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, January 13, 2012

...Of A Number Of Things

What follows is a series of small erm, discourses on a number of topics that interested me but weren't deemed suitable for further elaboration because, let's face it, I'm the laziest fella this side of the Indus. They don't have a common thread running through them and have been hastily jotted down as I unpack my bags after heading back to my little shed in the jungle.

The 'Usual'

Most of the things that I've grown to enjoy immensely in Lahore were actually my own discoveries ; bookshops, places to eat, places to see etc that I had stumbled onto in my many exploratory forays. One place however, bears the distinction of not only being pointed out to me by a friend but actually, persuasively prodded towards, and I can safely say that never was I prodded towards a more favorable destination. One of the small, no not small; sizeable pleasures that one can hope to achieve in a long residence at one place is acquiring a place where, slightly modifying the theme from Cheers, 'not everybody but at least somebody knows your name'. That place for me is the Lahore Chatkhara in Mini-Market, Gulberg.

The fact that after my initial visit, I could be found there at least three or four times every month bred a little familiarity. This was reinforced by the fact that I'd always be carrying a pile of books and would inadvertently be waiting for someone, something which sort of singled me out from the rest of their patrons. The bond was completed by the fact that the first time I tasted what I had been ordered by my friend to taste - a plate of Samosa Chaat and a bottle of Coke - I was so taken that I immediately ordered another serving and gave the waitress a pretty phenomenal tip. The happy result is that now, whenever I go there, I am nodded-at by said recipient of my tipping largesse, led towards my 'usual table', allowed to wait uninterrupted for my 'usual friends' and need only to inform them to bring me 'the usual'. It may not be the Anglers' Rest of the Mr. Mulliner stories or the eponymous bar from Cheers, but trust me, there's great pleasure in being a 'usual'.

The Unbearable Nusrat-ness Of Being

I came late to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Wait, let me rephrase that, I was a huge Nusrat fan the first 20 odd years of my life but when I 'rediscovered' Qawwali some four odd years ago, somehow Nusrat remained on the fringes of my radar. One of the reasons was that I had been warned off him by the "purists" - back when I was silly enough to  pay any attention to them, another was that every time I listened to him, my mind would always (unfavorably) compare him to his father, which I realise now was unfair. However, when I gradually rediscovered Nusrat, I was immediately entranced by his skill, his emotionality and (unlike what the purists had blabbered on about) his immense 'ehteraam' for the Classical idiom. Of course I had to pick and choose from literally thousands of his recordings, but at least I was a Nusrat fan.

Mark the sequel though. It's been more than a decade since Nusrat passed away. Qawwali has seen a decline and then a slight resurgence but the influence of Nusrat has remained. Not only has it remained but it has grown so overpowering that I've noticed a (to me at least) very disturbing trend in modern Qawwali, namely the Unbearable Nusratness Of Being.

The overwhelming majority of Qawwals have realized that Nusrat sells. As a result, everyone has become what can best be described as rather sub-standard Nusrat clones. In doing so, the Qawwals have all but completely abandoned their own hereditary style, their trademark items and their unique performance styles. The entire Fareedi clan for example - which boasted such modern stalwarts as Agha Rasheed Ahmed and Abdul Raheem Fareedi - has decided to convert to Nusratism en masse. Gone are the trademark emotive, classical bandishes. Instead, we have cheap synthesisers, alarming vocal histrionics and wholesale borrowings from Nusrat's repertoire.

Another example is one of the rising stars of the current Qawwali scene, Asif Ali Santoo Khan Qawwal, whose father and grandfather were supremely talented Ustaads of Qawwali, but who has completely moulded his style on Nusats, with the result that more often than not, his performances veer towards jumbledness and confusion rather than clarity. Even the ‘Dehli-wala’ gharanas of Qawwali, both in India and Pakistan, have also eschewed their usual emotive, nuanced and more measured style for a more ballistic and over-the-top style that somehow sounds odd to the ears. The overall result being that where once the Punjabi ‘ang’ of Qawwali was a many-textured style with different performers binging their own uniqueness to the fore, nowadays Qawwali in the Punjab is totally Nusrated.

Now I know this is an honest-to-goodness rant and that I am obviously overreacting to what is the natural result of the presence of a towering cultural figure who cast a very long shadow, but unless some of the current performers discover their own distinctive voices and look towards their own personal heritage for fresh ideas, Qawwali will degenerate into something much less appealing and enlightening and satisfying than it’s supposed to be. And worst of all, the purists will be proven right.

