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 2, 2012

...Of The Voice Of The Rohi

If you stopped me on the street tomorrow and asked, "What's the proudest day of your life?" I wouldn't hesitate a second before answering, " 30th October, 2010. "

It's not the day I got admission into Med School, it's not the day I graduated, or the day I started my professional life, or the day I got to talk to Mushtaq Ahmed Yusfi Sb (although come to think of it, that's a very close second). It's the day almost exactly two years ago when I ended my five day exploration of South Punjab with a visit to the shrine of one of the greatest Sufi poets in the history of the subcontinent, Hazrat Khwaja Ghulam Fareed Sb (RA).

I think I've written about it before but I'll give a quick recap. During the disastrous floods of autumn 2010, I went to Dera Ghazi Khan in Southern Punjab for a month of flood relief duties. Towards the end of my spell, I was given five days leave. Since my one month tour of duty was almost ending, I decided to use these five days to explore South Punjab; traveling more than 2000 kilometers over the course of five days and visiting Multan, Bahawalpur, Cholistan, Derawar, Ucch Shareef and various other places east of the river Indus. On the final day, when I was to return to DG Khan, I crossed the Indus and travelled a further 120 miles to the southernmost tip of Punjab, a little town called Mithan Kot. I was there to pay my respects at Khwaja Sb's mazaar.

Before going on to describe what happened that day, I'd like to take a few moments to explain the reason of my visit. My fascination with places of spiritual and historical significance had started during that one month of flood relief duty, yet my visits to various shrines and mazaars weren't motivated by any spiritual reasons. Of course I had the proper respect for them, but I wasn't going there as a pilgrim, merely as a tourist. With Khwaja Sb's shrine however, the motivation was different. I was going there out of spiritual and emotional affinity.

The reason for my "spiritual and emotional affinity" was that since earliest childhood, I had been exposed to Khwaja Sb's poetry via some of the greatest voices of Pakistani history. The names of Pathanay Khan and Zahida Parveen - especially Zahida Parveen - were not just familiar to me, their voices were part of my childhood. My grandparents listened to them - my Daada had me play Zahida Parveen's Kafis to him in his last days - my parents listened to them and in turn, I listened to them. The voices were filled with the sights, sounds and scents of the deserts of the "Rohi". Their tones depicted longing and hope, optimism and regret, love and heartbreak all in the same breath. It was much later when I started to better understand Seraiki that I really began to appreciate what was being sung by these amazing artists.

I think no other subcontinental Sufi poet has better expressed the feelings of longing and separation better than Khwaja Sb. Drawing from Punjabi romantic epics as well as the folk idiom of Seraiki, Khwaja Sb created a distinct language based solely on the concept of Love. Love in Khwaja Sb's poetry, whether spiritual or temporal, is a source of fulfillment and completion, while at the same time leaving one unfulfilled and incomplete. It's hard for a layman like me to explain the nuances of his kalaam, suffice to say that Khwaja Sb is the only poet whose verses have made me burst into tears.

What happened on that October day two years ago was described by me in a previous post as follows;

The obvious step after paying my respects was to ask around for anyone who might sing one of Khwaja Sb's immortal kaafis for me. Somebody directed me to a group of Fakirs sitting in a corner of the shrine courtyard, one of whom was the current Khalifa of the shrine. I introduced myself and expressed my desire to listen to some of Khwaja Sb's kalam and the Khalifa Sb graciously consented to sing some for me, albeit making excuses for his voice. As I brought out my cellphone camera and he started singing, goosebumpy silence was quickly followed by a sudden gush of emotion as tears came to my eyes. I looked around and realised that I wasn't alone, very soon the entire circle of Fakirs was gently sobbing (some of which can be heard on the recording). This in itself would've been enough to make this an unforgettable experience, but somehow I plucked up the the courage to ask the gathered audience if  I could sing something too. they graciously consented and there, right next to Khwaja Sb's resting place, in the company of a group of Fakirs, I sang one of my favorite (and my parents' and grandparents' favorite) kaafi. When I ended, the teary-eyed assemblage very kindly appreciated me and we prayed together for a while before I took my leave. Nothing, and I mean nothing has come close to the sheer spiritual and psychological elation I felt that day.
 Qawwali performers have mined the rich veins of Punjabi Sufi poetry for centuries, drawing from the inexhaustible well of poetry by the likes of Baba Fareed Ganj Shakkar (RA), Baba Bulleh Shah (RA), Hz Waris Shah (RA) and others, and although they have used Khwaja Ghulam Fareed Sb's Kafis in Qawwali too, the use hasn't been very widespread. His Kafis are mostly used as girahs, or as Dohas at the start of the performance, but relatively few Qawwals have performed Khwaja Sb's kalams as a separate piece. This may be due to a reluctance to use the lesser understood Seraiki dialect or due to the unusual Rubai-like quatrains of Khwaja Sb's Kafis which pose some difficulties when it comes to arranging and performing them in Qawwali settings. Yet the few Qawwals who have performed Khwaja Sb's Kafis, and the fewer still who have performed them well, have managed to rival the likes of Zahida Parveen, Pathanay Khan, Hussain Bash Dhaadi, Jumman Khan, Abida Parveen and other folk singers in elucidating the spiritual power of his kalaam.

The following collection comprises of some of my favorite Qawwali recordings of Khwaja Sb's Kafis, accompanied by renditions of the same kalaams by the pre-eminent Folk and Classical singers of their day. Three of these recordings have a very special place in my heart for various reasons, and all of them are very dear to me, as indeed are all renditions of Khwaja Sb's kalam.

Pathanay Khan and Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal - Aa Mil Maroo, Mararroo

Ustad Salamat Ali Khan-Nazakat Ali Khan and Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal - Ishq Anookhri Peer

Zahida Parveen and Akhter Shareef Aroop Walay Qawwal - Itthaan Main Mutthri Nit Jaan Ba Lab

Abida Parveen and Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal - Yaar Sipahiya Aa Wass Mandray Kol

Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal and Miandad Khan Qawwal - Bandi Te Bardi, Taen Dilbar Di O Yaar

Thursday, November 1, 2012

...Of The Klaseeki Angg and the Punjabi Rungg

Over the last decade or so, Qawwali in Pakistan has undergone many changes. The death of most of the leading Qawwals of the last century left a vacuum that hasn't been filled by their successors. The overarching influence of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan has led to a large number of Qawwals adopting - or trying unsuccessfully to adopt - his style while neglecting their own gharana-specific traditional andaaz. Another change that has ocurred has that Qawwals in Pakistan have become divided into two broad groups ; the Punjabi Qawwals and the "Karachi walay" Qawwals as they are known. The first group consists of the successors of the Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali clan, the Fareedi group of Qawwals, stalwarts like Mehr Ali Sher Ali Qawwals etc and their subsequent shagirds while the latter group comprises of the members of the Qawwal Bacchay gharana, the Khurja Noharbani gharana and others who migrated to Karachi around partition. Although there are many stylistic differences between these two groups - and many stylistic overlaps too for that matter - the main difference is the adherence of most of the Karachi-walay qawwals to a traditional classical-based andaaz, contrasted with the Punjabi qawwals' preference for a more bombastic, dhamaal based qawwali style.

This wasn't always the case however; as past generations of Punjabi Qawwals remained true to the classical roots of qawwali while still being faithful to the sights, sounds and moods of their native land. Qawwals like the Sabri Brothers bridged the divide between the traditional Punjabi and the classical styles of the migrant artists. The current generation of Punjabi performers, with one or two exceptions, has overlooked the importance of rooting their performance in the fertile soil of the Hindustani classical musical tradition. In contrast, their forbears ensured the inclusion of Raag based arrangements, and in many cases, specific khayal based items in their performances. As a result, they created a wonderful amalgam of Classical and traditional music.

The following are a group of recordings from some of the pre-eminent Punjabi qawwals of the last century as they perform Khayaal based on classical North-Indian Raags. It is no coincidence perhaps that they all come from a single scholastic lineage in that they are all shagirds of Ustads Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwals. The influence of their traditional Punjabi backgrounds is clearly evident here, as is their respect for, and adherence to the pure classical idiom. It is a real shame that such performances aren't being heard anymore from the current crop of Punjabi Qawwals.

1.Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal - Piya Ka Darshan Main Kaise Paoon Gi, Raag Bhairon

2.Ustad Ameer Ali Murkianvale Qawwal - Piya More Aaye Re Mandarva, Raag Khambavati

3.Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party - Dhan Dhan Bhaag Hamaro, Raag Gawati

4.Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal - Ab Na Rahe Gi Peerr, Raag Hameer ( This is an excerpt from a one hour performance that is among my most favorite Qawwali performances by any qawwal)

5.Ustad Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal - Classical Bandish -Live In Karachi 1961 (This is a Khayal performance taken from a mehfil recording, however I am not sure about the raag being performed).

