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 .

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 ....


Sunday, February 5, 2012

...Of Five Conversations

A window into the surreal place I currently call home .

Conversation 1:

W. Doctor sahab, yeh aap ke laptop ke wallpaper pe kis ki photo hai?
Me. Woody Guthrie.
W. Woh kaun hai?
Me. Singer tha ek.
W. Accha .. Doctor sahab, mere laptop pe bhi ek singer ka wallpaper hai.
Me. Accha, kaun ?
W. Justin Bieber.

Conversation 2:

Katy Perry's 'Firework' is playing on the telly, as she sings "Boom boom boom!! / You're shining like a moon, moon, moon!!

Me. Aren't Katy Perry's lyrics awesome?
R. Exactly doctor saheb, itne beautiful lyrics haina. And so deep.
Me. Oh-kay....


Conversation 3:

Rob Schneider's 'The Animal' is playing on the telly.

B. Yaar yeh banda kya zabardast actor hai.
W. Exactly sir, kya expressions hain iss ke.
B. Haan, tum ne iss ki 'The Hot Chick' dekhi hai? Pata nahi Oscar ke liye kyun nahi nominate hota yeh.
W. Waqai sir, uss Al Pacino se to bohat behtar acting hai iss ki, kyun Doctor saheb?
Me.  .........


Conversation 4:

I'm watchin F.W Murnau's 'Faust' on my laptop.

W.  Doctor saheb, yeh footage kitni purani hai?
Me. 1926 ki hai.
W. Itni purani? Phir to iss main Quaid-e-Azam bhi hongay, haina ?
Me ............


Conversation 5:

H. Doctor saheb, yeh saaray posters aap ke hain ?
Me. Ji sir.
H. Yeh chaar boorhay kaun hain?
Me. Sir yeh Rolling Stones hain, ek band hai kafi purana.
H. Yeh abhi bhi gaatay hain?
Me. Ji sir.
H. Hmm, Iss umer main to ghazlain hi gatay hongay. Haina doctor saheb?
Me. Bilkul sir.