I've been maintaining this blog (for better or for worse) over the last eight years. Over these years, its natural evolution has led it into becoming something of a niche place for discussion of music in general and Qawwali in particular. Rather than trying to return my existing blog to its pre-Qawwali eclectic roots, I decided I’d start anew on Tumblr. So if you’re interested in music, Qawwali and subcontinental culture, keep reading/listening/watching/commenting here. For all of the above and everything else under the sun, head on over to my Tumblr page .

Friday, November 20, 2015

...Of Further Stops Along The Journey

It's coming on to a full year since my fateful journey of musical discovery, and like the Farsi verse, 'the intoxication still lingers in mine eyes'. Over the last year, the partners in crime have begun piecing together the journey into a coherent whole that will be ready for presentation soon. Till then, we've also been regularly releasing some of our favorite selections in audio and video on our Facebook, YouTube and SoundCloud pages. There's also talk *hush hush* of a reprise of last year's journey this December. As a result, my levels of excitement have been on a wonderfully high plateau all year. There's also been the added benefit that I've been honing my rather shoddy translating skills with each video. Till there's new and more exciting news to share, here's a selection of some of my favorite recordings from our journey.

1. Al Ishqu Deeni Ma Dum'tu Haiyya - Taj Muhammad, Shad Muhammad Nasir Niazi Qawwal

2. Khayal In Raag Shahana - Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan

3. Surkh Aankhon Main Kajal Ke Doray - Ustad Ameer Ali Khan Qawwal

4. Maa Ra Ba Ghamza Kusht - Ustad Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal And Brothers

5. Khabaram Raseedah Imshab - Subhan Ahmed Nizami Qawwal And Brothers

Sunday, August 16, 2015

...Of The Journey So Far

Around five months ago, me and my co-conspirators announced the details of our collaborative project entitled "The Dream Journey - Discovering Musicians Across Pakistan". We had spent the end of December 2014 traveling cross the length of Pakistan, meeting, interviewing, listening to and recording some of the most talented traditional musicians across Pakistan. By the time the trip was over, we had accumulated hundreds of hours of footage and audio, and then began the arduous task of organizing and editing the material into a coherent whole. Apart from our fabulous director/editor, the rest of us had little or no past experience in putting together a project of this magnitude. However, through trial and error, communicating through email, Facebook chat and the occasional albeit wonderful meetings, the team has begun making progress.

We began by releasing short audio teasers on the project's Soundcloud page , which were greatly appreciated by the listeners. The next step was to begin sharing the wonderful performances we had recorded, in HD video and audio. And that's what we've been doing for the past three weeks. I was terrifically happy at having participated in this brilliant journey, and after seeing the performances being released, that happiness is mixed with a lot of pride. Our motley crew of enthusiasts has managed to create something really noteworthy, something that will live on long after this project has been forgotten. I am a voracious gatherer of Qawwali recordings (the understatement of the century) and thus have been privileged to see and hear a lot of performances, both on TV and online, and I can state unequivocally that I have not come across anything as wonderfully recorded as our project.

For those who wish to follow our journey, we are on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram; where our current as well as future releases are being curated. For those who wish to support our project, please go HERE to donate via PayPal. Any and all donations shall be gratefully received and acknowledged.

Well I can't just leave the gentle reader hanging after writing two paragraphs loaded with superlatives and not sharing what we've released so far. So, without further ado, presenting the first three performances from The Dream Journey - Discovering Musicians Across Pakistan.

P.S Be sure to watch in HD

1. Charkha - Ustad Ameer Ali Khan And Party 

2. Kaliyan Sang Karat - Ustad Fareed Ayaz - Abu Muhammad Qawwal And Brothers

3. Dil Burd Az Mun - Ustad Abdullah Niazi & Waqas Niazi Qawwal

Friday, May 15, 2015

The King Is Dead, Long Live The King.

BB King passed away today at the age of 89. Rest in peace sir, and thank you !

Friday, May 1, 2015

...Of The Envoy of The Forlorn

The best (and in fact only) way to keep the mind from going to dark and inhospitable places is to keep oneself busy. Therefore ...

