Mohamed Assani and Cassius Khan bring South Asian innovations to Vancouver

At MusicFest and Sawan Mela, sitar virtuoso Mohamed Assani and tabla master Cassius Khan mix a spicy fusion of old and new

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      Sitar virtuoso Mohamed Assani plans to use his MusicFest Vancouver concert to launch a new album—and given that the title of said CD is Spirit of Tradition, his repertoire is going to lean toward the more conservative side of what he does.

      “Generally, when I’m playing I do a bit of classical and a bit of folk,” says the Pakistani-born, British-educated musician in a telephone interview, “so it’s a combination of what this instrument does.”

      What his performance might not fully indicate, however, is why Assani’s recent arrival in Vancouver—he moved here from the U.K. in October of last year—is very good news for the local world-music community, and for our city’s cultural life in general. Like his tabla-playing accompanist Cassius Khan, who came to Vancouver from Edmonton in 2008, Assani is both a musician who’s deeply rooted in the artistic traditions of South Asia and a one-of-a-kind innovator who’s bent on ensuring that those age-old forms will survive, and grow, in the modern era.

      In terms of his performing career, Assani is an anomaly: he’s equally skilled on sitar and tabla, although he won’t be playing percussion at Christ Church Cathedral this weekend. While all practitioners of North Indian music learn its complex rhythms as a matter of course, instruction is usually in oral form—students essentially learn to speed-rap the beats—rather than through hands-on drumming lessons.

      Not surprisingly, Assani says that his work as an accompanist has brought extra depth to his sitar performances. “The more you accompany somebody, the more you learn about the whole genre,” he explains. “It’s interesting being an accompanist and a soloist: you definitely benefit from interaction from both sides. It’s a good opportunity to really learn about performance practice. It just gives you that added experience.”

      And his style on sitar is especially rich, as he’s trained in the Poonch gharana, or school, founded by the late Bengali master Vilayat Khan. Members of this gharana specialize in the long, slow development of melodic material, often using techniques borrowed from South Asia’s great devotional singers. It’s almost the polar opposite of the more familiar Maihar gharana, as epitomized by Ravi Shankar’s exuberant approach.

      “Pandit Ravi Shankar’s style is an instrumental style,” Assani notes. “The sound of the sitar is a little bit thinner, and it has a certain distinct type of resonance. But the other style is the Ustad Vilayat Khan style, in which the voice of the sitar is a little bit more sombre. It’s more bassy, and it presents a more vocal style of playing.”

      Vocal techniques have also influenced the playing of percussionist Khan, a brilliant drummer who is also North America’s only practitioner of the singing style known as tarranum ang gayaki, which the Fijian-born musician learned from his aunt, the late “Queen of Melody” Malika-e-Tarranum Mushtari Begum.

      Cassius Khan.

      As Khan explains in a separate interview, his chosen form is a free-flowing and deeply meditative approach to the ghazal, a form of sung or spoken poetry that conflates the spiritual and sensual worlds. Making his ability to combine this with percussion all the more startling is that tarranum ang gayaki is similar to free verse in that it’s not tethered to a predictable structure. Playing the tabla, on the other hand, is all about precise rhythmic subdivisions.

      “The fact that I can do tarranum ang gayaki while playing tabla has stupefied a lot of people,” says Khan. “They’re like, ”˜How do you know how to measure this and this?’ And I’m like, ”˜I just know. My brain is just separated that way.’”

      Khan won’t sing at Assani’s MusicFest concert. After it, however, he plans to jump in his car and head down Burrard Street to Canada Place, where he’s been booked to play three shows at the South Asian Family Association’s Sawan Mela festival.

      “The first performance is going to be with my wife, Amika Kushwaha,” he says. “She is going to present a kathak [Indian classical dance] solo recital, and of course we never do anything with taped music; we’re very sensitive about that. So my wife’s sister, Lavika, is flying in from Saskatoon to play the harmonium for Amika, and I’ll play the tabla for her. Afterwards, we’re playing for a young musical prodigy, [14-year-old singer] Akhil Jobanputra; his musicians, unfortunately, were not able to perform with him, so he asked my wife and I if we could accompany him on harmonium and tabla. And then the dénouement will be mine. I will be performing ghazal while playing tabla, and then I’m going to play a blistering tabla solo recital at the end.

      “So that’s what I’m going to do,” he adds, laughing. “I’m just going to create a whirlwind and be this tornado to end it off.”

      For the moment, Khan is concentrating on his solo career as possibly the world’s only tabla-playing ghazal singer, but he’s already made his mark in B.C.’s larger musical scene through collaborations with Vancouver Island Dobro master Doug Cox and fingerstyle guitarist Don Alder. And while Assani is still settling in to his new city—and to his new job, teaching sitar and tabla at the Vancouver Symphony’s school of music—he’s planning to perform with the Vancouver Inter-Cultural Orchestra this fall. Further developments may well be in the offing.

      While employed at the University of Huddersfield in the U.K., Assani led an ensemble dedicated to playing Indian music on western instruments. “That’s something I’m willing to try here, too, to run an ensemble which would feature different instruments,” he says. “They could be Indian, they could be western, they could be Chinese. I’m very passionate about starting something like that, so I’m talking to a few people, and I’m hoping that will happen sometime soon.”

      Vancouver’s world-music scene—already one of the best anywhere—might be about to get a whole lot more interesting.

      Mohamed Assani performs at Christ Church Cathedral at noon on Saturday (August 13). Later that day, Cassius Khan will make three Sawan Mela appearances at Canada Place.




      Aug 12, 2011 at 6:28am

      Cassius Khan is one of the shining gems of our country. He is one of the greatest human beings and musicians to come out of Canada.