Saturday, August 23, 2014

...Of The Benevolent Breeze : Maulana Abdur Rehman Jami (RA)

Previous entries in this series :

1. Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA)

2. Allama Muhammad Iqbal (RA)

3. Bedam Shah Warsi (RA)


In a remote valley in central Afghanistan, at the confluence of two rivers, nestled amongst rugged mountains stands a solitary tower of staggering beauty. It is the only remaining symbol of a once glorious city, the capital of a magnificent dynasty. At almost 2000 metres above sea level and with a height of 65 metres, this tower quite literally "speaks with the stars", as one description puts it. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the UNESCO website defines the following three criteria for its selection :

1. Its architecture and ornamentation are outstanding from the point of view of art history, fusing together elements from earlier developments in the region in an exceptional way and exerting a strong influence on later architecture in the region.

2.  The innovative architecture and decoration of the Minaret played a significant role in the development of the arts and architecture of the Indian sub-continent and beyond.

3.  The Minaret  and its associated archaeological remains constitute exceptional testimony to the power and quality of the civilization that dominated the region in the 12th and 13th centuries.

4.  The Minaret is an outstanding example of Islamic architecture and ornamentation in the region and played a significant role for further dissemination.

The Minaret shares its location with the subject of today's post. The location is the town of "Jam", birth-place of one of the greatest Sufi poets and mystics of the Persianate civilization,  Nur ud-Dīn Abd ur-Rahmān Jāmī (RA). Read the above description again, overlook the word 'architecture' and replace the 13th century with the 15th, and you have a perfect description of Maulana Jami (RA). Jami (RA) towers over the landscape of Sufi literature and forms an important link between the land of his birth and the rest of the Persianate Empire. He is the last of the great Persian Sufi poets, the culmination of centuries of development and innovation in thought and expression. The only difference is that where the Minaret Of Jam speaks to the stars, Jami (RA) speaks to all of God's creation; the moon and the stars, the trees and the flowers, the nightingale and (most poignantly and beautifully) the breeze.

Maulana Jami (RA) was born in 1414 and died in 1492. His era forms the bookend to the Classical Era of Farsi poetry and his poetry is enriched by the influence of all the major Sufi poets of the preceding five centuries. What emerges is an idiom characterized by simplicity, depth of meaning, an abundance of simile and metaphor, and most importantly; the defining characteristics of Maulana Jami (RA)'s poetry, deep love for the Prophet (S.A.W). His poetical works, especially "Haft Awrang" and "Baharestan", as well as prose (including the beautiful "Lawaaeh") are canonical pillars of Sufi literature and were part of the curriculum of both Sufi and secular studies for centuries. But what sets Jami (RA) apart from all the poets who preceded or followed him, is his complete mastery over the "Na'at" - poetry in praise of the Prophet (S.A.W) ; so much so that the name of Jami (RA) is synonymous with Farsi na'at.

The na'at is not a verse form per se. A ghazal can be a na'at, so can a mathnavi, or a ruba'ai. In fact, na'ats have been written in all known verse forms of Urdu and Farsi. Thus, Jami (RA)'s mastery over the na'at implies a mastery over multiple verse forms. He wrote ghazals, beautiful ruba'ais and in the "Haft Awrang", seven books of mathnavi. All of his na'ats share the same ideas of humility, depictions of the physical and spiritual beauty of the Prophet (SAW) and the overarching theme of his poetry, the mercy and benevolence of Allah expressed through the character of the Prophet (SAW). His intense love for the Prophet (S.A.W) is best summed up in this (perhaps apocryphal) tale that I also mentioned in a previous post.

"It so happened that once this ‘ishq' was at its peak and poor Jami became restless. He composed a wonderful naat in the praise of Allah’s Habib and in the agony of love made a vow to recite that very poem in front of the Prophet’s Mausoleum in Madina. So, gathering some of his many disciples with him, he set off on the long and arduous journey to fulfil his vow.

After many a month of travel, the caravan led by the Imam of Love, Abdul Rahman Jami, reached the outskirts of the City of the Prophet and Madina was only a few miles journey away. As they camped for the day, they saw a rider on a horse coming towards them at a galloping pace. The strange rider stopped in their midst and asked the group, “Which of you is Jami?” The disciples pointed out Jami and said, “That is our leader, Shaykh Imam Abdul Rahman Jami!” So the rider guided his horse towards Jami and, alighting, greeted Jami with the words, “Assalamu alaykum!”

  “Wa alaykum as-salam! Who are you? Where are you from and why are you here?” asked the venerable Sufi.   

“Jami, I have come here from Madina!”

At the mention of these words the lover of the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam), Jami, took off his turban and placed it the feet of the stranger saying, “May I be sacrificed for these feet!  They have come from the city of my Prophet!”


Jami continued, “Good sir! Tell me, why have you come?”

The man went silent for a while and then answered, “Jami what I am going to tell you, you must promise to hear it with a stout heart.”

 “I will”, said a slightly bemused Jami, “but tell me!”   

“Jami”, continued the rider, “I have been sent to you by the Prophet (Sall’Allahu Ta’ala Alayhi Wa’alihi Wa’sallam) himself"

“Tell me! What does my Master say?” interjected Jami. 

“Jami, the Prophet (Sall’Allahu Ta’ala Alayhi Wa’alihi Wa’sallam) has sent me to tell you that he has forbidden you to enter Madina and visit him!”    

At these words Jami was thunderstruck, his head swam and his legs gave way beneath him and with an agonised shriek the Shaykh fell to the ground in a swoon. The disciples were terrified that their Shaykh had passed away but after many hours Jami came back to a state of consciousness and he wept copiously.    The messenger was still there and Jami asked him, “Tell me O’ bringer of such tidings! Why does my Master prevent me from entering Madina? What sin have I committed? Why is my Medinan Lord angry with me?” 

The messenger replied,”the Master is not upset with you. Indeed, he is very happy with you!”.

"Then why does my liege-lord prevent me from visiting him?” 

“Jami! The Prophet(Sall’Allahu Ta’ala Alayhi Wa’alihi Wa’sallam) said to me that tell Jami that if he comes to Madina with such love in his heart I will have no course but to come out of my tomb and greet him in person – such would be the recompense for his love! – so tell him not to enter Madina. I will visit him myself! Tell Jami not to come and visit me – I will visit him!”

 The following selections from my collection serve to highlight Jami (RA)'s mastery over the na'at. I follow the same rules as the previous posts ; one recording per artist and one recording per kalam. Enjoy !

