One thing I learned about working with Nusrat was that he was very interested in experimenting and collaborating. I’m sort of embarrassed to say I hadn’t anticipated that. Previously, Nusrat’s experience of the recording studio had been one where a performance was captured and that was it; they could do an album every afternoon if they needed to. But when we did the first record, Mustt Mustt, Nusrat got to see how we could use the studio as a kind of instrument. By the time we recorded Night Song he was definitely much more comfortable with that and contributed to ways of creating music that could only be done in a recording studio.
One example was that he had some specific ideas about overdubbing and layering his voice, which is a beautiful part of a couple of songs. My impression is that he hadn’t though of recording that way previously. He was extremely open-minded and interested in those sorts of things.
…those words had meaning that was pretty important, and I was just blindly chopping and butchering them.
It was scary the first time I worked with Nusrat, and I’m sure it was for him, we had no idea how it was going to work out; it could be that there would be misunderstandings or cultural clashes. With Mustt Mustt
, we would record long takes of performances and then edit them down into 5 or 6-minute pieces. I had no idea what he was saying when he was singing, and I would edit based purely on the musical effect of the vocals. Again, embarrassingly naïve in retrospect, those words had meaning that was pretty important, and I was just blindly chopping and butchering them. This actually created some genuine grief for him in Pakistan as the words were of a spiritual nature and I had totally mangled them into gobbledygook. To be fair, we had sent him a cassette of the album, but it either never arrived, or arrived too late for him to give me feedback. He was incredibly gracious about the whole thing. I think that the fact that mistakes were made is in some ways a positive indicator showing that we were both outside of our comfort area and taking risks.
Richard Evans and I were like, ‘Whoa, what’s this part of the proceedings?’
With Hukwe Zawose
, were there any illustrative moments? Well, I suppose, the big one was when they took their pants (trousers) off. Making the Hukwe record was technically quite daunting because they had around 20 instruments, and each instrument is in a unique key, but seldom is that key on the piano; it’s like it’s in between the notes on the piano. Every time we switched songs we had to retune everything, so it was a very slow and laborious process. About three or four days in, we started working on a new piece and then both Charles and Hukwe just took their pants off. And Richard Evans and I were like, ‘Whoa, what’s this part of the proceedings?’ And then it turned out that these particular mbiras have a resonance hole that you control by pushing it against your bare leg: by pushing it and then taking it off your leg, you can create these dynamic sort of wahwah effects.
It was quite hard to communicate with Hukwe. Language was a barrier at times, but it didn’t create friction, it just created a kind of bafflement, I think, probably on both sides. And the pants issue was certainly one of those moments.