...Of The Halqa-e-Sukhun

I think I've stated this fact - actually it's an opinion, but I consider all my opinions to be incontrovertible facts - many times before but I'll state it again for good measure ; I think Ustads Fateh Ali Khan and Mubarak Ali Khan were the greatest Qawwals of the last century. I say this despite my almost fanatical love for the other two qawwals who constitute my Qawwali holy Trinity - Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed Sb and Haji Mahboob Ali. I think I once referred to the sound of Tom Waits' voice being like the mating call of a mastodon or a grizzly bear drunk on moonshine; Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali also affect me on a similar, primal and elemental level. Their voices seem to come from some distant, long forgotten place that still echoes with the remnants of the first, universe-creating, big-bang causing celestial music that everyone from Maulana Rumi to Tolkein talks about. There's a wonderful moment in Ken Burn's landmark documentary "Jazz" in which critic Matt Glaser fantasizes about a Louis Armstrong concert in Copenhagen in 1933, saying that he hoped it was attended by the physicists Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Shroedinger. Heisenberg and Shroedinger had both recently received Nobe prizes for their work on Quantum Mechanics and the Wave Equation and were fathers of the theory of relativity. How wonderful it must've been, Glaser muses, if the two physicists actually attended the concert and saw firsthand the phenomenal Louis Armstrong give a practical demonstration of the fact that when something travels at the speed of light; time actually does slow down.

Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali can also be placed into a similar fantasy, only this time Shroedinger would be accompanied by chemists Rutherford and Bohr, and the event would take place after the discovery of electron orbits and orbitals around an atomic nucleus. They would -assuming they somehow made it to Lyallpur in India, but since it's my fantasy I can assume away - be able to listen to the two brothers voices, revolving around a common musical nucleus, giving off and absorbing energy from each other, soaring and dipping constantly but at all times never losing sight of the central musical and spiritual core of their performance. It was this ability that propelled them to the very forefront of the Qawwali musicians of the subcontinent.What is wonderful is that they were able to impart some of their brilliance to an absolutely stellar line-up of shagirds, a list of whose names reads like a who's who of post-partition qawwali ; Agha Rasheed Fareedi Qawwal, Agha Bashir Fareedi, Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan among many others. Obviously none of them could ever completely match the talent of their teachers, but they all displayed flashes of the Ustads' art in their performances.

If my claim that Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali were the greatest Qawwals of the last century is met with skepticism - which it should, I don't think anyone would disagree with my second claim, that they were the greatest interpreters of the greatest Sufi poet of the 20th century, Hz Allama Iqbal (RA). This is borne out by the fact that they performed during Allama's lifetime and received appreciation from Allama himself. The key to performing Iqbal's kalam well in Qawwali is the use of the girah. As most of Iqbal's kalam is unified by a single spiritual core, the experienced Qawwal can mine dozens of verses of girah from Iqbal's Urdu and Farsi kalam, and the more apt and timely the girahs, the more powerful the performance. I've heard no other qawwals put this girah-bandi to better use than Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali. They used verse upon wonderful verse, maintaining a takraar on a single phrase, drumming the audience into a frenzy. I have a recording of theirs, from a mehfil at Government College Lahore I'm told, that is a thing of elemental beauty. The quality is very shoddy, but there's no mistaking the electricity in the atmosphere as Mubarak Ali dives into one vacillating taan after the other and Fateh Ali offers girah upon girah while the accompanists maintain a steady takraar of the phrase "mujh se kaha Jibraeel ne". It is a six minute fragment of hair raising brilliance.

Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali's shagirds carried on their tradition of performing Iqbaliyat, starting in the '50s when the performance of Iqbal's kalam was actively promoted on the Radio by the Government. The more talented of the shagirds also carried forward their Ustads' technique of takraars and girah-bandi, As a result, some of Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali's brilliance managed to live on in the coming decades and their service towards the popularization of Iqbal's kalam became a Sadqa-e-Jariya.

The following collection showcases Iqbal's kalam as sung by Ustad Fateh Ali Khan-Mubarak Ali Khan and their shagirds. For the purposes of economy, I have restricted myself to only one recording of each kalam, and only one recording by each of the shagirds, while allowing the Ustads themselves to have three recordings. The details of each recording are as follows;

Ustad Fateh Ali Khan-Mubarak Ali Khan
Yeh Payam De Gyi hai Mujhe Baad-e-Subha Gaahi - studio recording
Har Shai Musafir, Har Cheez Raahi
Tu Rehnavarde Shauq Hai (Fragment) - Live Mehfil Recording, rather similar to the one I mentioned above.

Agha Bashir Fareedi Qawwal
 Hai Yehi Meri Namaz, Hai Yehi Mera Wuzu - Studio Recording

Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal
 Khol Aankh Zameen Dekh, Falak Dekh, Fazaa Dekh - Studio Recording

Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal
 Mataa'e Be Bahaa Hai Dard-o-Soz-e Arzoo Mandi - Studio Recording

Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan-Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Phir Chiraagh-e-Laala Se Roshan Huay Koh-o-Daman - Studio Recording, recorded soon after Fateh Ali Khan's death when Nusrat had taken over the lead of his father's group.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
Soorat Na Parastam Mun, Butkhana Shikastam Mun - Mehfil Recording.

P.S I have deliberately left out the more well known recordings of Shikwa, Tipu Sultan Ki Wassiyat and other more commonly performed kalaams in order to highlight some of the lesser known but still brilliant interpretations of Iqbal's kalam.

P.P.S The title of this post comes from Iqbal's verse

میرے حلقہِ سخن میں ابھی زیرَ تربیت ہیں
وہ گدا کہ جانتے ہیں رہ و رسمِ کج کلاہی

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

...Of Sunlit Perfection

Stephen Fry once wrote about the works of PG Wodehouse, "You don't analyze such sunlit perfection, you bask in it". Well I'm going to break one of Fry's rules here. The reason is simple; when you've found something absolutely perfect and you want to share it, you can't just simply thrust it on the unsuspecting public without a bit of an introduction. Also, it's been months since I've written anything and I need an excuse to write.

Ever since Mehdi Hassan Sb passed away a couple of months ago, I've renewed my interest in his music. Sadly, this is not the first time someone's death has brought about a rediscovery of their work ; the same happened after the deaths of Johnny Cash, Ustad Vilayat Khan, Ustad Bismillah Khan and many others. What I was especially interested in this time around were some of the earlier recordings of Khan Sahib's; from the '50s onto the end of the '70s, when his voice hadn't mellowed down and he was capable of startlingly beautiful feats of vocal dexterity that were gradually replaced with astounding vocal control and wonderful emotiveness as the years wore on.  The recording that had sparked my interest in Khan Sb's recordings from the earlier part of his career was Nasir Kazmi's "Woh Dilnawaz Hain Lekin Nazar Shanaas Nahi", which was released by EMI sometime in the late '70s. I would've loved to share a link etc but the wonderful YouTube ban prevents me. Suffice to say it was wonderful, and the effect of Khan Sb's crisp voice accompanied by a wonderful orchestra comprising of Eastern and Western instruments was oddly hypnotic.

After Khan Sb's death, I began looking for these recordings in earnest; another reason being my woefully deficient collection of Khan Sb's recordings, which numbered in barely a dozen albums of varying quality. Thankfully I knew where to look , and soon I had a healthy number of recordings, which I began listening to non-stop; the result being thatI signicantly increased the numberof my favorite Mehdi Hassan ghazals. One recording however, instantly stuck out, and deserves a mention in my Instant Infatuations post . This one recording is probably the most perfect example of Khan Sb's brilliant '70s voice, and comes as close to perfection as I can imagine. - Note that I'm again using hyperbole here, a rather stubborn habit.

Sounding almost like Talat Mehmood, surrounded by an orchestra of singing trombones, a simple cascading sitar and a recurrent tap on the triangle, Khan Sb sings Jigar Muradabadi's famous ghazal "Kaam Aakhir Jazba-e- Be Ikhtiyar Aa Hi Gaya" imbueing each syllable with tons of feeling, wonderfully modulating his voice through the rather complicated melody. There are dozens of small flourishes that immediately catch your ear, tiny brushstrokes that a lesser singer might not have contemplated, let alone attempted.

Highlights for me are the beautiful - and unusual for Khan Sb - high note on the fourth syllable 'be-ikh-ti-yaar", that wonderfully elucidates the poet's -and the singer's - state of "be ikhtiyari". The breath control and the timing of each breath is matchless, providing both mellifluousness as well as demonstrating his wonderful mastery over 'bol-baant'. He devotes an entire breath to the word "tarrpa" in the first verse, using a slight vibrato that seems pregnant with 'tarap' . Then there's the wonderful cascade of descending notes at the end of each verse. Khan Sb's attention to 'talaffuz' and adayegi is demonstrated by his insistence on clearly enunciating the hard 'q' sound at the end of the high note on the phrase "me'raaj-e-shauq". There's dozens of other similar touches in this short but wonderful performance that highlight Khan Sb's stature as the preeminent ghazal singer of the last century.

Mehdi Hassan - Kaam AKhir Jazba-e-Be Ikhtiyar Aa Hi Gaya - Jigar Muradabadi

And in case anyone thinks Khan Sb's latter years were anything short of wonderful, here's another example of that same sunlit perfection in a selection from the amazing 1990 concert at the Royal Academy of Music, at which Khan Sb shared the stage with Ustad Sultan Khan on Sarangi and Ustad Shaukat Hussain Khan on Tabla. Khan Sb presents a ghazal of Sufi Tabassum's to the traditional 'tarz' of Heer Waris Shah, to delightful results.

