Rhythm and groove live on after closing of international Ismaili games

Long after the Closing Ceremony of the 2016 Jubilee Games, its rhythms and melodies resonate. Samira Noorali spoke with the musicians to get behind-the-scenes feel for how that musical magic was created.

Borders dissolved. For 12 engrossing minutes during the Closing Ceremony of the 2016 Jubilee Games, everyone was entranced in a musical mash-up of contemporary qawwali to alternative rock grooves.

With jazzy progressions, a North Indian tune and the robust lines of an operatic chanteuse smoothed into a single medley, the singers and melody players of the Mazij AlMusiqaa Ensemble had their work cut out for them. But what about the rhythm section — the groove-setters who provide the heartbeat and set the tempo for the performance with bass and drums. Their symbolic role is reminiscent of all kinds of bridge builders.

“The diverse melodic styles were highlighted by the accuracy of cues, breaks, fills, build-ups, and transitions,” said Alishan Lakhani, the ensemble’s drummer. These rhythmic devices eventually guided the ensemble and audience through a glorious musical journey.

Serving as the musical link between harmony and rhythm, Ahsan Ghulam Hyder from Pakistan played a crucial role as a bassist. Not only did he have to focus on playing his notes and hitting the right accent points, he also had to synch with the drummer and tabla player — otherwise it could send all of the percussionists and melody players spiraling off in cacophonous directions.

“If the bass goes a little off, the whole world shifts,” said Hyder.

But when the bass is right on, it can be a powerful force that drives a piece into exhilarating musical momentum — even one that traverses multiple languages and layers Eastern and Western stylings. Lakhani added that, “a structured rhythmic pattern also serves as a boosting and motivational element for the whole team.”

Home-base for the three days of rehearsal was Sheikh Maktoum Hall in the Dubai World Trade Centre, but the majority of the ensemble felt at home in their recurring medley, Kun Faya Kun, composed by A.R. Rahman and selected by director Salim Merchant for its “devotional vibe.”

The medley also included a heart-warming song called One Jamat, composed by Zaheed Damani and Alykhan Khimji of Calgary. The lyrics, “We are One Jamat, beating together through a common heart,” glided along a catchy melody and left the ensemble members feeling deeply connected to each other and the entire Ismaili community. Even Merchant found himself “singing it all night and all morning.”

“I loved the song, One Jamat,” Merchant told TheIsmaili. “I loved the sense of togetherness and sharing it brought.”

Also inspired by the unity of the ensemble, Hyder said: “When I meet other Ismailis who play music, I realise that we are cut from the same cloth. Meeting them on a global level created exactly that feeling of connection and bonding, but amplified.”

Often, musicians will look to teachers and directors to set a groove — not just technically but in terms of motivation and encouragement. In the case of Mazij AlMusiqaa, that person was Salim Merchant, a Bollywood composer and performer who now teaches a module on film scoring at the True School of Music in Mumbai.

“I studied piano at the Trinity College of Music. I also learned from listening to some incredible artists and watching my friends and family,” said Merchant. “Music is 50 per cent listening and 50 per cent learning. If you don’t spend time listening, it’s an incomplete journey.”

More than offering expertise and kindness to the community musicians, Merchant delivered powerful bursts of inspiration during the ensemble rehearsals.

“I was shocked to see how he helped us to structure the entire piece in 30 minutes!” said Hyder, admiring the vision and knowledge that Merchant brought to the rehearsals.

Merchant felt a strong sense of contentment when working with the group. He was particularly moved by the bond he witnessed among the ensemble members. Hyder relied on these bonds for the actual performance and many of the musicians expressed gratitude for the musical support offered by conductor Ameera Nimjee and rehearsal director Nureen Sumar.

“I often have stage fright, so I started the experience emotional and worried,” said Hyder.

But sharing comforting smiles on stage with those in his line of sight, particularly the guitarist and pianist, he felt that he had the ability to lock into the groove and rock out before an audience of 14 000.

Musical understanding grows out of every performance experience and this particular event propelled the musicians forward into a groove of life-long friendships and unity.

As Merchant says: “You can make music alone. But when the energy between multiple musicians comes together… it becomes real.”