One of Savannah Music Festival’s most unique components is its unusual bill pairings. This weekend, the festival honors two traditions: Hiss Golden Messenger’s distinctly American roots/rock sound and Pakistani rock band Sounds of Kolachi.
Sounds of Kolachi makes its United States debut thanks to Center Stage, a public diplomacy initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. The ten-piece band of vocalists and instrumentalists use Western harmony and South Asian melodic lines, wield South Asian classical instruments against electric guitar, and set it all on a bed of rock ‘n’ roll rhythm. Through their compositions, Sounds of Kolachi introduces audiences to a world of musical, lyrical, and spiritual exploration.
Band leader Ahsan Bari, who performs on guitar, keyboards, and sings, studied Hindustani classical forms, Bach, and Coltrane equally; he’s also a metalhead who got his start in Pakistan’s underground scene.
In songs like “Yaar Mileya,” with music and lyrics by Bari, Sounds of Kolachi discusses the intersection of self-actualization and the search for the Divine and the nature in which everything is connected, vibrating at inaudible or unexplained frequencies.
They’ll also perform songs composed around words of Sufi writers, like Hazrat Amir Khusrau, an iconic figure in the history of South Asia. Khusrau was a Sufi mystic, musicologist, poet, scholar, and pioneer of various melodic modes and rhythmic cycles.
On the Western front, Hiss Golden Messenger’s songs traverse the American countryside. Written during a huge 2015 storm, the band’s last album, Heart Like A Levee, found songwriter M.C. Taylor navigating his role as a father and full-time musician and establishing a sense of home. We spoke with Taylor about playing traveling songs while on the road, his old life as a folklorist, and his place in American music tradition.
Heart Like A Levee came after you decided to do music full-time. How did you know it was the right time?
[Laughs] I didn't. I still don't. But it seems like the wind is sort of at our backs right now—people are enthusiastic about the songs. There's no way to really know, but it's okay.
When music became your sole bread and butter, did you find yourself writing or performing differently?
Yeah, maybe it's changed a little bit, but I'm still feeling really creative and really love writing songs. I always want to be doing, I just have to trust that it's going to work, because my love for doing it is still the same as when I started playing music when I was a kid.
That certain emotion that I get when I get on something that I know is going to become a good song and that feeling has been same since I was young. A lot of circumstantial stuff has changed in my life, but my relationship to music is pretty innocent. I still love music. I listen to music all day, I love going to record shops.
What is your writing process like from the initial stages to studio?
It’s generally pretty solitary. I’m sort of in a writing mode right now, doing a lot of writing to make another record. Oftentimes I will sit down in my little studio at home and just make a home-recorded version of the record where I’m playing everything and kind of taking some parts, giving some ideas for when I give it to the guys in the band—like melodic ideas and stuff like that. But yeah, it doesn’t have to be solitary, but it’s a really personal experience. Occasionally I’ll have someone come over and work on some stuff because I want the company, but most of the time it’s just me.
You’ve been playing these songs about traveling and being away from home while doing just that; what’s that like?
It’s great—it gives me a new perspective into them. And it lets me check back in on and retain things I was feeling a year or two ago when I wrote them, which is always good. It’s good to touch base with experiences that feel profound, at least to me, to go back and not obsess or get nostalgic about them but just see measuring how far I’ve come, you know.
And I love to travel and play music. I’m not sad to be out on the road. I’m not out like, partying and raising hell—I take what I do really seriously. It’s a good, interesting life.
I understand you studied folklore. Do you find certain elements of that coming into your writing, in terms of imagery or story style?
At this point, not so much. What I do now is so personal and small. I’m sure that my songs can be connected to a broader tradition and, in fact, that’s great. I love American music at large, but the way I approach my writing of my music is so personal. Folklore seems like a million miles away at this point. It was a long time ago did that I did that work to make a living and made a lot of good friends in that world, but I’m kind of on my own path right now.