Nobody in Kashmir knew what Lute, a Turkish musical instrument, until two childhood friends Irfan Nabi and Bilal Ahmed, in their quest to keep traditional Kashmiri music alive explored it for local music lovers. Syed Asma talks to enthusiast duo who are on a mission to reintroduce music among Kashmiri youth.

Bilal Ahmad and Irfan Nabi
Bilal Ahmad and Irfan Nabi

Arabic music fascinates them. It was while listening to one of the Arabian tracks that Irfan Nabi and Bilal Ahmed, famously known as Irfan-Bilal in Kashmir, noticed a musical instrument playing in the background. The instrument seemed new to them. After hearing the track repeatedly and after researching a bit, they found it was called Lute. It is also known to people as Oud, an instrument of Turkish origin.

Without knowing anything about the instrument, they asked their promoter, Asmat Ashai, to get it from America because of its non-availability in India. Irfan claims it is the only lute available in Kashmir.

Irfan and Bilal are associated with Asmat, whom they fondly call Baaji, through her organisation ‘Funkar International’. Apart from getting assistance in purchasing expensive musical instruments, the non-profit organisation is meant to promote music in Kashmir. Asmat is settled in America for the past three decades and helps Irfan-Bilal through her passion for music.

The lute is a 100-200 gm musical instrument costing about Rs 50,000. It is entirely made up of wood and broadly consists of an upper teardrop-shaped flat piece of light wood called soundboard, a neck and a bulged back which is formed after assembling thin strip of maple or rose wood.

While Irfan plays Lute and other string instruments, Bilal plays wind instruments. The two can play at least 40 musical instruments. “When we were in Mumbai, we tried many times to take tuition classes in music. But no one was serious.  Rather than teaching us, the Gurus made us to clean their instruments,” says Irfan.

Irfan and Bilal, two childhood friends, both passionate about music equally had run away from home to Mumbai in 7th standard to learn music. They realized their talent after they stood first in one of the ‘under 16 all India youth festival’ in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. “After coming back we wanted to pursue our careers in music but families did not support so we ran away,” smiles Irfan. They stayed in Mumbai for six months after that their families traced them. They were compelled to return.

Then after a few years, with family’s consent, the duo left for Mumbai and tried to establish themselves as musicians. “We were not successful in earning big names there but we were able to survive there for a long time and were able to learn a lot,” says Irfan. They have played music in pubs, bars and hotels in Mumbai.

In all these years since they have been associated with ‘Funkar International’, Asmat is a source of great support for them. When Asmat purchased Lute for them, she also got Roney, a lutist, along with her on her Kashmir visit. She had presumed that Roney will teach them to play Lute. “The moment I saw Lute, I loved it. It looked beautiful,” says Irfan. “Without even exchanging a word with Roney, I told him to hand over the instrument and I immediately starting playing it.”

Irfan later spent a week to master it and then used it in Chakri for the first time. Since then, he has been using Lute frequently in his songs. Irfan and Bilal believes that musical instruments of Arabic origin are accepted quickly and easily by the people in Kashmir as these instruments provide them the same flavour as their indigenous musical instruments.

The two have been together for more than two decades now and have been associated with music from past many years. Training almost 400 students, Irfan and Bilal have made it a mission to introduce as many musical instruments in Kashmir as possible and teach their students to play them. A couple of students are presently learning to play Lute at their music school, ‘Mizraab’ at Rajbagh, Srinagar. They have so far trained 40 individual music bands in Kashmir. Being too busy in training youngsters in Kashmir they no more perform live, they say.

The reason for introducing new instruments in Kashmir is giving maximum exposure to the youth of Valley and making them familiar with their native language and indigenous musical instruments. So far, they have introduced dozens of new instruments in Kashmir. Guitars, Keyboards, Pianos, Violins, Cello, Mandolin, English horn, Lute, Jumbush and Tumbakh are a few of them.

The duo believes that adopting new instruments and improvising the old ones is the only way to keep the past alive. Earlier, few youth were interested in singing Kashmiri and playing musical instruments of Kashmir. But now the percentage has fairly increased and likely to go further up.

“We initially started with western music and instrument so that youth could connect with us. Then we slowly switched to the instruments of Kashmiri origin. We tried and created a fusion of two,” Irfan say. “Though we were criticized in the beginning but now we and our work has been accepted.”

Their training school, introduction of new music instruments and their fusion with Kashmiri language is an attempt to regain the lost essence of Kashmiri language and its music. Besides, the duo, with the help of Funkar International, is trying to make their product available to the rest of the world and not restricting it to the valley only.


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