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, January 22, 2011

...Of The Secret Chord

Three performances, one eternal melody....

Main Khud Marne Ko Razi Tha
Mehdi Hasan (with Tari Khan on Tabla)

Wherefore Philosophers say that we have learned
Our melodies from those of the revolving spheres.
The song of the spheres in their revolutions
Is what men sing with lute and voice.
We have heard these melodies in paradise;
Though earth and water have cast their veil upon us,
We retain faint reminiscences of those heavenly songs.

Sambhal Kar Dekhna Barq-e-Tajalla, Dekhne Walay
(Haji Mehboob Qawwal,Rasheed Ahmed Fareedi Qawwal and Others)

Hence, listening to Music is lovers' food,
Because it recalls to them their primal union with God.
The inward feelings of the mind acquire strength,
Nay, are shown outwardly, under the influence of music.
The fire of love burns ever hotter,
Under the influence of that divine music.

Haman Hai Ishq Mastana,Haman Ko Hoshiari Kya
(Faqir Shafi Mohammad)

(excerpt from Rumi's Mathnavi)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

....Of "The Sinews Of The Prose"

"A good historian will remember that the world is his oyster and that syllables govern the world. He will be read if he can carry the people along with him. If he has a perfect command of the language he can make the long sweep of events into a vivid, moving, pulsating piece of prose. Words should come like water bubbling from a silver jar. And each word shall take it's proper place in the sequence and order of the narration, to draw a scene, or describe the tumult of a revolution or the commotion of a riot, or emphasize the inner significance of an event, or paint the character of a personage. The vocabulary is large, felicitous and varied; and the words, particularly the adjectives and adverbs, stand at attention waiting to be summoned to duty. The sinews of the prose are supple and strong. The story spins itself out with unimpeded ease and lulling fluency. The fertility of phrase is such that veil by veil the mystery of events unwinds itself. Long sentences run with a natural effortlessness, with one clause following another in magnificent succession. The sifted purity of the prose idiom merges with the lyrical surge of argument. everything is clear, unambiguous, stark, meaningful. The reach is long, the descriptive power unruffled by the change of scene, the portrayal revealing, the analysis of motives penetrating and balanced, the impact shattering. In sum, a quick, glinting style like a stream over rocks; limpid, rapid, revealing, flashing, sparkling, hiding nothing, distorting nothing, making dulcet music out of history."

Excerpted from Prof. KK Aziz's monumental "The Murder Of History : A Critique Of History Textbooks Used In Pakistan".

...Of An Unexpected (And Unbelievable) Find

Two months ago on a trip to Rawalpindi/Islamabad for my Convocation, I spent a day with some very special friends at what I have decided to call "Qawwali Central". At an unassuming house in an unfrequented corner of Islamabad that serves as the office of a Lab Equipment distribution company, I met a couple of friends over a cup of tea and spent four or five highly enjoyable hours listening to, discussing and sharing the whole spectrum of sub-continental classical and devotional music. I sensed pretty early on that I was being initiated into a rather exclusive group of people that treat Sufi Music not just as a part-time means of entertainment but as a passion that occupies a prominent place in their daily lives. We talked about the many projects that each of us is undertaking in our spare time-from cataloging and digitizing cassette tapes to transcribing and editing them to trying to publish the transcribed, annotated Qawwali mehfils in our collection.

And obviously, we listened. I heard several artists and recordings that I was dying to hear for a very long time and they heard what little I had to offer that wasn't already in their possession. Among the various phenomenal pieces of music that I heard for the first time were Gramophone recordings from the '30s and '40s of the two giants of pre-partition Qawwali ; Ali Buksh "Waiz" Qawwal and Azeem Prem Ragi. These two Qawwals hold an almost mythical status in 20th century Qawwali history, being Qawwali what Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters were to the Blues; innovators and popularizers of a centuries old art form who had a profound effect on generations of Qawwals to come. Their recordings were terribly hard to come by and I'd previously had to satisfy myself with reading Prof. Regula Qureshi's evocative accounts of their performances but this time around I had the pleasure of actually listening to them and it was definitely worth the wait.

I left Islamabad with a truckload of new recordings and have listened to them non-stop over the last two months. While listening to one of the MP3s, I came upon a surprising discovery. Unless I was greatly mistaken, I could clearly hear Munshi Raziuddin's distinctive voice on a recording labelled as Ali Buksh "Waiz" Qawwal. Since the recording was very muddy and I wasn't sure what to make of it, I called up the folks at Qawwali Central to clarify. I also sent off emails to a number of very knowledgeable connoisseurs including Abu Muhammad Sb - Munshi saheb's son and one of Pakistan's most eminent Qawwals. From all of them I inquired if Munshi Raziuddin had ever performed with Waiz Qawwal, however I could find no evidence of such a collaboration.

Meanwhile, the folks at Qawwali Central came up with the clarification I was looking for. Munshi Raziuddin had never performed with Waiz and it was actually a mislabeled recording of *pause for effect* the original Manzoor Niazi Qawwal Aur Hamnavaa group performing at Pakpattan. Further proof of the veracity of the information was provided when the gentleman who had actually recorded the Qawwali in the early '60s on a reel-to-reel was contacted and he confirmed that it was definitely the Manzoor Niazi group, and that the recording was made at a Mehfil-e-Sama'a on the occasion of Baba Farid's Urs celebration. So there I had it, confirmation that I did indeed have a truly rare and beautiful recording of the Manzoor Niazi troupe.

Two or three weeks after this I visited Islamabad again and had the immense pleasure of listening to and meeting Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad Qawwals where among other things I discussed the recording I had found. I promised that I'd share it with them after I'd edited it a bit to make it more listenable. I've sporadically worked on it over the past month and I think it's in a listenable and share-able form now. A 50 year old amateur recording, it was in pretty bad shape, muddy and distorted with a lot of pop and hiss and variations of pitch and tempo. I've tried to improve it as much as I can and although the end result is far from perfect, I think it's listenable enough to be able to appreciate the performance at great detail.

So without further ado, here is a 27 minute recording of Munshi Raziuddin, Ustad Bahauddin Qawwal and Manzoor Ahmed Niazi performing "Koi Tum Sa Nazar Nahi Aata" at Hazrat Fariduddin Ganj Shakar (R.A)'s Shrine at Pakpattan in the early '60s.

 Yun to kya kya nazar nahi aata
Koi tum sa nazar nahi aata

Dhoondti hain jisse meri aankhain
Woh tamasha nazar nahi aata.

Ho chali khatm Intezaar main Umr
Koi aata nazar nahi aata.
Jholiyaan sab ki bharti jaati hain
Dene wala nazar nahi aata.

Jo nazar aate hain, nahi apney
Jo hai apna, nazar nahi aata.

Zair-e-sayaa hoon uss ke ae Amjad
Jiss ka sayaa nazar nahi aata.

I couldn't discern Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami's voice among the Qawwals, an omission that can be better explained by more knowledgable heads than mine.The kalaam is a beautiful one that I haven't heard before and the 'girahs' inserted by all three Qawwals are extremely apt and very moving. The collaborative singing is of the highest order, reaffirming the loss Qawwali suffered when the Manzoor Niazi Aur Hamnavaa ensemble split up. But as in the recording above, the group in all its glory has the power to transport the listener to giddy heights indeed.

P.S For a copy of the recording, leave a request in the comments.

Monday, January 10, 2011

...Of Little Afghanistan And Its Patron Saint

I never spare an opportunity to offer unsolicited testimonials to that most wonderful of inventions, Google Maps. From my pilgrimage to Rehmat Gramophone House in Faisalabad to my travels across South Punjab, I've relied on Google Maps, and it's never let me down. A few of the places I've visited in Lahore have caused my acquaintances to exclaim, "I've lived in Lahore for 30 years and I haven't even heard of that place. How on earth did you manage to find it?" or variations thereof. The answer of course, is Google Maps. Due to the voluntary efforts of a team of dedicated digital cartographers, I've been able to feast my eyes on some of the most remarkable places in Pakistan.

While I was scouring the maps for places of interest in the Begumpura area of Lahore, a name caught my eye - Khwaja Mehmud's Tomb. I must confess I hadn't heard of the personage before. Google wasn't able to provide me with much information either, except for telling me that Khwaja Saheb's tomb was an architectural masterpiece and a well preserved relic of the Mughal times. So on my recent trip to Begumpura, I decided to follow Google Maps' instructions and look up the elusive tomb. What I had gathered online was that Khwaja Mehmood - also known as Shah Eishan - was that the saint lived during the reigns of Jehangir and Shahjehan and hence was a contemporary of Hazrat Mian Mir (RA).

After visiting the Gulabi Darwaza and the tomb of Dai Anga (which will be written about in a future post hopefully), I took a detour into Begumpura and after navigating a few winding streets, came across the tomb. Adjoined by a mosque and a graveyard (the usual accroutements of a Sufi shrine) and a well-kept park, the tomb stands tucked away between residences and shops. A gaggle of small children were playing near its walls, looked over by a bunch of benevolent elders smoking chillums and playing cards. The whole place gave an aura of isolated serenity that I've rarely felt at other places in Lahore.

Shah Mehmud's tomb is surrounded by residences on three sides, with the fourth occupied by a beautiful park. The tomb is architecturally similar to the rather austere tombs of Hazrat Bahauddin Zikriya, except that it's painted white rather than the tile-decorated red brick of the former. Maybe it's been that way since it's construction, but I think the white colour is the result of our recent penchant for whitewashing everything that we see. A three-story octagonal building topped by a dome, it's an massive structure. The walls are inset with sunken mehraabs, each having tiered trellises that stream light into the interior. The tops of the walls are adorned by 8 slim minarets.

The dome itself is an imposing structure, around 20 feet in diameter with tiered rows of square holes, probably for ventilation and light. Like most of the other buildings in the area, I suspect this tomb also features a "dome within a dome" with the inner dome serving an ornamental function. A filligree pattern runs along the circumference of the dome and it's top is crowned by a large minaret. Pigeons roost in the crevices and ventilation shafts of this 15 foot high dome that can be seen from afar.

A semi-subterranean passageway leads to the absolutely beautiful interior. The rather austere exterior doesn't prepare one for the interior, which is a riot of light and colour. The Saint's final resting place occupies the central position and a chandelier hangs over it. The walls are decorated with floral paintings and delightful Arabesques. There are sunken mehraabs on the interior as well, giving an idea of the solidity and thickness of the walls. The mehraabs have trellises as their centrepieces, with floral designs painted on either side, ascending up to a web-like network of vaulted archlets.The interior of the dome is a beautiful network of geometric designs set on a plain white background. For a building that's safely three to four hundred years old, the interior is astonishingly well preserved.

When I visited the tomb, I was struck by the ethnic composition of the devotees as well as the residents of the nearby colony. Almost all of the devotees I met there were Pashtun, with the hujras adjoining the tomb occupied by three related Pashtun families.Pashto was the language being spoken by the children playing outside the tomb and i could make out fragments of Darri in the conversation of their elders standing nearby. An exploration of the graveyard surrounding the tomb furhther confirmed my assumption that the surrounding population was predominantly Pashtun. A surprising discovery was the graves of two of the wives of Amir Habibullah Khan, the Amir Of Afghanistan . The two royal ladies were buried far away from their homeland, right next to the tomb of this saint at least eighty years ago in what was obviously even then a historically important site.

Conversations with some of the residents of nearby houses confirmed that there had been a fairly large cluster of Pashtun habitations centered around Khwaja Mehmud's tomb for at least three centuries. The Saint himself was a 'Hakeem' and scholar who came to India from Khorasan during the reigns of the earliest Mughals and was a contemporary of Hazrat Mian Mir. He had this tomb built for himself before he died and his tomb served as the unofficial spiritual centre of Lahore's Pashtun diaspora. The population hads been gradually thinning out over the last three centuries so that now there's only two mohallas with predominantly Pashtun populations where once there were a dozen.

The march of history and the demographic shifts that inevitably accompany it have diluted the cultural identity of this unique part of Lahore but Khwaja Mehmud's tomb is an enduring remnant of what was once a vibrant and culturally peculiar corner of Lahore. Little Afghanistan may have started fading at the edges but there's no chance of it completely disappearing so long as Shah Eishan's tomb stands at it's centre.

P.S As a sonic accompaniement to the description of this Pashtun sufi shrine, here's an incredibly rare and beautiful recording of a Qawwali by the legendary Ustad Sarahang of Kabul.