There is something rather tongue-in-cheek about the very idea of Sufi Dub Brothers. How else to imagine bass heavy dub electronica juxtaposed with classical sitar raga – the sedentary formality of the sitar with club cool techno beats.
The irony flows right from the outset with a melodious lilting voice intoning “The Sufi Dub Brothers gettin’ down,” over a serious bass line. The icing on the cake comes two tracks later with “Maschinenland” a cover version of an early eighties German-language track by Hamburg punk band Abwärts, with vocals rendered in a kind of odd-ball, stilted, angular Teutonic Neue Deutsche Welle fashion along side bleeping electronica, driving beats, choppy guitar playing and sitar plucking that is both a bit spare and jarring – all this combined to create a veritable wall of noise with a subtle ethno-oriental touch.
“Of course you can play jazz on a sitar or classical stuff or Beatles, or whatever,” says Viktor Marek, who is responsible for the electronic beats of this Hamburg duo. “But to have this strange punk song, for me this was new.”
The very album cover also challenges our notions of club music savvy. Instead of two insouciant DJs posed behind their turntables, an improbable middle-aged duo consisting of one guy in a pencil mustache and other, slightly corpulent, in traditional Pakistani attire – the two of them squeezed together in the back of a car.
Sufi Dub Brothers are the Pakistani sitar player Ashraf Sharif Khan, born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1969, whose father was a sitar master as was his grandfather before him – and Viktor Marek (45), a renown Hamburg dub producer.
One might think that Khan would tend to sell out to Viktor’s electronic beat-making, rather in the manner of Palestinian oud player Kamilya Jubran, who deconstructs her classical oud in an avant-garde fashion to suit Werner Hasler’s electronic soundscapes, so that there is nothing left of Oriental harmonies in the end. But here the sitar makes no – or very few – concessions, rather sticks to more or less traditional ragas, although a bit pared down and minimalist.
The two musicians Khan and Marek, who met in Hamburg during a Bollywood theater project for young refugees, usually extemporize around a given theme. Marek describes his beat-making as “flexible” and “organic”, open and fitted to supplementary acoustic sounds, in the case of Kahn, improvising on his sitar ragas, while Kahn himself takes a tip from Marek’s beats.
“Sampling old records is not enough,” says Marek. “It’s important to get different people involved.”
As for Ashraf, who plays in a number of styles from classical raga to jazz to dance, he finds his collaboration with Marek oddly liberating.
“I come from a classic community and have always listened to my father playing the sitar,” says Kahn.
“I have seen him give a number of concerts and later studied classical Indo-Persian music myself. That was music for us, nothing else was possible! Raga, it’s almost like religion. Meditative music, very serious. Classical musicians have to behave! Classical music is like a prayer to me. When I play with Viktor, on the other hand, I can relax, I have more freedom. My mind is flowing!”
Marek balks at the labels “fusion” or even “world music” opting instead for “outernational music” using the term coined by the jazz pianist Sun Ra.
“Important is that there should be a concept behind it,” says Kahn. “With the right concept then I’m open to perform with other musicians in a ‘world music’ context. I just don’t want to see, say, five musicians – one from Korea, one from Japan, one from India, Pakistan and Germany – and they are playing together fusion music – no, this is not fusion, it is con-fusion music.
So tell me how you guys got together.
Viktor: Yeah, in a way we were casted for a theater performance with young refugees, who I normally work with as a musician. They had a wish to do a sort of Bollywood show. The woman who was directing it found Ashraf and contacted him via a friend from India and also helped out in the performance. She knew Ashraf. This was almost ten years ago. Then we met for the first time, and he showed me some of his wonderful ways of creating music and sound. I showed him some of my work and recordings. And at first we were a bit shy, the both of us, because we didn’t know about each other’s work. Of course, as for myself, I liked some sitar music, but I was not that familiar with it, and I was a bit skeptical. Maybe Ashraf had the same feelings regarding electronic music.
Ashraf: Yes, absolutely. This was my first experience with electronic music.
Viktor: But even at the first meeting we found each other very interesting and nice. So we decided to give it a chance. We could talk about this sort of collaboration a lot. But you had to give it a shot, and the end result was very satisfactory.
Ashraf: And then after having met only once or twice, we had our first concert in Kampnagel at Puddle Gala.
Viktor: It was totally full, totally packed with people. Okay, I already knew many of the people, but everyone was so surprised about the project, and they were really going crazy. It was a wonderful concert.
Ashraf: It was for me a very memorable concert.
Viktor: And luckily this kind of music fits really well together. So you have one main theme and you can do a lot of improvisation around it. You can improvise with electronic music, and you can also do it with the ragas.
Why did you choose to call yourself “Sufi Dub Brothers”?
