehearsal of a play called Nothing On is in full swing. Hence, in more clichéd terms, no ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ required for now.

The structure looks a tad puzzling initially. Each of the three acts of Noises Off takes the audience through Act I of Nothing On at a different point in its week-long tour. Act I is about a hapless acting troupe rehearsing (for Nothing On), only a few minutes ahead of the final performance. Act II flips the entire set around, and the audience has a view of the performance from backstage, with the cast and crew showing their personal side and squabbles. For Act III (of Noises Off), the set is flipped back around, and now you see the performance at the close of the tour when the relationships between the main actors of Nothing On have further deteriorated.

For the audience, it’s equally interesting to realise that the characters on stage will have to be judged on two different levels — based on what roles they are portraying in this play-within-the-play and whatever they are outside of it. The mental effort to put together, for instance, the middle-aged, forgetful actress Dotty Otley — who is dating Garry in Noises Off but not Roger (played by Garry) in Nothing On — and her hospitable housekeeper Mrs Clacket is full of fun and games. No wonder Noises Off has been dubbed a metafarce — "a farce about a farcically conducted production of a farce called Nothing On". Here, you have characters who are constantly flubbing their lines, engaged in sexual dalliances and slamming doors left, right and centre. You also have men dropping their pants and gorgeous girls lounging around in their nighties. Act III is perhaps the most hilarious, as Nothing On actors trip over each other, the popcorns go flying, and it seems everyone is frustrated and wants to get this over and done with. Most of it is physical humour, which is what makes pulling it off all the more challenging. Director Omair Rana deserves applause for doing a fair justice to this hugely popular — and widely performed — 1982 script by English playwright Michael Frayn. A lesser director would’ve easily miss-stepped and the gags wouldn’t have worked this well.

As Rana puts it, performing the play was "challenging also because it required us to mount a rotating set. This was being done for the very first time in Pakistan. Besides, being a three-act play, it was quite intensive for the cast. Though we trimmed down its length, it took us about a month before we were ready to perform. Still, I believe we’re at least one week short on rehearsals."

There were other "absolutely uncalled-for" issues Rana says he had to deal with, mounting the play at Alhamra, Lahore, where it was performed for five consecutive nights, "After every performance, the giant set we had erected would have to be removed, because there was other regular theatre stuff due," he says, grudgingly. "Of course, there were those inevitable power outages that were very irksome."

Rana’s Noises Off was presented by Production Illusions, a youth-based group comprising Wasiq Qadeer, and was part of a thesis project of Beaconhouse National University students Ali Umair Chaudhry and Swaleh Qayyum. The play attracted huge media attention, also because it brought popular TV anchorperson and actress Ayeshah Alam for the first time on stage in Lahore. As the ‘dotty’ Dotty, Ayeshah was a delight to watch, if only her voice had been a little more audible. Salman Naseer made a likeable Frederick, a nervous actor with a natural proclivity for nosebleeds, and evoked laughs as his re-enactment of Sheikh in Nothing On. Saad Masood as the elderly alcoholic man who is also hard of hearing looked quite convincing. The girls — Zainab Ahmed (Brooke & Vicky), Mina Malik (Belinda & Flavia) and Fazeelat Aslam (stage manager Poppy) — were charming. But it was Ian Eldred, as the stuttering Garry (and Roger), who stole the show hands-down.


Melodic embrace

By Noorzadeh S. Raja

The haunting pitch of their voices echoes through the concert hall, each reverberation lingering on the skin a while before floating away. Each voice flows in stark contrast. The trained ear picks out the distinctiveness of the soprano, the alto, the tenor and the bass. Each pitch remains distinct in a melodic embrace. They sing together without the aid of instruments — this is a quintessential a cappella performance.

"A Cappella" literally means "In The Manner of The Church" in Italian. A cappella was originally used in religious music, especially church compositions and a majority of sacred vocal arrangements from the Renaissance are in this form. Apart from being deeply rooted in Christian tradition, the influences of a cappella can also be seen in Judaism and Islam, due to the opposition to musical instruments in worship. Muslim musicians all over the world perform a form of a cappella music called anasheed, particularly in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Turkey. Closer to home, the chant of the Azaan five times a day, the naat, the hamd and the singing of Sufi folk poetry such as Heer and Saif-ul-Maluk in villages throughout Pakistan can also be categorised loosely under this heading.

Wikipedia defines a cappella as "solo or group vocal or singing without instrumental sound". Nowadays, the term is used to describe all-vocal group performances of any style, such as barbershop, doo wop and modern pop/rock. Modern a cappella artists include Jimmy Spice Curry, Wyclef Jean and Teddy Riley. In addition, the vocal versions of popular songs are sometimes released by artists so that fans can remix them. For example, the a cappella version of Jay Z’s Black Album was mixed with The Beatles’ White Album by Danger Mouse to create The Grey Album.

