Professor Brings Bluegrass, Folk to Pakistan as State Department Cultural Ambassador

The folk band the Kentucky Winders went to Pakistan as U.S. ambassadors. Photo Credit: Gary Hamilton
The folk band the Kentucky Winders went to Pakistan as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. State Department. Dr. Nikos Pappas, an assistant professor of musicology at UA, is pictured second from the left. Photo Credit: Gary Hamilton.

From the April 2016 Desktop News | When Dr. Nikos Pappas and his four-man band went to Pakistan this summer to play the traditional music of the Deep South, they knew they’d be the only Americans in most of the places that they’d visit—but that didn’t keep them from going.

“Just because something looks dangerous or threatening on the outside, doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth it,” said Pappas, an assistant professor of musicology at UA. “It means there is a different set of challenges, which can yield an even greater reward.”

Pappas and the Kentucky Winders, a four-piece band made up of a guitar, fiddle, banjo, and an upright bass, served as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. Department of State in 2015 during a 10-day visit to Karachi, Pakistan, the country’s largest city. While there, the band performed at nearby universities and cultural centers and spoke about their music on radio stations. Most of the people they interacted with had never heard acoustic American music, let alone bluegrass or traditional Appalachian folk tunes.

“Their idea of American culture is Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus,” Pappas said. “When they saw a band like ours playing traditional acoustic music, they were surprised because they didn’t realize Americans play that kind of music.”

Dr. Nikos Pappas
Dr. Nikos Pappas. Photo Credit: Gary Hamilton

Throughout their trip, the band painstakingly traveled with their own upright double bass because the instrument is extremely rare in Pakistan. In fact, it was the first time their audiences had ever seen the instrument—but when they heard the way it sounded, combined with their traditional sitar music, they were enthusiastic.

Pappas said that during their visit they collaborated with Pakistani musicians and were able to connect with the community at large.

“We weren’t just showing off what we do as musicians,” Pappas said. “By playing music with Pakistani people we were showing a good, friendly relationship in a very demonstrable way.”

During a performance at the National Academy of Performing Arts, the band played with a Sindhi folk group and tried their hands at Qawwali music with a Sufi men’s chorus.

Later, at a performance in the Sindh Province at the home of Saif Samejo, founder and lead vocalist of popular Sufi folk rock band the Sketches, members of the audience asked for an impromptu, collaborative performance from the two bands. The Sufi band began playing a love song with some of their rock musicians, and, within minutes, the Kentucky Winders learned the chord charts and began playing along.

“Because of time limitations and the unfamiliarity of the music, our performances weren’t perfect,” Pappas said. “But we were able to communicate with the people very successfully. It’s very heartening to see the transformation of the country in the past decade. After a 40-year interim, the arts are beginning to flourish with national recognition and support.”

Pappas has been a part of similar cultural outreach trips to Ecuador and Kyrgyzstan, and he is planning future trips to Uruguay and Slovenia.

See Pappas and the band playing a Pakistani patriotic song here.