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Pakistani Musicians Captivate Audiences at SXSW in Austin, Texas With Booming Hypnotic Beats

Khumariyaan performing at the Pakistan Showcase at SXSW, March 19, 2015. Photo by author Henna Tayyeb. Used with permission.

Khumariyaan performing at the Pakistan Showcase at SXSW, March 19, 2015. Photo by author Henna Tayyeb. Used with permission.

More than a hundred people packed the historic Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin, full of anticipation for Pakistani traditional, exotic and indie beats on the night of March 19.

The performers had flown thousands of miles for the first ever Pakistani Showcase at SXSW, one of the largest and most eclectic music conferences in the world. The night was organized in conjunction with the Foundation for Arts, Culture and Education (FACE), a non-profit based out of Islamabad, Pakistan.

The showcase kicked off with the energetic, booming sounds of the Sain Tanveer Brothers. The duo, originally from a small town near Sialkot, are the best known dhol players in Pakistan.

Their performance started in the middle of busy 6th street as bystanders gathered. And the pulsing sounds of their drums lead the crowd to the Victorian Room in a dancing procession.

The audience was awestruck as Sain Tanveer hung four dhols around his neck and continued to play, while spinning as fast as possible. The performance ended to thunderous applause.

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Mai Dhai performing. Photo by author Henna Tayyeb. Used with permission.

Next, the audience was treated to the melodic and soulful folk sounds of Mai Dhai. Hailing from the Thar desert, Mai Dhai is a traditional Manganiyar singer with influences of song reaching as far back as Sufi mystics and the Mughals of Rajasthan. No one in the room could have ever guessed that the small, fragile woman sitting center stage with her dhol would have a larger than life voice with the power to transform space and time. Accompanied by the tabla, dholak and harmonium, Mai Dhai truly made the audience feel the emotion behind every word as they swayed to her rhythmic beats.

But the rockstars of the night, the ones who stole the audience’s hearts, were Pakhtun musical quartet Khumariyaan.

Khumariyaan, as lead guitarist Sparlay Rawail explained, means “intoxicators.” And the fast and furious sounds of the group were nothing less than intoxicating. Perhaps the secret of Khumariyaan, other than an exuding stage presence, is their use of traditional instruments such as the rubab and the zerbaghali. The rubab almost sounds like a sharper toned banjo, with strings that are plucked to deliver various melodies. The zerbaghali is a goblet-shaped hand drum which provides percussion at various sounds and speeds.

From the moment they started with Bela to the end of their hour-long set, Khumariyaan had the audience on their feet. At one point, lead rubab player Farhan Borga, even led the audience through a demonstration of a traditional Pakhtun dance to much laughter and excitement.

After the show, Rawail shared that he was not sure if anyone back home in Pakistan could truly understand the magnitude and size of SXSW. But for him, there is no difference between the United States and Pakistan because what really matters is the music. Rawail felt proud to know that Khumariyaan’s music had the ability to create influence, regardless of country.

An audience member Sandhya Vadrevu said she decided to attend the event due to her keen interest in South Asian music. She had limited opportunities to experience Pakistani music firsthand in America, and did not want to pass up the chance to see these musicians in her hometown. As an aspiring musician herself Sandhya felt encouraged to know that South Asian music is not only limited to Bollywood films.

“Exposure to artists such as the ones performing tonight sends the message that our music is diverse, multi-faceted and unique,” she shared. “I feel inspired just being here tonight.”

Other highlights of the showcase included the socially conscious indie-rock sounds of Poor Rich Boy (and the toothless winos) and all newly-released songs by former pop idol and reinvented cultural instigator responsible for the “Burka Avenger,” Haroon. Mekaal Hasan Band, with influences of rock, jazz and soul music, paired with Sufi inspired lyrics was the perfect ending to the night.

Mehnaz Parveen, Project Coordinator for FACE, was extremely proud of all the Pakistani artists who made the journey to Austin, Texas for the showcase. She has been traveling with the group since their departure from Islambad on March 12. Parveen was a part of FACE when initial talks to collaborate started with SXSW senior music producer Todd Puckhaber. The senior music producer spoke at Pakistan’s first “Music Mela,” a three-day festival organized by FACE and funded by the US Embassy in Islamabad.

Puckhaber specifically handpicked the six acts that performed as a part of this year’s showcase, according to Parveen. “Music is a connecting bridge between Pakistan and the US and these artists are our cultural ambassadors,” Parveen shared. “We hope by collaborating with SXSW we can share our viewpoints and ideology to break some of the negative stereotypes of Pakistan.”

Both FACE and SXSW organizers hope this showcase becomes an annual part of the music conference.

Besides the Pakistani Showcase, FACE also hosted a Rooftop Pakistani Day Party on March 18 at popular Austin venue The Speakeasy. Mai Dhai performed at the International Day Stage in the Austin Convention Center on Thursday afternoon. Poor Rich Boy, Mekaal Hasan Band and Khumariyaan performed at the Russian House; and the Sain Tanveer Brothers will take part in globalFEST on Friday, March 20. More information on these performances at www.sxsw.com.

Henna Tayyeb lives in Austin, Texas.

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