Mehdi Hassan - Ghazal Ba-Tarze-Heer, Raag Bhairvi

Thursday, July 12, 2012

...Of A Diamond In The Rough

Qawwali has been blessed with many unique voices. Some of them, like Nusrat's, Munshi Raziuddin's or Ghulam Fareed Sabri's,  are justifiably well known. Others, like Murli Qawwal's, Mubarak Ali-Niaz Ali Qawwal's or Rasheed Ahmed Fareedi Qawwal's , are probably not as widely acclaimed as they ought to be. One of the most unique voices in Qawwali was that of Maulvi Ahmed Hassan Akhter Bheranwale Qawwal. Emotive, raspy, mellifluous, with the ability to elicit tons of feeling out of a few notes. He performed mainly in the '70s and 80's with his father - who I'm 90% sure was named Maulvi Akhtar Hassan Qawwal, feel free to correct me if I'm wrong - and his younger brother Maulvi Haider Hassan Qawwal, who currently performs with the remaining members of his elder brother's Qawwali party..

Maulvi Ahmed Hassan quit performing in the late 1980s, which is a real shame because he had a voice and a performance style that was second to none. Performing traditional sufi Kalam in Urdu and Farsi with the same verve and vigour as his Punjabi performances, Maulvi Ahmed Hassan was a true representative of the Punjabi school of Qawwali; imparting a distinctly earthy feel to whatever he sang. The studio recordings he made for OSA are brilliant, with my only gripe being the fact that the recordists didn't place a microphone in front of Maulvi Akhter Hassan, with the result that we can barely hear the senior Qawwal's voice in most of them. Below are some of the recordings of the Maulvi Ahmed Hassan Akhtar Bheranwale Qawwal party that I've managed to accumulate, and they display the group's wonderful command on Urdu/Farsi kalam. The credit for sharing some of these recordings goes to Arif Ali Khan Sb and my dear friend Pedro Ferrari

Main Nazar Se Pi Raha Hoon, Yeh Samaa Badal Na Jaye
A languid mood pervades this very melodious ghazal.

Na Woh Iltefaat-e-Awwal, Na Nigah Main Barhami Hai
A stately start, with a wonderful shift in tempo and some beautiful girahs make this recording stand out.


Dikhla Ke Jhalak Tum Chup Hi Gaye
Sounding almost like a Punjabi 'Jhol', this recording features brilliant takraars and girahs.

Aamada Ba Qatle Man
The Qawwals perform Khusrau in this crusty but brilliant mehfil recording, imparting a Punjabi flavor to the Farsi kalam.

Kahoon Kaise Sakhi Ri Mohe Laaj Lage
Another wonderful prelude and a beautifully sustained takraar are the highlights of this PTV performance.

Dil Burd Az Man Di-Roz Shaamay
 Adopting a more measured andaz, the qawwals start off this wonderful Farsi kalam with a beautiful preamble.

Finally, I'd like to share something really special. This is probably among my Top 5 most favorite Qawwali performances ever. If anyone ever wondered whether a Qawwali performance could "swing", this should dispel their doubts. The following performance perfectly encapsulates the Punjabi 'Ang' of Qawwali; a wonderful beat, vigorous taali, taans and alaaps that are imbued with the feel of the land, emphatic yet nuanced singing and a brilliant use of takraar and girah. I have to thank Pedro Ferrari for sharing this video with me and I'm immensely proud to share probably the only complete version of this remarkable performance available on the internet.

Aaja Hun Aaja Arabi Dholna

Some more of Maulvi Ahmed Hassan Bheranwale Qawwal's wonderful performances can be found Here, Here and Here.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

...Of An Absolute Genius

This is an unqualified, unsolicited testimonial.

I think C Ramchandra was one of the greatest composers of Bollywood's golden age.

The inventiveness, freshness, melodiousness and how shall I put it, musicality of his compositions are second to none, and I'm absolutely, wholeheartedly in love with them; especially the ones he composed for Lata Mangeshkar, with whom he was reputed to have had a romantic attachment. Not even Madan Mohan's compositions seem as perfectly tailored for Lata's voice. Unfortunately he's not as well remembered as some of the other great composers of his age like Naushad, Shankar-Jaikishen, OP Nayyar, SD Burman etc. I'd rather let Youtube carry on from here, with some of my most favorite C Ramchandra compositions. Since there are dozens upon dozens of his compositions that I love, I'll limit myself to my ten most favorite ones, plus a bonus .

Katate Hain Dukh Main Yeh Din - Lata Mangeskar - Parchaiyyan 1952
An absolutely stunning composition with beautiful lyrics, sung by Lata in her most lilting voice.

 Shaam Dhale Khirki Tale - Lata Mangeshkar & C Ramchandra - Albela 1951
Geeta Bali is one of my favorite actresses, and Bhagwandada's shuffle-dance is utterly charming.

Woh Hum Se Chup Hain, Hum Un Se Chup Hain - Lata Mangeshkar & C Ramchandra - Sargam 1950
One of the sweetest duets ever, and Raj Kapoor is unbelievably handsome here.

Dil Ki Duniya Basaa Ke Saanwariya - Lata Mangeshkar - Amardeep 1958
That little piano flourish at the beginning of every verse absolutely slays me.

Yeh Zindagi Ussi Ki Hai - Lata Mangeshkar - Anarkali - 1953
C Ramchandra shows his versatility by composing a beautiful, classical-inspired score, ala Naushad.

 Main Jagoon Saari Raien - Lata Mangeshkar - Bahurani - 1963
An almost Madan Mohan like composition, with Lata's voice having matured from the shrillness of the '50s.

 Bholi Soorat Dil Ke Khote - C Ramchandra & Lata Mangeshkar - Albela - 1951
The castanets, the flute intro, the shehnai, the beat on the tambourine, the utterly charming dance steps, this is one of my favorite songs.

 Shola Jo Bharke - Lata Mangeshkar & C Ramchandra - Albela - 1951
Another classic from Albela - I could write a post with just songs from that one film, they're that awesome.

Abhi Shaam Ayegi Niklain Ge Taare - Lata Mangeshkar - Samadhi 1950
I used to have a childhood crush on Nalini Jaywant, it's not hard to figure out why.

Mohabbat Aisi Dharkan Hai - C Ramchandra - Anarkali - 1953
The great composer himself, singing one of his landmark compositions live.

And finally ... I found out very late the C Ramchandra-Lata combo was responsible for one of my dearest and sweetest childhood memories.  

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

...Of The Raqs-e-Bismil, Punjabi Style

It's time for one of those posts again, the ones in which I take one of my favorite pieces from the classical Qawwali canon and share some of my favorite recordings of that kalam. Like I've probably written before, Qawwali is primarily a performer's art, and the standard songbook is open to endless interpretation. The vast Qawwali canon offers each performer ample opportunities to interpret each classical kalam in his own peculiar style, embellishing it with taans and girahs, incorporating other kalaams with similar themes or altering the traditional arrangement to bring out new meanings in the text. This enables each Qawwal to 'own' each kalam and imbue it with some of his own personality, thus making each performance of the same kalam distinct and unique.

Of all the kalaams in the Qawwali - or rather Sub-continental sufi - canon, no kalam is as easily recognizable as Hz Baba Bulleh Shah (RA)'s immortal Kafi, Tere Ishq Nachaya Kar Thaiyya Thaiyya. It has been performed innumerable times by qawwals, folk musicians, pop singers, playback singers and what not. This paean to love's intoxicating power is probably the most widely performed kalam in the Sufi canon, and as is the wont of Qawwals, each Qawwal of note- or each group of Qawwals - has performed it in their own distinct 'andaz', making the piece their own. Unlike the kalams I've shared in posts of a similar nature, this kalam is unique in that it is part of the Punjabi Sufi canon, therefore it has most expertly been performed by Qawwals that are either from the Punjab or have incorporated the Punjabi sensibility into their performance style. The Punjabi sensibility being an emphasis on takraar, a vigorous 'Taali' and Tabla/Dholak accompaniment and heavy borrowing from the Punjabi sufi canon for girahs etc.

The exact words of the original kalam as written by Hz Baba Bulleh Shah (RA) are slightly modified by each performer, all the while keeping the meanings and the spirit of the original kalam intact. The kalam as written by Hz Bulleh Shah (RA) along with my attempt at a translation is as follows.

Your Love Has Made Me Dance

Your love has made me dance.

Your love has made a place in my heart;
See how I have drained the cup of hemlock
Do not tarry now o Physician !, or I am lost!

Your love has made me dance.

The sun has set, dusk settles on the sky;
My life!, My life for another glimpse of your countenance.
I erred when you called me and I did not follow you.

Your love has made me dance.

Mother, do not deter me from my obsession;
No one can bring back to shore, a boat that has been swept away by the current.
My mind had deserted me when I decided not to go with my beloved.

Your love has made me dance.

