In 1970 one of the big hits of the Indian summer was a bouncy song from the film Yaadgaar (Souvenir). The song poked fun at modern fashion, the erosion of tradition, atomic warfare, population explosion and corrupt politicians. The singer plucked a single stringed instrument (ektara) as he sang, “Ektara bole tun tun/kya kahey yeh tum se” (‘Tun tun’ goes the Ektara/what does it have to say to you). I hummed the tune all summer and though I never memorized the many verses that phrase, ‘ektara bole tun tun’ has lodged deep in my mind.
Because the song was comedic (perhaps tragi-comic is more accurate) I henceforth, considered the ektara to be a primitive instrument with no real role other than as a prop. The film was the first time I had heard of the instrument and never gave it any more thought.
What a shock, then, many years later to discover Saeen Marna. My dear friend (and at that time MD of Lok Virsa, in Islamabad) Mazharul Islam gifted me a cassette tape with the words, “This is something you will really love.” I was sceptical and didn’t listen to it for a while. The tape was of Saeen Marna playing the ektara. I thought of Yaadgaar and ignored the tape. I wasn’t in the mood for silly music.
Well, when I did at last pop it on I was stonewalled. What greeted my ears was some of the most ethereal and moving music I had ever heard. Like smoke rings the sounds shimmered and slithered and faded into the atmosphere but then returned in swirls again and again. It is music for late at night or solitude. It will move you to tears.
Ek means "one" and Tar means "string". The Ektar or -as it is often called - the Gopi Yantra, is a simple instrument that is mainly used in Bengal as a folk instrument. In some places this instrument is offered in souvenir shops in a very cheap quality. The quality offered by us is much better than that.
The Ektara has a spherical resonator made of dried pumpkin, wood or coconut to which a split bamboo cane is attached as a neck. Into an opening at the bottom of the resonator a piece of leather is set and to this a string is attached. This string runs through the inside of the spherical resonator and between the forks of the bamboo cane up to the top end of the neck and is wrapped around a peg there. The string of the Ektara is plucked with one finger, the pitch can be changed continually downwards by more and more pressing the two halves of the neck together. Thus the keynote here is the highest note of the open string. (http://www.tarang-classical-indian-music.com/indian_musical_instruments/ektara.htm)
Nowadays the ektara is widely used by folk singers especially by Sufi singers in Punjab and Sindh. Traditional and modern forms of bhangra sometimes use an ektara or tumbi to accompany the singer and dhol. On the occasion of "Urs" held in memory of the renowned saint and mystic poet Hazrat Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai (1689 - 1752) at Bhitshah, near Hyderabad in Sindh, held every year between 13th and 15th of Safar, devotees sing with fervor and frenzy his love-intoxicated kafis to the strains of ektara which appears to be a very ancient musical instrument. Mention may also be made here of the dotar of Khorasan. Nur-Mohammad Dorpur is a famous traditional dotar player from the Khorasan region. The renowned kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor who has performed at the famous 'Hollywood Bowl' in Los Angeles, also stresses the commonalities between the Indian and Persian musical traditions which are brought to a focus by instruments such as the ektara and the dotar. (Wikipedia)
I wish I knew more of Saeen Marna but like so many Pakistani folk musicians he seems to have faded into the pages of history. They say an early love broke his heart and he nearly lost his mind. He set out, moving from dargah to dargah across the deserts of Sindh and Punjab playing his haunting tunes. Somewhere along the way he was enticed into the studios of Radio Pakistan and these songs were recorded.
Don’t be like me and hesitate. This is mind blowing and soul piercing music.
01 Punjabi Folk Tune
02 Punjabi Folk Tune (2)
03 Folk Song of Punjab
05 Musiqi de Punjab
06 Punjab Geet
07 Raga Aasa
08 Raga Talang
Radio Pakistan may have recorded these tracks but they didn’t name them, except as ‘Punjabi folk song’, hence the rather strange track names.
Also, I include two ragas played by Marna on the original tape I received many years ago.