Strumming Sarah

Asiana chats to musician Sarah Sarhandi

Posted: 20.05.16

It’s not often you meet a British-Pakistani female musician, so naturally, I jumped at the chance to speak with Sarah Sarhandi. Hailing from Bristol and passionate about her art, Sarah plays a classical instrument called viola and will be performing BOTH UNIVERSE at Southbank’s Alchemy 2016, along with a multitude of talented artists. Playing a beautiful classical instrument is not the only thing that makes Sarah distinctly wonderful, it’s also her blended heritage, often expressed through her ethereal sounding music, that makes her such an extraordinary talent. I was intrigued at how Sarah has reached this point in her career thus far…



A musical journey of discovery
From the age of two, I was obsessed with music, but the thing that really got me was classical music. I fell in love with the violin and when I was seven, I started learning piano too. I really wanted to play the cello, but I ended up playing the viola because my mum thought I was too skinny to carry the cello around, so she suggested the viola. I didn’t even know what it was, but the viola is not as high as a violin, it’s got a beautiful sound. I started learning viola when I was 11 years old, by a teacher who used to call me Sarah Sahara, which I loved the sound of! When I entered a competition and won, I realized how much I loved being on stage and performing in front of an audience in a solo act. It kind of lit my fire and that’s when I started to take it really seriously. I went to The Royal Academy Of Music after school and I grew up listening to pop and jazz. Growing up in Bristol, I was exposed to a variation of music, as well as classical music, which my mum also got me into from a young age. But when I left the Royal Academy of Music, I didn’t want to become an orchestral musician. Then I met one of the founders of jazz, Don Cherry, who is a jazz trumpet player, who really opened my eyes. I met a piano player and we made a record together with Virgin Records, which showed me what I could do, but then I had to break away from him and to discover what it is I wanted to do, which has taken me a while.

Confluence of cultures
My mother is Welsh/Irish but lived in India, and my dad is Pakistani, but I have always lived in UK. Coming from a mixed background, I am able to connect with Pakistan through my music in my own right as a musician, rather than connecting with my family in Pakistan and not having to abide by certain rules, which somehow because I’ve become a musician, I seem to have bypassed. My dad’s side of the family in Karachi are traditional and quite conservative, so I don't think I would have had the opportunity to become a musician. It’s been amazing working with Aamir Zaki, a talented guitarist from Pakistan, as I have gained an understanding of how music works in Pakistan. We have been in touch and bouncing around ideas, but last year I finally got a grant from the British National Development Fund to go to Karachi and collaborate with him. There is a predominant music scene out there and what has given me a lot of energy and inspiration, is that the musicians there are not necessary making money, but they are incredibly passionate and dedicated. 

Performance at Southbank’s Alchemy
My performance at Southbank’s Alchemy 2016 will have a strong Pakistani influence, as it’s true to my own world, intertwining my global out look. So the music has all sorts of elements, different kinds of cultures and influences which is very reflective of who I am. Most people’s lives nowadays are globally influenced. That’s why the performance will feature a world class opera singer Lore Lixenberg. There will also be someone who is meant to be Europe’s best percussionist, Mark Sanders. I have JP Thwaites doing electronica to make add some extra layers, along with Aamir Zaki, all the way from Pakistan on the guitar. There are pre-recorded parts and I am a producer as well as a player, so I will be engineering sound and there’s also Yaniv Fridel who will play the trumpet. I also shot a lot of video footage last time I was in Karachi and the video artist, Sophie Molins I’m working with will make some video pieces which will be projected as part of the performance, which will also act as a bridge from London to Karachi, as well as some stills from my good friend Sabiha Sumar’s latest Pakistani film. Simon Finch is an artist and he’s giving me some of his paintings, there will also be two dancers Thomasin Gulgec and Estela Merlos, as well as an American poet, Vincent Katz. So what was quite low-key to begin with, is hoping to be quite an extravaganza on the night! 

Music for the soul
Although my music is quite reflective of my background and identity, it is fairly unconscious as even I don’t quite understand sometimes what triggers a piece of music. I pick up on ideas and sounds like I like, for example when I heard Aamir Zaki playing the guitar, it was a very conventional tune, but it was the feeling in the sound that was different and it isn’t a Western feel which resonated with me. In this performance, I haven’t consciously decided to include a tabla or sitar, and it’s just turned out that way. Really, I start with who I am and the things that I include in my work, come out of my own sense of self. For example, my performance will include a Sufi piece based on Bulleh Shah, sang by a children’s choir, whilst the American poet represents another part of my consciousness and my bloodline. Because I have travelled and made so many different kinds of music, so my influences are far and wide. There are definitely strong affinities and threads to my Pakistani heritage. When I left the Royal Academy of Music, I could not have endured my life, confined to the shapes and patterns of Western classical music, as my soul was really yearning for the Eastern aesthetic, as it wasn’t me. That was the trigger for me to start doing my own thing. I am a fusion, so my music comes out of the integrity of my own being. Fusion is a difficult concept for me, as I don’t really feel I have two separate sides, although it’s not that easy coming from two cultures. It does have incredible bonuses but can be difficult at times. 

Bridging the gap
Even though I grew up in Bristol, it was almost like a mini feudal household, as an extension to our larger family a long way away. I’ve always had an attachment to my Pakistani family, even though we didn’t visit much, they would always send us things and so I always felt a connection. Since I’m making music and I’m getting known in Pakistani, my family over there are quite into it and the younger ones say they’re my fans and send me messages on Facebook. It feels wonderful, after not having that in my life and now I feel this energy through my music. Hopefully, my musical journey can be like a beacon for other Pakistani women, although I have had some reports of people being abit horrified that I am a fulltime musician. But I’ve had a lot of support from the Pakistan High Commission, which has sort of given the seal of approval for those in doubt. There are different pockets of progression - my father supported me and my music when I was child, but when I decided to take it up professionally, he was quite disturbed by it which distanced for many years, but now he’s into it again. The population emigrates but doesn’t necessarily keep up with the one that is moving at home, in this case Pakistan. They get abit stuck, they are where they were when they left, like my dad has no idea about the massive music scene in Pakistan and how much talent is out there. But it has brought us closer, because I now understand things about him, which I didn’t before and also how difficult it is to bridge these two worlds. 

Inspirational musical waves
In this country, I have never come across another person of Pakistani heritage playing classical music or pursuing a musical career in the mainstream. If you really feel passionately about doing music or the arts, you will find the support that you need. Your family probably will come along with you, even if you might struggle to begin with. There needs to be more support structures set up and more outreach to people in the South Asian diaspora. I can only speak from my experience, being at Alchemy is the first time I have had Pakistani sponsorship from Rangoonwala Foundation and Habib Bank, which is groundbreaking. We’re also playing the same concert in Bradford in June, as we really want to reach the British Pakistani community.

Watch Sarah Sarhandi perform at Southbank’s Alchemy on 27th May 2016
Find out more about Sarah Sarhandi
Follow Sarah Sarhandi on Twitter
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Fariha Sabir

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