A peacock sings in the garden of my love;
I see my Ka'aba, my Qibla in the countenance of my beloved.
The one who wounded my heart and left me, never to look back.

Your love has made me dance.

My Lord finally brought me to Shah Inayat's door;
Who robed me in garments of green and red.
As soon as I began my dance, Lo ! I found my beloved.

Your love has made me dance.

Although the arrangement and composition used by most Qawwals is more or less the same, there are two slightly different arrangements with a slight alteration in the text. One arrangement, which is followed by some Qawwals and the majority of non-Qawwal performers of this kalam, uses the standard 'Tere Ishq Nachaya' - Your love has made me dance , while the other group of Qawwals, mostly those who learned from or were influenced by Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Khan Qawwals, use the slightly altered passive-voice opening 'Tere Main Ishq Ne Nachaiyaan' - I have been made to dance by your love. I'm slightly partial to the second arrangement, for its hint of submission to the beloved and because the arrangement imparts a more stately and subdued air to the piece, especially at the beginning. One final word before we begin, this post does not claim to share the best renditions of this kalam, nor the most representative ones; some of these are screechy, others may be too long or too short, the only criteria for inclusion in this post is that of all the versions of this kalam, I love these the best.

The first recording is by Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal And Brothers. Although their illustrious father, Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed Sb didn't include many Punjabi kalams in his repertoire, concentrating instead on canonical Farsi and Urdu pieces, Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad And Bros have incorporated a wide number of influences; Punjabi, Seraiki and Sindhi into their performance style. Their performance of this kalam is spirited, with excellent 'Taali' and backing vocals. One of the standouts of their performance is the brilliant girah that I've heard inserted by this group only;

Yaar de agg'ay sajda karday Mullah dar'day vekhay
Apna yaar manaavan la'iee asaan Sayyad nachday vekhay

We've seen clerics shy from prostrating themselves in front of the Beloved;
We've seen Sayyids dancing before their beloved, hoping for forgiveness.

This verse alludes to the relationship between Hz Baba Bulleh Shah (RA) who was a Sayyid - a descendant of the Prophet (SAW) and his Pir, Hz Shah Inayat Qadri (RA) who was an Ara'ien - a lesser caste that engaged in agriculture and menial occupations. When Hz Bulleh Shah accepted Shah Inayat as his Pir, his Sayyid relations were outraged at the fact that one of the Prophet's descendants was acquiescing to a member of a lowly cast. But Hz Bulleh Shah (RA) paid no heed to the protestations of his peers and devoted himself to the love of his spiritual guide.

Further Punjabi and Urdu girahs, including another one of Hz Baba Bulleh Shah's kafis, further embellish the kalam. The non-native Punjabi accent and the obvious delight the Qawwals take in their presentation add a certain charm to this performance.

The second performance is one of my very favorite performances, not only of this kalam, but of Qawwali as well. It is a -horror of horrors- Filmi Qawwali. Qawwalis in films are generally frowned upon by serious Qawwali afficionadoes because they're either prefab,lipsynched and soulless affairs or those Sawal-Jawab, Male v/s Female qawwali muqablas that are the hallmark of the Bhendi Bazar Bombay school of Qawwali. Yet there are a few exceptions that prove that when done tastefully, Qawwali can have an enormous impact in film. The following performance is one such exception; sung by one of my personal heroes, the singer/actor/filmmaker/poet/politician/scholar Inayat Hussain Bhatti Sb, accompanied by two of the most distinctive voices in Pakistani music, the legendary folksinger Saieen Akhtar and the unbelievably melodious playback singer Munir Hussain . The fact that a single recording combines three of the greatest voices in Pakistan's history would be enough for it to become one of my very favorites, but this recording goes one step further.

From the 1964 Punjabi hit Waris Shah, produced by and starring Inayat Hussain Bhatti Sb as the eponymous Sufi poet, this recording is a bona-fide qawwali. There are two sarangis, there are two main vocalists, there are girahs and takraars, and there is a world of feeling. What I love is that Saieen Akhtar is lipsynching his own voice, so we get to see the intricate hand-movements that he used to do while performing. The arrangement is up-tempo and the sarangis provide wonderful accompaniment. The hallmarks of this performance are the voices of the singers, with their taans and alaaps displaying the range and dexterity they possessed. Bhatti Sb starts the doha with the first verse, Saieen Akhtar supplies the second, and we're off ! My favorite moment in this performance is at the 4:41 mark when Munir Hussain delivers the first verse of a beautiful girah in his wonderfully sweet voice, the second verse of which is supplied by Bhatti Sb. That one verse is the sole contribution of Munir Hussain in this performance, but what a contribution.

Maa Peo kolo'n luk luk rovaan kar kar lakh bahanay
Bulleh Shah je milay pyara, main lakh karaan shukraanay

I cry in secret, hiding my tears from my mother and my father, making thousands of excuses.
O Bulleh Shah, if only my beloved would return, I would spend a thousand years in thankfulness!

This short performance ends with one final girah and a couple of vacillating taans from Bhatti Sb, before winding down to it's conclusion.

The above two recordings were examples of the more commonly used arrangement of this kalam. The remaining recordings share the second arrangement.

Among the many shagirds of Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Khan, the foremost was of course Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He spent precious few years in the tutelage of his father, with the bulk of his training taking place under his uncle Mubarak Ali Khan; thus his style encompassed the vociferous, spirited delivery of Fateh Ali Khan and the vocal dexterity of Mubarak Ali Khan. Even though he brought many innovations to Qawwali, abandoning older arrangements for new ones, combining girahs and sargams in a unique way, in many instances he preferred the more traditional, classical arrangements of kalams, to spectacular effect. The following recording features Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and, in my opinion, the best version of his frequently evolving party. Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan is on first harmonium, Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan is on 2nd vocals, Atta Fareed on 2nd harmonium and Maqsood Hussain on 3rd vocals. A famous quatrain of Hz Baba Bulleh Shah (RA) leads directly to the kalam, and we can see how the slight alteration in the words and arrangement lends a different air to the kalam. All the vocalists share taans and alaaps as the Qawwals incorporate another canonical Qawwali text - Nami Danam Ke Aakhir Choon Dam'e Deedar Mi Raqsam by Hz Usman Harooni (RA) - into the performance. The unique feature here is that Nusrat also includes the beautifully translated Punjabi version of the kalam as well. As the tempo slowly builds and the Qawwals find their groove, launching into mini-takraars, another pretty characteristic feature of Nusrat's performances in England presents itself; drunk uncles dancing and swaying in front of the stage. I've always been very fond of Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan and have felt that more often than not he gets shortchanged in Nusrat's performances, but here he's participating in full force, engaging in vocal sawal-jawabs with his cousin and using his raspy voice and vociferous hand-movements to great effect. Clocking at over 40 minutes, this performance is a perfect example of how Nusrat managed to stay faithful to the classical idiom yet become such an explosively gifted public performer, how he kept an eye on the requirements of the kalam as well as a finger on the pulse of the audience, and in doing so went down as one of the greatest Qawwals in history.

Note : From here onwards, the recordings get screechier and hissier, you have been warned. If like me, you believe that 'Khazanay tujhe mumkin hai kharaabon main milain', proceed.

The next performance is by another illustrious shagird of Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Khan, and one of my personal favorite Qawwali groups,Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal And Party. Bakhshi Khan possessed a voice that was uncannily similar to his ustad Fateh Ali Khan, and in his brother Salamat Ali Khan and fellow vocalist Sadiq Ali "Saddo" Khan, his party had three of the most distinctive voices in Qawwali. I simply love this group. Their recording of this kalam begins with a wonderful flute sazeena, followed by a drop-dead gorgeous quatrain of Hz Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA)

Aih dukh yaar Ranjhaitray walay, assan haar wangoon gul paaye
Hik hik dard mahi de utte, sau sukh mol gawa'ey
Jinhaan dardaan vich mera mahi raazi, shala oh dard raihn sawaaye
Ghulam Farida ! Oh dard salamat jinhaan dardaan yaar milaye

All the sorrows that my Ranjha gave me, i've worn around my neck like a necklace
For each one of these sorrows, I've sacrificed thousands of moments of happiness.
If my beloved is gladdened by my sorrows, let them remain with me till eternity;
Ghulam Farid, May God bless these sorrows, for they have brought me close to my Love.

The main kalam is then embellished with taans and zamzamas by Salamat Ali and Saddo Khan, while the flute weaves in and out of the melody. Selections from kafis of Khwaja Ghulam Fareed and Baba Bulleh Shah are used as a girahs. The tempo and the handclaps remain unflagging as the qawwals power through the kalam, creating mini-takraars out of every other verse before finally winding down and ending the kalam at the 13 and a half minute mark.

Another preternaturally gifted shagird of Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal was the late Agha Rasheed Ahmed Fareedi Qawwal. A contemporary of Nusrat, he preferred continuing in the tradition of Khanqahi qawwali over attempting excessive innovations and remained till his death in the late nineteen-eighties, one of the foremost khanqahi qawwals of Pakistan. His primary performance venue was Hz Baba Farid (RA)'s shrine at Pakpattan, where this following performance was recorded. Starting with the voice of Agha Majeed Fareedi and Rasheed Fareedi Sb delivering one of Baba Bulleh Shah (RA)'s most famous kafis, the qawwals linger on the phrase 'mera peer manay', invoking their patron saint, Hz Baba Farid RA with a series of very choice girahs. The main kalam is presented with an arrangement combining the two previously mentioned ones as the tempo builds very slowly and gradually. The qawwals take their time on each verse, creating takraars and then lingering on them till the listeners have had their fill. They also incorporate Hz Usman Harooni (RA)'s kalam and its Punjabi translation; offering protracted takraars on various verses and further girahs on those takraars, as the tempo increases, especially a seven to eight minute takraar on the phrase 'Biya janaan'. These are followed by a series of trademark sargams by Fareedi Sb and his accompanist Mubarak Ali 'Makha' Lahori, which gradually morph into another takraar. These long takrars are a hallmark of Fareedi Sb's performance style, he used these takraars to imperceptibly enhance the state of emotional agitation felt by his listeners to a point where, in his own words" Mera vass challay te aithay saareyaan de kapray paar ke utthaan" - If it were up to me, the audience would leave with their clothes in tatters. Incorporating a kalam made famous by Nusrat - 'Akkhiyaan Udeekdian' and following it with another wonderful sargam,which morphs into another supplication to the saint, the kalam ends just when the tempo can go no higher, bringing a whirlwind performance to a close.

I must mention here that Fareedi Sb's performance style, with its 8 and 10 minute long takraars, might not be to everyone's taste. Also, the pitch in this video is slightly off, making the recording slightly screechy. But I absolutely love it.

The final recording is one that I recently discovered, and I haven't been able to get over it. In fact, this recording prompted me to get busy with this long overdue post. One of the best kept secrets of Qawwali was the Mubarak Ali Niaz Ali Qawwal party. Mubarak Ali had a bullhorn of a voice that had the power to envelop the listener in a sonic stratosphere, he was accompanied by the piercing voice of Niaz Ali who played first harmonium, along with Tufail Khan and Gulloo Khan. Their studio recordings are few and far between but the few that remain are hair-raisingly good. I'm not aware if Mubarak Ali-Niaz Ali were shagirds of Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwals, but they follow the arrangement favored by the other shagirds. I could've posted their excellent studio recording of this kalam, in fact I was going to, until I found this one. For one thing, live video recordings of thegroup are very rare, and for another, this is one absolutely kickass performance, which encompasses all the things i love about traditional Punjabi Qawwali. Observe for example the setting; the qawwals are seated on a platform constructed from bricks with a rug thrown over it, the stage isn't large enough to allow all the main performers to sit up front. The venue is open-air, under a shamiaana, with the audience surrounding the qawwals. The performance begins with a beautiful pair of dohas by Hz Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA), and the qawwals are off. I'm not going to waste much time on descriptions other than the fact that Mubarak Ali is one of the most animated, one of the most outstanding live performers I've ever seen, that the girahs inserted by the Qawwals, from kalams of baba Bulleh Shah (RA), Hz Baba Farid (RA), Hz Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA) and other canonical Punjabi poets, are some of the best I've ever heard (and are in the thaith-est Punjabi, which might make them hard to understand for listeners who don't have more than a passing knowledge of Punjabi). But for those who can understand and appreciate, or who make an effort to understand and appreciate, this recording is an absolute treasure.

N.B :  In choosing a classical Punjabi kalam and focusing on performers who followed the Punjabi ang of Qawwali, I've allowed for the fact that many people might not find these recordings as wonderfully interesting as I do, but like I said at the start, of the dozens of recordings of this kalam, these are the ones I love.

Friday, May 25, 2012

...Of Slow Suffocation

You know how when you're beginning to have an asthma attack ( I'm assuming for argument's sake that the gentle reader is like me, an asthmatic) and you suddenly realize that this breathing lark isn't as easy as everyone makes it out to be. There's a specific moment when something tells you that the simple act of breathing in and out is going to turn into an ordeal very soon. The attack begins with a rather melodious bout of wheezing, much like a fanfare announcing the arrival of the royal entourage in a historical epic.Your initial reaction is to tell yourself, "Oh boy, here we go again. Well, let's start by remaining perfectly calm shall we. We've handled stuff like this before, all we've got to do is keep breathing like we've practiced and it'll all be over before we know it" (Notice how the gentle reader uses the royal "we", pretty conceited chap isn't he). The initial self-imposed calm is short lived though, as the wheezing gives way to a weird dragging sensation in the lower chest and breathing begins to require effort. You look around for the trusty inhaler as you try to keep your rapidly increasing heartbeat in check, but very soon you realize that the inhaler was emptied and thrown out weeks ago.

That's when the attack enters its next and more serious phase, the stage where you have to sit up in your chair, place your hands on your knees and actually exercise your respiratory muscles so that you can receive oxygen. You wordlessly star chanting "I'm going to be OK, I'm going to be OK" to yourself as your head starts to spin, your heart beats loud enough to wake the people in the next room and a sudden thought fills your mind with dread,"What if this is it, the big one?". Luckily, that's about as far I've gown down the asthmatic route, stopping just short of the final, more sinister stage of an attack. That's when the instinct for self-preservation that has been coaxing the sufferer to try and keep breathing in and out in the hope of a let-off in hostilities is gradually overpowered by the deadly trio of muscle fatigue, a lack of oxygen and the deliciously narcotic effects of the carbon-dioxide flooding the brain. This dastardly trio gently distracts the brain, telling it "Why do you keep punishing yourself by taking these painful, pitiful breaths? Hasn't anyone told you, breathing's overrated. Why don't you let us take over and have a nice little lie-down? Don't worry, you won't feel a thing". The patient, who has pretty much given up at this point, waves away the final appeals of the ol' self-preservation instinct, puts his trust in the soothing thoughts filling his mind, and floating on a neurochemical high, hands in his dinner-pail.

The fact that I'm writing this is proof enough that I haven't reached the final, deadly stage yet. But I'm afraid that's more or less where I'm headed. Except for the difficult breathing bit, the palpitations and panic bit, the Carbon-dioxide high bit and the general dying from asthma bit. Let me explain.

A year ago, when I got posted to the jungle, a menagerie of horrors awaited me there. Does the gentle reader (provided he's still alive) dare to hazard a guess as to what was the most horrific attraction of this house of horrors? It wasn't the rather diverse, multiethnic and peacefully coexisting population of jackals, wild boar, porcupines, mongoose and lizards; it wasn't the unbearable heat or the stranglingly suffocating humidity, it wasn't the snakes who seemed to act like they owned the place (which let's face it, they did); it wasn't the fact that luxuries like electricity and running water were considered something that hadn't been invented yet and muslim showers were things you heard about in the fantastical stories told by travelers from faraway lands; it wasn't the leaky roof that ensured that a trivial thing like being indoors didn't get in the way of one's enjoyment of the weather; it wasn't the three mile distance between my room and the nearest human habitation, which meant that a simple task like having dinner involved jeep-rides over ill-maintained dirt tracks in the pouring rain; it wasn't the divers wasps and scorpions and mosquitoes and the unknown little insects that managed to send me into the ER at four in the morning with a severe allergic reaction and an unrecordably low blood pressure; it wasn't the weird composition of the water that miraculously accelerated my journey towards possessing a shiny bald pate before my twenty-sixth birthday.

The absolute cherry on the icing on the triple-layer of frosting on the cake was the fact that I had stepped into a communications black-hole.

No cellphone signals. Of any kind. No internet (obviously). No mailing address in case anyone, desperate to get in touch with me (the probability is very low, I know) would want to resort to snail mail. A very shoddy land-line and a complete absence of carrier pigeons. These conditions would have driven any normal person to distraction. For something like this to happen to me; someone who had won the Inter-district speed-texting championship for three years running, who had been kicked out of funerals for snickering at a text message, who had worn off the keys of one cellphone and had bought a rather expensive new one just weeks before being shipped off to Godforsakenland, who had made a career out of texting to the extent that keen-eyed readers would read friends of mine's  texts and say,"Hmm, this text carries shades of Neo-Expressionism mixed with a hint of Musab-ism". Like I was saying, for something like this to happen to me was the greatest irony of fate since Beethoven lost his hearing.

And this is where the rather shabbily assembled asthma analogy begins to emerge from the shadows and clears its throat as if to say, " What with the comparisons between the death of a person from a a horribly debilitating medical condition and being sent to a place where you can't text, I must admit I'm a rather flimsy analogy, but at least hear me out for a second".

When I had landed in the jungle and had taken stock of my situation, quickly tabulating the various drawbacks and annoyances and coming to the conclusion that staying in a communications black hole would be injurious to health, I calmly began devising ways of dealing with the situation. The first step was the most basic, an innate reflex found so commonly in sufferers of my malady that it seems to have been hard-wired into human brains as an instinct necessary for survival - wandering around the jungle with the cellphone held above my head, looking for signals. I was quickly rewarded with what ultimately turned out to be a deceptive sign of improvement. there were microscopic spots in the jungle where the heavens aligned just enough and the matter-antimatter interactions were occurring at just the right velocity to allow some cellphone signals to penetrate the black hole. This initial success was quickly negated when I realized that the signal hotspot was the regular meeting-place of the local serpentine population. A couple of near-brushes with my legless, slithery neighbors were enough to drive me back indoors.

Then began a desperate, rather pointless and in retrospect, quite pitiful search for solutions to the communications problem. A landline connection ? the exchange was too far away. Satellite internet ? The cost would be higher than the GDP of Sub-Saharan Africa. Cellphone antennas ? Excellent at attracting lightning, not so much when it came to signals. Carrier pigeons ? A cursory census of the birds of prey flying above my room quickly put that idea to rest. I had to admit I was licked, for the moment at least.

Then came the brief but mild improvement that lulled me into thinking that maybe I was going to survive after all. I managed to procure a clunky old phone-like contraption from somewhere that somewhat restored my contact with the outside world. If the weather was just right and the earth's magnetic axis was perfectly aligned and the sprites and elves of the jungle were feeling particularly benevolent, I could catch a few signals and maybe call home once every few weeks. In addition, I was also able to access something faintly resembling the internet for a few minutes every day, but only I limited myself to opening the picture-less, flash video-less mobile versions of most websites. Still, something was better than nothing, or so I thought.

Pay attention gentle reader, for this is where the asthma analogy finally emerges from its cocoon, revealing itself to be a supersonic jet powered butterfly. With lasers. Just as I thought I was finally recovering from this communications funk, out popped a ferocious lightning storm and fried every electrical contraption in my room, including my phone. In a single flash, my endeavors were nullified. By this time, the beginning of the summer and all its accoutrements - snakes and insects and the lot - coupled with my increasing frustration with my attempts to establish communication, had begun to take their toll. Where once I had bothered the hell out of friends and relatives with barrages of texts and calls, I was now in contact with only my immediate family and one or two very close friends. The regular blogging and Facebook trawling was replaced with hour-long waits for the darned webpage to open, followed by hours more before it would display properly. The  rather tenuous bridges to what was an essential social support structure were getting harder and harder to maintain. And then lightning struck, literally.

Not ready to give up just yet, I gave it one final try, setting up a new phone to replace the fried one. The result is that I'm now in the third, premorbid stage of communications deficiency. I can call home, but I have to endure fleeting signals, long periods of radio silence and frequent disconnections; to the point where it's become something of a chore to even call home. The dozens of other people, friends and relatives, have slowly and gradually depleted in number to just the one or two, for the same reasons. I'm beginning to think if this staying in touch lark is actually all that it's made out to be. If the parties of the second part were eager to communicate, they'd call themselves. And besides, who needs friends anyway, I'd much rather just curl up and spend the entire day in a semi-catatonic state. All the blogs I used to read and Qawwali recordings I used to share and the videos I used to convert into MP3s, slowly they're beginning to feel less and less worth the effort. After all, why can't I listen to my own music and watch my movies and read my books without rushing off to the internet to blabber about them to the rest of the world. I'm sure someone else will do it much better than me. I'll just listen to this 45 minute recording of Qawwal Bahauddin Khan myself and forget about sharing it with anyone else.

One by one, these long ingrained habits are getting harder and harder and lesser and lesser worth my while to keep up. The numbing effects of being incommunicado are gradually beginning to take over and I'm afraid that unlike my old friend Asthma, I might not be able to resist for long the rather tempting overtures of what appears to be a rather unsplendid isolation.

Friday, April 20, 2012

...On Levon Helm's Passing

Levon Helm passed away last night, a day after his family had posted that he was in the last stages of his long and heroic battle with throat cancer. Even though this was a long time coming, the slow inevitability of it doesn't lessen the sadness one bit.

I'm not in the mood for writing another obituary, Steven Hayden over at the AV club and Charles P. Pierce at Esquire have written quite beautiful and heartfelt ones that perfectly encapsulate how I felt about one of my favorite musicians and one of the coolest cats ever to grace this planet; and I've already inundated my Facebook with dozens of links and videos and so forth in what has  become the 21st Century's go-to grieving ritual.

After Clarence Clemons' passing earlier this year and now Levon's, I think someone must send out a team of doctors to check up on Dylan, Cohen, Neil Young, Tom Waits, the Boss and the rest of my musical heroes and give them all clean bills of health. I'll readily volunteer my services for such an endeavor.

Anyway, Rest in Peace Levon, and thanks for all the years of great music.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

...Of Patriarchs And Distant Relatives

One of my most fruitful archeological endeavors was sparked by an observation by a friend that for all the hours upon hours of Qawwali recordings we've managed to collect, we still have only managed to unearth recordings by two (or very rarely three) generations of Qawwals. The recordings from older Qawwals have either disappeared under the sands of time, or their descendants haven't adopted the hereditary profession of Qawwali. In the time that's passed since that post, the generosity of friends and fellow Qawwali enthusiasts has enabled me to fill some of the gaps in my collection. There are now many Qawwal lineages that can be followed across three (and in one case, even four) generations. As an example, I will focus here on three patriarchs, who have blazed the trail for generations of Qawwals to come, and whose descendants have ably carried on their family tradition.

Ustad Muhammad Ali Faridi Qawwal

Ustad Muhammad Ali Faridi is a seminal figure in the history of 20th Century Qawwali, influencing everything from how it is performed to the position of the performers in a Qawwal party. Incorporating Classical Sufi texts with the tradtional Doaba ang of Punjabi gayeki, he created a potent style of Qawwali that proved popular both with the discerning listeners and the masses. Although his recordings date from the mid '30s to the late '60s, he strated performing much earlier. Accompanied on his latter recordings by his son Abdul Rahim Faridi, the Ustad displayed a unique and very malleable voice that was very expressive in the upper registers and displayed glimpses of his rather formidable classical training. His list of shagirds includes giants like Agha Rasheed Ahmed Faridi and Agha Bashir Ahmed Faridi along with his son Abdul Rahim Faridi, who in turn instructed modern practitioners like Faiz Ali Faiz Qawwal. The Ustad's lineage continues through his grandson Moeen Ali Faridi Qawwal.

Kallan Khan Qawwal Sikandarabadi

Kallan Khan Qawwal is a very important member of the so-called third wave of pre-partition Qawwali gayeki. Hailing from Sikandarabad and affiliated with the shrine of Hz Alauddin Ali Sabir (RA) of Kalyar Shareef, Kallan Khan was an innovator in that along with performing classical Sufi texts, he also wrote many new pieces. Most of his recorded oeuvre consists of his own poetry put to music. He had many shagirds but the most famous among these was his nephew Ghulam Fareed Sabri. In the latter half of Kallan Khan's career, from the 40's on to the late '50s - the era most of his recordings are from - he is accompanied by Ghulam Fareed Sabri, who, if we observe the recordings chronologically, gradually takes over the duties of lead singer from his uncle, whose voice, though powerful, begins to pale in comparison to his nephew as time goes by. (Gosh that was a long sentence). Kallan Khan's shagird in turn went on to become one of the greatest Qawwals of the latter half of the 20th Century and with his phenominally gifted brother Maqbool Ahmed Sabri, created the incomparable Sabri Brothers And Ensemble Qawwali Party. The third generation of the Sabri clan is represented by Amjad Farid Sabri Qawwal.

Baba Din Muhammad Jalandhri Qawwal

When I wrote the earlier post on the Qawwals of the earlier half of the 20th century, I added Din Muhammad Jalandhri almost as an afterthought, because I didn't have any information about him that I could append to his rather wonderful recording. Over time however, I have come to learn a great deal about him and have come to realize his stature among the great Qawwals of the early 20th century. Apart from having an amazingly robust and vociferous andaz, Din Muhammad Qawwal, or Baba Deena Qawwal as the gentlemen over at Rehmat Gramophone House call him, is the forbear of not one but TWO illustrious Qawwali lineages. He was the uncle and ustad of arguably the greatest Qawwals of the 20th century, Fateh Ali - Mubarak Ali Qawwals (who are rightly called Ustadon ke ustad, which makes Din Muhammad Ustadon ke ustadon ka ustad). In turn, Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali taught performers like the above mentioned Agha Rasheed Ahmad Faridi and Agha Bashir Faridi as well as Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal and of course, their successor Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. And in Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, we see the fourth generation of Baba Din Muhammad carrying the torch forward. His direct lineage too, is impressive to say the least. He was the father of the amazing Miandad Khan Qawwal. Miandad Khan Qawwal and his brother Hafiz Dad Qawwal were affiliated with the shrine of Hz Baba Farid (RA) at Pakpattan and performed till Miandad's death, after which the mantle was taken over by his son, the supremely gifted Badar Miandad Khan Qawwal, who unfortunately like his father, died at a very young age. His younger brothers Sher Miandad Qawwal et al currently perform all over the world.

