Our favorite ‘grass gals, DELLA MAE, are traveling through Central Asia as part of the U.S. State Department’s American Music Abroad program. Bassist SHELBY MEANS sent the Sitch an update on their journey and time spent in Pakistan…
Hello beautiful people! This is Shelby Lee Means, reporting from the midst of a 6 week tour of Central Asia with my marvelous bandmates, Della Mae.
Three weeks have flown by since our footsteps fell upon the colorful land of Pakistan. Our first stop in Islamabad was enchanting and chaotic. Wildly we dove in, our jet lagged eyes soaking up the scene.
Each morning we awoke at 5 am wrapped in a cloak of religion as the chanted Call to Worship surrounded the city.
‘There is a prayer right at the edge of my mouth. May my life be likened to a flame for the rest of the world, so I could light it up…’
–Pakistani National poet Alama Iqbal
(translation from the song, Lab Pe Aati Hay)
In honor of Alama Iqbal’s birthday, Natasha Ejaz our Pakistani collaborator and dear friend introduced one of Iqbal’s most famous folk songs, Lab Pe Aati Hay, to the ladies of Della Mae. Natasha, a tiny powerhouse performer and infectiously happy young woman sat, queen of the breakfast table, singing, smiling, and patiently teaching the beautiful tune. The cute elderly manager of our Islamabad Inn served each musician fried eggs and orange juice, and giggled as we struggled to pronounce the Urdu language. While learning this song we felt more connected to Pakistani culture and began to respect the depth of a people so far away from our home country.
Inspired and only slightly tired out, we journeyed through villages, up mountains, and into carpet stores, exchanging songs with children and sipping chai tea with new friends. Our days and nights were filled with food, laughter, and cultural diplomacy.
One special night, the Cultural Affairs Officer for the US Embassy in Islamabad, Brian Gibel, welcomed us to his home for a dinner of traditional Pakistani delicacies.
After the meal, an evening of music and jamming commenced and friends gathered round. Before long, a voice from across the room opened our ears to an intricate melody. We heard a unique compliment, a harmony to the chorus of ‘Ain’t No Ash’. Abbas Ali Kahn, one of the dinner guests, felt inspired to join our song with traditional and improvised Qawwali melodies.
Qawwali is a Sufi vocal style, usually performed for a saint. If the saint is really feeling a particular passage of the song, he will nod his head, and the singer may perform that section for up to TWO hours. This is according to our friend, translator, and tabla hobbyist, Azfer Iqbal. If there were a saint in the room that night he surely would have nodded his head, as Celia and Abbas rendered our hearts to the song.
‘Love is a precious thing I’m told. It burns just like West Virginia coal.
But when the fire dies down its cold. There ain’t no ash will burn.’
Abbas did not understand the lyrics, yet the Qawwali melody he sang rang out from the mountains.
Pakistanis are a people who rise with a song in their hearts and live with a prayer at their lips. Our first few weeks have already been transformative, and our journey has just begun.
When given the chance
We will begin to see.
We are not so different after all, you and me.