1. Naseema - Manzoor Ahmed Niazi, Abdullah Manzoor Niazi Qawwal 

It is completely natural that I start this collection off with the recording that started my love affair with Qawwali. As I've mentioned previously, Manzoor Ahmed Niazi (RA)'s Naseema was one of the first Qawwali recordings I heard that fateful evening almost seven years ago. Since then, I have heard dozens of versions of the kalaam, most of which I cataloged in a previous post, but Naseema belongs to the late Ustad Manzoor Niazi. His voice, perfectly contrasted by Abdullah Manzoor Niazi's crackling delivery, lends a wonderful earthy flavor to this recording. And despite the presence of younger, more vigorous performers in the party, it is clear that Manzoor Niazi Sb still leads the group. The many brief takraars are wonderful, the percussion gives the performance a wonderful swing, and most importantly, the group never lapses into undue loudness or vocal histrionics, presenting a melodious, vigorous yet stately performance.

2. Jahan Roshan Ast Az Jamal-e-Muhammad (SAW) - Meraj Ahmed Nizami Qawwal 

From one grand old man of the Qawal Bacchhon Ka Gharana to another, arguably the grandest old man of all. Meraj Ahmed Nizami is the senior-most living Qawwal of the sub-continent ; both in terms of age as well as  longevity of career and mastery over repertoire. He has steadfastly refused to tamper with the traditional style of performance, eschewing such newfangled monstosities as electric accompaniment or fusion sessions, opting instead to preserve the centuries old style of Khanqahi Qawwali. The similarities in style to his late cousin Ustad Manzoor Niazi are obvious, and the octogenarian Ustad delivers this kalam in a wonderfully crisp performance.

3. Ya Muhammad (S.A.W) Ba Maney Be Sar-o-Samaan - Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party 

This is the kind of Nusrat performance I prefer. None of the vocal calisthenics, undue urgency or auditory bombast that plagued so many of his live performances especially during his latter years. This is Nusrat at his serenest, his tempo perfectly complimenting the kalam, ably accompanied by his party. Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan's wonderful sazeena at the start is filled with nice flourishes, Dildar Hussain's tabla maintains an unobtrusive madhyalaya beat and the performance is allowed to flow smoothly. Nusrat begins with a mellow alaap and some wonderful Farsi verses and the mood is set. The tone is pensive and subdued, as befits a humble plaint to the Prophet (SAW), especially when Nusrat addresses that favorite of Jami (RA)'s , the breeze.

Ae Saba, W'ae paek-e-mushtaqaan ba dargaah-e-Nabi
O breeze, O envoy of us yearning ones in the court of the Prophet (SAW)

Throughout the performance, Nusrat uses Farsi and Urdu girahs to excellent effect, the harmonium provides little flourishes throughout and Nusrat is at his most melodic. There are mini-takraars ( at "Shah-e-Shahaan" and "Chashm-e-Rehmat" for example) and sargams but they never overwhelm the mood of this wonderful performance.

 4. Mun Khaake Kaf-e-Paaye Rindaane Kharabaatam - Subhan Ahmed Nizami Qawwal 

Subhan Ahmed Nizami is one of the most exciting young Qawwals performing today. Grandson of Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami, one of the members of the original Manzoor Niazi Qawwal party of the 50's and 60's, Subhan embodies all the qualities of the Qawwal Bacchon ka Gharana. He is a wonderful innovator, always staying within the bounds of "Rivaayat" or traditional Qawwali, all the while improvising and exploring the nuances of the kalaam and the composition. His preference towards performing canonical mystical texts sets him apart from most modern Qawwals, and this has gained him a wide following among Qawwali conoisseurs both in Pakistan and abroad. His performance style is vigorous and lively, but never overloud or jarring. This kalam of Hz Jami (RA)'s has become something of a signature tune of Subhan's, and in this Mehfil recording, he sings it with wonderful verve. The girahs towards the end of the performance are wonderfully apt and display his mastery over the nuances of the kalam, rounding out the performance nicely.

 5. Ze Rehmat Kun Nazar Bar Haal-e-Zaaram - Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed, Farid Ayaz & Abu Muhammad Qawwal 

This is one performance to savour, recorded during a home mehfil in the latter stages of Munshi Raziuddin Sb's life, when he had handed over the Qawwali party to his extremely talented sons. His voice weakened somewhat by age, he nevertheless leads the performance. A brilliant sazeena leads on to a wonderful little performance "Koi sheher Madina jaaye", which Farid Ayaz embellishes with that exquisite voice of his. The performance within a performance continues till, just short of the 10 minute mark, the Qawwals launch into the main kalam.

The na'at is stylistically very similar to Maulana Jami (RA)'s other seminal na'at, "Tanam Farsooda Jaanpara', and the melody suits it wonderfully. Munshi Raziuddin Sb's performance lends gravity to ther performance, and the Qawwals don't lapse into the loudness that sometimes overpowers the later recordings of Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad and Party. The performers, especially Munshi Raziuddin Sb, are clearly enjoying the performance and it shows. The girahbandi is faultless and Farid Ayaz displays flashes of his uncle Ustad Bahauddin Qawwal's style in his taans and girahs. Abu Muhammad's voice is crisp and powerful as always, and the taali and percussion are forceful, another hallmark of this group. The wonderful interludes at the 21-22 mark are especially endearing, bandishes that have ceased to be performed after Munshi Raziuddin Sb's death. The taali and takraar at the end of the performance are especially 'zor-daar' as Farid Ayaz offers a final, wonderful girah.

6. Tanam Farsooda Jaanpara - Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal 

 The undisputed masters of Qawwali performed a number of different versions of this seminal kalam. Varying in tempo, arrangement, duration and girahbandi, each performance is a masterpiece. They were probably the best exponents of incorporating traditional Hindustani instruments in Qawwali, steering well clear of harmoniums in their studio recordings. Using sarangis, sitars, sarods, clarinets and occasionally flutes, they were experts at evoking just the right mood for each kalam. Here, as the instruments strike up a melancholy note, expressing the longing and desire in the poet's heart, the scene is set for Mubarak Ali Khan's piercing alaap. As in all their other studio recordings, the accompanists only provide the taali, with the vocal duties shared exclusively by the three brothers. This lends a unique dignity and stateliness to their performance.

The tempo is gradually accelerated for each verse, before being reined back again. Each verse provides opportunities for Mubarak Ali Khan's taankaari and Fateh Ali Khan's mini-takraars. Some of these taans and takrars were later copied verbatim by Nusrat and the other disciples of the Ustads in their performances of this kalaam. A full seven minutes are spent exploring the final verse of the kalam. Mubarak Ali offers vacillating taans, that were later used by his son Mujahid Mubarak Ali as a member of Nusrat's party and his disciple Majeed Fareedi as a member of various wonderful Qawwali ensembles. Fateh Ali and Salamat Ali construct takraar upon takraar as the Ustads prove once and for all that a performance can be vibrant, energetic and 'zor-daar' without overwhelming the kalaam. Mubarak Ali's celebrated 'Pahaari' taan arrives at the 17 minute before the Ustads deliver one final verse, topping off a wonderful performance.

