At rock paper scissors, we frequently talk about the importance of storytelling for generating interest in your music. In many cases, before anyone hears your music, they will read or hear words about you. How do you write in such a way that someone will be inspired to take the next step: listening?
This year at WOMEX, I did a live interview (before an audience) of a showcasing artist to demonstrate our method for coming up with the stories or "press angles" we might use to get journalists and the public interested in a musician. We did an online contest for WOMEX attendees to vote which WOMEX showcasing artist we'd interview and the artist with the highest number votes was Raza Khan from India. Originally, I hoped that I would be able to conduct our interview in English (because translation is time-consuming), but Raza received so many votes that I decided to go with the clear winner. Luckily, Himansu Dugar, a consultant with Raza's record label De Kulture, was available to handle the language interpretation beutifully. Translation slows down the process, but Raza quickly dove into some compelling aspects of his story, and I was able to fill in some key details with his label and management team.
Follow the documents I used and produced to see how I went from existing materials, to interview, to end product:
My method is to do a little background research in advance of the interview to try to identify some possible aspects of a musician's story, style, method, etc. that make them stand out from other music I think our target audience (U.S./Canadian press) has heard. If I think a music form will be new to our audience, I may focus on the style and/or culture. If the style has been explored by our target audience, I will focus on what is unique to this artist within that style or culture. Generally, I like to balance the cultural story and the individual, artistic voice. I like to convey what the artist's contribution to the world is. (The process is not that different than what businesses do when they try to articulate their "unique selling proposition;" which basically answers the question: "Why should I buy from you?")
In the case of Raza Khan, for a brief moment I was a bit concerned. Qawwalli has been deeply exposed in the West by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Several performers and ensembles--nephews and disciples included--have come to North America after his death to claim his place. How could we present "yet another qawwalli singer" in a compelling way?
Somewhat downplayed in Raza Khan's biography was that he was a fervent practitioner of Pentecostal Christianity. What?! Did I read that correctly? I thought Qawwali was devotional music to God in the tradition of Islam! Then while interviewing Raza he said that Qawwali and Sufism in general is not specific to a religion; that it's universal. He was basically de-emphasizing one of the most unique aspects of his story.
Philosophically, he is right! His spiritual message is that we are all one; regardless of religion. But from a publicity perspective, his unique position as a Pentecostal Christian makes that statement mean something more compelling, especially to a North American audience where there are some strong stereotypes about both Pentecostal and Muslim beliefs. By talking to De Kulture's managing director Sambhav Bohra, I was able to confirm that Raza's perspective is extremely unique. Sambhav told me: after visiting, interviewing, and recording over 2000 musicians in villages all over Punjab, he had never met another Pentecostal Christian Sufi singer. It is noteworthy.
Another distinguishing factor of Raza is that -- though his ensemble is composed of the standard Qawwali instrumentation -- he breaks so far from tradition in his performance, improvising in ways outside of the Qawwali tradition, that even his own ensemble does not always know where he is going. Live performance breaks down in a way closer to avant garde jazz than to traditional Qawwali. By listening for this unique distinction from other performers in this style, I was able to ask Raza why his performance style is so much more abrupt and unpredictable than others in this style. His response simply strengthened his uniqueness of performing Sufi music from an unexpected place:
"The unpredictability is my link to the extraordinary and the inspiration that comes from there. Whatever inspirations I get, I sing. It is through His blessings that I have been able to do this. You have to do a lot of practice, but what you are actually going to perform is not in your hands. That comes in the moment."
I look forward to any reactions, feedback, or questions about our process in general or my application to of this method to Raza Khan, in our comments section below.
-- Dmitri Vietze, founder, rock paper scissors, inc.