Allah Ditta is older than Pakistan, a Muslim country born in 1947. But the 80-year old alghoza player touring with Caravanserai has energy to spare.
He keeps eerie notes flowing for as long as ten minutes and longer. He leads delighted elementary school children dancing across the floor. And he carries large instruments and heavy suitcases when it’s time to move from one venue to the next.
“Are you really eighty?” a fifth grade New Hampshire student asked after one of the ensemble’s workshops this week. When Allah Ditta nodded yes, the girl looked earnestly at his bronze face and assured him, “You don’t look it.”At 80 years old, Allah Ditta is an inspiration to audiences young and old.
As the ensemble’s bus rumbled over rural roads between Milan and Errol on the third day of New Hampshire workshops, Allah Ditta told filmmaker Nadya Shah how Sikhs and Hindus left their homes in Manga Mandi, the Punjabi town where he was raised, after India was partitioned into two countries in 1947. Later, he heard stories that some of the people who fled buried treasures in their yards, thinking they would return once the turmoil ended. But the Sikhs and Hindus never came back after leaving Pakistan for the area that remained India. Meanwhile, Muslims who had lived beyond the partition line within India eventually moved to Manga Mandi and other Pakistani villages.
Since Allah Ditta’s hometown belonged to the area that became part of the new Pakistan, he was not part of the devastating migrations of the time. He is, however, an example of living history.
He learned to play the alghoza, a pair of bamboo flutes played simultaneously, from master player Fazal Karim. Both musicians played with the legendary Alam Lohar as well as with Alam’s son Arif.
Following Fazal Karim’s death in the late 1990s, Allah Ditta remained as one of the few alghoza players in Pakistan and, according to Arif Lohar, the best.
He was 60 when he accompanied young Arif Lohar, then in his 20s, to the United States for major performances in 1993. Allah Ditta had left Pakistan for the first time about five years earlier when he went to the United Arab Emirates. In the past 20 years, he has also performed in Japan, England, Australia, Tunisia, Bahrain, Canada, China, and India.
A musician all his life, Allah Ditta has earned a living from his skilled playing. The agile man, who is older than his country but young at heart, said he had never danced on stage before the Caravanserai tour. He joined Shehzad Azeem Ul Hassan in demonstrating bouncy, joyous moves for eager students because, he said, “Ustad Arif asked me to.”
Allah Ditta seems glad to follow Arif’s bidding. He carries the Jugni king’s chimta, the long, tong instrument that punctuates the music, as well as a collection of smaller chimtas that Arif invites American students to play.
Sometimes Allah Ditta’s alghoza performances provide a platform for Arif Lohar’s storytelling. Arif’s father began the tradition of telling stories with chimta and alghoza accompaniment when his children were young by singing loris, or lullabies, that he had learned from his mother.
The alghoza, chimta, and stories became part of the Lohar family heritage, and the stories are all about love.