7. Tu Sultaan-e-Sahib Sareer Aamadi - Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal 

This is a powerful, vigorous performance, different from Haji Mahboob Sb's usual style in that it lacks much girahbandi.  What it lacks in girahbandi, it more than makes up in a million other ways. Starting with a brief, crisp sitar and harmonium sazeena and Haji Mushtaq's customary alaap, the dholak-driven performance proper begins. This arrangement allows for wonderful takraars and (in another departure from his usual performance style) taankari by Haji Mahboob Sb. Haji Sb's delivery on this performance is almost 'jalaali' as he stresses each word in each verse. This is one of Maulana Jami (RA)s most melodious na'ats, giving the Qawwals ample opportunities to vary the tempo without losing track of the thread of the main kalam.

I had to strictly enforce the 'one recording per artist' rule in Haji Mahboob Sb's case. Haji Sb's repertoire was so varied that I could have constructed a post comprising of his versions of all of the kalaams in this post and then some. Although given the title of "Andaleeb-e-Rumi", Haji Sb was adept at performing Maulana Jami (RA)'s naats. Maybe one day when I have the requisite permission, I'll write a post consisting only of Haji Sb's exquisite renditions of Jami (RA)'s na'ats.

8. Cho Mah Dar Arz-o-Samaa - Jafar Hussayn Khan Badayuni Qawwal 

 Ustad Jafar Husseyn Khan possessed a style completely his own, unlike any of his contemporary Qawwals. Mellow, takraar-based, with loving attention paid to each and every word, each note of the performance; his was the most endearing style among all the Qawwals I have heard. In this wonderful performance (one of my favorites) , he is at his best, accompanied by his nephew Wajahat Hussayn Khan (who passed away in tragic circumstances recently). The takraars are reminiscent of Murli Qawwal (especially the wonderful takraar at 'Rashk-e-Malak') and the taans are sweet and melodious. When he enunciates "Mun Aasiyam, Mun Aajizam", one can feel the humility and the plaintiveness dripping from his voice. Wodehouse talks of spreading "sweetness and light", something Jafar Hussayn Khan was an absolute expert in, capturing the mood of this na'at perfectly. The final flourish is the superb mini-takraar at "Jaan-o-Dilam" before the performance winds down.

9. Az Husne Malihe Khud - Haji Ghulam Fareed Sabri And Party 

Haji Ghulam Fareed Sabri possessed one of the most astounding voices of the last century. From his earliest recordings with Kallan Khan to his final performances in the early 1990s, his was an instantly recognizable, almost magical presence. With Haji Maqbool Sabri's superbly melodic voice as his counterpoint, he reigned over the Qawwali world for almost two decades. Some of his best work however, is found in the solo albums that were released by various European labels in the late 1980s adn 1990s. This recording is taken from one of the best Qawwali records ever produced, "Jami" , released in 1995 by Piranha Records, Germany. Everything in this performance, from the wonderful Sazeena that prefaces it to Haji Ghulam Fareed's hefty alaap, exudes energy and life. The dholak is especially lively, and Haji Sb propels the performance along at an explosive pace. The takraars are embellished by powerful taans, wonderful melodic improvisations (Khud tegh zadi bar man, naame digeraan kardi). Each verse is individually explored, displaying glimpses of the twenty year old Ghulam Fareed Sabri from Kallan Khan's party. This recording, as well as this album, is the most fitting tribute imaginable to one of the most vital, most powerful Qawwals of his age.

10. Ze Shaukat Jaan Ba Lab Aamad Tamaami - Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal 

 The final recording in this post is by the Qawwal group that defies superlatives. Exceptional vocalists, superb instrumentalists, brilliant shagirds of Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal, Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal are one of my favorite Qawwals. Bakhshi Khan's voice has no parallels, and accompanied by Salamat Ali, Mubarak Ali and Sadiq Ali Saddo, it was a fearsome instrument. Like their Ustads, they were experts at using instruments, especially in their wonderful studio recordings, including this recording. It is a short recording, but wonderfully melodious, with the voices of all three vocalists on full display. Saddo Khan's taans and Bakhshi Khan's hefty vocals lend an added poignancy to the words. Having listened to it on repeat on many occasions, I am always transported by this performance, and it forms a fitting bookend to this post.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

...Of The Bahawalpur Blues

I spent the last three years in a jungle. After a bit of R&R, I'm off to my next assignment tomorrow, Bahawalpur. I've been to South Punjab before during the catastrophic floods of 2010. During my month-long tour of duty back then, I had spent five days in Bahawalpur, making it my base camp for further explorations. The few days I spent in Bahawalpur were enough to leave an indelible image of the city's beauty and history. Now, I'm going there on a slightly more permanent basis. I could stay there for a year or so, or, given recent developments, I might simply touch base there and head off to greener pastures.

Bahawalpur is the de-facto capital of South Punjab, and as such, the heart of the Seraiki belt ; the Rohi. I have written in the past about my affiliation for the culture of the Rohi, so I won't rehash that (mainly because, like this post, I've left most of my packing for the last minute). What I will do is share a sampling of what willl essentially be the soundtrack of my life down there. The Kafi is the major poetic tradition of the Rohi, and Hz Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA) is the poet synonymous with the Seraiki Kafi. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting ...

The Bahawalpur Blues

1. Ishq Anokkhri Peerr - Ustad Salamat Ali Khan - Nazakat Ali Khan

"Love is a peculiar ailment, awakening hundreds of sorrows inside me" sing the Ustads. With a preamble taken from another of Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA)'s kafis, this is a splendid exploration of the central themes of the Kafi; love and separation. As the tempo picks up and Ustad Salamat Ali Khan's taans become more plaintive, more urgent, one can't help but be moved.

2. Peeloon Pakkiyaan Ve - Hussain Bukhsh Dhaadhi

A student of Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan, Hussain Bukhsh Dhaadhi was a consummate, classically trained musician. His Taankari was legendary - albeit a little vociferous like his Ustad's, - and his voice was clear and piercing. Here he sings about the arrival of spring, when the fruits are ripe for picking and the desert takes on a colorful mantle. The vigour and vitality of the desert Spring are perfectly encapsulated in this performance.

3. Neenh Ta Avallhra Okha Laayam - Iqbal Bano

Iqbal Bano had a voice that was equally suited to ghazal, thumri, playback and folk. Here she sings a wonderful Kafi; "What a stubborn, difficult love I have set my heart on". The earthiness and heft of her voice perfectly suited to the kalam, using selections from the Sufi canon as girahs, Iqbal Bano gives a powerful performance.

4. Ajj Waal Firaaq Dassaindi Ae - Zahida Parveen

The greatest performance of the undisputed Queen of the Kafi, period. I have loved each and every note of this recording for as long as I can remember.