Among the many common threads running through Arabic, Persian and Urdu literature is the extensive use of personification and anthropomorphism. Gazelles are coquettes, blooming flowers are the hearts of lovers, the moon is a lancet, reawakening old wounds, or a shepherd tending the flock of stars. These allusions, especially when used by poets  and artists with a mystical bent, are used to wonderfully encapsulate intricate metaphysical ideas and make them not only palatable but also relatable to the audience. The canon of folk and Sufi poetry is eminently enriched by these literary devices, and most of them are well known even to the lay-reader or listener.

A tree in the breeze. Mughal era painting, Masjid Wazir Khan
One of the most commonly used literary devices is that of the breeze - 'sabaa', 'naseem' or 'baad' - as a messenger, a confidant and a bearer of tidings. For centuries, poets have used the breeze to convey their innermost hopes and desires to the 'beloved'. With Sufi poets, the breeze is their only conduit to the faraway land of Arabia where their beloved, the Prophet (S.A.W) resides. They offer salutations, pleas, lamentations, offerings of devotion and hopes for Union, and hope that the breeze carries these messages across faraway lands to the court of the Prophet (SAW), where it will give a true account of all that they have endured in their separation. There is a charming, endearing quality to these kalaams, along with deep pathos and melancholy, as the poets seem unable to bridge the distances and instead pour their hearts out to the only envoy they can trust, the breeze.

Many Qawwali recordings feature such kalaams, in fact they are some of the most popular kalaams of the Qawwali repertoire. Probably because the listeners, both initiated into Sufism as well as novices, transpose their own hopes, fears and longings into those of the poets', and hope that the trusty messenger will fulfill its duty to them as it has done for the poets long passed. Following are some of my favorite Qawwali performances where the breeze is addressed as a messenger, and in choosing from among the hundreds of similar performances, I've followed the rules I lay down in some of my earlier posts; one recording per kalaam and one recording per artist.

1. Innilti Ya Reeh-as-Sabaa - Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party

This is my kind of Nusrat recording. Intimate, focused and 'ba-ihteraam'. So intimate in-fact that Nusrat's "munshi" or prompter can be clearly heard guiding him through the verses. The celebrated Na'at by Hz Imam Zain-ul-Abideen (R.A) is beautiful in its evocative imagery and its pensive and heartfelt adoration of the Prophet (S.A.W). Nusrat wonderfully displays these qualities of the kalaam and sets the perfect tone with the Rubaai's at the start of the performance -the title of this post is derived from one of the phrases in the introductory Rubaai. The microphones seem to have been placed in such a way that only Nusrat, his brother Farrukh Fateh Ali, Farrukh's harmonium and Dildar Hussain's tabla can be heard in the foreground. I don't know what Raag this performance is based on, but the mood it evokes is perfect for this kalaam. Dildar Hussain's tabla is restrained, even during the up-tempo parts, and it lends an Arabic cadence to the entire performance. The entire party (which is the classic 1980's party by the sound of it) is wonderful in fact, offering taans and murkis only when required. It is a masterclass in minimalism.

2. Saba Ba Soo-e-Madina Ro Kun - Abdullah Manzoor Niazi Qawwal

Abdullah Manzoor Niazi is a wonderful Qawwal, with a mature, well rounded performance style and perfect command on the amazing voice he possesses. He spent his formative years as part of his uncle Ustad Bahauddin Khan's party, and later accompanied his father, Ustad Manzoor Ahmed Niazi. His performance style encompasses the best qualities of both the great ustaads; the vigor and vitality of Bahauddin Khan and the sweetness and melodic depth of Manzoor Niazi Sb. In this live recording of Hz Nizam-ud-Din Auliya (R.A)'s kalaam, he is accompanied by his younger brother. Again, the mood is pensive and restrained, just like the morning breeze being addressed, with wonderful flourishes (like at the 4 minute mark). Hz Nizam (R.A) offers a series of instructions to his messenger, instructions that are both charming in their affection and deeply poignant with the sense of separation. I love this na'at very much, and Abdullah Niazi's performance suits it perfectly.

