Case study: Sarah Hayes and Sara Kazmi

As part of the larger City to City project, where poets from Lahore and Glasgow collaborated and presented their work in Glasgow and London, Sarah Hayes (SH) and Sara Kazmi (SK) formed the musical component. Coming from very different backgrounds and musical traditions, the two songstresses were able to bring forward, through a beautiful fusion, shared use of poetry as well as story-telling in music.

Both of you are such amazing musicians with very strong vocal skills. Did you always know you wanted to pursue music and was there a particular moment of realisation?

SH: I started playing music as a hobby; piano aged 7 followed by flute aged 10, and I can't remember when exactly I began singing! That just sort of happened. There was a good music venue near where I grew up and I remember feeling inspired by seeing bands and singers there and at local festivals, jam sessions and other events. I don't think there was one moment of realisation as such, but since my early teens I knew I wanted music to be a big part of my life. 

SK: Not always. I did always sing at school and enjoyed it but I think it was in my third year at college when I started thinking seriously about vocal training. In any case I don’t see myself “pursuing” it on its own, I have always had very interdisciplinary interests; my involvement with theatre intersects with my singing, as do my academic interests and research on Punjabi cultural and artistic history. Perhaps that is also why I was attracted to a project which was bringing poetry, translation and music together!

Often artists are inspired by the work of their predecessors, is there a musician(s) whose work you admire or look up to?

SH: Some of my early influences in folk and traditional music include Flook, Chris Wood and Andy Cutting, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, Maddy Prior and June Tabor, Martin Hayes. In more recent years: Vasen, Lau, Sam Amidon, Anais Mitchell.  I also enjoy discovering new songs by exploring earlier source material, field and archive recordings and books. I think with this music it's important to be aware of the context if you can: where it came from, who would've sung and played it and why.

SK: Too many to name individually! The north Indian classical tradition has produced quite a range of musical giants over its many centuries, and I am utterly inspired by a lot of them. I revisit different ones day to day, situation to situation. I am also inspired by folk styles of singing, particularly from Punjab and Sindh.

Music is a field not many people explore in Pakistan for a variety of reasons; perhaps religious and social. Sara, were there many hurdles? Sarah, can you relate or was it a very different experience in the UK?

SK: I personally have not encountered any religious or social hurdles, but that also might be because I choose not to perform commercially and/or for any mainstream media. The one obstacle though is that the kind of music I am interested in would not sustain me financially, so managing my job as a university teacher with performing and training can often be exhausting.

SH: I think I've had it easy really. I grew up in a supportive environment, there were lots of opportunities locally, and I had some inspiring teachers over the years who helped me enormously. The main hurdles are more on a practical level now - making sure I can pay the bills, juggling different projects and trying to plan ahead. Being self-employed means I have to stay motivated and proactive, which is sometimes tricky. Nerves and performance anxiety are an ongoing thing that most people experience at one time or another. I'm really lucky to be able to lead a varied musical life. I still get the occasional comment about getting a 'proper job' which is annoying, but I think some of that comes from a lack of understanding about the potential breadth of a career in music, whether it's in performance, teaching, therapy, instrument making, community workshops, sound engineering, session work.

Both of you come from very different cultural backgrounds. What was it like working together? What was the process like?

SH: This was the first time I'd been involved in a collaboration of this kind. Sara and I had three and a half days to come up with some work reflecting our respective folk traditions, to present alongside some poetry translations that were being workshopped simultaneously. It was fairly straightforward to find connections between our songs and poems, particularly when it came to theme and subject matter. We also drew links between certain stylistic features that crop up in both our music, contrasted lyrics from male and female perspectives and discussed the way the songs used their imagery and metaphor to tell the story.

A more challenging aspect of the rehearsal process was getting to grips with the differences between our two musical systems - largely found in the harmonic language, rhythmic structures, and in the relationship between improvisation and composition. I gained valuable insight into a new musical way of thinking and working as a result. 

SK: I think more than a difference in cultural background, for me, the difference in musical backgrounds was something which was simultaneously challenging and exhilarating. I had never done any fusion work before so adjusting poetry from another language, as well as instruments I have not performed with was very new and interesting. Thankfully Sarah and I gelled really well - vocally as well as temperamentally - so we were able to communicate well which was very helpful.

It seems that both Glasgow and Lahore have very strong poetic traditions in music. Would you agree?

SH: Yes, there's a lot of music and words springing from both places, and new music being created all the time, feeding back into the tradition. Glasgow has a rich and diverse musical history spanning the genres.

During your collaboration, you guys picked very specific trajectories. How did you arrive at these similarities?

SK: That definitely came from a good discussion prior to jumping into the musical bit. We were both interested in folk music, as well as the tradition and history that accompanied it so we were eager to swap notes on our respective contexts. Further, since our collaboration was part of a programme built around poetic exchange, it was almost natural for us to focus on the meaning and lyrics, and try to create musical and poetic harmony.

SH: We brought a few suggestions for material at the start of the week and then quite quickly went, 'oh, I've got a song about that too!' The birds one came out of a discussion about different imagery in poems and songs; we found that birds and animals appear quite a bit to observe or comment on the action. The Hawk and The Crow (also known as The Birds' Courting Song) is usually quite a lively one but this is a slower, freer version. We wanted to make use of the tanpura drone and intertwine the two songs along with that.  I chose Nancy Whisky (sometimes called The Calton Weaver) as it's strongly rooted in Glasgow and its industrial past. It was a relatively new song to me, and I'd written a new tune for it and modified the chorus a bit. The other piece we came up with was based around music with a specific purpose: I played a retreat march (from the piping tradition) on flute, in a medley with a song of Sara's, sung to bring rain and often used for dancing. 

During this programme, you presented your work in Glasgow and London. What would be one thing each of you would take away from this experience?

SH: It was really rewarding. For me it's reinforced the importance of always being open to new musical experiences and collaborations. 

SK: For me, it would be performing for an audience which primarily spoke a different language and was unfamiliar with the musical tradition I perform. Being able to bridge that difference and find them relating to my art was very heartening and inspiring.

What are future directions? Has this residency influenced each of your practices or do you plan future collaborations?

SH: These sorts of projects inform each other in some way, even if it's not on a conscious level.  I'd like to seek out more opportunities to hear music from different places and gain knowledge of different musical systems. It would be great to work together again! I think there have been murmurings about next year sometime so fingers crossed.

SK: I’m definitely looking forward to seeing Sarah in Lahore – collaboration or otherwise. We struck up a great friendship and it would be nice to acquaint her with the music scene around here and then work on something!