5. Na Maar Naenaan De Teer - Taj Multani

Taj Multani has a softer, more urbane sound as compared to his contemporary folksingers, but his adayegi and choice of kalaam are wonderful. Here he uses extensive girahs on a Kafi of Hz Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA), delivering a mellow, mellifluous performance.

6. Shah Ranjha Albela - Muhammad Jumman

Muhammad Jumman of "Yaar Daadhi" fame gives the studio treatment to this Kafi, turning it into a lively, Sindhi-style ditty. The violins and vibraphones take nothing away from the simple beauty of the kalam.

7. Hik Hai Hik Hai Hik Hai - Hamid Ali Bela

Hamid Ali Bela made a name by singing the Kafis of Hz Shah Hussain (RA), and sang few kalaams of other poets. Here he sings Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA)'s declaration of the One-ness of God. Again, simple lyrics and a studio arrangement, with Bela's deep baritone weaving a simple melody.

8. Aa Wass Maandre Kol - Abida Parveen

Lacking in vocal calisthenics, this recording of Abida's is a favorite of mine. A plea, a paean, an evocation of love, this Kafi is an endearing message to the beloved. Taken from a wonderful album released by EMI in the early '90s, the percussion, the Sarangi and Abida's unhurried style make this a superb performance.

9. Jindrri Lutti Taen Yaar Sajjan - Pathanay Khan

It is fitting to close out this selection with the de-facto National Anthem of the Rohi, sung by the greatest Kafi singer in Pakistan's history. Again, nothing much needs to be said about this performance other than that it is one of the most sublime pieces of music I have ever heard.

This post constitutes a (hopefully) temporary goodbye, as I don't know if and when I will find the time for further posts. Given my usual slovenliness, that shouldn't ruffle too many feathers. Till then ...

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

...Of The Crown Jewels

I have made it abundantly clear in previous posts that I consider Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal and their party to be the greatest Qawwali ensemble of the 20th century. With an almost supernatural mastery of Kalam, a style that was rooted in Classical Hindustani music yet was strikingly modern, a vast repertoire featuring both ancient and contemporary poets (their contemporaries included Hz. Allama Muhammad Iqbal (RA), Hz. Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA), Hz. Bedam Shah Warsi (RA) among others), and telepathic synergy between the ensemble; Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali are THE seminal Qawwals of the recorded era. This is further borne out by the fact that after the Ustads' demise and the party's dissolution; it was their Shagirds who dominated the next 3-4 decades of Qawwali almost unchallenged. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi, Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal, Agha Bahseer Ahmed Qawwal and others carried forth the style of their teachers, emulating but never really matching the creative prowess of their Ustads.

Thanks to the efforts of their countless devotees, a number of their recordings have come down to us. Ustad Fateh Ali Khan passed away in 1964, with Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan following in 1971; thus recordings of the ensemble are at least 50 years old; and as such, are rarely found in good sound quality. Regardless of the quality, whatever has survived is worth its weight in gold. Here I would like to take a moment to express the huge debt of gratitude we all owe to those people who put in the time and effort and managed to record not only Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Khan but the countless other performers whose voices wouldn't have reached us otherwise.Here is a wonderful recording of a letter written by a fan of the Ustads', giving us a glimpse into the effort that went into saving their performances for posterity and the high esteem and affection they were held in by their fans.

I was first attracted to Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwals when I saw a Youtube clip of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan discussing his father's music. It was a brief clip from "Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: le dernier prophète", a documentary from 1996, and featured a (painfully) brief recording of his father. I was instantly mesmerized by it. The voice, the takraar, the girahbandi, it was unbelievable. Like I've mentioned before, it sounded like an echo from a long-forgotten world, like a brief glimpse of the cave paintings of Lascaux or the earliest recordings of Enrico Caruso, and the mere act of listening to them felt like an intrusion, but one was compelled to intrude further.

Over the years, I've managed to collect a hundred odd recordings of the Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal party, ranging in audio quality from pristine studio recordings to extremely shaky Mehfil recordings from the early '50s. The quality of the audio may falter at times, but the quality of performance remains unsurpassed. I have gathered recordings from cassettes, reel-to-reel records and LPs, and can't help but feel greedy for more. The search for new (or better quality) recordings is neverending and I hope I'll be able to unearth a few more treasures.

There are three Qawwali recordings that I treasure above all others. All three recordings are from the 1960s and show the respective performers at the peak of their powers. One is the unbelievable 1969 Mehfil at Mr. Mehdi Hasnain's residence showcasing the original Manzoor Niazi Qawwal party. It is an absolute gem of a recording, and has to be heard to be believed. My second most treasured recording is of Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal (RA) from a 1964 Mehfil in which he performs Hz Pir Mehr Ali Shah (RA)'s kalaam. It is an otherworldly performance which leaves the audience in a state of Haal. The third recording from the 1960s is a Mehfil recording of Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal, and that recording is the subject of today's post.

The unearthing of this recording has been both an archeological and an investigative endeavor. I have followed a series of leads and clues; these clues leading me to further discoveries. Over a number of years, and piecing together from a number of sources, I have managed to assemble an archeological dig of staggering beauty. Four complete recordings and a snippet of a fifth constitute what collectively amounts to the GREATEST Qawwali performance I have ever heard. The audio quality on this recording is shaky at best, quality headphones are recommended for listening.Without further ado ...

Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Khan Qawwal Aur Hamnavaa - Mehfil In Karachi, 1961

1. Ae Ke Sharh-e-Wadduha Aamad Jamaal-e-Roo-e-Tau

The Ustaads begin the Mehfil with a series of couplets from the Masnavi, as Ustad Fateh Ali Khan informs the audience "Hamd aur Naat parhna zurroori hai". The languid andaaz of Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan is on full display at the start, as the party segues into the main kalaam. Observe the glacial, almost regal tempo at the beginning of the performance. The takraar ( the first of many) on "Sharh-e-Wadduha" is punctuated with wonderful girahs, from Farsi to Purbi to Urdu, and the moment Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan launches into his first taan in Raag Pahari, the magic is complete. The perceptive audience picks up the nuances of the performance and their enjoyment gives added impetus to the performers. Midway through the performance, the Qawwals launch into one of their trademark pieces, "Gaye Khalwat Main Jab", a retelling of the Prophet (SAW)'s flight to the heavens on Shab-e-Meraj. It is a wonderful, uptempo piece, with brilliant girah-bandi and taankari (another Pahari by Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan). Returning from this heavenly journey, the Qawwals resume the original kalaam, again constructing and embellishing takraars out of thin air. The takraar on 'Seen-e-Dandaan" and "Miskeen Hasan" have to be heard to be believed. The Ustads' trademark collaborative Sargams embellish the latter third of the performance, before culminating in a slow decrescendo. The recording is an hour plus of exquisite artistry, and it is just the start of the wonderful mehfil.