Ashraf: I think Sufis are more open-minded. They have a lot of life-wisdom. And my feeling – and Viktor will also support me on this – it also has to do with a connection to cultures. We see and appreciate a great humanity in the Sufi tradition. The idea behind the name Sufi Dub Brothers was to promote the idea that we are the same although we come from different cultures.
What is your connection to Sufism? Do you read Mevlana Rumi or do you have any kind of religious background? Or is it something that you have just a general interest in?
Ashraf: Not really religious. Because the Sufi wisdom is broader than can be just confined by the religious. Sufism is more about the living, human being. Not just religious. All, everything. I have the basis of course. I am from Pakistan and I am Muslim, and I like to be connected with my religion. But my religion and my philosophy allows me to talk with other people and sit with other people and sit and drink and enjoy your life with other people.
But as a Sufi did you attend various derghas or tekkes?
Ashraf: Yes. I have a Sufi master. So I do have a Sufi background. I am not really practicing. I am not a dervish. But you can call me a dervish, why not? But I have my master, and I learned a lot of wisdom. Even with regards to music; regarding everything.
Which tariqat, or direction of Sufism are you allied to?
We have Chishti and Qadiri and Suhrawardi. They are the three silsilats in Pakistan.
And Viktor, what do you think about this Sufi appellation that you have adopted? Is Sufism something that means something or rings a bell for you?
For me its very interesting, I think. My background is that I came from a very Catholic family. But there are some similarities, I think. I was an altar boy when I was growing up. I had to go to church, but it was a liberal atmosphere. So it was okay. Some parts were not okay. But I’m not really a religious person, but I also have the experience I have, so it’s interesting to see and to compare. In Pakistan, for instance, we stopped at a Sufi shrine. And I like all these little spiritual things in a way. But I’m not so deep into it, of course.
Ashraf: I am also not very deep into it. I am following it, and it really gives me help. If you get deep into it then it’s a totally different ball game.
So Ashraf, you have a Pakistani background. And Viktor, Malek sounds rather Eastern European. What’s your background?
Viktor: Oh, that’s just my artist name. That’s not my real name. So, no eastern things involved. I’m from the Ruhr area, from the Ruhrpott, working class background. And regarding the name, Sufi Dub Brothers, sometimes we call it “Sufi Step”, this kind of music. The idea is to have a good mix of this Sufi thing – classical sitar music – and on the other hand to interpret it in a modern way. And not so much in the old “fusion” way of the seventies, or not so much involved in this folklore thing. Like a modern way, I think. At the same level. I think it comes together in a really nice way. Our respective parts aren’t washed out.
Do you have any role models?
Ashraf: As a sitar player I have a background behind me. My father, my grandfather, my great grandfather, and so on, were all sitar players. So as a sitar player my ideal and the person I looked up to was my father. He’s one of the most well-known sitar players in this region, in India and Pakistan, in particular in Pakistan. He is one of the top artists, so for me he was always one of the top. I followed him and wanted to play like him. Bit for this project, and now, in my understanding: good music is the best thing. If you belong to any community, if there is good music – my idea for all music – classical, electric, semi-classical – and also I am still performing my raga music – if you are listening and what you are listening to has a good taste, if you play your notes well and you have a good tempo, you will soon get more fulfilled. Music is soul food, and if it tastes good – no matter if it is electronic – then that’s great. The goal is good music.
And you Viktor?
Viktor: Yeah, I’m always in search of interesting projects that combine different influences because otherwise I get bored very fast. To go out dancing one night at one techno party or one hip-hop party is not my cup of tea. After one or two hours with the same beat I get bored. But there are lots of projects in my scene that are using old records. But it is also important to get different people involved. But there are not so many projects like this. Projects that mix a modern sound aesthetic with many different kinds of influences. That’s where it gets interesting for me.
What do you think of the term “World Music”? Do you think it suits you?
Victor: I don’t really like the label, “World Music”. I like more the newer version of it – “outernational”; music without borders. Seen in a bad way, “World Music” is a kind of cultural colonialism. It has to be on the same level, otherwise it can be really bad in a way. You show some guy from another culture and put him on the stage, but just for some kind of exotic kick. This is kind of a trap.
Ashraf: I understand you.
Viktor: I have seen a lot of projects which were like this, and you have to be careful, I think.
Ashraf: Important is if there is a concept behind it. Then I’m open to perform with other musicians in a World Music context. If, as Viktor says, you are just showing another culture, a sitar player with a piano or guitar player, but behind is nothing, behind is no concept or understanding; no good music – if there is good music and a good concept then it’s not bad. I’m enjoying World Music. But there should be a clear concept. And good music. I just don’t want to see, say, five musicians – one from Korea, one from Japan, one from India, Pakistan and Germany – and they are playing together fusion music – but this is totally con-fusion music. So if there is a concept, I am open to playing with any artist. And I am doing a lot of projects with different musicians –
What about your audience? Who is the audience of Sufi Dub Brothers? Who are you shooting for? A club audience? A World Music audience?