3. Saba Madinay Main Mustafa Se - Manzoor Ahmed Niazi Qawwal Aur Hamnavaa

This is a recording of strange and enchanting power. Taken from the series of priceless recordings released by Zaheer Alam Kidvai Sb, it features three members of the original "Barri Party" - Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed, Ustad Manzoor Niazi and Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami. The recording is from a performance at somebody's home during the 1960's. The qawwals are launching into their standard performance of this kalaam but are immediately interrupted by the listener who instructs them to perform the kalaam in Raag Lalit. The remaining eleven minutes are a perfect reminder of why these qawwals are considered great Ustaads. The mood immediately becomes introspective, melancholy and resigned, as if the enormity of the separation from the Prophet (S.A.W) has suddenly become apparent to performers. The three voices are absolutely beautiful, Razi mian is rapier sharp, Manzoor Niazi is mellifluous and earthy, and Iftekhar Nizami is full of longing and love. Considering how woefully underrecorded he was in his brief life, I especially love this recording because of the prominent place Iftekhar Nizami's voice occupies here. His taans and girahs elicit sighs of 'haaye' from Razi mian, and I don't blame him. The taans are powerful, the performance is brilliant, and the sustained last note is perfect.

4. Naseema Jaanibe Bat'haa Guzar Kun - Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal & Party

In my opinion, this legendary Na'at of Hz Jami (RA) rightfully belongs to Ustad Manzoor Niazi, but since I've included him in the recording above, I'll share a recording by another artist who can rightfully stake his claim on the na'at. Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi was arguably the greatest shagird of Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Khan ( that's saying a lot considering other shagirds included Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal, Agha Bashir Qawwal and Nusrat himself), and he was probably the only shagird who consciously or subconsciously moulded his style on that of his Ustads. In this performance he is accompanied by younger brother Abdul Majeed Fareedi and Inayat Ali Khan, with Naseeb Khan on tabla, all of whom had performed in Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali's party at one time or another. The recording is very shoddy, but the power comes through unhindered. Ths shifts in tempo, the exquisite girahbandi and taankaari, and the various thundering yet complicated takraars have rarely been emulated by any other qawwal, the takraars especially. There are a million wonderful facets to this performance, and it takes multiple listenings to appreciate them. It is a fitting testament to Fareedi Sb's talent that when I was planning this post, I chose his performance of Naseema over his Ustads.

5. Naseema Qasidaana Vais Laveen - Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal

One of the main reasons I kept off writing this post was because I originally intended to do a post on this subject featuring only recordings by Haji Mahboob Sb, such was the depth of his repertoire. Later, when I decided on including a number of artists, I couldn't decide which of Haji Sb's recordings would best serve as a representative sample of his repertoire. Finally, I decided on this one because of a number of reasons. The main kalaam is a Punjabi 'nazm' written by Hz Pir Mehr Ali Shah (RA) in the style of Hz Jami (RA)'s mathnavi 'Yousuf Zulaikha", and Haji Sb uses verses from a number of other kalaams in Farsi and Punjabi to create a seamless whole from disparate sources. In the background is Haji Sb's sitar, Haji Mushtaq Ali's voice, his harmonium and the tabla; and at the fore are love, devotion and longing for the Prophet (S.A.W). The mood is languorous and pensive, full of the desire for Union. Like Hz Nizam-ud-Din (RA)'s kalaam above, the breeze is instructed to hurry to the 'land of the beautiful beloved' and there, offer prostrations and salutations to the beloved. With instructions on respectful etiquette, the breeze is dispatched with offerings of love, tales of longing and entreaties for union. Along the way, almost imperceptibly, the na'at morphs into something out of the great Punjabi love epics. It is a wonderful performance.