 2. Khud-Daari-e-Ehsaas Ko

The second performance of the evening begins with a three and a half minute sazeena by Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, the third brother of Fateh Ali Khan and Mubarak Ali Khan. Salamat Ali Khan was an extremely gifted harmonium player, and ustad to Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan, Ustad Majeed Fareedi and others. Here he explores the main melody with wonderful embellishments. The Ustads preface the main kalaam with two wonderful couplets of Hz. Allama Iqbal (RA). The performance has a wonderful mid-tempo quality which can be described in Punjabi as 'Jhol". This ghazal was regularly performed by the Ustads, as evidenced by that other great mehfil recording of theirs, from 1958 in Bombay. They deliver each word, each phrase with loving detail. The takraars are wonderful as always, observe for example Ustad Mubarak Ali's "Ghunchae Meri" mini-takraar. This ghazal is especially suited to Qawwali, with wonderful melodic and lyrical surprises in each verse, giving the Qawwals ample opportunity to delight and surprise the audience. Another highlight is the takraar on "Woh Saamne Hain" which allows for girah-bandi of the highest order. The shades of "Wahdat-ul-Wujood" explored by the Ustads would've been too much for any lesser performers. Again, Ustad Mubarak Ali's Pahadi taans are a highlight, regularly leaving me teary-eyed.

3. Nami Danam Che Manzil Bood

The Ustads regularly performed Hz Amir Khusrau (RA)'s seminal kalaam, using different arrangements and performance styles to convert the ghazal into a dirge, a love-lyric or a Na'at. In the third recording, they have surpassed themselves (and ALL others to follow). If each performance from this mehfil wasn't equally eligible for the title, I'd unhesitatingly declare this performance to be the most perfect qawwali recording I have ever heard. There are a couple of girahs in this performance that regularly send shivers down my spine and leave me teary-eyed.

The performance begins with another wonderfully intricate sazeena on two harmoniums; Ustads Mubarak Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan. The Farsi couplets at the start are a foretaste of what is to come; an exploration of sacred love and a refutation of the profane. The couplets are a warning for the "B'ul-Havas" to stay away, as the first takraar takes hold. No other Qawwal has ever tried to elicit such meaning from just the first three words of this kalaam. The takraar on "Nami Danam Che"is a testament to the Ustads' skill, as are the wonderful girahs. Another takraar, and the audience is led in a "Raqs-e-Bismil". Here is where the recording takes off into the celestial plane. The Ustads are so adept at their craft that it is often easy to overlook the amazing dexterity involved.

The Ustads segue from hz Amir Khusrau (RA)'s kalam to Hz Bu Ali Shah Qalandar (RA)'s kalam to Hz Shah Turab Hyderabadi (RA)'s kalam; like a dream within a dream within a dream from Chritopher Nolan's "Inception". Seemingly defying all rules of physics, they weave in and out of the three kalaams at will, weaving a tapestry of unbelievable richness and complexity. This isn't one performance, or two performances or even three performances; this is a group of spacetime-travellers exploring alternate universes. The girahs and takraars on Hz Shah Turab (RA)'s kalaam are very VERY powerful. My favorites come at the 27:30 and 30:25 marks. I have regularly ended up crying at these two points.

I've considered Murli Qawwal the king of Takraars, but the Ustads are up there with there with him. The takraars on "Manam Usman-e-Harooni (RA)" and "Pari Paikar Nigaare" - which I first heard in the Nusrat video above - are brilliant, and haven't been heard since. The little flourishes by Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan on the phrase "Laala Rukhsaarae" are wonderful. Like I mentioned earlier, this recording comes pretty close to being labelled the most perfect Qawwali recording I've ever heard.

4. Oh Disdi Kulli Yaar Di Gharreya 

This is the final complete performance of this mehfil, and at 90 minutes long, it is also the longest. Unfortunately this recording is of very weak audio quality. The shoddy sound quality doesn't detract from the fact that, along with the previous recording, this one is tied for being the greatest Qawwali recording I have ever heard. As the audience members say, this recording finds the Ustads exploring "Punjabi Takhayyul". The first two-and a half minutes of the preamble are worth the price of admission by themselves. The unique 'Do-aaba" style of singing is on full display, the Ustads are now in a most perfect groove. This recording perfectly encompasses what I consider the Ustads' great speciality, their wonderful command on the laya and the taal. Their bols and taans teeter on the very edge of being 'be-taal' before swooping back into the fold. Girahbandi continues in Farsi and Punjabi as the takraar on the first verse continues.

The response of the 'gharra' to Sohni's complaint provides the Ustads with further room for girahbandi. The exploration of carnal love versus the divine, true love versus affected love, and the physical versus the spiritual hasn't been explored better by any other Qawwal. The takraar on "Maen ki Karaan Hunn Maen Ki Karaan" and the girahs on it are on a higher, more exalted plane altogether. The Urdu girahs from the 18th minute to the 32nd minute are unlike anything I have ever heard. They are interspersed with Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan's taankaari. Like the previous recording, the Ustads segue into another kalaam, Hz baba Bulleh Shah (RA)'s kalaam, 'Maen Bhull Gyi Morr Toun Aa Ke" at the 33 minutes mark.

This new kalaam again offers countless opportunities for girahbandi to the Ustads, and the takraars are electrifying. A further segue takes them into 'Bohat Kathin Hai Dagar Panghat Ki". this kalaam is embellished with verses from the Masnavi, and especially of note is the percussion section which propels the performance through the takraars. As the hour mark approaches, the return to the original kalaam begins. Each exploration is brought to its logical conclusion; all loose ends are tied. What the Qawwals do next takes the listener's (or at least my) breath away.

At the one hour, five minute mark, the Ustads launch into Hz Pir Mehr Ali Shah (RA)'s seminal naat, "Ajj Sikk Mitraan Di", offering takraar upon takraar, girah after girah. They recite most of the verses that other Qawwals often leave out, exploring almost the entirety of this phenomenal kalaam. The audience is receptive, and the power builds to the crescendo on the shattering last verse "Gustaakh Akheen Kitthe Ja Larriyan". And just when it seems like the Qawwals can't go any further, they offer one final surprise; a wonderfully endearing Purbi thumri ' Balma Ke Dvaare Thaari Pukaroon". I can't help but smile at the phrase "Ahmad (SAW) hamaro chhaela ho!" It's a wonderful piece in praise of the Prophet (SAW) and the Ahl-e-Bait (RA). At the 90 minute mark, the performance concludes, leaving the audience (both in 1961 and today) moved to spontaneous applause and appreciation.

5. Tussi Kaun Hunday - Fragment
This mehfil is an archeological dig in progress. As I discover more recordings from this mehfil, or better quality versions of the recordings i already have, they are added to the archive. The recordings above have been completed from a number of sources, and for better or worse audio quality, are complete from start to finish. The fifth and final performance is unfortunately incomplete - so far. I remain hopeful that I might find a complete version, or more fragments of this performance. But until then, a fragment will have to do.

