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 .

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

...Of The Qawwalis That Carried Me Through

Each day for the last three months, when the sun was about to set and the heat had abated to non-lethal levels, I would take my laptop to the roof of my tiny hospital in the middle of the jungle, sit cross-legged on the floor of the terrace and listen to music in an attempt to preserve my sanity. This experiment wouldnt've been possible without smearing myself with gallons of Mospel and ignoring the attentions of bats, spiders, moths and on one occasion, a herd of goats who were exceptionally adept at climbing stairs. But failure wasn't an option. A day spent in isolation, electricity-less heat and unbearable humidity had to end in at least an hour of peaceful and contented enjoyment otherwise I'd go mad.

Qawwali constituted the bulk of what I listened to, and if I say that Qawwali recordings got me through these difficult three months, I wouldn't be wrong. I listened to literally hundreds of recordings, each of which was brilliant in it's own way, but I chose the following to share because they all fulfilled one simple criteria; they all struck a deep emotional chord. Dusk has many different moods, from sombre and foreboding to peaceful and reassuring; and a combination of the isolation, the environment and these recordings proved to be a bewitching brew. I must admit that on more than a few occasions while listening to one or the other of these recordings, I found myself with tears in my eyes, moved unlike I've ever been before. I share these recordings in the hope that some day, somewhere, when the sunset's just right and the milieu of the heart is just right, someone will play one of these and feel like I used to do sitting in the dark on that lonely rooftop.

The first recording I'd like to share is by Haji Mehboob Qawwal and the kalam and the adayegi perfectly encapsualted the state of my heart and mind in those days. A kalaam of Pir Mehr Ali Shah's (RA) son Hazrat Babuji (RA), this beautiful ghazal is sung in a meandering and wonderfully slow and mellow arrangement. In an exception to his performance style, Haji Sahab doesn't adorn this Kalam with 'girahs', preferring to let the words and the melody convey their meaning. My feelings of distance and separation from loved ones, along with the few pleasures of this sometimes 'splendid isolation' found perfect expression in this wonderful performance.

Majboor Hoon, Lachaar Hoon Aye Jaane Tamanna

The one group that I listened to almost incessantly was "Fateh Ali Khan-Mubarak Ali Khan Qawwals and Party'. Nusrat's legendary father and uncle are without a doubt two of the very very greatest Qawwals of the last century and I've never heard anyone, not even Nusrat, who comes close to their exquisite, inventive, forceful and wonderfully fluid andaz. The talaffuz, adayegi, use of behlawas and pure technical brilliance these two brothers possessed willl remain unmatched. Of all the recordings I listened to, the one I returned to the most was the one I am sharing below. Recorded in India in the late fifties, with Fateh Ali Khan contributing most of the vocals, this short piece is filled with wonderful little treasures. From the Aye Lo's and the Aye Ji's to the beautiful phrasing to the vacillating taans, this is one brilliant recording.

Khud Daari-e-Ehsaas Ko Thukra Nahi Sakte 


 Another favorite of mine is the magnificent "Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal" group, one of Fateh Ali and Mubarak Ali's most talented disciples. They were exceptional proponents of Iqbaliyat, creating some of the most stirring Qawwali interpretations of Iqbal's kalaam. The recording that I am sharing below was an instant favorite the moment I first heard it. The beauty of the kalam is coupled with the Qawwal party's unique style to form a brilliant combination. You can easily hear echoes of the Ustads' style in that of the Shagird. With the shehnai flitting around in the background, Bakhshi Khan's emphatic and almost aggressively forceful style delivering each verse like a hammer-blow to the heart and then exclaiming 'Zara Dekho Ji!' and 'Aaheva' in an almost defiant manner and Salamat Khan and Saddo Khan delivering their trademark vacillating taans, this is undoubtedly one of the best and most moving interpretations of Iqbal ever recorded. I used to put this Qawwali on repeat and literally stomp around on the roof to the beat of the handclaps till I was exhausted. It still remains one of my favorite Qawwali performances.

Mataa-e-Be Bahaa Hai Dard-o-Soz-e-Arzoo Mandi 


 Abdul Hamid,Ghulam Kibriya Vehranwale Qawwals aren't a name that would be familiar to many, being one of the many Qawwali groups that regularly performed in and around Faisalabad in the '80s and early '90s. Their style was very similar to another Faisalabad group, their relatives, Maulvi Ahmed Hassan Akhtar Hassan Qawwal And Party. They performed in what we can call the 'thaitth' Punjabi style, with forceful taali and liberal girahs from the Punjabi Sufi canon. What they lacked in knowledge of the intricacies of Classical music, they more than made up for with their almost rustic simplicity and earthy delivery. The following recording features one of the best 'Dohas' I've ever heard, a simple yet appealing melody and wonderful and emotive girahs taken from Hashim Shah's version of Sassi Punnu. Occasional use of the Potohari 'tappa' style brings out the pathos of the text and make it an unadorned yet beautiful performance.