6. Payaam Laayi Hai Baad-e-Sabaa - Manzoor Hussain Santoo Khan Qawwal

The breeze is usually a messenger for the lover, taking away messages of longing and despair, but occasionally, when the Beloved is generous with his benevolence, it can also bring back news from faraway lands. That's the case in this recording by Manzoor Hussain Santoo Khan and party. The trademark clarinet starts it off, and the powerful voices take it over from there. This leaders of this party were instructed by Santoo Khan Qawwal, a disciple of Bhai Lal Rabaabi of the Gwalior gharana, and their style is distinct from their contemporaries. The voices are rich, deep and incisive, the instruments are unobtrusive and the tempo is lively and energetic. Manzoor Hussain Santoo still performs regularly with his son's party and despite the frailties of age, his occasional taans still retain the vitality and vivacity of this and ealier performances.

7. Ayi Naseem-e-Koo-e Muhammad (SAW) - Nusrat and Azimullah Qawwal

This kalaam of Bedam Shah Warsi (RA) is one of the most famous na'ats in Urdu, and justifiably so. Its imagery, sentiments and natural melodiousness make it a favorite of qawwals and na'at-khwaans, ensuring that almost everyone has sung it. I shall end this post by one of the simplest, most unadorned and understatedly brilliant performances in my collection. Three performers - hereditary qawwals from Firangi Mehal in Lucknow, one harmonium and one tabla, in a performance barely lasting five minutes.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

...Of Sabeen Mahmud - A Personal Reminiscence

Bad news has a habit of locating me in the remotest of locations. I was in a tent in the middle of the Cholistan desert when, despite practically nonexistent mobile coverage, I received a text from a friend telling me that Sabeen Mahmud had been fatally shot. In a mix of panic and increasing despair, I texted back for a confirmation which, with the dogged inevitability that is the hallmark of horror, arrived soon enough. That was two nights ago. I spent the next twenty-four hours in a jittery, shell-shocked state. Last night when I returned to civilization I had managed to calm down a bit. But as if on cue, my phone started filling up with messages of condolence, tribute and sheer numb despair; and my composure crumbled again. After two sleepless nights, I've finally convinced myself that perhaps writing something might calm me down somewhat.

It was on Twitter four odd years ago that I was introduced to Sabeen by a mutual friend who thought we shared a common taste for Qawwali (or as Sabeen liked to spell it, Qavvali). I soon discovered that our common interests also included Bruce Springsteen and Hugh Laurie (whom Sabeen fell for after blissfully binge-ing on House MD). As an emotional adolescent who still lives by the credo espoused by High Fidelity's Rob Gordon, "what really matters is what you like, not what you are like", this formed an instant connection. Over the next years, I kept in touch, sometimes helping her translate some knotty Farsi, or comparing notes on which was The Boss' best bootleg (we both eventually agreed it was "Live At The Agora, '78"), or more frequently, asking her to send over the latest Qavvali CDs that Kidvai Sb regularly put out (the last release has a charming photo of Sabeen on its cover), and then having conversations about the recordings we'd both loved.

All through this time, I had been keeping up with the wonderful happenings at The Second Floor, the wonderful hub that, to me at least, was Karachi's beating cultural heart. It was the sort of place I'd gladly spend my entire life at if I'd had my druthers. There were film screenings, poetry recitals, seminars and talks, Qavvali performances (which I regularly pestered Sabeen to send me recordings of, and she always graciously complied). Sabeen had almost single-handedly established T2F and had weathered problems that would make a lesser mortal lose hope and give up. Especially harrowing was the armed burglary that had interrupted a session at T2F and had forced it to shut down. But Sabeen found a new, safer location, reopened T2F,christened it T2F 2.0 and went back to what she called her 'ridiculously high-minded' ambition of providing a safe, open and engaging hub of intellect and culture for Karachi.

Despite frequent difficulties, financial and otherwise, Sabeen and T2F powered on and became an integral part of Karachi's cultural landscape. She was also the one person who unreservedly deserved to put the word "activist" in her bio. An unabashed bleeding-heart liberal, she was a street-fighter and a rabble-rouser ; marching, rallying and protesting in Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar or wherever she felt the need to voice her opinions, actively and joyously participating in political rallies irrespective of the political party involved. She voiced opinions that were either unpopular or at the very least  unmentionable because of fear of reprisals. But her self-confessed cavalier attitude towards fear led her to shout from the rooftops for everything she believed in.