The fragment begins at a Takraar from the Ustads' performance of the tale of Laila Majnu. The takraar is propelled by a throbbing dholak beat, embellished by girahs in Punjabi and Farsi, including a wonderful set of couplets of Hz Girami (RA). The wonderful Bhairavi tarz traditionally used for performing Waris Shah (RA)'s Heer is used here. As the performance continues we find that it is actually a performance within a performance, with the main kalaam being "Uss Beparwaah Noo". Again, one marvels at the dexterity of the Ustads and their ability to move from one kalaam to another without losing the spirit or meaning of either.

These five recordings constitute an absolute treasure for me. They display the greatest Qawwals of their age performing some of the greatest Kalaams in the Qawwali canon. Their absolute mastery over Farsi, Urdu, Punjabi and Purbi is on full display, as are the wonderful individual talents of the three main members of this party. I was slightly reluctant in sharing these recordings because of their below-par audio quality and the incompleteness of the Mehfil, but I figured even a passing glimpse of Qawwali's (and my colllections' ) Crown Jewels would be worth having. Another reason is that after spending three years in the jungle, I'm about to embark on another assignment, and I don't know if and when I will have time to regularly update the blog again.

Hence, untill the next post ...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

...Of A Sideman Par Excellence

I should append a disclaimer at the start of this post saying that this is one for dyed in the wool, hardcore Qawwali enthusiasts only; but that would discourage someone who like me six or seven ago, isn't a dyed in the wool, hardcore Qawwali enthusiast. So enter all ye who dare, but be warned, what follows includes scratchy, lengthy, low audio quality recordings of *somewhat* obscure artists. But if like me (and Ahmed Faraz) you believe that "Khazaanae tujhe mumkin hai kharaabon maen milaen", then read on. Also, there is a fair number of embedded Youtube videos, so my Pakistani friends will have to resort to a proxy to properly access the post. Moving on ...

The more I think about it, the more similarities I seem to find between Qawwali and Jazz. To name a few, both are improvisational, collaborative artforms - in fact, the collaborative nature of both elevates them from the status of simple 'music'. In each, a group of performers consciously or unconsciously molds a performance to give it their own unique "spin", both rely on a set of "Standards" which are interpreted by each artist according to their own personality, both have the capacity for extemporaneous innovation according to the needs of the performance and the history of both is defined by stellar ensembles led by supremely talented musical innovators ; The Duke Ellington Orchestra, Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal and Party, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, The Sabri Brothers Ensemble, The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Qawwal &; Party. The list goes on.

What characterizes these brilliant ensembles is the remarkable musical synergy that transformed each group from a collection of heterogeneous performers into almost an organic whole. This had much to do with the supremely gifted performers who led the groups and lent their names to the ensembles. But an equal (and in some cases, greater) share goes to some of the individual members who made their own extraordinary talents subservient to the group and decided to forgo individual glory in favor of group performance. Later, many of them became wonderful ensemble leaders in their own right. As in jazz, Qawwali is blessed with quite a few of them. Art Blakey had Horace Silver and Keith Jarrett, Kallan Khan Qawwal had Ghulam Fareed Sabri; Benny Goodman had Jack Teagarden, The Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal Ensemble had Sadiq Ali Saddo and Mubarak Ali Khan, Duke Ellington had Johnny Hodges, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan. Again, the list goes on.

Unlike Jazz however, there is little history of collaborative 'jam sessions' amongst various Qawwali groups; musicians generally performed within their group throughout their careers, with leaders changing after the death/departure of previous leaders. As a result, we don't have any recordings of say, Haji Maqbool Sabri sitting in with Nusrat's group, or Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan lending his voiceto Munshi Raziuddin's party. Jazz has many such collaborations and is eminently enriched by them. There is however one glaring, glittering exception to the rule; and he is the subject of this post.

One of the great Qawwali parties of the twentieth century, and one of my absolute top 5 favorites (if I permit myself a little High Fidelity listmaking) was led by Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal. On the Tabla, Ustad Naseeb Khan, on the second harmonium and co-vocals in later years he had the phenomenal Mubarak Ali "Maakha" Lahoriya, and on first harmonium and co-vocals, one of the great voices of Qawwali, Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi's younger brother Ustad Abdul Majeed Fareedi Qawwal.

I must admit that I am very shaky on the biographical details of Abdul Majeed Fareedi. He was born in the early 1930s and passed away four or five years ago. He was the nephew of Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi and hence a cousin to Abdul Raheem Fareedi. He along with his elder brother Rasheed were pupils of Ustads Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal (and especially favorite pupils at that). He performed most of his life with Agha Rasheed's party, and after Rasheed Fareedi's death in 1986, spent some time touring with his cousin Abdul Rahim Fareedi's party. Rasheed and Majeed, being devotees of Hz Babuji (RA), had a special affinity with Golra Sharif and a close friendship with Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal (RA). the Darbari Qawwal at Golra. After Haji Mahboob Sb's death, Majeed settled in Golra and with Haji Sb's younger brother Mushtaq Ali Qawwal (himself an eminently talented sideman), took over the Qawwali duties at the shrine. After Mushtaq Ali's death, Majeed stayed on and taught the current darbaari qawwal of Golra, Billa Qawwal. Abdul Majeed Fareedi Qawwal passed away almost four years ago.
Performing with an artist of the stature of Agha Rasheed Fareedi Qawwal would've been too much of a task for a lesser artist, but Abdul Majeed Fareedi ably accompanied not only his brother, but many other performers as well. In a career spanning more than half a century, Majeed Fareedi performed with many other Qawwali ensembles, both before and after his the dissolution of his brother's Qawwali party following his death. Among all the various qawwali sidemen, he is by far my favorite. First and foremost, Abdul Majeed Fareedi was a consummate harmonium player, taught by Ustad Salamat Ali khan, the younger brother of Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Khan. He arranged most of his party's repertoire and could accompany any vocalist with great skill. Being lead harmonium, he was the driving force of the qawwali party, deftly managing changes in key and scale. Second, he was a highly gifted, and extremely well-trained singer, his voice clearly showing signs of Mubarak Ali Khan's tutelage. His vocal delivery was wonderful, but what set him apart - and what made him one of my favorite Qawwals - was his supreme taan-kaari. His vacillating taans are a joy to behold, and intricate sargams and taans are rendered with such aplomb that the listeners are transported. Agha Rasheed Fareedi used to say, "If it were up to me, the audience would leave with their clothes in tatters", and a fair bit of said tattering was achieved by Abdul Majeed Fareedi. Later, when their group was joined by another musical heavyweight (pun intended) Mubarak Ali 'Maakha" Lahori, the sargam/taankaari battles between the two harmonium players were the highlight of the performance, whipping audiences into a frenzy.

