Drummer Brook Martinez was a little worried when he first formed Brooklyn Qawwali Party in 2004.
For one thing, the Qawwali tradition is sacred — it’s the devotional music for a mystical sect of Islam known as the Sufi. The music in its original form is simple, combining spiritual poetry in the lyrics with harmonium and tabla as the only instrumentation behind the chant-like vocals.
Martinez wanted to translate these vocal melodies to traditional western jazz instruments. He formed his jazz big band around the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Pakistani vocalist known for bringing Qawwali to international audiences in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s before his death in 1997.
Khan collaborated with western musicians in his lifetime, including Peter Gabriel and Eddie Vedder, so the precedent for blending western music with Qawwali tradition was already set with him. Even still, Martinez wasn’t sure about this new, instrumental take on the music, with saxophones, French horn, trombones and even guitar and bass filling out the sound.
Brooklyn Qawwali Party
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
How Much: $15
More Info: 346-6204, www.proctors.org
Worried about reaction
“In the beginning I was very nervous taking this sacred music and adapting it to people who aren’t in the actual culture, me and my jazz musician friends,” he said recently from his home in Falls Village, Conn.
“We started small in local clubs in Brooklyn, just as an experiment — we wanted to play this music, this beautiful music, but we didn’t want to offend anyone. If I had received letters saying, ‘Man, you guys can’t be doing this; it’s really disrespectful,’ we would have stopped.”
Instead, the opposite happened, as Brooklyn’s South Asian community ended up embracing the group’s unique take on the songs. The band has been branching out of Brooklyn, where Martinez first formed the group — on Friday night the band performs at Helsinki Hudson, and then heads to Proctors on Saturday night for the latest installment of the NYC Party Horns series.
“Now we get letters from Pakistan, from India, from London, people who found us from our website, saying, ‘This is amazing, it brought tears to my eyes to hear you doing these versions,’ ” Martinez said.
“We’ve played at Indian-American and Pakistani-American weddings, and we’ve had a lot of really supportive commentary from people that actually grew up with this music and know it closely. Generally, our shows are a mix of South Asian-Americans and our friends from Brooklyn or people that have heard about us that just come to the show because they like the music. So half the audience members don’t know the songs, and the others, you can see them singing along.”
Delving into genre
Martinez’s interest in Indian classical music and philosophy led him to study ethnomusicology at New York University. He was introduced to Khan’s music through a course on Indian classical music, but he began delving more deeply into it after he graduated and took a job at the World Music Institute in New York City, where Khan used to perform regularly.
“They had more of his CDs than anyone else there, so I became very familiar with him,” Martinez said.
Among his musician friends, Martinez was known as the “world music guy” who would often share his finds with everyone else. But Khan’s music was already circulating in the jazz community without Martinez’ prompting.
“What started the band was I found out my fellow jazz musicians in the community were passing around one of Nusrat’s CDs, without me even recommending it,” Martinez said. “I got my hands on the CD, which was one of the last studio recordings he did that Rick Rubin produced, close to before he died. It just hit me that this music could adapt really well to a group of jazz musicians, because of the similarities it has to jazz.”
Martinez assembled the 11-piece band, featuring tenor saxophonist Tony Barba, French horn player Rob Jost, trombonists Ryan Keberle and Brian Drye, trumpeter Ben Holmes, alto saxophonist Loren Stillman, guitarist Mike Gamble, harmonium player Kris Davis and bassist Noah Jarrett. They began with a simple song that only had a few vocal melodies — Martinez continues to arrange all the music for the band, by ear.
“The main difference with Qawwali is that generally, in jazz, solos are a lot longer,” Martinez said. “In Qawwali, it’s more like gospel music — you have a simple melody looping, and you have little outbursts of improvisations that are inspired. Usually those improvisations are in one or two breaths, whereas in jazz you can take five to 10 minutes to develop a whole solo.”
Despite these differences, he and the rest of the band soon found that the two styles of music seemed to click together almost instantaneously.
“Basically I got the guys together and played them the original song,” Martinez said. “When they start on this song, they’re playing long tones, which are held notes, different held notes — basically, it’s almost like warming up the voice, intonating, before you start the melody. I had to assign a leader to each song because the song needs to be led, and because I’m the drummer I can’t lead with the melody — I give hand signals, but I have to have a horn player leading.”
The harmonium, which was originally a western instrument, is the only instrument that shows up in both Qawwali and the Brooklyn Qawwali Party. Because it’s a western instrument, it made translating the songs into western music notation much easier.
Guidelines to music
“Every little vocal nuance, I don’t write down — I write down more of a guideline of the melody in western notation,” Martinez said. “I listen to their inflection — it’s a combination of listening and reading. I just do my best with the western notation.”
The group only has one self-titled CD, released in 2007 and featuring four songs (the band recorded four more during the sessions but couldn’t release them due to licensing issues). A new album is in the works though, with recording set to begin toward the end of March.
“We’ve been sort of a slow-moving train, but it’s a good thing,” Martinez said. “It’s given us years to seep into the songs and really get somewhere with it.”