The group of 10 musicians from Pakistan, India and the U.S. were strangers when the year began. After five weeks of performing together in small venues in the U.S., they ended a monthlong fellowship recording in late March at RCA Studio B in Nashville, the studio that Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton and Willie Nelson made famous.
“It was quite incredible,” says guitarist Danish Khawaja, who plays under the name Fat Bird in Lahore, Pakistan. “It was bigger than all of us, to be in a [studio] where history has been made.”
Khawaja is among the 10 artists selected to participate in the Dosti Music Project. “Dosti” means friendship, both in Hindi and Urdu.
The project is an initiative of the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan and brings together singers, musicians and other artists from Pakistan, India and the U.S. for a monthlong residency and tour of the U.S.
The Dosti program seeks to “reconnect musical traditions and re-link the politically fractured South Asian subcontinent,” according to the embassy. While the cultures of India and Pakistan are deeply interconnected, opportunities for people of both countries to interact can be sparse.
“I don’t think people realize how difficult it is to be a musician in Pakistan,” said Jeremy Thal, artistic director of Found Sound Nation, which helped organize the fellowship along with Atlantic Center for the Arts. “No one is getting paid for music. There are few live venues. Some traditional music is dying,” he said.
But, historically, music has been a binding force in South Asia: Bollywood is wildly popular on both sides of the border. So too is ghazal singing, an ancient practice of singing with a fixed number of verses and a repeated rhyme.
The six Pakistanis, two Indians and two U.S. musicians selected in 2016 brought with them a wide variety of traditions, ranging from Sufi, a type of devotional singing, to hip-hop “beat making” to avant-garde jazz.
One Dosti fellow from Pakistan plays the flute in his free time and works as a barber by day. Another fellow is a singer from Ahmedabad, India, who hopes to revive the Gujarati language by composing and singing nursery rhymes in the language. An American participating this year is a violinist who is well-versed in Ethiopian music.
Since the musicians don’t all speak the same language, they relied on gestures. For example, a certain hand or body gesture indicates a request to increase the tempo and another directs when a certain musician should join.
“When I go back to India, I will try to do this kind of jamming,” said Debasmita Bhattacharya, a player of the sarod, a lute used in classical northern Indian music that is traditionally considered an instrument that males, not females, play. “I see myself in a different way now,” she said. When performing, “I’ll be thinking, it’s not ‘me,’ but ‘we,’ and I will do that with other musicians,” said the native from Kolkata, West Bengal, located in eastern India.
The fellows spent the first three weeks at Atlantic Center for the Arts, an artists’ community surrounded by land rich with flora and fauna in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. “It’s like a fairy-tale land,” said Khawaja, noting that for some of the musicians this was their first impression of the United States.
They added to that impression by taking a 10-day tour through the Southeastern region of the U.S., with stops in Savannah, Georgia; Camden, South Carolina; Asheville and Black Mountain, North Carolina; and Chattanooga and Nashville in Tennessee.
It was in Nashville that they recorded in RCA Studio B. “[It] wasn’t the most advanced or the best acoustically treated or technically impressive,” Khawaja said. “But that feeling. Being in Studio B. … In a lot of ways it was the perfect end to a very intense journey. We all headed in our own directions after, some home, some to explore.”