I initially thought I'd write about and share recordings of only these three phenominal qawwals in this post but considering that my holidays are at an end and I won't be able to write for another month or so, I figured I might as well share some more of my favorite recordings. Some of these recordings have been uploaded by an angel in human shape on a youtube channel called "dogslum23", a channel I wholeheartedly recommend to every Qawwali fan. Here then are selections from some of my favorite recordings uploaded on the abovementioned channel. Most of the qawwals are known to me, but a couple are complete unknowns and I hope that like Baba Din Muhammad, I will one day be able to uncover more of their recordings and more about their lives.

Kallan Khan Qawwal Meerthi

Prefaced by an amazing Sitar baaj, Kallan Khan Qawwal Meerthi (not to be confused with Kallan Khan Sikandarabadi) sings a seminal classical kalam of Maulana Jami (RA) Hasan Multani that is sadly very rarely sung by modern Qawwals.

 Professor Miran Baksh Qawwal Of Peshawar

From the age of the recordings, along with the photos and the dates of birth and death provided by the uploader, Miran Baksh Qawwal appears to be a contemporary of the 2nd generation of pre-partition Qawwals. From his phenomenal performance, his title of 'Professor' and the wealth of medals pinned on his chest, he appears to have been an amazing and highly respected Qawwal. Here he sings one of my favorite Kalams of Hz Amir Khusrau (RA).

Hafiz Atta Muhammad Qawwal

This recording begins with a very melodious Doha, whose final line is pregnant with longing and love for the Prophet (SAW); 'Kyun Madni deri'yaan lai'yaan?'. Performed in the style of a traditional Punjabi folk tune with a healthy number of taans thrown in and a 'gharra' playing in the background, this is a wonderful performance.

Kaloo Qawwal Of Calcutta

One of the first Qawwals to be recorded in India, Kaloo Qawwal performed without the traditional handclap accompaniment and traditional instruments, presenting instead a more westernized approach. Here he sings a famous Arabic Naat, giving it a full studio treatment.

Azim Prem Ragi Qawwal

A very important pre-partition Qawwal in that he successfully met the requirements of the audience at Sufi shrines as well as the gramophone buying public, Azim Prem Ragi performed well into the '50s. The following recording appears to be post 1947 because of the use of the phrase 'Pak aur Hind', and like most of his recorded output, was penned by Prem Ragi himself.

And finally, one recording each by the three stalwarts mentioned in the first part of the post.

Ustad Muhammad Ali Faridi Qawwal

Kallan Khan Qawwal Sikandarabadi

Baba Din Muhammad Jalandhri Qawwal

N.B Any further information about, or recordings by the Qawwals mentioned above would be very gratefully received, so will any comments and corrections.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

...Of Honourable Mentions And Instant Infatuations

Qawwali, like every other field, is dominated by giants. There's half a dozen or more names that are known to every Qawwali listener, and even to most lay-listeners. Mention the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Sabri Brothers, Aziz Mian Qawwal or Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed and you're bound to be met with nods of recognition if not appreciation. The caliber of their work along with their popular appeal ensures that these names will last long in the memories of listeners. But though the brightest stars in the Qawwali firmament, they're by no means the only ones. Some of the most amazing recordings I've ever heard are by musicians who most people (apart from hardcore Qawwali enthusiasts) haven't heard about, or worse, haven't heard. Here then, are six recordings by artists that deserve to be heard, appreciated and celebrated because they are, to put it succinctly, absolutely awesome. These recordings also share another important characteristic. The first time I heard each of them, it took me just the opening first minute or so of the recordings to instantly fall in love with them. I didn't need to hear the rest of the performance to know that it was absolutely awesome, I just assumed it. And in all cases, my assumption was correct. So, without further ado, here are six recordings by (not for long I hope) lesser known artists that captured me instantly.

1. Surkh Aankhon Main Kajal Ke Doray - Amir Rafiq Murkiaanwale Qawwal
This is an amazing, yet sadly incomplete recording. Ustad Rafiq Ali and his son Amir Ali lead the qawwals in a wonderful composition based on Raag Kedara. What isn't there to like in this performance. From the phenominally melodic and mellifluous voice of Ustad Rafiq Ali to the wonderful theka on the tabla, from the wonderful talaffuz that renders the words even sweeter (Surkhe-yaan khon main kajal ke doray, mukh pe-yaan chal sajaya hua hai) to the absolutely impeccable girah-bandi by the three main vocalists. Then there's two or three little flourishes that really stand out. Ustad Rafiq Ali uses his astounding voice to great effect in four superb taans, in four different raags. And then there's a sargam that's not exactly a sitar and not exactly a mandolin, again by Ustad Rafiq Ali. And in the middle of the performance, as the qawwals launch into a long takraar on 'Har Koi Dil Ka Nazraana Le Ke', all these disparate elements come together to weave a unique type of magic.

Time it took for me to get hooked : 30 seconds

2. Kujh Izra'eela Taras Kareen, Mere Yaar Ton Pehle Na Aveen - Mubarak Ali, Niaz Ali Qawwal
Mubarak Ali "Mattaa" Qawwal possessed one of the most gosh-darned awesome voices I've ever heard; loud, urgent, rounded, rich, emotive and possessing the ability to crawl under your skin and knock you senseless. His voice was best suited to Punjabi kalaams where his unique 'andaz', coupled with his grasp on the Punjabi and Seraiki Sufi canon proved irresistible. In this recording, he is imploring the angel of death - Azrael - to tarry a while, lest he arrive before the beloved. The doha that starts off the performance is brilliant, and the girahs inserted are almost tearjerkingly beautiful - or at least they were for me, when I heard the kalaam in the aftermath of a series of family bereavements. One of the verses, I won't say which, lead to an intensely spiritual moment that can only be described as an epiphany. There are short takraars, a shehnai in the background and a brilliant melody, and there's the amazing voice of the qawwals, all in all a wonderful performance.

Time it took for me to get hooked : 45 seconds

3. Ganj Shakar Ke Laal Nijamuddin - Zaki Taji Qawwal
I must confess that I don't know much about Zaki Taji Qawwal and his party apart from a few fragments of information. As is obvious from his name, he was a devotee of Hz Baba Tajuddin (RA) and was a frequent performer at mehfils in Karachi in the '60s and '70s (according to a friend). There's only one album of his circulating on the internet, an EMI release, and it's a slickly produced, instrumentally rich affair. One track stands out though, and was arresting enough at first listen to be played on repeat for days. With a crisp voice that reminds me at places of abu Muhammad Qawwal's, Zaki Taji sings the kalam with wonderful economy and marvelous "ghinaa'iat". As he almost lovingly utters the names of the Sufi saints, the shehnai and sitar offer sparse yet effective punctuation. I don't know if one can hear the phrase 'Pir Nijamuddin chatar khilaadi' without a hint of a smile, I know I can't.  A sudden shift in tempo mid-way through the kalam lends a nice sense of urgency to the second half of the kalam. A few friends of mine, who are pretty devout 'Bedam-waalas' often call Bedam Shah Warsi the 'Khusrau-e-Saani' or the second Khusrau. While I don't agree with them most days, this kalam and it's delightful performance come well-nigh close to making me agree with them.

Time it took for me to get hooked : 30 seconds

4. Main Nazar Se Pi Raha Hoon - Maulvi Ahmed Hassan Akhtar Bheranwale
I've been a fan of Maulvi Ahmed Hassan Akhtar Bheranwale ever since I started seriously listening to Qawwali. There is something about his uniquely rasp voice and his endearingly beautiful accent that I've loved since i first heard it. Added to that is the fact that his group was almost preternaturally gifted in what is essentially the foundation of a good Qawwali performance - the taali and dholak rhythm section. Each of his performances is propelled by a lively and hypnotic beat. In this recording, the 'Pukka' punjabi accent and a brilliant Urdu kalam come together to wonderful effect. Maulvi Ahmed uses superb girahs to expound on a simple yet expressive kalaam. The vacillating taans are simple and effective, the tempo is stately throughout and Maulvi Sb's voice cracks at the right places.

 Time it took for me to get hooked : 35 seconds

5. Avo Saiyyo Ral Deyo Ni Vadhaai - Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal
If I had my druthers, every Qawwali fan would listen to at least one Bakhshi Salamat performance per day, every day. I am totally in awe of this group and especially the vocal talents of the three main singers, the brothers Ustad Bakhshi Khan and Ustad Salamat Khan along with their student Sadiq Ali Saddo. One of the most gifted of Fateh Ali Khan's shagirds, Bakhshi Khan possessed one hell of a voice. The anguish, urgency and desperation he manages to elicit with his voice aren't found anywhere else. And his pauses, wah. This may sound silly but I think he ranks along with actors like Talat Hussain and the great Laurence Olivier in the use of the pause. Case in point is the absolute hammer-blow he strikes when he shouts' Ni eh oho ee Ranjha chaak je, Roop vattaa ke khairi ........... aya'. The two supporting singers offer up endless alaaps and taans, one-upping each other as the shehnai weaves a melodic line behind them. The girahs are 'thaith' punjabi gems and the tempo is unflagging, plus there's an almost imperceptible lilt at the end of each verse. The rather abrupt ending leaves the listener wanting more, and I certainly don't blame him.