Layi Jindri Main Tere Naa Ve Yaar 


Manzoor Niazi Qawwal And Party has been blessed with two of the most wonderful voices in recent Qawwali history. Manzoor Niazi sahab's unmistakeable soft, mellow and emotive voice is perfectly complemented by his son Abdullah Manzoor Niazi's strong, rich, flexible and extremely melodious one. One of the three pillars of the Qawwal Bacchon ka Gharana, and the only surviving member of the legendary trio of Manzoor Niazi, Bahauddin Khan, Raziuddin Ahmed Qawwals, Niazi sahab's party is one of the top two or three Qawwal parties of Pakistan. The ravages of age have taken their toll on his voice but this recording from 1984 perfectly captures the voices of both father and son at their best. The familiar Khusrau kalam is performed very melodiously, with emphasis on melodic improvisation and both father and son show their melodic abilities, especially on 'Naina Mila Ke'. The spoken word and sung girah-bandi in the latter half of the recording is some of the best and most apt I've heard. I wouldn't be wrong in saying that of all the dozens of versions of this kalaam, this is my favorite.

Chaap Tilak Sab Cheen Li 


 I'd like to end this post with another Haji Mehboob Qawwal recording. The mehfil from which this recording is taken is one of my most favorite mehfils, and this recording is the gem of the session. The sound quality is utterly pristine, Haji sahab's sitar and Haji Mushtaq's harmonium are accompanied by a brilliant violin (something that I've heard only in this mehfil). One of the characteristics of Haji sahab was that he was usually accompanied by only one or two hamnavaas, who didn't contribute to the vocals and only took part in the taali, hence the performance was carried totally by the two brothers themselves. Here too, there's only two voices, yet the fullness and richness of the performance is unmatched. Haji sahab's trademark and extremely apt girahs adorn the kalaam at regular intervals, and this kalaam also contains one of my very favorite ones, which Haji sahab emphasizes with a rare 'Shear mulahiza ho'. As a friend had said to me, 'Musab bhai, yeh kalaam jhoom jhoom ke sunne wala hai.' And I can attest that I've done a lot of jhooming to it on my lonely rooftop.

Dil Burd Ze Man Chashme Siyaahe Ba Nigaahe 

My instinctive reaction on listening to/reading/watching something that I instantly love is to instantly share it with others who I know would appreciate it as much as I did. This irresistible urge to share was completely and utterly stifled these last three months, and now when I'm finally re-connected with the rest of the world, I felt I shouldn't waste any time in sharing these beautiful pieces of music in the hope that they may provide the same solace, enjoyment and comfort to someone else that they provided to me these past three month. Happy listening !!

The Great Roadtrip - Of Patron Saints And Ghost Towns

It is now almost a year since I undertook what turned out to be the greatest road-trip of my life. The term 'voyage of discovery' might be a cliche but that's certainly how I will describe the week or so of traveling that I did in South and Central Punjab last September. What with one thing or the other, I've never gotten around to properly writing about it and sharing some of the experiences, sights and sounds of those six or seven days. But the leisure afforded me by my current location has trumped my innate laziness and I've decided it's about time I got around to it. My memory might be clouded over by the year gone by, but I still remember enough to get the writing juices flowing, and armed with the hundreds of photos I took with my crummy cellphone camera, I think I can finally shape the account of my great roadtrip into something resembling a coherent narrative.

Like every good story, this one begins with a prelude. I had been in Dera Ghazi Khan working in the flood relief efforts for over three weeks and was itching for a break. The workload, though heavy, wasn't the reason I was raring at the bit. I had planned a great deal of sightseeing in and around Dera Ghazi Khan and wasn't getting any chance of going about it. Although the evenings were usually free but travel restrictions meant that I wasn't able to see anything more than the one odd place of interest that happened to be in one of the villages where I'd set up a medical camp. An abortive attempt was made to visit the Sakhi Sarwar shrine; an attempt that turned into something resembling a farce on wheels starring a car that could only go one kilometer at a time before stopping to pant and wheeze, a tape deck that insisted on playing lewd Naseebo Lal songs and a driver that could only understand Pushto, which neither of the passengers could speak.

It was with great relief and a fair bit of excitement that I greeted the announcement that the entire party of around a dozen people would be taking a day off and going on a roadtrip to the nearby hilltop town of Fort Munro, with a stopover at the Sakhi Sarwar shrine. My sightseeing plans were finally starting to see fruition as the traveling party rode out on the Dera Ghazi Khan-Quetta highway. As an aside i would like to mention that I have seen around two dozen cities and innumerable towns all over Pakistan and I have never seen a place that depressed me more than Dera Ghazi Khan. A district headquarter, DG Khan looked more like, I hate to admit it, a pigsty. All the main roads were muddy ditches, the traffic was horrible, the city was skirted by a huge and foul smelling sewerage nullah and the whole place had a weirdly oppressive air. The immense relief I felt at being out on the open highway, away from the mud and congestion of DG Khan cannot be described in words. The road ran through wide plains that slowly rolled up into rocky hills where the road got a little treacherous.

The first stop was the town of Sakhi Sarwar around twenty miles down the road from DG Khan, housing the shrine of Hazrat Sakhi Sarwar (R.A), the patron saint of all travelers, which was rather fitting now that I look back on it. The shrine was located deep inside the town so we parked the cars at a distance and walked through the narrow alleyways towards the shrine. As we got closer, I was greeted by the sight that I would become familiar with in the course of trips to dozens of other shrines; a shrine bazaar. On either side of the path leading upto the shrine entrance were shops selling flowers, multicolored chadars, semiprecious gemstones and 'makhaanas'; the tiny white sweetmeat that is traditionally distributed as tabarruk. The entrance to the shrine comprised a large two-story facade with a central entryway flanked with two yellow-painted panels. The upper story had three beautifully decorated overhanging balconies. The courtyard had a neem tree in the centre and was flanked on one side with a centuries old mosque and on the other by a row of 'hujras'. Facing the entrance was the main shrine complex, with a long covered enclave and a single door leading to the tombs of the saints. The entire courtyard was bordered by an underhanging ledge adorned by beautiful painted tile that is South Punjab's speciality.

 The enclave was covered by a wooden roof that had beautiful geometric patterns adorning it in a design that I was later to see at shrines in Ucch Shareef, Multan and Lahore.Inside the tombs there was relative darkness and the unmistakeable scent of incense and rosewater. There were a number of small graves of some of the Saint's disciples and followers, and in the eastern corner of the tomb, the graves of the Saint himself and his sons. We paid our respects and then wandered around into a small room that adjoined the main tomb. Here sat an old man wearing tattered robes who would swat us each with what looked like a bouquet of peacock feathers and demand a rather hefty sum for the priviledge. It was an insight into the rather unusual system of commerce that thrives in and around shrines. After a further bit of wandering, including a futile search for the spot where Guru Nanak Saheb was supposed to have stayed when he made a pilgrimage to the Sakhi Sarwar shrine, we left for our second and final destination for the day, the town of Fort Munro.

Fort Munro is an historically important town. The seat of the government agent in the colonial times, it marked the eastern boundary of the Baloch lands and was the site of a small fort that housed a military garrison. After Balochistan's accession with Pakistan , Fort Munro served as the residence of the political agent. It was supposed to be South Punjab's answer to Murree, a temperate hill-station in the middle of the plains that offered a respite from the weather for the wealthy and the well-to-do. what it turned out to be was something quite the opposite. I'd seen ghost-towns in films and on TV, now was my chance to see one for myself. As we wound up the surprisingly tricky climb, we couldn't see a single inhabitant. There were houses, shops, motels, roadside dhaabas and pan-shops. There just wasn't anyone in them. In a town whose population should've been at least five or ten thousand, we couldn't find a single person.

This inexplicable lack of inhabitants wasn't the only eerie thing about Fort Munro. As we reached the crest of the hill, we saw to our right a body of water too large to be a pond and too small to be a lake. It had a small pier on one of the banks and had a dark, murky and somewhat sinister look. Coming to the top of the main hill, there was a fair-sized plateau that housed a park, remnants of an old fort, deserted government offices and to complete the ghost-town decor, an old colonial era graveyard. Naturally, we made a beeline for the graveyard. There were around a dozen graves, great and small, belonging to the military personnel and their families who inhabited the fort nearly a century ago. This graveyard proved to be the most interesting place we visited in Fort Munro for a number of reasons.

The first grave that caught my eye was that of a brother in arms, quite literally. Horace Allenby Smith was a military surgeon and a Fellow of the Royal Society in the days when it really meant something. The thought of that poor army doctor lying buried thousands of miles from his home in a godforsaken piece of rocky ground on top of a desolate mountain put a lot of things in perspective. There were graves of two or three little children who had drowned in the lake we'd seen earlier. And there was another grave which clearly showed signs of having been opened recently. All in all, the perfect setting for an episode of the Twilight Zone or one of those cheap TV movies they make based on Stephen King stories.

Needless to say, the entire traveling party was thoroughly spooked at that point, so much in fact that when we saw the first living thing we'd seen the entire trip; a goat on a mountain ledge, we half expected it to sprout some wings and come swooping down on us Nazgul style. Thankfully it didn't and even more thankfully we managed to catch the thing. And having caught it we did the civilized thing,  namely slaughtered, barbecued and feasted on Herr Goat. After a pwopah meal, the kind that dispels the spookies and puts courage into the hearts of men, we set about exploring again. Not that it did us any good, a deserted colonial era cricket pitch-cum-tennis court being the only thing we saw. It was then that we decided to call it a day on the trip and head back. The highlight of the return trip was a sing along. Trust me, you haven't lived till you've heard a fifty year old Pashtun gentleman belt out 'Bailamos' in a pushto accent.

The trip to sakhi Sarwar and Fort Munro wasn't entirely what I'd envisioned it to be, but it was very important to me in that it proved to be the starting point for all my subsequent explorations and photographing excursions. Three days later I left Dera Ghazi Khan for Multan which was the first stop on my Great Road Trip and when I returned home ten days later, I had traveled nearly 2000 miles and a discovered a new facet to my life.