Spread out across Pakistan, Iran, and Muscat, the Baluchi people are as complex and diverse as the landscapes that they inhabit. Baluchistan, the largest Pakistani province, is home to the Baluch as well as a rich geography, culture, and history. Its hardy mountains, though imposing at a distance, harbor beautiful secret alcoves. Its picturesque coastlines sketch a region that has proven both alluring and inaccessible to those who set their sights on it from Cyrus the Great to the modern-day ethnomusicologists. For better or worse, Baluchistan remains an unexplored cultural and geographical wonderland to the outside world.
The Baluchi people and their music bear testament to historical cross-pollination. The Iranian-descended Baluchis have freely mixed with Arabs and Siddis/Sheedis of African origin to create a unique culture. In their music, percussive, driving African rhythms intermingle with a unique melodic idiom, akin to ragas and maqams but standing apart from both. Their repertory ranges from songs of love (dastanag), loss (zahiroh), as well as music to accompany zar and gawati healing rituals and assimilated fishermen songs (amba). The meditative, Sufi-inspired religiosity espoused by the Baluchis also colors their music–manifesting in persistent, repetitive melodic motifs that gradually shift over time.
It is no surprise that the benju, a unique keyboard-fitted zither, evolved in Karachi given the diversity of influences in the region. It was brought to Baluchi shores at the cusp of the 19th century by Japanese sailors, as the local telling of the story goes. This now-ubiquitous instrument arrived as the taishogoto, or nagoya harp, a children’s toy. From these humble beginnings, it has evolved to become a staple instrument in Baluchi folk music.
Over the last century, Baluchi people living in Iran and Pakistan have enlarged the humble taishogoto, adding up to six strings and row of keys, a larger, more resonant body, as well as electric pickups. This upgrade resulted from both necessity and ingenuity as the region has been subject to historical poverty and has had limited economic means and access to parts and reliable materials.
The benju produces a culturally espoused, rich overtone and shadow-notes-laden sound while its soft keys facilitate great melismatic virtuosity. Both hands divide the labors of musicmaking equally with the left playing keys while the other strums strings with a plectrum adding drones as required. However, its one limitation is that it cannot play the lyrical inflections and glissandos that typify the music of the region–a problem shared by the harmonium, the other imported instrument now part and parcel of North Indian and Pakistani music. Despite this drawback, the benju can be heard in many different social contexts. It is equally at home playing folk tunes or being broadcasted over regional TV or radio programs. It is played at rural weddings as well as in urban contexts where its loudness is greatly desired.
The benju has become quite popular recently thanks to the Pakistani virtuoso Ustad Noor Bakhsh. His ten-country European tour this past summer left audiences ecstatic and exhausted from dancing for hours to his irrepressible rhythms. Although Noor Bakhsh was already a local legend in his native Baluchistan for decades, his recent international recognition came about through the efforts of the Heidelberg-educated anthropologist, Daniyal Ahmed, whose fieldwork and managerial expertise have catapulted Noor into the global spotlight. Daniyal found him through videos of his virtuosic yet deeply spiritual playing, which have been widely circulated on social media for the past few years. “It took me four years to head out to find him, no thanks to COVID-19”, says Daniyal. “I was glad that I found him.”
Daniyal attributes the vitality of Noor Bakhsh’s music to his personality. He says that Noor loves to eat daal and naan–staples of Pakistani and North Indian cuisine–and is compelled to improvise by a primal energy that emanates from deep within him. According to Daniyal, “[Noor] is an amazing storyteller, steeped in the folk tales, myths, and legends of his people, collected over decades as he played for gavati and damali trance ceremonies, as well as through his many journeys across the wide expanse of Makran, Pasni, and Quetta. Plus, his whimsicality and sense of humor are as formidable as his musicality.”
Noor Bakhsh’s musicianship bears an indelible imprint of his sojourning; he stands out from his peers and defies tradition in a number of important ways. Firstly, unlike the six-stringed benju favored by other Baluchi folk musicians, he plays a five-stringed one, which he has electrified with a single-coil pickup affixed with a rubber band. He amplifies this with a locally engineered hybrid amp, powered by Phillips-Holland tubes that have been out of production since the 1970’s, and a Toyota car speaker. He has powered this rough-and-tumble setup for the last two decades with a car battery and a small solar panel, underscoring the ingenuity of the Baluchi people.
There is also the case of his musicianship. Noor is profoundly inspired by nature, especially birdsong, as evident on his 2022 album Jingul, which was released to global acclaim. From tuning his benju in line with the climate to eschewing tempered scales, Noor creates an atmosphere of deep spirituality and connectedness from the outset. His eclectic personality informs his extroverted style, adorning deeply lyrical phrases with florid passagework that delights the imagination and resists easy categorization. As Daniyal notes, “[Noor’s] fresh and experimental approach to presenting folk tunes borrows from many sources, including Baluchi zahireg, syncretic melodic frameworks influenced by Arabic and Hindustani traditions. However, Noor also adds Western-inspired triads and scalar runs to the expected trills and flourishes of his region’s repertory, wandering from one tune to another and back, building up to an ecstatic crescendo.”
Hearing the jubilation in Noor’s music makes the particulars of his life ever more surprising. Born in Gaddani to an iterant family of goatherders of the zangeshahi clan, music was an integral part of Noor’s life. He was initiated into music by master musicians Khuda Bakhsh and Rehmat in his early teens, and he has lived a full and difficult life since that time. Noor spent decades accompanying famous Baluch singer Sabzal Sami, honing his craft, gaining local renown as a master instrumentalist, and losing loved ones and navigating other personal tragedies before eventually settling in a village near Pasni, where he has lived for the last two decades. The arid rocky landscape of his native Baluchistan seeped deeply into his creative ethos. It is no wonder that hearing Noor Bakhsh play in Amsterdam, the Dutch wife of the desert-blues musician Ali Farka Touré cried out, “Ali, you’re alive!”
For all his musical aptitude, Ustad Noor Bakhsh remains childlike at heart in the best of ways. “While other musicians from his social class would have been wowed by the architecture and economic splendor of Europe”, says Daniyal, “all Noor could focus on were the sounds of his precious birds. That’s the man that he is, at once fully alive and immersed in the world, while being completely removed from it.”
–Written by Ali Hassan, a versatile singer, percussionist, an aspiring ethnomusicologist, and a multicultural composer-producer from Karachi, Pakistan. Ali is currently an intern at RILM.
Listen to Noor Bakhsh’s music here: https://honiunhoni.bandcamp.com/album/jingul
Watch a video of Noor performing below.