PICTURE a traditional, thatch-roofed, tiny round cottage in the midst of a snow-laden Welsh village. As inspirational as it is picturesque, it is at such a venue that Ghazalaw was born.
The unique new style of music, a marriage of Urdu poetry with Welsh folk songs (‘alaw’ means tunes in Welsh), might seem like an unlikely pairing to most of us. But according to Tauseef Akhtar the two make the perfect couple. “The styles, both based on romantic poetry, have a lot of similarities. Combining the two genres was not difficult at all. The process was seamless. Of course, the setting helped us too!” laughs the renowned Ghazal singer.
“The Roundhouse at St Hilary was absolutely stunning. I met Welsh folk singer and guitarist Gwyneth Glyn at this cosy community centre for the first time in September last year.
We were introduced by the organisation Wales Arts International. We were to merely discuss our culture and music but we ended up composing our first song that day. I had carried a collection of 400 Urdu poems with me and I began sharing them with Glyn. Each time she liked a poem, she’d share a Welsh counterpart,” recalls Akhtar. With Glyn presenting fitting repartees to Akhtar’s collection of poems, it turned out to be quite a jugalbandi between the two artistes. Six days later, they were ready with six more songs. Once performances at Delhi’s Desert Festival and Chennai’s Earth Festival were scheduled, the duo decided they needed supporting instrumentalists. “I wanted to add in the Welsh concert harp, that’s how harpist and singer Georgia Ruth Williams joined us. Three other Ghazal instrumentalists, Sunjoy Das on guitar, tabalchi Ashish Jha, and violinist Manas Kumar, made it a team of six. Together we worked on the sajaawat and style for our new sound,” Akhtar adds.
Clearly brimming with pride at the opportunity to take the Urdu art form across borders, Akhtar is looking forward to showcasing his music at WOMEX (World Music Expo) in October in Cardiff, Wales. “Through Ghazalaw the Ghazal is being taken beyond the boundaries of an Urdu-speaking audience for the first time. The overwhelming response we received at the festivals in India and during our performance in the UK in January has given us a great sense of confidence,” says Akhtar, a protégée of Ghazal King Jagjit Singh, who is credited with popularising the Ghazal. While Akhtar was unable to get his mentor’s opinion on his latest compositions, he did get the expert advice of Ustad Ghulam Ali. “He called it pathbreaking and applauded my efforts to revive the dying art form and taking it to an international platform,” reveals Akhtar.
The duo, who returned to the Roundhouse to record their album, is currently focussing on picking the right record label. “Donal Whelan, who I’d worked with before through Bollywood, recorded our album for us. He set up acoustics and heaters in the Roundhouse, incidentally built by his brother, so that we could record live and achieve a raw, natural sound. The next step for us now, is getting a wider audience to listen to our sound. That is where the record label comes in,” believes Akhtar.
“I know that the music we have created is magical. I do not want to think local; the album has to be international. My aim is to win a Grammy Award. From the chota daira of the mehfil, the Ghazal will then finally have made it to the world stage,” Akhtar concludes.