Ashraf: I am playing in three different combinations and I am learning something about audiences. My classical audience is almost like a religion. If you are doing something in front of them a little bit out of the system there will be a big criticism. The next morning you will get a huge amount of negative feedback. The World Music audience I feel is more open-minded. And with electronic music I really feel very free! They just want to have fun. Even if sometimes the music is no good, they want to have fun. So there are three categories. If there is some soul there is a good taste. So I am enjoying all three communities.
Viktor: Same with me. This project is really good for almost every audience. For instance, once we played in a very small village close to Hamburg, and it was not summertime, but cold and rainy and outside in a field and kind of bad. But after a while there were some old people and some children, and then everybody – just a hundred people, not so much. But after a while we got them dancing, and it turned out to be a very nice, warm experience. On the other hand we also played in Berlin in some clubs at three in the morning, and we also got the party started. So for us it’s nice to play for every audience, everywhere. Even if they are not one hundred percent into the music – at least they have two characters who are playing live. We have had a lot of luck with this project.
And Victor, when you think about your electronic music, how can you put into words what you are trying to do?
Viktor: Well, I try to let it sound very organic. My background is that I started to play guitar and bass and a little bit of drums. But after a while I got bored of just having six strings. I was searching for more sounds to create the rhythm part and the melodic part in what ever I could find – whether it’s a bling from the glass; everything could be a part of a new sound. This is very interesting. And I try to dig it. For every project I have imagined in my head what kind of sound aesthetic it could be. And I try to find a matching sound. But mostly it’s organic electronic. Not like really cold and hard. Sometimes I am using a classical Roland and beat machine. Normally I try to knock on some wood, or whatever and create a special kind of sound out of it.
I’m thinking about that track, “Machinenland”. How did that come about?
Viktor: The song is from 1980 or 81, and it’s from a Hamburg band called Abwärts. That was the first album, and for me it was a really important album, and I found it very interesting for our project to have a cover version. I think the band did a cover version themselves some years ago. I didn’t hear it, but someone told me about it. It was a very 3-D, big production, but what is interesting in the old version is that it is so rough and to play this with the sitar I thought would be very interesting because it is so different from every other sitar sound I have heard before. Of course you can play jazz on a sitar or classical stuff or Beatles, or whatever. But to have this strange punk song, for me this was new. I like this song very much. I played it for Ashraf, and he also liked it. I said let’s figure out how we can do it.
Can you tell me something more about a couple more tracks on the album? What are your favorite tracks?
Viktor: One of my favorite tracks is called Cell Song, and it’s one of our first tracks we did. And this is a very nice combination of the dirty sampled bass melodic part, which Ashraf grabs and takes to the next level and this works really well with the kind of house beat behind. And it’s one of the songs that our audience will always dance to. But it also has a moody sound. I like it.
Ashraf: Same with me. I like this song.
Is your music danceable?
Viktor: Yeah, yeah, of course. You don’t have to, but we are really enjoying it if the audience starts to dance.
Ashraf: If people are dancing then I am feeling that they are enjoying it and having fun.
Can you tell me a little something about Hamburg?
Ashraf: I actually enjoy Hamburg. It’s a big city. But at the same time I feel very calm. Right now I’m living in Altona. My first experience when I came to Germany in 1998 was here. Of course if you compare it to Berlin, Berlin is international and multicultural and has a different character and a special character. But as an artist I also need calmness. And this I can find in Hamburg. In Berlin, if I am in Berlin I want to party all the time. Dancing and music and meeting people. This is I think the Berlin feeling. I can’t stay in when I am in Berlin. I just want to go out and meet people.
Viktor: I’ve been here for more than twenty years. I’m okay with Hamburg, but also a little bit bored because the city changed a lot because many interesting places are gone and the city changed a lot. And the city center is so expensive these days. So it’s really hard to open a new place because it’s all about the money. It’s a bit of a pity. And it’s not getting any better.
What’s in store for the future?
Viktor: I hope that we can do a new album this year. And I’m doing a new project with Jaques Palminger and the Kings of Dub Rock.
Ashraf: I have a plan regarding my traditional classical music. I was supposed to go to Pakistan and give some classical concerts. With raga music there is always new projects. I need every day practice to keep raga in my hand. My future plan is to learn more raga and to learn more about sitar and to give good music to people and myself as well. It’s a lifetime project: sitar.
Well, guys, thanks for the interview.
Ashraf: Thank you.