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 .

Saturday, July 24, 2010

...Of A Pilgrimage

This Sunday I went here

From the outside, it may look like just another shop in a random Pakistani market but in terms of folk music in Punjab in general and Sufi music in particular, Rehmat Gramophone House in Faisalabad is Pakistan's answer to the Abbey Road studios. For me as for many other Pakistani music geeks, RGH is an almost mythical place.

Nusrat cut his first records here, his father recorded some of his last. Attaullah Khan Essakhelvi's journey from unknown performer to the darling of truck drivers all over Pakistan started here. Allahditta Loonaywala was a circus singer before he came to RGH to record. Alam Lohar, Inayat Hussain Bhatti, Zahida Parveen, Reshman, Pathanay Khan, Saeen Zahoor...everybody recorded at RGH. Their archives probably contain more Punjabi folk cultural artifacts than anywhere else in the world.

I had been planning to go to RGH for a while now but due to the unpredictable ward-duties timetable that's the bane of a House-Officer, most of my weekends were spent in the wards. This time though, I specifically requested the powers-that-be to give me a day off so I could go to Faisalabad and finally see the place. Thankully, I got the weekend and on Sunday, I left Lahore for Faisalabad at 9.30 in the morning.

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I consider my phone my Swiss Army knife, and the most potent and useful app in my phone is Google Maps. I can't count the number of times it has saved me from the consequences of my terrible sense of direction. Google Maps made Islamabad and Lahore navigable for me, it took me to my Powergliding trip and now it got me right to RGH Faisalabad from my place in Lahore without ONCE having to stop and ask for directions. In short, Google Maps gets the coveted Official Seal Of Awesomeness

I can say for a fact that I loved Faisalabad, especially the whole 'Ghanta-ghar and Gol Bazar' area. Anarkali in Lahore used to be an interesting place, with bookstores, music shops, people selling trinkets, herbal medicines and the like. But now it's just one huge clothes market. Thankfully, the Gol Bazar in Faisalabad has retained its diversity and you find phoolon ke haar sellers right next to multinational banks, and from what I saw, each doing a roaring trade.

I took a deep breath once I entered Rehmat Gramophone House and I was immediately floored; if old books smell an 8 on the awesomeness scale, old records smell an 11 !! Granted there aren't many vinyls at the shop, but they've still got enough to give me an odour-gasm. I had talked to one of the people at RGH a day earlier and they were expecting me. Before I started to give a look and listen to the qawwali recordings I wanted, I asked them to let me wander around the place a bit. RGH is like a museum and it was an experience just looking at the millions of cassettes on the shelves and imagining the treasures they contained. I thought the gentleman in the photograph in the store was the late supernaturally brilliant Agha Rasheed Fareedi Qawwal, but it turned out to be that of the founder of RGH, Chaudhry Rehmat Ali.

My already huge respect for the musical tastes of the people of Faisalabad increased as I noticed that RGH is almost always full of customers. People are regularly coming in with names of Qawwalis or folk-songs written on slips of paper that the staff take a look at and immediately find for them. I didn't see a single customer turned away because they didn't have the recording he wanted.

After my tour was done I requested them to let me see the tapes I had asked them for, the staff bustled off to underground vaults and returned bearing huge boxes filled with cassette tapes, (something that reminded me partly of Gringotts obviously, but also of a brilliant Bill Bailey spiel about the Argos stores). They had the stuff alright, and giving every cassette a whirl on their stereo cleared any doubts about the sound quality (something I'm very finicky about, knowing the hours that go into cleaning a muddy recording) Once I had expressed my satisfaction with the 10 odd cassettes that I'd ordered, I started looking around for other rarer artists that I didn't really expect them to have.

Suffice to say, they had 'em. They opened up their old recording ledgers and let me look at the various artists and recording dates and when I'd picked one, the store staff would go and retrieve the master-tapes to make me a copy. I spent 3 hours there, exploring, listening to and discussing music with possibly the most knowledgeable and accommodating people I've met. In the end, I left with 7 recordings and they promised to parcel me the rest after they'd made copies from the master-tapes. The rest of my stash arrived today and although I know it'll be a long hard slog digitizing and editing these recordings, I'm terribly, terribly happy.