Time it took for me to get hooked : 13 seconds

6. Yeh Payaam De Gyi Hai Mujhe Baad-e-Sub'ha Gaahi - Ustad Mashooq Ali Khan

I couldn't offer a more perfect example of instantly falling in love with a recording than this one. Only two or three seconds into it and I was absolutely hooked. What an amazing Sarangai prelude, and what inventive work on the tabla, wah. It is also obvious pretty immediately that this is a rather unusual recording in that Ustad Mashooq Ali Khan is so obviously not a Qawwal. The idea of having a classical singer perform one of Iqbal's landmark kalaams with a Qawwali party may sound dodgy in theory, but in practice it works brilliantly. The Ustad's adayegi is so appealing, his talaffuz is so good, that it doesn't matter that he's only performing girah-bandi on the main text, which the chorus is offering up in short takraars. After all, one of the peculiarities of Iqbaliyat when rendered in Qawwali is the almost endless opportunity for girah-bandi. In this case the girahs are exceedingly apt, and boy does the Ustad deliver them. I could listen to the one second clip of him saying 'Shikoh-e-Faqeer' (at the 3:27 mark) over and over again all day. This performance has a stately tempo, wonderful yet unobtrusive instrumentation, amazing girah-bandi, delightful mini-takraars and a magnificent lead vocalist. Hence it's not much of a surprise that it sits among one of my all-time favorite Qawwali recordings of all time.

Time for me to get hooked : 25 seconds


Saturday, February 11, 2012

...Of Dargahs And Devotions

If I had a penny for every time someone's asked me variations on the following sequence of questions, I'd be a millionaire by now. The questions being...

"Where are you going ?"
"Data Darbar"

Rumors run rife among my friends and family as to what can my reasons be for frequenting Sufi shrines and Mazaars so often. According to some, I'm a hardcore dope-fiend who goes there to score. Others think I'm one of those multitudes who can be found 'maatha-taiking' and 'mannat maaning' at the graves of the Saints. Still others have the eerily accurate idea that a hardcore foodie like me goes there to sample the delights of the 'langar'.

My reasons are varied and even I'm not fully aware of them, but a few are very obvious. The places radiate peace and calm, there is an overpowering spiritual energy to them, they are perfect for contemplation and what people in my line of work call 'zeroing the bubble', and yes, the 'langar' food is brilliant. Another important reason is of course, the music. Almost invariably, the shrines that I've visited have had a tradition of regular musical performances that are carried out by a small, hereditary group of 'darbari' musicians. They vary from accomplished to inept, from crude to highly polished, but they share one common bond, the bond of devotion to their Dargaah and their 'Peer', and this devotion shines through in their performance, whether Qawwali, Kafi singing, Noha-khvaani or simple instrumental musical performances. Below is a selection of some of the many musical performances, both regularly held and impromptu, that I've come across in my travels around the various Sufi Shrines of Pakistan.

One of the first places I visited on my 'Great Roadtrip' across South Punjab was the Shah Rukne Alam (RA) shrine in Multan. One of the most easily identifiable landmarks of Pakistan, the beautiful shrine is normally a quiet, peaceful place. Music is generally not an important part of the 'Suhravardia' silsila's devotional practices, so it was a bit of a surprise for me when, sitting in the courtyard of the shrine, I heard a number of voices joined in a rather unusual chant. I immediately whipped out my cellphone and started recording. I found out later that it was a group of villagers from interior Sindh who regularly make the pilgrimage to the Saint's shrine to pray for bountiful crops, successful marriages and the birth of children.

Villagers chanting in prayer at the shrine of Shah Rukne Alam (RA)


Ucch Shareef is one of the most historically and culturally significant places in Pakistan, with Pre-Mughal tombs littering the landscape, nestled among scores of Sufi shrines, each with a unique history and a devoted flock of 'mureeds'. The birthplace of the great 'Pathanay Khan', the town also has a longstanding musical legacy. One of the many shrines in Ucch Shareef is the one belonging to the Naqshbandi saint Hz Mehboob-e-Subhani (RA), which was one of the noisiest, most interestingly populated places I've been to. There were children playing and crying, elders snoozing and eating, women knitting and chattering, and a group of seminary students reciting the Quran.In this astounding cacaphony were mingled the sounds of two local minstrels, a pair of wandering 'Noha-khvaans' who were singing a Seraiki 'Noha' or lament for the Shuhada of Karbala. An unusual style and beautiful language mixed with a unique 'takrar' based style make them two of the most unique performers I've heard.

 Two wandering minstrels performing a 'Noha' at the 'Mehboob-e-Subhani' shrine at Ucch Shareef


Around six months ago, a friend received a rather anguished email from a Qawwal in which he lamented the 'disastrous decline of Qawwali' in Pakistan. I informed my friend that the reports of Qawwali's decline were greatly exaggerated and the genre was in fact, pretty healthy and more or less chugging along smoothly. The reason was that there's still a large number of 'Darbaari' qawwals who regularly perform at shrines all over Pakistan to undiminished audiences and who are still carrying out the task of propagating and transferring the wealth of devotional and musical treasures that Qawwali encompasses. Case in point is the following video. On a trip to Qasur, I made a detour to the hilltop shrine of Hz Kamal Chishti (RA). One has to climb at least two hundred steps to get to the shrine which overlooks the city of Qasur, a fact that ensures that the crowd of devotees is often very thin. On the day I went there, there was a small party of Qawwals performing there. They weren't musically very talented, the instruments were in a state of disrepair and there wasn't a soul in sight for them to perform for, yet they were singing away like nobody's business. And when I asked them if they knew anything in Farsi, they readily obliged ...

Qawwals at the shrine of Hz Kamal Chishti in Qasur


 While on the subject of Qawwali, I've been lucky enough to have attended a fair number of mehfils, both private and in a Khanqahi setting. Each has its own pleasures, but I've always been partial to the Sufi kalam that's performed in a Khanqah. And of all the places I've been to, the one place that has proven to be an almost textbook example of what a Qawwali mehfil in a Khanqah should be is the daily Qawwali that takes place at the afternoon majlis at the shrine of Hz Pir Mher Ali Shah Sb (RA) in Golra Shareef. In a tradition that goes back to Hazrat Sb's own time, a daily Qawwali mehfil takes place at the shrine just before mid-day. The late, great Haji Mahboob Ali Sb (RA) performed in these mehfils for around forty years, and after his death the tradition was continued by his brother (and accompanist) Haji Mushtaq Qawwal. The current darbaari qawwal at the shrine is Billa Qawwal, who makes up in choice of kalaam and use of 'tazmeen' and 'gireh-bandi' what he lacks in classical musical training. All the requisites of khanqahi Qawwali are adhered to; the mehfil takes place in the presence of a Shaykh, in this case, Pir Mehr Ali Shah (RA)'s grandson, Hz Shah Abdul Haq Gilani, the attendees are respectful and discerning, the 'nazar' to the qawwals is given through the hands of one of the many important spiritual personages who attend, and the atmosphere is one of a spiritual "wa'az" or instruction.

Nasima - Billa Qawwal And Party at the Golra Sharif Shrine

The next video was recorded at what I can safely call the greatest day of my life. It wasn't the day I graduated, or the day I got accepted into Med school, or the day I got engaged (apologies to the future missus). It was the final day of my Great Roadtrip, when after having visited Multan, Bahawalpur, Ucch Shareef, Derawar and Dera Ghazi Khan, I made my way to the town of Mithankot to pay my respects at the shrine of one of the greatest of Sufi poets, Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA). Pathanay Khan and Zahida Parveen were playing in the car on my way there, and a large number of Khwaja Sb's Kaafis were written on the walls of the shrine. The obvious step after payng my respects was to ask around for anyone who might sing one of Khwaja Sb's immortal kaafis for me. Somebody directed me to a group of Fakirs sitting in a corner of the shrine courtyard, one of whom was the current Khalifa of the shrine. I introduced myself and expressed my desire to listen to some of Khwaja Sb's kalam and the Khalifa Sb graciously consented to sing some for me, albeit making excuses for his voice. As I brought out my cellphone camera and he started singing, goosebumpy silence was quickly followed by a sudden gush of emotion as tears came to my eyes. I looked around and realised that I wasn't alone, very soon the entire circle of Fakirs was gently sobbing (some of which can be heard on the recording). This in itself would've been enough to make this an unforgettable experience, but somehow I plucked up the the courage to ask the gathered audience if  I could sing something too. they graciously consented and there, right next to Khwaja Sb's resting place, in the company of a group of Fakirs, I sang one of my favorite (and my parents' and grandparents' favorite) kaafi. When I ended, the teary-eyed assemblage very kindly appreciated me and we prayed together for a while before I took my leave. Nothing, and I mean nothing has come close to the sheer spiritual and psychological elation I felt that day.

 Kafi Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA) sung by Khwaja Sb's Khalifa


So there you have it. The secret's out and now whenever you see me heading out for another Sufi shrine, you'll know why I'm going there. I'm going there for spiritual solace, I'm going there out of curiosity and respect for the personage buried there, I'm going there because I've heard their langar is good. But I'm also going there in search of music, especially when it mixes with the rarefied atmosphere of a Dargah and produces moments of absolute joy like this one ....