O.P Nayyar described Shamshad Begum's voice as being like a Temple bell. Majeed Fareedi's voice was like a razor's edge; clear, sharp, distinctive, eminently malleable and tremendously effective. His was one of the very first voices I heard when I started taking an interest in Qawwali, and I remain a fan to this day.

In my long and rather aimless preamble about sidemen in Jazz and Qawwali, I mentioned that Abdul Majeed Fareedi was the exception to the rule. That's because unlike most of his peers, Majeed regularly appears on recordings by other Qawwal groups. And unlike Woody Allen's Zelig, who would lose himself in each new surrounding, Majeed manages to retain his unique individuality and while doing so, enriches the whole recording. What follows is a selection of recordings featuring Ustad Abdul Majeed Fareedi Qawwal, either performing in his brother's Qawwal party or sitting in with other groups, his virtuosity on vocals and the harmonium on full display.
 1. Khol Aankh Zameen Dekh - Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal And Party

2. Husne Qatil Ne Ajab Rang Jamaa Rakha Hai - Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal And Party

3. Kaahnon Yaar Da Vichora Saanu Paaya - Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal And Party

4. Bun Ke Tasveer-e-Gham Reh Gaye - Abdul Rahim Fareedi Qawwal And Party

5. Kaddi Saaday Des Vi Aa Dhola - Mubarak Ali Niaz Ali Qawwal And Party

6. Haar Ve Jaani Raat Reh Pau - Manzoor Hussain Santoo Khan Qawwal And Party

7. Sambhal Kar Dekhna Barq-e-Tajalla Dekhne Waale - Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal, with Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal And Party

8. Ajj Na Jaaveen Ve - Mubarak Ali "Maakha" Lahori and Abdul Majeed Fareedi Qawwal

9. Main Issi Maen Shadmaan Hoon - Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal


10. Khayal in Raag Suha Kaanhra - Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal And Party

I end this post by sharing a small collection of photographs spanning the career of Agha Rasheed Fareedi and Abdul Majeed Fareedi Qawwal.

P.S I had not planned to include this recording in this post, in fact I didn't plan on sharing it at all. There were a number of reasons for it; first because it has been patched together from a number of low quality audio sources and I haven't been able to improve the quality despite a fair bit of editing. But the main reason was an intense personal attachment and a desire to be just a teensy bit selfish. This recording has always elicited a VERY strong emotional - would it be too pretentious to say 'spiritual' - response in me. Several times I have found myself either weeping uncontrollably or walking around in a dazed, shivering and disoriented state of mind after listening to it. I have always found this recording difficult to describe. It has been performed at an emotionally charged gathering, by a group of performers for whom the emotions hold greater power than the listeners. The voices, the style of singing, the whole aural landscape of this recording seems like it belongs to a different time, a different place. When I'd first heard it, I felt like an extraterrestrial being, stumbling onto the Golden Record placed in the Voyager 1 spacecraft and listening to Blind Willie Johnson's "Dark Was The Night". Here then is one final recording featuring Ustad Majeed Fareedi , accompanying his ustad, Salamat Ali Khan, on the chehlum of his other ustad, Mubarak Ali Khan. The kalaam serves both as a Na'at, and as a eulogy, and is one of the most perfect examples of girah-bandi ever.

11. Teri Yaad Hai Mun Ka Chain Piya - Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, accompanied by Ustad Majeed Fareedi and others, at the Chehlum of Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, 1971.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

...Of Festivals And Firm Refusals

There are very few excuses this time, and those few are flimsy at best. It has been laziness, plain and simple, that's kept me from writing for the better part of the last 5 months. I've had time - not ample time, but enough to hammer out a rough draft or two - and I've had ideas, but I've lacked the get-up-and-go that is the catalyst to productivity. A lot has happened over the last five or six months, several events warranting a write-up, but they've gone largely uncelebrated-or unmourned. Still, better late than never (God forbid). What follows is a hodge-podge of ideas that have been on my mind recently.

Notes On A Festival 

I plan my once-a-month weekend around events that interest me, so that my weekends serve a dual purpose; touching base with the folks back home and (barely) keeping my cultural interests alive. Even so, I miss most of what goes on in the metropolis; movies, concerts, book fairs etc that I would've given an arm and a leg to attend. Still, if there's a slim chance of catching something exciting, I don't mind traveling an extra two or three hundred miles or spending an extra four or five grand on fuel so that I can return to the jungle with something more than a jar of Nano's mango pickle.

Last month I made a quick one-night trip to Lahore to attend a series of plays performed by a wonderful theatre group from across the border, and this month I managed to attend (and convinced more than two dozen family members to attend) the Mystic Music Festival held at Alhamra. The fact that the family would also attend meant a lot of organizational and coordinational (a word I just made up) hassles, but it was well worth it. Over two nights, I had a fair amount of fun, managed to listen to - and watch - some exceptional performances and accomplished the 'touching base with the family' task fairly adequately as well.

I won't go into detailed descriptions of the acts but I did carry away some pretty clear impressions from the two nights that I attended. Some were positive, but a few things niggled me as well. It was pretty easy to pick out favorite performers from amongst the twenty or so acts that I saw. First and foremost, Saeen Zahoor is a gift from God. His voice, especially in the high registers, is spine-tinglingly, goosebumping inducingly powerful and his wonderfully unassuming style perfectly complements his phenomenal talents. I've rarely found myself teary-eyed at a concert, but Saeen ji made me almost break into sobs.God bless him for that.

The other veteran performer who was totally on-the-money was the wonderful Akhter Chinar Zehri from Balochistan. I've grown up watching him on TV as the uncle who sings "Dana-pe-dana", which he obligingly performed at the festival. But what clinched the performance for me was his rendition of Hz Maulana Rumi (RA)'s wonderfully charged ghazal from the Diwan-e-Shams

بیدار شو بیدار شو ھین رفت شب بیدار شو
بیزار شو بیزار شو وزخویشہم بیزار شو

This he performed in his trademark style, lingering on and emoting each verse, whirling and swaying all the while. It was a trance-inducing performance and I won't forget it any time soon. 

Then there were two rather young acts who impressed me very much, and were appreciated pretty generously by the audience as well. The "Bazm-e-Liqa", a group of Ismaili musicians; male and female of relatively young ages, from Hunza in the Gilgit-Baltistan region who accompany themselves on traditional instruments like the Rubab and the lute, with percussion provided by tambourines and Daff's. They were unhurried, completely lost in their own performance, with wonderful voices and a soothing and tranquil performance style. They performed, among other things, a Hamd of Pir Naseeruddin Naseer(RA)'s and a wonderful ghazal of Hafiz Sherazi's and were probably my stand-out favorites among all the performers.

