Sitars, Sufi, Bollywood featured in Pan-Asian music festival


Salman Ahmad is scheduled to perform Sufi rock in concert Feb. 13 at Dinkelspiel Auditorium.

When Linda Hess, a lecturer in religious studies and an expert in Indian poetry, began to brainstorm with Stanford Symphony Orchestra conductor Jindong Cai about the program for the upcoming Pan-Asian Music Festival—which this year will focus on South Asia—Hess assumed the festival would be concentrated on India's and Pakistan's highly venerated classical music traditions.

Cai, the festival's artistic director, had other ideas. If the campus festival was going to feature the region, Cai said, he wanted to do justice to its breadth and vibrancy, to "not squeeze South Asian music into a box," Hess recalled. And, "I want Bollywood!" Cai told her.

The star-studded weeklong festival, which begins Feb. 11, will feature a Feb. 14 appearance by A. R. Rahman, who has composed music for more than 100 Bollywood films and for such projects as Andrew Lloyd Webber's Bombay Dreams and the stage production of Lord of the Rings. Rahman is "huge," Cai said. (London's Daily Telegraph called the composer the "Asian Mozart.") The most common reaction Hess receives when she tells people that Rahman is headed to Stanford is "disbelief," she said.

Top international artists also are featured in other performances, which will include Indian and Hindustani classical music; Carnatic ragas; qawwali, the devotional music of Sufi mystics, as well as Sufi rock, performed by guitarist Salman Ahmad of the rock band, Junooni. On Saturday, Feb. 18, The Stanford Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Cai, will present the North American premiere of Songs of Five Rivers by the acclaimed British-based Indian composer Naresh Sohal.

Scholars will gather Feb. 11-12 for a symposium on Sufi music, an art form whose influence can be seen in many of the festival's diverse performances. The distinctively spirited and soulful tradition of qawwali originated centuries ago by Sufi mystics who sang songs expressing their piety and longing for God at shrines of Sufi saints, said Hess, who became acquainted with South Asian musical traditions through her study of Indian poetry set to music. The music is used to induce trances in mystical Islam, but can be experienced as beautiful music and literature in its own right, Hess said. The symposium will include a screening of the film The Rockstar and the Mullahs, featuring rock musician Ahmad interviewing orthodox Muslim clerics who believe music is forbidden in Islam.

Cai, who came to the United States from Beijing to study classical music in 1985 and continues regularly to conduct orchestras in China, envisions the festival becoming one of the most important platforms anywhere for contemporary Asian music, he said. (The festival will focus on a different region or country each year.) Support for the two-year-old festival already has been gratifyingly strong, from within the university and from audiences, he added. The festival also has the potential to illuminate diverse cultures for its audiences, he said. "When you focus on the politics of a region, you often see the problems and the conflicts," Cai said. "When you focus on culture, you see people," he said.

Festival performances and highlights will include:

  • Feb. 11-12: Symposium, "Sufi Music: South Asian Qawwali and Debates on Music in Islam," Campbell Recital Hall and Stanford Humanities Center. Free.
  • Feb. 12: Farid Ayaz Qawwali Ensemble from Pakistan, 7:30 p.m. at Dinkelspiel Auditorium (pre-concert talk at 6:30 p.m.). General admission, $15; students, $5.
  • Feb. 13: Sufi Rock with Salman Ahmad, 7:30 p.m. at Dinkelspiel Auditorium. General admission, $15; students, $5.
  • Feb. 14: Tribute to A. R. Rahman, 7:30 p.m. at Dinkelspiel Auditorium. General admission, $20; students, $10.
  • Feb. 16: Hindustani Classical Music with Kartik Seshadri, 7:30 p.m. at Campbell Recital Hall. Free lecture and demonstration.
  • Feb. 17: Kartik Seshadri, sitar, and Swapan Chaudhuri, tabla (in partnership with Stanford Lively Arts), 8 p.m. at Dinkelspiel Auditorium (pre-concert talk at 6:45 p.m.). General admission, $42 and $38; Stanford student admission, $21 and $19.
  • Feb. 18: Carnatic Morning Ragas with vocalist Sanjay Subrahmanyam. 9 a.m. at Dinkelspiel Auditorium. General admission, $15; students, $5.
  • Feb. 18: Stanford Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Cai, will premiere Songs of Five Rivers by Indian composer Naresh Sohal, with soprano Nikki Einfeld. The program also will include Debussy's La Mer; 8 p.m. at Dinkelspiel Auditorium. General admission, $10; students, $5.
  • Tickets can be purchased through Stanford Lively Arts and the Stanford Ticket Office at 725-2787. Festival passes are available. More information about performers, venues and tickets can be found at and

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