The Joy Of Text

When I go on holiday, I don’t necessarily ‘go on holiday’. Let me explain. Others may use the holidays to catch a bit of much-needed R&R, laze about, catch up on their sleep or generally idle. My holidays are the exact opposite of that. Averaging only five to six hours of sleep per day, I manage to cram in so many activities into the three or four days off I get every month that I actually need a day-planner to help me get through all the commitments. These include getting through the checklist in the previous post, the requisite socializing, shopping, taking care of pending official paperwork and downloading as much music and movies and TV shows to last me the month or more before I next expect to be home.

Another object that is forced to share this increased holiday workload is my long-suffering phone. Here in the jungle, the phone serves as a combination torch and Angry Birds console and that’s it. No cellphone signals and no Wi-Fi means it lives out the month a shadow of its true self. But let me get in my car and get within cellphone coverage range on my way home, and Abdul Ghafoor (my phone’s named Abdul Ghafoor) comes alive in the most remarkable fashion. Over the course of the next three or four days, I manage to make more phone calls, send more texts and do more phone-ly things than most people tend to do in their entire lifetimes. My preferred modus communicadi being the text message, which I’ve preferred over phone calls for as long as I’ve had a cellphone.

The pure pleasure of carrying out conversations over SMS is lost on people who take the ability to send and receive texts for granted. But to a person who gets to receive terrible jokes and Doomsday warnings only once a month, the true worth of the medium is evident. It’s hard to describe the absolutely nonsensical bracing effects, after having spent a month or more in complete radio silence, of a conversation like this :

Q. Musab bhai, aap ek kaam keejiye.
Me. Ji janab ?
Q. Aap Nijaam ke bal bal jaiyye.
Me.Ji behtar.

A month after arriving in my jungle hideout, I had managed to procure a phone and establish some form of communication, two months later, I improved that to include what can mercifully be called an internet connection but the ability to send and receive texts had eluded me. Because of some oddly convoluted logic, phones here can carry out any two of the three activities of voice calls, text messaging and internet connectivity, but not all three. So in opting for the ability to sit for hours waiting for the Google homepage to load, I relinquished the ability to text. The result was that on my recently concluded holiday, I took out my textual frustrations to such an extent that I managed to crash the Messaging application, which is no mean feat on an Android phone. This brought home the realization that steps needed to be taken, avenues needed to be explored and measures needed to be implemented so that I could spread out my textual largesse over the entire year instead of treating my phone like a stock-ticker three days a month and letting it grow fat and lazy the rest of the time.

As always, the simplest solution has proven the most practical. Doing the required math, I decided that to phones were better than one. One for calling and texting and the other solely for crawling the internet. So now mine is the only room for miles with two oddly shaped telephone antennae on its roof. Now all I have to worry about is how to get enough electricity to charge two phones when there isn’t enough for even one. But that, as they say, is a horse of a different colour.

Classical Music Versus Lamb Chops

Here’s a question. You know the Festival Of Lights in Lahore is part of your ‘culture’. Yet you live in Khuzdar, or you’re allergic to lights. Would you then consider it your duty to do whatever you can to preserve and support the Festival Of Lights simply because it’s part of your 'culture' ?

I got to dwelling on this question after reading a Facebook post, a rather anguished post lamenting the treatment of Classical musicians in Pakistan, especially the lack of respect paid them and the impending void they will leave if not appreciated, supported and given their due ‘ehtiraam’. This is sadly very true and the handful of senior classical musicians, with one or two exceptions, are living out the last days of their lives in penury, mostly neglected, with their huge talents and ability going to waste rather than being transmitted to future generations. The loss to our cultural milieu will be immeasurable when they’ve passed away. That much is clear.

Mark the sequel though. Classical music has, for most of its history, been an art form appreciated by a comparatively small audience, almost like Opera or Jazz. The small audience has been, for the most part, discerning, passionate and appreciative. And they’ve had the means to support the art-form that they appreciate. This has taken the form of court-patronage in the previous centuries and although now considerably diminished, is still carried on in the tradition of Mehfils and soirees etc. With these means, the passionate followers of classical music have managed to get their fill of their favorite type of music and contribute to the maintenance and sustenance of the classical tradition.