The other performer that really impressed my was Wahdat Rameez, a young musician with no family background in music but possessing a wonderfully melodious voice. He was accompanied by his brother on the harmonium and they sang only two pieces, the "Rohi" and a traditional folk tune made famous by the Wadaali brothers. The style was unassuming, the voices clear and melodious and classically trained. I'm pretty sure I'll be hearing a lot more from them in the future. Honourable mentions also to Kishan Lal Bheel from Cholistan and his band of traditional musicians/dancers/fire-eaters.

While these were the standout performers in my view, the other performers, barring one or two exceptions, were also pretty good. However, there were one or two things that rankled and proved major bummers. One of the things that annoyed me was something I have written about previously. There were seven Qawwal parties featured over the two nights that I attended the festival, and they all performed at least three items each. The irritating bit was that all the twenty or so items performed by the Qawwals boiled down to half a dozen Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan pieces. Some Qawwalis, like "Allah Hoo Allah Hoo" and  "Saanson Ki Mala" were repeated four times each night, and I have now grown to hate, literally loathe "Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor Hai" mainly because I heard it performed four times in a single night by four different Qawwali parties. I feel sorry for Nusrat, God rest his soul, but I feel doubly sorry for the hundreds of Qawwals whose growth and development became stunted when they couldn't grow out of his enormous shadow. Not one Qawwal performed an original composition-except maybe Imran Aziz Mian. who decided to forego half-hearted Nusrat covers in favour of half-hearted covers of his father's famous Qawwalis. 

The other thing that Qawwals in particular, and most other performers in general, suffered from was counter-intuitive sound mixing. With a few exceptions- "Bazm-e-Liqa", Wahdat Rameez and Arieb Azhar-, each performer's sound-mix consisted of an ultra-loud tabla/dholak and earscreechingly loud vocals; with the harmoniums, guitars, saxophones, clarinets and violins completely drowned out. It was a sad sight to see a rather elderly clarinet player playing the bejeezus out of his instrument,sitting in the back-row of a Qawwali party with no microphone in front of him, while at the same time there were two microphones each for the two dholak players. I've never been able to understand why performers - and in some cases audiences - prefer this setup. It was at the performers' insistence that the levels were adjusted, with many vocalists urging the sound engineers to literally 'take it up to 11', ala Spinal Tap. What resulted was a muddled mess of noise that was pretty distressing to the ears. I'm afraid this is what most of the concerts I've attended have sounded like, and it represents a pretty sizeable hurdle in the way of enjoying the precious few live musical events that take place in Pakistan. 

Looking At It From Smaug's Point Of View 

Once upon a time there was a phenomenal treasure trove of music in a folder on a file-sharing site. It had been uploaded by a gentleman of Pickwickian benevolence and consisted of hundreds of hours of extremely rare recordings by some of the greatest musicians of the last century. It was freely available to the public to listen to, share and download-albeit with moderation. You were allowed a limited number of downloads per day so the servers wouldn't get overloaded. People mostly minded the rules and listened/downloaded with restraint, enabling the folder to remain online for almost three years. Well, one day, as was inevitable, someone greedy came along. The download limit was exceeded, the servers got overloaded, the filesharing site investigated and decided the folder seemed suspicious in terms of copyright infringement and shut it down. The greatest online repository of music, which had taken at least two years to upload and organize, is no more. The gentleman who had painstakingly uploaded the folder is unwilling to go to all the effort again, just to accomodate those he now calls 'selfish freeloaders'. 

Some friends of mine knew an elderly gentleman who was rumoured to possess several extremely rare Qawwali recordings and had a few hundred tapes in his collection. Overtures were made to him to share some, if not all, of his recordings with us, in exchange we'd digitize and organize them for him. these overtures were met with a firm refusal. The gentleman provided a reason for his refusal, which I'm paraphrasing here. The recordings that he possessed had been personally recorded by him at various Qawwali mehfils over the last half-century. In order to attend those mehfils he'd had to travel many hundreds of miles, spending days and weeks in travel just to listen to -and try to record- his favorite artists. Getting invited to these mehfils had involved first being accepted into the community of organizers, conoisseurs and performers. This acceptance had been cultivated over years, and involved meetings, discussions and active participation in the various activities associated with shrines and dargaahs. After he'd been deemed worthy of an invitation, had made the week-long trek to some far off location and been allowed to attend the mehfils, he had to receive permission to record; permission which was not always forthcoming. It was therefore, quite a challenge to record these mehfils.

If he heard about a recording in the possession of somebody else, the whole odyssey would be repeated. He often had to travel a couple of hundred miles in search of a single recording and return empty-handed, but the recordings he managed to get were cherished possessions. The recordings in those tapes, he said, weren't just audio snippets of obscure musicians. They were a record of the places, people, relationships, time and effort that were associated with acquiring them. They were, in short, milestones to his life. What we were suggesting, he said, was that he hand over those milestones to us when we had experienced/suffered/enjoyed/felt none of the things he considered the price of the recordings. Hence the flat refusal. Both 'zauq' and 'shauq' had to be amply demonstrated before he'd be willing to part with any one of them. So, while my friends were allowed to listen to some of the recordings, they came back empty handed.

The late Lutfullah Khan Sb was the foremost audiovisual archiver/collector in Pakistan. His collection of audio/video and documents related to the performing arts is unparallelled in its breadth and scope. He had painstakingly collected, edited, organized and cataloged the entire audiovisual history of Pakistan. This obsession consumed and controlled most of his life, and is enshrined in the most extensive audiovisual library in Pakistan. He left clear instructions to his family that after his death, his archive should be given over to the person or organization who could provide adequate financial compensation to his family for what is an incalculably rich treasure. This financial compensation would have to run into tens of millions of rupees ( a fair assessment in my opinion), otherwise there would be no-sale. On no account would the archive be donated free of cost, in fact Lutfullah Sb preferred setting fire to the whole collection rather than allowing it out of his family's hands without 'adequate financial compensation.' Almost a year after Lutfullah Sb's death, the archive remains closed to the public.

The small music collection that I've managed to acquire over the last three or four years owes much of its existence to the kindness of friends and total strangers. With a few exceptions, I have not had to travel hundreds of miles, or offer proofs of my 'zauq' or 'shauq'. I have often bickered when, in search of recordings and such, I have been faced with a firm refusal or delaying tactics. But I have also come to see that there is some, if not complete, then at least some justification in the refusals. In an age where the internet and filesharing have made gazillions of hours of audio and video freely available, some of us, myself included, have started taking this easy availability for granted. We have started to consider it something of a right to be able to see everything, hear everything and enjoy everything. I'm not saying this free availability is a bad thing. I'm sure my music collection, and come to think of it, my life would've been woefully incomplete if not for those angels in human shape who share so much of their collections on filesharing sites and YouTube. 

But consideration must be paid to the dissenting voices, who believe that simply desiring something isn't enough, one must do something to deserve it too. 

P.S Look up Bazm-e-Liqa and Wahdat Rameez, you won't be disappointed.