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This year, the SXSW Music Festival will host its first-ever Pakistani Showcase at Victorian Room at The Driskill on Wednesday, March 18! The showcase will feature six artists and groups who will make their way to Austin from Pakistan for the festival.

The lineup includes traditional Manganiyar singer Mai ...

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Ron Kadish

The Energy of Whirling Drums: Sain Tanveer’s Raging, Sublime Punjabi Beats

It was raining, and the festival audience was drifting away. To make matters worse, Zeejah Fazli, the guitarist for the next act, had no idea what he was about to play. He climbed on stage, urging his fellow musicians to start.

Then the drums kicked in, as expert drummer Sain Tanveer and his brother Khalil hit their dhols (double-sided barrel-shaped drums). Zeejah added psychedelic washes of guitar and watched in awe: Listeners rushed back to the stage despite the drizzle and crowded to the front, heads banging. Some even leaped up to join the band and dance with them, as Tanveer whirled multiple drums around his neck—without missing a beat.

Known for onstage flamboyance and broad knowledge of their art, Sain Tanveer and company stoke the age-old flame of Punjabi drum tradition, a vital part of ceremonies and festivities from weddings to shrine festivals. Though dhol rhythms have entered the Subcontinental—and world—pop mainstream through club sounds like bhangra, the more traditional yet powerfully hypnotic rhythms remain trance-inducing fixtures at religious events and family parties.

Sain Tanveer, Khalil, and Zeejah will bring the sublime party to the US for the first time, when they perform as part of the Pakistani showcase at SXSW in March 2015.

The brothers led by Tanveer pick up on the energy of a crowd—be they onstage or at a Sufi shrine—and respond to it with complete commitment. “Every place has a different feel to it. You have to come in a completely different mood with every place you are playing at,” Tanveer muses. “For example, when we are playing at a shrine of some Sufi mystic, it’s an entirely different mood and style of playing. It’s more intense and energetic playing at a shrine because we can relate to the place and the people there. They understand our music and relate to our state of mind. It’s a very soulful experience playing at shrines, whereas on stage, it’s a different energy. We have to understand the mood of our audience.”

Tanveer—“sain” is his honorary title, as a master of the dhol—and Khaleel hail from the Punjabi city of Daska. Their passion for the dhol runs in the family: “My great grandfather was an exceptional dhol player in his time,” recounts Tanveer. “I was too young to remember him, but I have heard from people about his talent. It was actually my father who inspired me first.”

Determined to learn the dhol, Tanveer agreed to serve a master teacher, or ustad. “I started playing at the age of 16, but professionally I learnt dhol playing from my Ustad Bhaga Khan; I believe he is the most wonderful dhol player in Pakistan,” enthuses Tanveer. “I became his mureed (spiritual follower) from the very first moment I met him in [the Punjabi city of] Gujrat. He inspired me in so many ways.” While performing household tasks for his teacher for five years, he eventually learned the full repertoire of classical Punjabi drumming, the dozens of rhythms that earned his honorary title.

“There are performers who just know a couple good beats, to get people dancing,” explains Zeejah. “And then there are players like Sain Tanveer, who know all the classical forms.”

Yet even among learned dholi, Tanveer stands out. He has perfected his own style, one that bursts with wild charisma but that has deep spiritual roots. Throwing five dhols around his neck, he spins the drums like a fan and keeps playing. This unique approach was sparked at a shrine festival, when the spirit of the moment felt too great for just one drum.

“About 10 years ago I was playing at [Sufi saint] Baba Sabir Shah’s shrine,” Tanveer recalls. “There was so much energy that I stopped hearing my own dhol, and I felt only one dhol is not justifying with the energy inside me. So I asked for another dhol, and I was amazed at myself for being able to play two drums at a time. Then I started practicing playing multiple dhols and today I can play five dhols at a time while spinning.

This level of precision and artistry demands practice, and Tanveer and Khalil devote themselves for hours every day. But technical achievements aside, the drum’s energy is about more than showmanship and skill. It can reach firmly across cultural and class divides, drawing people to its sound and speaking loudly to the soul, just as it did that rainy day from the festival stage.

“For us, music is much more than just playing an instrument or singing a song,” Tanveer reflects. “For us, music is a spiritual practice that purifies the soul. I hope to take this positive energy and love to America, with my beats of dhol.”