The white cockerel on the parapet wall

Whisper #87

There are two types of rhythm in our brand new adaptation of Tartuffe. There’s the witty rhythm of Richard Pinto’s and Anil Gupta’s comic dialogue and then there’s the rhythm of the music that tells the story of the blended cultures and generations within the Brummy based British Asian Pakistani Punjabi Muslim Pervaiz family. I know, that’s a lot of labels, but they’re just like anyone else, honestly.

In this final week of rehearsals, from a musical perspective we got to perform for the first time with the musicians playing on the tablas, trumpets, sitars and harmoniums. A few tweaks and some changes meant that Zainab Hasan (who plays my granddaughter Mariam) re-wrote her character’s rap and it’s really quite impressive as are the other millennial generation musical interludes.

Tartuffe Composer Sarah Sayeed with a Tanpura
Photo by Amina Zia © The artist Browse and license our images

But for the more traditional music listeners - we all have songs that make you stop in your tracks and shudder, don’t we? Break up songs, songs that were played repeatedly at particular times and in my case family wedding songs. On the very first day of rehearsals our lovely production composer Sarah Sayeed told us that we should share music that we felt we could use in the production. My character Dadimaa needed a Punjabi wedding folk song. Only one song came to mind, staying with me after a family wedding in Peshawar in the 1980s. It’s called The White Cockerel.

My mother and I had travelled by plane from London to Pakistan’s Islamabad airport where we had to catch a connecting flight to Peshawar airport. But both times in 24 hours family members had forgotten to collect us from the airports and by the time we got to the wedding having endured late night airport mishaps and little sleep, I was feeling tearful and exhausted. In the same way that Tartuffe is a comedy of manners, I can’t tell you how much Asian families and their weddings are ongoing real life continual comedy of manner productions. Outward social appearances and passive aggressive inward realities. In the car on the way to the wedding, my mother was livid about the airport mix up and a family friend was quick to remind her about the socially acceptable behaviour of a happy family occasion.

Three picture showing the wig and Amina wearing the wig as it is painted
Rachel, who made the wig, fits Amina with the wig for Dadimaa.

A bunch of girls I didn’t know were sitting on the floor in this room booked at the Peshawar Pearl Continental Hotel where the wedding was. They were playing the dholki drum, clapping and singing this Punjabi wedding song about the white cockerel on the parapet wall. I clapped along sitting in a crowd of strangers in the din of wedding chaos with a lump in my throat. There was no song more apt than The White Cockerel, a song about romance, fate, the bride leaving the home because in my mind I saw that very white cockerel as Dadimaa with her greying white hair in our version of Tartuffe.

I found an old YouTube clip with the Pakistani Punjabi singer Mussarat Nazir and sent it with a translation to Sarah and she immediately asked me to learn the Indian classical scale Sa Ray Ga Ma of eight notes. I was struggling with tuning at first especially singing it highest note to lowest note in reverse and I told my octogenarian mum about it and before I knew it at 10.30pm at night she was singing it to me down the phone – a moment I will never forget. She still knew that Indian classical scale so well from her sitar playing days in Pakistan so long ago.

So after a session of tuning and singing with Sarah and Pete the sitar player, I taught the song in Punjabi to Yasmin Taheri and Sham Chalabi who both have middle eastern heritage. They picked it up so quickly that Iqbal Khan, our director immediately deemed them honorary Punjabis! Eventually other members of the cast learnt the song – more honorary Punjabis. The stage manager started humming it, cast members were singing it randomly out of the rehearsal room and suddenly a song loaded with chequered memories had become one of the central songs of the RSC’s newly adapted Tartuffe.

Honorary Punjabis Sham Chalabi and Yasmin Taheri.
Photo by Amina Zia © The artist Browse and license our images
Amina Zia on top of a mountain

Amina Zia

Amina Zia is an actor and writer, stand-up comedian and potter. This is her RSC debut. She’s climbed so many metaphorical mountains in her life that she’s started conquering real ones. Follow Amina on Twitter: @AminaZia1 and Instagram: @amina_zia1.

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