(RGH photos courtesy Sohail Abid)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

...Of Rains And Raindances

The heavens have been merciful these past two days. After one or two false alarms, the monsoon is finally, officially here in Lahore. The terrible heatwave appeared to have ended 5 days ago when a shower of utterly biblical proportions descended on Lahore. I was reminded of the early monsoon showers we used to have in Pindi 7-8 years ago where the rain would fall in bucketloads and it would be hard to differentiate individual raindrops in what seemed like a solid wall of water.
5 days ago was my first monsoon shower in Lahore, and it was perfect,thankyouverymuch. I was in the operation theatre that day and when the rain started, all work stopped. One of our surgeons was so overwhelmed by the weather that he called it an early day and went home to, in his words, "Pakoras and the lady wife". In between operations, I kept sneaking outside to just stand and soak for 2 or 3 minutes, and I wasn't the only one. I was informed that this was the first 'pwopah' monsoon shower Lahore had had in a year and a half, hence the excitement. A healthy 4 hours it rained, after which the clouds took their time disappearing.

I had thought that here at last was the belated start of the rainy season and that there'd be similar showers every alternate day from now on. Having been spoiled by Pindi weather for 5 years, I expected monsoons to be week-long affairs without interruptions. But I should've known that Lahore prefers its rains scattered, with at least 3-4 days of mind-numbing humidity to calm the happy populace down. The three day humidity break more than dampened my enthusiasm for the weather.

But yesterday, awesomeness returned to Lahore. Slowly at first, the drizzle turned to a steady shower and then to a downpour. For 5 hours it constantly rained, and although I was stuck in the clinics seeing patients, I couldn't help but excuse myself every half an hour to stand outside and take in the weather. And it didn't stop there. I was grumbling over the fact that I had night duty in such perfect weather, but I needn't have worried. Just as my night shift was ending, lo and behold, it started raining again. It's been raining for the last 3 hours now, and the roads, parks and open spaces are utterly inundated.

I know there'll be a further bout of humidity when this rain passes, I'm hearing news of rain-related accidents and injuries and I know the water-borne bacteria will have a field-day for the next week or two, but I'd be unfair to myself if I didn't go out and enjoy this perfect perfect weather.

If there's anything that can make the rain even more awesome, it's this.

And if you think Gene Kelly looked happy in that one, take a look at this. The 3 Tenors take on Singin' In The Rain in one of their NYC concerts and the smile on Gene's face is utterly priceless.

Book Of The Week, "The Lost world Of Hindustani Classical Music"
Music Of The Week, The incredible treasure-trove I've found, which merits it's own post.

Friday, July 9, 2010

...Of Death

Long ago, when the number of people I held dear who had either died or been injured in the almost daily acts of terrorism all over Pakistan became one too many, a hard-edged,cynical resignation overcame me.

When I was very young, I had tried to make sense of why people would want to murder someone who was not only innocent but the very antithesis of violence. I had tried to get my head around the assassinations of Hakeem Muhammad Saeed sahab and Prof. Ghulam Murtaza Malik among countless others. But the five traumatic years that I spent in Rawalpindi finally made me give up the futile effort. Literally every other week, there was a blast within two miles of where I lived. Me and most of my hostel-mates gradually got so insensate that we'd be nonchalantly prepping for our exams amid sounds of gunshots and explosions, popping off to the TV room every 5 or 6 hours to "catch up on the carnage" as it were. The focus shifted from whether there was any loss of life in the most recent incident to whether our exams would be delayed or, even more inanely, would we be allowed to leave the hostel for a night on the town or would the hostel gates be closed because of security reasons and we'd have to take a more, ahem, circuitous route.

I think it's come naturally to me, this cold, indifferent attitude towards death. And it has been augmented, if anything, by my training as a medical student .I've been taught from the first day to think of death as a natural occurrence to be delayed as long as possible, anticipated, prepared for and then forgotten before getting on to the next delay-anticipate-prepare-forget cycle. This fits in perfectly with my attitude towards most of the things that I find troubling.

Lately I've begun to wonder if this strange apathy has been with me from the start, or have I gradually immured my senses. The first death that registers in my memory is that of a childhood friend. 'M' was a hockey player, which is saying something considering he was in 2nd grade. Our school was right next to the train tracks and he lived on the wrong side. I have many memories from back then and one of the most vivid is getting to school and just after the morning assembly, hearing the news that M had been run over by a train. Apparently a strap from his schoolbag had gotten struck in the tracks as he was crossing them and he couldn't disentangle himself in time.