At the end of last year, when I was planning my trip to Karachi, one of the things I was most looking forward to was finally meeting Sabeen and visiting T2F. We had planned to hold a number of Qavvali mehfils at T2F and had asked her for permission. Sabeen and the entire T2F staff were busy curating and organizing the "Creative Karachi" festival at that time and were neck deep in the administrative and logistical jumble that the festival entailed. Not only did she allow us to use her premises, she instructed her staff, who had been working nonstop for the last week or so, to make sure that we had everything we needed to make our recording sessions a success, even allowing us to tinker with T2F's decor to suit our needs. We had coordinated all of this on Facebook and I was aching for a face to face meeting, so the day I landed in Karachi, I hurried off with a few friends to the Creative Karachi festival, hoping to catch Sabeen.

I found her patiently answering a list of boring questions posed by a television reporter who clearly had better things to do and better places to go to. When she caught my eye, her wonderful half-smile and a resigned shrug of her shoulders told me how much she was enjoying the interview. After she'd finished, I introduced myself, received a wonderful hug and instructions to look her up later that evening when the chaos had settled a bit. Before returning from the festival, I met her again and we chatted for a while before she was again swept away to her administrative duties. The next day, she visited T2F as we were getting ready to record a performance by Subhan Ahmed Nizami, and this time we chatted for a good half hour. She was utterly exhausted after the successful conclusion of the festival, but she was pleased and awfully proud of her staff for having carried it off so well. After she'd left, we finished our recording sessions, bought the latest batch of Kidvai Sb's CDs, thanked the staff, rearranged whatever we had altered in T2F and left, hoping to return again. After completing our journey and returning home, I thanked Sabeen for allowing us use of T2F and her staff, and hoping to meet again soon, and she responded with similar hopes.

A photo posted by Musab Bin Noor (@musabbinnoor) on

The trip to Karachi is a source of many wonderful memories but one of the biggest thrills for me had been finally meeting Sabeen and visiting T2F. She was exactly like I'd imagined her to be, and more. Animated, frank, with a brilliant sense of humor and a complete absence of cynicism, she was a person so absolutely and vitally 'alive' in every sense of the word that it is absolutely impossible for me to think of her in the past tense.The outpouring of grief, messages of condolence and support has been widespread, and I hope Sabeen's family and friends find comfort in the fact that she was respected, admired and genuinely loved by so many. Once the initial, paralyzing shock has passed, it will be time to carry her legacy forward. T2F will (hopefully) carry on, providing a template to encourage the development of similar safe havens for thought and speech. Her tradition of activism will continue to inspire more people to leave the comfort of their armchairs and actively engage in the causes they believe in. Her half-smile will continue to live in the hearts of her friends and admirers, providing encouragement when despair and cynicism start creeping in.

It is sadly fitting that a friendship that began online should have had it's premature end online too. A week ago, idling the hours away at the internet, I'd stumbled across a silly little quote about one of Bruce Springsteen's songs. It had made me laugh and I decided to share it on Facebook. As I was typing it out, I remember thinking to myself, "I bet Sabeen would get a laugh out of this". Sure enough, five minutes later, there was a comment by her, a chuckle. That was the last time I heard from her and that's how I'd like to remember her, chuckling at something silly, with the twinkle in her eye and the characteristic little shake of her head. Like many others, I too shall find closure and her memory will become a source of solace and comfort for me. But for now, while the wound is still fresh and tears are still precariously close, I shall listen to one of her favorite pieces of music by one of her favorite artists; a recording that has, in a cruel twist of fate, become a lament for her. As for how I shall honor her memory, I was discussing it with a friend last night and I think I've decided what I shall do. If and when I ever have a daughter of my own, I know what to name her, and hopefully she shall grow up to be worthy of that name. Goodbye Sabeen, God bless !!

"Ae Daiyya, Kahan Gaye Vae Log?"
"Lord, where have those people gone?"