I first became acquainted with the wonders of this unique form of singing at a summer camp in America last summer. My singing group comprised a variety of voices from different parts of the world. My first thought had been: how on earth could such a multitude of singers create a melodious performance? But this was when I was oblivious of the very workings of a cappella. Our instructor, a young talented Yale undergraduate student, divided us into the above mentioned pitches and assigned each group a certain part to sing. We started off with singing simple, modern Western songs such as "My Love" by Sean Kingston and "Where Is The Love" by the Black Eyed Peas.

I marvelled at how refreshingly different we made each composition sound. Our diverse voices jelled together to create a truly awe-inspiring, tuneful effect, with our instructor beatboxing in the background to give us rhythm. Our final performance in front of the entire camp was of a classic a cappella song, "Wanting Memories" by Hawaiian singer Keali’i Reichel, a beautiful composition.

Modern a cappella music is widespread in the West, especially in America, where collegiate a cappella groups have been established in many universities. The longest continuously singing group is probably The Whiffenproofs of Yale University, formed in 1909. These groups grew throughout the twentieth century and now participate in competitions such as the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella for college groups and the Harmony Sweepstakes for all groups. Moreover, increased interest and participation in modern a cappella is evident in the growth of awards such as the Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards.

An interesting development is that modern a cappella, despite being largely unrecognised officially as a form of music in countries like Pakistan, is gaining popularity among South Asian youth in universities abroad, with the emergence of prominent groups such as Penn Masala in the University of Pennsylvania, Chai-Town from the University of Illinois, Dil Se from UC Berkeley, Suno from Boston University, Swaram from Texas A&M University, and Raagapella in Stanford. Desi a cappella groups are usually mixed, but all-female groups still exist.

While the memories of the unique experience I had last summer are still fresh, the lack of familiarity with Western-style a cappella here is regrettable, especially since the fusion of Pakistani traditional music with Western styles has started to become mainstream. Such a fusion could be incorporated into our customary a cappella music as well to produce a new sound.

In addition, a cappella should be given its rightful status as a form of music in our part of the world as well, where it remains unrecognised. Given the indifference to instrumental music among folk singers’ rendition of the sufi classics in village gatherings at the time of the urs of the local pir as well as the aversion to the clang and the strum of their less pious colleagues among our born-again ‘Islamic’ musicians, there is great scope for this form of singing to gain popularity. The subcontinental tradition of singing, which requires singing continuously for long periods of time, is well-suited to such a form. One hopes that experimental music projects such as Coke Studio will explore this musical avenue.


Hearts and minds

Dear All,

It is Ramadan again.

This is becoming a time of the year that makes me sad more than ever. Mostly because now we seem to see people during Ramzan at their worst rather than at their best. People become grumpy, lazy and just downright martyred and sanctimonious. Nobody really wants to work, and most people are not really that nice to others. Not only do they become short-tempered and irritable they also act in as intolerant a manner as possible and make anybody who is not fasting feel as dreadful and furtive as possible.

Sigh... It was not always thus. As children we always felt very excited at the advent of this month of fasting. And pretty joyful too. It felt like a huge achievement to get through our usual routines without eating or drinking or shirking off work or procrastinating in any way. Overcoming tiredness and hunger seemed like an exhilarating achievement. Iftari was an exciting and unifying event every day and a lovely way for the family and community to get together. Now nobody seems to want to work at all, and everybody is really grouchy and acts all holier-than-thou. Plus, everything is now so expensive that everybody gets even more stressed out than usual.

I think what is happening now is that we do all the things that are more visible, but perhaps we do less on a compassionate, non-visible scale. We do make sure we give people zakat, sadqa and iftari but we seem to be less kind and caring on a personal level. In other words, we seem to have hardened our hearts: we do go through the formalities but we don’t really get into the spirit of spiritual reflection and compassionate empathy.

The floods in Pakistan are a reminder of the need for generosity and compassion. Surprisingly our response to this disaster has not been quite proportionate to the scale of the disaster, especially considering the fact that we are in Ramzan, a month of spiritual reflection and a time to give generously even as we reflect on our humanity.

Another reason I now find this month slightly depressing is that is a reminder of the Muslim world’s inability to unite on the simple matter of agreeing on calendar dates and being able to celebrate important events on the same day. In London different communities begin Ramzan on different dates, and of course we can never even celebrate the same Eid. For example, last year Slough insisted on celebrating Eid a day late so on the day we were celebrating Eid with relatives in central London or Hounslow, our local community was still fasting… so much for being able to celebrate events with your neighbours and local community.

Best wishes,

Umber Khairi


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