Most New Orleanians will instantly recognize the tunes on a newly-released album, which features such traditional numbers as “I’ll Fly Away,” “Down by the Riverside” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” But the lyrics will likely throw some local listeners for a loop.
These and eight other standards of gospel, bluegrass, and New Orleans tradition have been translated into and recorded in Urdu, the official language of Pakistan, by a team of musicians, scholars and cultural advocates in New Orleans and Nashville.
Their album is called The Sufi Second Line, with Sufi referring to a mystical form of Islam, one with its own robust tradition of devotional music. The goal is to use music to help bridge what has becoming an increasingly tense divide between the United States and Pakistan.
“The album is a love letter to the people of Pakistan from the people of the United States, and specifically from New Orleans,” says Andrew Ward, one of the album’s producers. “The message is peace, the vehicle is music and the words are as poignant and relevant in any language.”
Ward grew up in a family of United States diplomats and he remembers that his father, serving as cultural attaché, would bring American gospel choirs to perform in Middle Eastern countries as part of cultural exchanges. Later, when he earned a scholarship to study Urdu in Pakistan, Ward began translating American spirituals into Urdu as part of his studies. Initially, his Pakistani professors thought these must be Sufi songs.
“They were so in line with their own traditions, at first they didn’t even think they were coming from the West,” he says.
Back home in New Orleans, Ward spent two years translating more songs into Urdu, and then asked a circuit of scholars and expat Urdu speakers to help refine them. He partnered with Tom Larson, a Nashville-based session musician, and they headed to the studio with what grew to a total of 20 contributing musicians.
The Sufi Second Line is now being distributed locally, and the producers plan to travel to South Asia to put the work in circulation there.
“The goal of goals is to bring the whole band overseas and get involved in exchange,” says Ward. “Ultimately, I really hope other people get inspired to do similar things on their own.”