Like Opera and Jazz however, Classical music is not entirely ignored by the mainstream. In genres like Qawwali, Ghazal and Folk Music for example, artists like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mehdi Hassan, Tufail Niazi et al have been instrumental in introducing the lay-listener to a taste of sub-continental classical music; a feat that has resulted in a wider listenership and appreciation for this genre. Yet classical music has remained, for better or worse, a rather exclusive art form, appreciated and nurtured by a rather small group of fans (at least in Pakistan). This group is well-versed in the intricacies, technicalities as well as the niceties associated with classical music. It knows, for example, the etiquette of a ‘mehfil’ and the ‘ehtiraam’ accorded an Ustad, and in mehfils where this group is exclusively present, such niceties are usually expected to be followed.

Any art form, however exclusive, cannot hope to remain both insular and vibrant. In terms of Classical music, this problem is somewhat rectified by including a sizeable number of lay-listeners in mehfils and the repertoire is designed to include more popular ‘items’ along with the ‘thaith’ classical pieces. Another very common trend is inviting these musicians, especially Qawwals, to functions such as weddings, parties etc where they perform to a decidedly mixed crowd. Now, the point I was trying to elaborate in the question of the start of this piece comes into play. How is the lay-listener, with not more than a passing interest in what the musicians are performing, supposed to react? Does he, despite the fact that whatever is being performed is flying over his head or that his attention is constantly being diverted by the rather delectable looking lamb-chop at the wedding buffet, feign interest and try to treat the music and the musicians with something more than cursory attention ? Or does he, following his heart (and stomach), head straight to the group of his friends – with a small detour at the buffet table of course – and start chattering like nobody’s business, not giving a hoot to the group of people gesticulating and caterwauling on stage ?

As an enlargement of the above question, unless the classical musicians have modified their repertoire to include more populist pieces – a step which will more often than not have the effect of alienating their core audience – why should the lay-listener pay attention to this group of performers, despite the fact that Classical music forms an integral part of our national culture. Because from the listener’s point of view, in the current economic and political situation, paraphrasing Faiz – ‘Aur bhi gham hain zamanay main culture kie siwa’. And again, perhaps his cultural touchstones include something completely different from those of classical music fans. Perhaps he digs Atif Aslam and the latest Bollywood music, perhaps he’s into hip-hop or death-metal or Naseebo Lal. Why should he give a hoot to the fact that Ustad Ghulam Hussain Shaggan is currently living in a two-room apartment in a seedy part of Lahore or that Ustad Manzoor Ahmed Niazi is now the last surviving member of a legendary generation of Qawwals or that a treasure trove of Classical music recordings is slowly decomposing in the basement of the Radio Pakistan building in Lahore?

This is a thorny issue, for both the listener and the musicians. Should a more populist approach be tried by the musicians and tolerated by the die-hard listeners or is adherence to the classical idiom, coupled with increased patronage by the core group of listeners the way forward? Because one thing is clear – at least to me- Classical Music, classical Qawwali and all similar art-forms, will have rather limited appeal as compared to more popular arts unless drastic changes in performance are made. It will always be up to the small yet devoted group of listeners to archive, promote, nurture and introduce this art form, like it has been in the past. I don’t know who can shoulder the blame if these art-forms continue to decline, but at least it isn’t the wedding guest noisily munching on his lamb-chop and enjoying the company of his friends, oblivious to the fading echoes of what he certainly doesn’t consider his ‘culture’.


  1. Hi Musab,
    always enjoy your posts. Do you think it would be possible for some of that small group of fans to 'classical' music to get access to the basement of Radio Pakistan and start to reissue this great art? The quality of available recordings is generally poor and with some little work they could be a) represented handsomely, b) find a new and hungry audience and c) be preserved for posterity. On finding an live audience for the few performers, that is indeed a painful and sad challenge. If I had the bucks I would set about establishing a music academy and trust fund whereby funds could support both a new generation of musicians as well as support and promote performance. as usual in life, every cause needs at least 1 motivated person to pursue it and miracles can happen.

    1. It would have to be more than a small group of fans actually. More a group of fans with bureaucratic clout to get through the red-tape, lots of time on their hands to systematically scour the vaults and enough monetary muscle to obtain copyright or licensing rights. In short, a generously funded, totally committed conservation project, which sadly, doesn't seem like happening in the near future.

      As for the music academy and trust fund idea, the same applies here too. Generous funding, outreach and identification of deserving artists and then novel ways of tastefully introducing them to a new generation of listeners.