Then there was 'A' in Sargodha who had a congenital renal disease that meant he couldn't come out to play very often and the only explanation his mum used to give us was,"Beta, 'A' beemaar hai." A year or two after we had moved to a new city,dad called up his father to ask how 'A' was doing, he got the shocking news that 'A' had passed away the previous month from complications of his condition.

Both these people had been more than mere acquaintances, being pretty central in my (even then) limited social circle, but I don't remember anything more than a passing sense of shock and a day or two of brooding before I'd relegated their passing to the very back of my mind.

Lots of my relatives have died over the years, from obscure distant relations to people very close to me, and apart from only one occasion,I don't remember myself shedding any tears or going into a phase of depressive remembrance. Such behaviour isn't completely strange because in the rural surroundings that I grew up in, a death and it's subsequent rituals are especially designed to distract (at least the male members of the family) from grief and the act of grieving.

In villages the paraphernalia of death serve as a great emotional buffer. The services aren't restricted to the funeral and the burial or even the 'Qul'. They may involve the 'Saata'(7th day), the 'Gyaarvanh'|(11th day), the 'Ikeevanh'(21st day) or the 'Chaleeyah'(40th day) depending on how long the local custom and the financial situation permit. These forty days aren't spent in ceaseless mourning, at least not by the deceased's next of kin. The formalities and rituals of death, from the thrice daily khaana peena with it's own peculiar rules about when to serve what to whom, to the management of the 'satthar' and the 'mukaan' where the men and women respectively are seated, to the 'bhaajis' and 'manjis' and what not, ultimately serve to help the bereaved family find closure gradually. They also provide the family's extremely reluctant youngsters ample opportunities to be trained in what my father calls 'the real life'.

Of course there is genuine expression of grief, with histrionics and screams and sobs and highly stylized 'baains' that may look very distressing to the casual observer but are essential in providing emotional release, especially to the female mourners. A quiet period of mourning just isn't consistent with our culture and these wails and cries are almost essential. As Munir Niazi sahab said,

رونقیں ہیں موت کی
یہ بین کرتی عورتیں

It's been two months since I've started my house-job, and almost every other day I see patients who are dying. Around half a dozen have died natural deaths on my watch. Death on the wards has it's rituals too. With each, there's a decision on whether to resuscitate or not, followed by the medical confirmation of death, the ahnding over of the dead body and the official paperwork. If I were to be a tad more emotionally affected by it, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to do my job properly. I've seen plenty of new doctors overcome by the sheer emotional shock of a person dying in front of them. And in all these cases the judgement gets clouded, the reflexes get sluggish and professional integrity is compromised.

Maybe this clinical hardheartedness of mine isn't such a bad thing after all.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

...Of Diseases and Diphthongs

I remember discussing a disease with a friend the other day ( I'm afraid 80% of small talk between doctors is about diseases, don't let Grey's Anatomy fool you) when I mentioned in passing that I couldn't help but liking the name of an otherwise quite unwholesome illness. It was when I let my tongue roll around the word a few times as it were, that my friend slowly edged away, muttering under his breath and giving me the eye.

I have a special place in my heart for a few words because of the sheer vocal pleasure I get from pronouncing them. You can't exactly call them 'musical' words, but they have a nice 'ring' to them as Bertie Wooster would say. Growing up watching the BBC back when there weren't that many Lancashire, Yorkshire or *shudder* Glaswegian accents around, I couldn't help but appreciate the niceties of enunciation and the value of what the Pythons called a 'beautiful speaking voice'. I don't know what's the secret balance of vowels and consonants and diphthongs that makes a word especially pleasant to pronounce, but I love pronouncing the words I love and attempt to drag at least one or two into any given conversation . It's a bit like name-dropping, only more geekish.

Here then, are some of my favorite words in no particular order. I'll write as many as I can remember off the top of my head.

Schopenhauer (try dragging that into a conversation!)
Henri Bergson
Marble Cake

Books Of The Week,"The Life And Works Of Amir Khusrau","Young Men In Spats"
Music Of The Week,"Kaatskill Serenade"Bob Dylan, "Yaad Piya Ki Aaye"Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan