I've been maintaining this blog (for better or for worse) over the last eight years. Over these years, its natural evolution has led it into becoming something of a niche place for discussion of music in general and Qawwali in particular. Rather than trying to return my existing blog to its pre-Qawwali eclectic roots, I decided I’d start anew on Tumblr. So if you’re interested in music, Qawwali and subcontinental culture, keep reading/listening/watching/commenting here. For all of the above and everything else under the sun, head on over to my Tumblr page .

Saturday, December 13, 2014

...Of Plans Deferred And Schemes Postponed

Rabbie Burns said, and I quote :
The best-laid schemes o' mice an 'men
Gang aft agley

He should've added 'blogs' to the first verse, for a twist of fate has ganged it's future as 'agley' as aft-ing possible. Without going into too many details, there shall be little or no activity on the blog for the next 3-6 months. A number of posts that were in preparation (yes, despite their slipshod nature, the posts are indeed "prepared") will have to be put on hold as I attend the call of duty. Till then, paraphrasing the Dude, "The blog abides !"

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

....Of A Broke Down Engine

This is an updated version of a post originally published in January 2009. I haven't altered the text, only added some recently found recordings.

Blind Willie McTell sang,
"Feel like a broke-down engine, ain't got no drivin' wheel,
Feel like a broke-down engine, ain't got no drivin' wheel.
You all been down and lonesome, you know just how a poor man feels."

I don't know how many have been down and lonesome, but I'm pretty sure everyone's had the winter blues. There's sleet, fog, rain and ovaltine....perfect ingredients for perfect winter days, but somehow or the other the ennui and the gosh-awful lethargy take complete control and the cocooning starts again. A week and a half of indifferent academic mash-ups has brought forth the second long-weekend in a span of four days. Usually, a flurry of study, movie watching, downloading or a hastily hiccupped blog-post mark each one of these increasingly rarer moments of freedom.

As this time it was the Ashura holiday, naturally no extravagances can be planned, which greatly limits my options. So I've been forced to restrict myself to downloading things for later and trying (unsuccessfully) to study. On any normal day, being home alone would mean a binge of colossal proportions, but this time, despite my folks (and the domestic help) being away, there being no loadshedding ( ???) for the past 36 hours and perfect weather, I'm wrapped up in my cocoon and sipping away at ovaltine....

To get to the point of this post, here's a bunch of absolute gems I found at Youtube. The proverb "It never rains, it pours" could also apply here. After listening to it once or twice on radio (Cloud 89 on CityFM89 to be exact) I was madly in search of this.....

And when I finally found it, there was a whole treasure trove to go along with it.
There's this...

And this ....

And finally, this piece of utter brilliance ...

I'd rather not label these - if anyone's curious enough, they can be sure of a treat...

This is where the original post ended. Here are the two missing pieces of the puzzle. Once again, no labels on any of the videos.

Missing piece number five ...
The final and most wonderful missing piece ...

Monday, November 10, 2014

...Of The Reluctant Sufi - Asadullah Khan Ghalib

4. Maulana Abdur Rehman Jami (RA)

یہ مسائلِ تصوف ، یہ تیرا بیان غالبؔ
تجھے ہم ولی سمجھتے جو نہ بادہ خوار ہوتا

“Ghalib, you write so well upon these mystic themes of Love Divine,
We would have counted you a saint, were it not for your love of wine.”

Professors Ralph Russell and Khurshid ul Islam narrate from Altaf Hussain Hali’s Yadgar-e-Ghalib (Memoir of Ghalib) that when King Bahadur Shah Zafar heard Ghalib recite the above verse, he commented, “No,my friend, even so we should never have counted you a Saint.” Ghalib retorted, “Your Majesty counts me one even now, and only speaks like this lest my Sainthood should go to my head."

The only surviving photograph of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib

Just as there is no doubting the stature that Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (27 December 1797-15 February 1869) holds in the annals of Urdu and Farsi poetry, there is also no doubting the fact that amongst all the major Urdu poets of the Classical period (barring possibly Khwaja Meer Dard), Ghalib's poetry is arguably the richest wellspring of mystical thought and metaphysical idiom.While this thought is more perfectly elaborated in his Farsi poetry, Ghalib's Urdu verse also displays flashes of preternatural insight and understanding of the mystical aspect of Love. Ghalib's kalaam contains numerous examples of disdain towards organized religion and the trappings of religiosity and self-righteousness, while at the same time utilizing uncanny simile and metaphor to offer glimpses of his deeply held "Wahdat-ul-Wujoodi" beliefs. As an example, one of my favorite Farsi poems of Ghalib's, which would not look out of place in the Divans of Khusrau, Saadi, Hafez or any of the other overtly mystical Farsi poets...

چون عکسِ پُل بہ سیل، بذوقِ بلا برقص
جارا نگاہ داروہم از خود جدا برقص

نبُوَد وفائ عہد، دمی خوش غنیمت است
از شاہداں بنازشِ عہدِ وفا برقص

ذوقی است جستجو چہ زنی دم زِ قطعِ راہ
رفتار گم کن و بَصدائے درا برقص

سر سبز بودہ و بہ چمنہا چمیدہ ایم
اے شعلہ، درگدازِ خس و خاکِ ما برقص

ہم بر نوائے چغد طریقِ سماع گیر
ہم در ہوائے جنبشِ بالِ ہما برقص

در عشق انساط بپایان نمی رسد
چوں گردباد خاک شو و در ہوا برقص

فرسودہ رسمہائے عزیزان فرو گذار
در سور نوحہ خوان و بہ بزمِ عزا برقص

چون خشمِ صالحان و ولاے منافقان
در نفسِ خود مباش ولے برملا برقص

از سوختن الم، زِ شگفتن طرب مَجو
بے ہودہ درکنار سموم و صبا، برقص

غالبؔ بدیں نشاط کہ وابسطہ ای، کہ ای
بر خویشتن ببال و بہ بندِ بلا برقص

The selections of recordings for this post took a long time to assemble, for the simple reason that Ghalib isn't a part of many Qawwals' repertoires. But the few recordings that I have heard, especially by the senior Qawwals of the 20th century, manage to do justice to his kalaam and ensure that whatever this selection lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for in quality.

1. Dil Hi To Hai, Na Sang-o-Khisht - Aziz Ahmed Warsi Qawwal
Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi traced his lineage to one Muhammad Siddique Khan, a nephew of Tanras Khan and a singer in the court of the last Mughal. He is therefore perfectly suited to singing this lament, considering Ghalib himself was a poet attached to the court of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal. Warsi Sb's staccato harmonium and his perfect talaffuz have always enchanted me, especially in his performances of ghazals by the "Asaateza". He sings this ghazal with an effortless ease, opting not to intrude on its simplicity with unnecessary girahs and takraars and letting the verses speak for themselves.

2. Har Ek Baat Pe Kehte Ho Tum Ke Tu Kya Hai - Muhammad Ahmed Warsi Qawwal
Muhammad Ahmed Warsi belongs to Rampur and is probably my favorite Qawwal from India currently performing. He imbues his performances with a subtle languor and restraint, preferring to linger on bol's and notes and letting the kalaam flow at a meandering, mellifluous pace. An almost old-world "Purbi" charm pervades this recording, as Warsi Sb prefaces the ghazal with choice romantic couplets. He shares his semi-namesake Aziz Ahmed Warsi's unique harmonium playing technique, punctuating key phrases in the kalam with short, sharp jabs at the keys, propelling both the melody and the rhythm forward. In a simple, unassuming performance, even the flubs in the girahbandi become endearing, while the short taankari suits the mood of the kalaam perfectly.

3. Dil Se Teri Nigah Jigar Tak Utar Gyi - Rahat Fateh Ali Khan
This recording is taken from a selection of Ghalib's kalam that Rahat Fateh Ali Khan performed on Pakistan Television. The performances were later released commercially and form an interesting album to say the least. I am ambivalent about the performances which, although a commendable effort in terms of presenting Ghalib's kalaam in a newer context, didn't quite provide the kalaam with musical arrangements that suited the mood of the verses. This performance however stands out in my opinion. The melody is beautiful, Rahat employs excellent girah-bandi and his bol-baant is  wonderful. The ghazal is a wonderful amalgam of Ghalib's romantic idiom and his penchant for describing the passage of time and the ravages of age in deceptively simple terms. Rahat is allowed ample opportunity for takraars and his by now trademark frenetic sargams, occasionally providing echoes of his late Uncle. This is a refreshing, lively performance that reminds listeners that underneath Rahat's pop-heavy Bollywood performances hides an excellent Qawwal capable of crafting superb performances.

4. Mazze Jahan Ke Apni Nazar Main Khaak Nahi - Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal & Party
I shall not endeavor to describe this recording, suffice to say that it is one of the most perfect Qawwali performances I have ever heard or ever expect to hear and holds a very very special place in my heart.

5. Jahan Tera Naqshe Qadam Dekhte Hain - Ustad Fateh Ali - Mubarak Ali Qawwal
Segueing from Rahat to his grandfather and grand-uncles, and from Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal to their Ustads, the next selection is from Ustad Fateh Ali Khan - Mubarak Ali Khan Qawwal's triumphant 1958 public performance in Bombay (Mumbai). The entire performance is phenomenal, but this short performance of Ghalib's wonderful ghazal is wonderful in itself. Fateh Ali Khan's voice is imbued with a unique electricity and elasticity and he declaims the kalaam rather than singing it. Salamat Ali Khan's harmonium takes centre stage, Mubarak Ali Khan's taans are short but crisp and the takraars are lively and energetic. The recording is slightly high-pitched, probably owing to an incorrect transfer from tape-reels, and this recording error lends a wonderful punch to the performance. The last minute-and-a-half is especially brilliant as the Ustads build a takraar on the final verse of the ghazal and then embellish the takraar as only they could.

6. Dehr Main Naqshe Vafaa, Waj'he Tasalli Na Hua - Manzoor Ahmed Niazi Qawwal Aur Hamnavaa
Zaheer Alam Kidvai Sb has been quietly unveiling an absolute audiovisual treasure over the last three years. Comprising of recordings from his personal archive, these releases - under his Ragni Recordings label - are phenomenal to say the least, comprising poetry and prose, ghazal, folk, classical and Qawwali of the highest order. In this recording that Kidvai Sb has kindly allowed me to post, the original "Barri" Manzoor Ahmed Niazi Qawwal party - Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed, Manzoor Ahmed Niazi, Bahauddin Khan and Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami - sing one of Ghalib's lesser known Urdu ghazals. As is obvious from the start, only Delhi-walas can properly do justice to Ghalib's Dehlavi Urdu. Each member of this amazing Qawwal party lends his own unique richness to the performance. Munshi Raziuddin's wonderful delivery - complete with his emotive "hae- hae" compliments the kalaam's innate sense of plaintive sorrow, with Manzoor Ahmed Niazi's unique voice perfectly conveying the poet's resignation and surrender. The taankaari is provided by Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami and Bahauddin Khan, with a couple of young voices - probably belonging to the current leaders of the Qawwal Bacchay troupes - in the chorus. This is a ghazal with a unique rhyme scheme, with the 'radeef' rhyming in the written text but alternating between the sounds of the " ی " and the " یٰ " when sung. The Qawwals take this rhythmic incongruity in stride, effortlessly disguising the changes in the radeef. As with the Fateh Ali- Mubarak Ali piece, the delivery of the last verse - the 'maqta' - of this ghazal is wonderful, with Munshi Raziuddin turning the first words of the verse into an almost strangled last gasp. Beautiful !

Sunday, October 26, 2014

...Of The Great Discoverer

My pop culture obsessions tend to ebb and flow. For weeks upon weeks I will become totally consumed by single season cult British comedies , binge watching them to distraction, poring over their minutiae and interacting with other fans. A week or two later you'll find me engrossed in the diaries of people I admire, leading me down further rabbit-holes of discovery. Other times, I will spend dozens upon dozens of days playing a game that is as demandingly difficult as it is amazingly engrossing. Or perhaps watching and rewatching films that would drive the average viewer to distraction. Paraphrasing Walt Whitman, I contain multitudes (of interests) and lack the ordinary person's ability to divide time amongst each, alternating instead between devotion of unholy amounts of time and attention to completely neglecting said interests for months on end. Each phase of obsession is usually accompanied by an urge to write, but more often than not, I don't follow through. This time however, in a bid to return my blog to its early days of fevered activity, I plan to follow through.

A long while ago, I wrote about (re)discovering Noor Jehan. Listening to selections from Madam's pre-partition career not only gave me an increased appreciation of her talents, it also introduced me to the wonderful history of Cinema in the subcontinent. Over time, with the help of wonderful resources like Dances on the Footpath and Memsaab Story, I learned more about the heady days of the '30s and '40s when Cinema was in its infancy. Unfortunately, most of the pre-partition films, including both talkies and silents, are either lost or unavailable for public viewing, but whatever survives is fascinating to say the least. What really interested me though, was the film music of the '30s and '40s. I wouldn't go so far as some purists who consider the 1940-1960 era the Golden era of Bollywood music (I would put it more at 1949-1969) because I think most of the classical based film music from that era hasn't dated well. The music that stands out in my opinion, is by a handful of music directors who broke away from the pure classical tradition, introduced folk/western influenced music in their films and managed to create the template for the film music of the next two decades.

This post is about one such genius, who I unequivocally consider amongst the very finest music composers in the history of the subcontinent, Master Ghulam Haider. Even though an early death robbed him of a lengthy career, during his eighteen year association with the film industry, he almost single-handedly revolutionized film music. The effects of his innovations are still being felt and he was recognized as a pioneer and a "master", both in his lifetime and after his death, by the great music directors and singers of the subcontinent. The dust of time has settled on his accomplishments and his name is not as well known as most of his successors, but if I were to select only one reason to consider Master Sb one of the giants of music, it would be this; he discovered and nurtured four of the greatest and most iconic voices of the subcontinent.

A brief biographical sketch of Master Ghulam Haider's life would be; Born in Hyderabad (Sind) 1908, Died Lahore (Pakistan) 1953. First film as music director - "Swarg Ki Seerhi" (1935) , Final film as music director - "Gulnaar" (1953). Married famous radio/Gramophone singer Umrao Zia Begum (1935). A single post on Master Sb's career highlights would be too vast an undertaking. I will limit myself to the four artists who started their film careers under Master Ghulam Haider's baton.

In 1939, "Pancholi Art Pictures" Lahore released a low budget Punjabi film, "Gul Bakaavli". The star was thirteen year old child star "Baby Noor Jehan". Under Master Ghulam Haider's direction, Noor Jehan recorded her very first songs, achieving instant fame amongst the Punjabi audiences. Noor Jehan's first song, and the film's enduring hit was "Shaala Jawaaniyan Maan'en".

This was both Master Ghulam Haider and Noor Jehan's big break, and it is a testament to both that the song retains its freshness to this day. In stark contrast to the prevalent music of the day, this song had a prominent 'dholak' beat, a wonderfully free-flowing instrumentation with liberal use of western instruments, including a wonderful clarinet. This was to set the tone for further Noor Jehan-Ghulam Haider collaborations, including 1941's superhit Pancholi Art Pictures' Punjabi film "Chaudhry", which included this wonderful duet featuring Noor Jehan and Master Ghulam Haider himself, "Bus Bus Ve Dholna"

By 1942, Noor Jehan was an established singing star of the Punjabi cinema, but was relatively unknown in the rest of India. She was still known as "Baby Noor Jehan" and had not started playing adult roles. All this changed with a truly landmark film, one of the most important and most successful films in the history of the subcontinent; 1942's Pancholi Art Pictures' film "Khandan". It introduced Noor Jehan in her first adult role, which was also her first Hindustani speaking role. It also introduced the rest of India to Master Ghulam Haider's groundbreaking music. A phenomenal hit even by today's standards, it propelled both the singer and the music director to unprecedented fame. Each song of this film is brilliant (I'm planning a future post on the Khandan soundtrack), but my most favorite is that haunting, almost otherworldly melody that displayed Noor Jehan's precocious maturity as a singer, "Tu Kaun Si Badli Main"

After Khandan, Noor Jehan's career continued on an ever-upward trajectory, lasting the next six decades. Master Ghulam Haider's music meanwhile, was allowing the low-budget films from Lahore to compete with the releases of the major studios of Calcutta, Pune and Mumbai. In 1941, Pancholi Art Pictures released another super-hit Hindustani film with music by Master Ghulam Haider. In this film, he used another of his discoveries for playback. the film was "Khazanchi" and the discovery was Shamshad Begum. Master Ghulam Haider's use of the dholak as the primary driving force of a film song came to full prominence in this film, as he set the foundation for taal-based music in film, superseding the earlier laya-based compositions. One of the film's biggest hits was the Shamshad Beegum-Ghulam Haider duet "Nainon Ke Baan Ki Reet Anokhi".

Just as an aside, isn't Ramola Devi gorgeous ?

Another hit song from this film, and one of my personal favorites, again sung by Shamshad Begum, was the melancholy song "Mann Dheere Dheere Rona". It is propelled along at a wonderful tempo by a tabla/dholak accompaniment, which had by now become a trademark of Master Ghulam Haider.

Master Ghulam Haider had introduced the two pre-eminent film singers of the '40s, Noor Jehan and Shamshad Begum. Shamshad Begum said in an interview "Master Ghulam Haider was like her Guru. He was the one who guided her early career and helpedher develop her style of singing. According to her, She learnt two lessons from him. First, to be a good person and the second, just like water takes the shape of the vessel, the same way, one should adjust with the circumstances". According to some estimates, Shamshad Begum alsorecorded nearly 200 non-film songs with Ghulam Haider for his "Jain-ophone" label. Unfortunately, very few of them survive. One of my favorite Shamshad Begum songs from the forties composed by Master Ghulam Haider comes from Mehboob Khan's epic "Humayun", "Naina Bhar Aaye Neer"

With 1947 came the trauma of partition. Like Mohammad Rafi, Naushad and Shamshad Begum, Master Ghulam Haider decided to stay in Bombay but most of his Punjabi musicians migrated to Lahore. He had heard two Punjabi sisters who sang together in Lahore, and after partition, arranged for the younger sister to come to Bombay. She had previously achieved some fame for singing Punjabi folksongs on the radio, but Master Ghulam Haider introduced her as a playback singer in the 1948 film 'Shaheed". Her name was Surinder Kaur and she was his third great discovery. Shaheed was a superhit, and one of Surinder Kaur's songs is a personal favorite of mine, "Badnaam Na Ho Jaaye"

One of the versions of the story of Master Ghulam Haider's final great discovery sounds like it could've come straight from a Bollywood film, and it's apocryphal at best, but here goes. Master Ghulam Haider was traveling from one recording studio to another in a local train in Bombay when he noticed an anaemic looking girl in her teens singing something. Her voice was very shrill but very sweet. Ghulam Haider asked her to come close to his seat and asked, “Would you sing if I made a tune for you right now ?”. He used a plate and a stick to create the ”Taal”, improvised a tune and sang it.As the girl followed along, Ghulam Haider was impressed. He asked her to come on a certain date to a studio for audition in front of a mike and orchestra. The girl agreed and reached the studio well before the appointed time. Ghulam Haider conducted the audition. Her voice was feeble, but closer to the mike it sounded very impressive. She passed the audition and Master Ghulam Haider decided to use her in the film he was currently working on. When the producer heard the recordings, he rejected her by saying that the voice was too shrill. Master Ghulam Haider told the producer, "You might be rejecting her today, but tomorrow you shall come begging to her to sing for you". The shrill voiced young singer, if you haven't guessed already, was Lata Mangeshkar.

Lata Mangeshkar sang her very first film songs under the direction of Master Ghulam Haider in the 1948 film 'Majboor", in a recording session that was attended by Naushad, Shankar-Jaikishen, Anil Biswas and Husnlal-Bhagatram, all eager to listen to the latest discovery of Master Ghulam Haider's. My favorite song from this film, and Lata's very first Hindi solo film playback song, is "Dil Mera Toda, Mujhe Kaheen Ka Na Chora"

Another interesting incident involving Lata and Master Ghulam Haider goes like this, One day in a recording studio Lata was rehearsing a Ghulam Haider tune. Being raw she kept making one crucial mistake again and again. The perfectionist in Ghulam Haider got so infuriated that he gave her a slap on her face. Every member of the orchestra was stunned. One of Ghulam Haider’s most trusted harmonium players was Kartar Singh. Kartar Singh remarked ”Khan Sahib,why did you slap this frail little girl?. Look at her face, she can’t even cry, she is totally dumbfounded”. Ghulam Haider retorted, “Kartar Singh, I used to slap Noorjehan when she made mistakes and see how high a pedestal she has reached, she is on top the top of her profession. This slap is going to catapult Lata  into a great singer, who will rule the world of music”. This incident took place during the recordings for 1948's "Padmini, which features my favorite Lata Mangeshkar-Master Ghulam Haider collaboration, "Bedard Tere Dard Ko Seene Se Lagaa Ke". Master Ghulam Haider gives Lata a classical based composition and she sings it with aplomb, perfectly justifying his confidence and pride in her.

Soon after this, and despite a flourishing career in the Bombay film industry, Master Ghulam Haider moved back to Lahore. In Lahore, he gave music for a number of films, The films did not prove to be great hits at the box office, and the music wasn't very well received. He founded the film production company "Filmsaaz" in 1953 with  a view to producing music based films. During the production of his maiden film as  a producer, 1953's "Gulnaar", Master Ghulam Haider started suffering from symptoms of Throat cancer, and despite entreaties from Lata Mangeshkar to come to Bombay for treatment, decided to spend his final days in Lahore. The film was released in the first week of November 1953, a few days before his death at the relatively young age of 45. His funeral was held on 10th November 1953 in Lahore, and a special meeting of the Cine Musicians Association was called in Bombay to mourn his death.

Master Ghulam Haider gave music for barely two dozen films in his lifetime, eschewing quantity over quality. He paved the way for singers, poets and musicians from the Punjab, who breathed new life into the music of the subcontinent. This is bourne out by the fact that his success was soon followed by the arrivals of Punjabi music directors like Shyam Sunder, Husnlal-Bhagatram, Madan Mohan and OP Nayyar (the last two had worked as assistants with Master Ghulam Haider), singers like Muhammad Rafi and GM Durrani and poets like Sahir Ludhianvi, Rajinder Krishen, Dinanath Madhok and Qamar Jalalabadi. His genius was universally recognized by his peers, and by the artists he'd discovered, who continued to give him credit for the formative influence he had had on their careers. Master Ghulam Haider's name isn't as well known today as many of his contemporaries, but his music still retains the freshness, the vitality and the beauty that had made him so famous in his lifetime.

The music of Gulnaar gained extra poignancy after Master Ghulam Haider's death, and his melancholy compositions for the film were constantly played by Radio Pakistan, Radio Ceylon and All India Radio in the days and weeks following his death. They were sung by his phenomenal protege, the girl he had introduced almost two decades earlier, and whose meteoric rise he'd been partly responsible for. I think it's fitting to end this post with two songs from the film, songs which are my personal favorites. The first is the haunting "Bachpan Ki Yaadgaro" ...

... and the second, an absolute masterpiece, is the song that introduced me to Master Ghulam Haider's genius,one of Noor Jehan's greatest songs, "Lo Chal Diye Woh Hum Ko Tasalli Diye Baghair". This song was reportedly played almost a dozen times on Radio Pakistan on the day of Master Ghulam Haider's death, and serves as a fitting bookend to this post.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

...Of A Return To General Practice

It is exactly ten years to the day I joined Medical school. To say that the five years I spent there were life changing would be an understatement. Apart from the obvious fact that I entered a 17 year old awkward undergrad and left five years later as a chubbier but still awkward doctor, there were other imprints the place left on me. Most of my enduring friendships were formed in those five years; mainly because, due to a rather nomadic upbringing, Med school was the only place where I had lived for the extended period of five years. The degree of financial independence I achieved there afforded me ample opportunities to indulge my (at least at that time) burgeoning pursuits. I dabbled in, explored and discarded quite a few of those pursuits, and made the best use of the opportunities for discovery that were available to me. During those five years, my newly discovered passions ranged from music (Dylan, Waits, Young, and later, Qawwali) to books (enlarging my Wodehouse collection, the divers pleasures of Rawalpindi's second-hand bookstores) to travel (the beginning of my love affair with Lahore).

After Med School came a year of internship (House job) in Lahore, and because my family had shifted there, the city that had intrigued and enchanted me on various (mostly surreptitious) visits finally became Home. The internship year is probably the most demanding year in a medical professional's life, and my case was no different. I managed to get a maximum of two or three nights free per week, and holidays were almost nonexistent. But I managed to make the most of the precious little free time I had to explore the historical, cultural and culinary (mostly culinary, hence the ever expanding waistline) treasures of Lahore. At the end of my year in Lahore, I prided myself on being better informed about the city as compared to many longtime residents. On a professional level, I managed to acquit myself fairly well in a trying and sometimes overwhelming schedule.

The number and variety of patients and diseases that I got to observe, treat and monitor was both exciting and a little bit daunting. However, the natural evolution of a career in medicine tends to turn a doctor from a Jack-of-all-trades to (if he/she's lucky), a Master-of-one. A specialty has to be decided early and the course of study altered to fit the specialty. I chose my specialty fairly early and applied for the necessary examinations. After months of fairly intense study (including a month of sixteen-hours-a-day drudgery), I managed to pass the examinations and get selected for training in my desired specialty. The training will start next year (touch-wood) and I will hopefully be limiting myself to patients who have been referred to me for specialized treatment. So from my early years of attending literally hundreds of patients a day, with complaints ranging across the spectrum of disease; I will eventually be able to give my undivided attention to a handful of patients per day, with problems and illnesses that fall within the narrow confines of my specialty.

The reason I have set out the story of the last ten years of my life in rather unnecessary detail is that I have found strange parallels between the trajectory of my professional life and (of all things) my blog. My blog seems to be hitting the same pit stops as my career as a doctor, the only difference being that while my career has trudged along at the speed of an arthritic tortoise wading through a pool of treacle, my blog has raced ahead like a coked up, amphetamine fueled rabbit.

Before my drug crazed animal analogies get out of hand, allow me to explain.

For the initial three years of its existence, the blog was as random as could be. Topics ranged from explorations of the world of show business to football to half a century old cartoons. I wrote about whatever interested me. Of course, grumbles about lethargy, laziness and bloggers' block abounded even then, but i managed to churn out a respectable number (if not quality) of posts every month. Gradually however, a change came over the blog. Over the last three years, I have started writing almost exclusively about the subject that has interested me most. That subject is music, and especially "Sufi" music ( I hate the moniker as much as you ). As the topics of my posts have gotten more specialized, the number and frequency of the posts have decreased. The main reasons of this decline in output are my old friends lethargy, laziness and bloggers' block; but another factor has also contributed.

Since the direction I have chosen (consciously or unconsciously) to steer my blog in demands more than a passing interest in and knowledge of the subject, each post has to be prepared to a stricter set of standards compared to before. Each post has had a fair amount of audio/video accompanying it, which has meant long uploads. I have listened to each recording a fair number of times before writing about it, and the writing itself has been a result of concentrated effort at getting my point across without resorting to pedantry. This has had a rather unfortunate effect on my already crippling procrastination habit. I have hesitated to commit myself to the preparation that each post demands, refraining from writing about subjects that I felt I wasn't qualified to write about or where I felt I couldn't get my point across in a manner that I saw fit. As a result, there have been one and two month intervals between posts and the annual output has declined sharply.

My blog has specialized a full five years before my medical career shall, but there is a small but nagging difference. While I am willing to narrow down the spectrum of diseases I want to treat, I have not been able to narrow down my interests. Over the last few weeks or so, I have been thinking of pulling a Benjamin Button on my blog. In other words, I have decided to turn it back from a specialist to a general physician. I shall of course continue writing about Sufi music and Qawwali, but I shall also begin seeing other patients again. Topics and themes that have greatly affected me but which do not require extended preparation or exercises in meticulousness shall (hopefully) be discussed again. It might alienate some of the newer readers, but it might also recapture some of the esoteric, fly by the wire feel of the early years. Lets see how long this experiment lasts.

Book Of the Week : 'The Diaries : 1969-1979" - Michael Palin
Movie Of the Week, 'The Innocents' 1961
Music Of The Week, 'Popular Problems', Leonard Cohen

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

...Of Mountains And The Melodies Therein

A month or so ago, I was in the deserts of Bahawalpur. Now I am in the vale of Swat, one of the most beautiful, and in the recent past, most volatile regions of the world. To be transplanted from a place where the average temperatures are in the high 40's to a place where there's still snow on the ridge-line is an interesting experience to say the least. It involved a whole lot of traveling in not a whole lot of time, as well as physical/mental readjustment of a significant nature. I happen to be inordinately fond of long road-trips and my car has stuck with me through thick and thin despite my very rudimentary driving skills, so the traveling bit wasn't an issue. The physical readjustment wasn't too difficult either because I spent half a week acclimatizing (and touching base with the family) in Murree which has a height and temperature slightly more temperate than Swat. The mental readjustment took some time, but with the help of my "Survival Kit" I managed to make the initial days here a tad more 'bardaasht-able'.

I have been here for a month and a half now, and expect to stay till sometime after the New Year at least. In the last five weeks my duties have led me across some of the most remote as well as the some of the most widely visited parts of Swat. To say that Swat is beautiful would be a gross understatement. It currently enjoys a restive peace after a couple of traumatic years, and the tourists - the primary source of the region's bread and butter - have begun to return in droves. During my travels in Swat, I've "enjoyed" a variety of living conditions and weather, and have had to pitch and roll my tent every few days or so. In a brilliant symbiotic relationship, I have kept my camera and my iPod charged and they have done likewise for me. The result is that I have the beginnings of a wonderful audiovisual travelogue of Swat. Whether it was the subconscious influence of my surroundings or an organic choice, what I listened to gradually became more in tune with what I saw or photographed. What follows is a series of selections from my audiovisual travelogue. As with the Bahawalpur post, the music here is of, from, or about the mountains.

Mountain Melodies - A Swat Playlist 

1. Saiyyan Bina Ghar Soona - Raag Pahadi - Ustad Salamat Ali - Nazakat Ali Khan
2. Hari Om Tatsat - Raag Pahadi - Ustad Barre Ghulam Ali Khan
3. Dhun - Raag Pahadi - Ustad Vilayat Khan

I should preface the post by admitting that I know next to nothing about the technical intricacies of North Indian classical music. I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between an Asavari and an Anandi if my life depended on it. It is a failing that I have tried to correct, but it'll take plenty of time. However, I can identify a few basic Ragas, Pahadi being one of them. It is an enchanting Raga, described by one musicologist; The raga is like a lover, unruffled in union, serene in separation, powerful enough to achieve eternal union, but resigned to the painful parting ordained by destiny. Ustad Salamat Ali Khan , despite once referring to it disdainfully as just a "halka phulka raag" , performed many extremely enchanting pieces in Pahadi. This playlist starts off with a wonderful little thumri by the two scions of the Shaam-Chaurasi Gharana, imbued with mellowness and longing.

This is followed by one of the very first pieces of Classical music I ever heard, and one of the most magical. I bought a CD of Ustad Barre Ghulam Ali Khan at my favorite record store / video store / abode of awesomeness , which sadly burnt to the ground four years ago. The very first track on the album was a stupendous Bhajan in Pahadi, and listening to it still gives me goosebumps. It immediately evokes something mystical, powerful and immortal, yet at the same time feels infused with the freshness and vitality of the mountains that are symbolized by the Raga.. The final Classical performance in this playlist is by my favorite Sitar-nawaz, Ustad Vilayat Khansaheb. Taken from a set of remastered 78 RPM recordings, this short 'Gat" displays Vilayat Khansaheb's unique ability to literally make the Sitar sing, the epitome of the "Vilayatkhani" or "Gayeki" style. Sounding almost like a folk tune, this piece is best enjoyed while sitting on the grassy banks of a mountain stream.

4. Blue Ridge Mountains - Fleet Foxes
5. Country Roads - John Denver
6. The Mountain - Levon Helm
7. Moonlight In Vermont - Billlie Holiday
8. Pinegum - Paul Reddick And The Sidemen

As these next five performances show, mountains evoke a set of similar themes throughout the world. There is a sense of longing, a sense of separation and a yearning for return pervading songs about mountains, along with a sense of mystery and wonder. The mountains in these songs are settings for tales of separation and return; of toil and hardship, of nature in its beauty, and of a very strange night. Fleet Foxes describe their music as "Cosmic tones for mental therapy", and provide immaculate harmonies as they sing of quivering forests and shivering darkness. John Denver's "Country Roads" was our official road-trip anthem, my father's favorite English song, and is one of the seminal songs of my life. "Drummers shouldn't sing. Except Levon Helm." said Joe Strummer, and one's bound to agree with him. Levon's last two albums are a triumph in more ways than one, and this ballad is one of the highlights. Moonlight In Vermont may refer to the titular US state, but the way Lady Day sings it here, it could refer to any sycamore-lined, meadowlark-populated valley anywhere. This recording from 1957 features the stupendous Ben Webster on tenor saxophone. And ending on a spooky, bluesy note, Paul Reddick and The Sidemen sing of a nighttime trip through a forest with a mysterious companion, amid snow, the scent of pinegum and a lacquer moon.

9. Isharon Isharon Main - Asha Bhosle And Muhammad Rafi - OP Nayyar
10. Yeh Dil Aur Unn Ki Nigaahon Ke Saaye - Lata Mangeshkar - Jaidev
11. Parbaton Ke Pairron Pe - Sumand Kalyanpur And Muhammad Rafi - Khayyam
12. Tum Apna Ranj-o-Gham - Jagjit Kaur - Khayyam 

The next four recordings are from some of the most amazing soundtracks of Bollywood's Golden Age. OP Nayyar's fresh, folk based and unbelievably melodic soundtrack to "Kashmir Ki Kali" is filled with gem after gem. Asha and Rafi add magic to Shammi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore's playful cavort through the pine forest in a pure Pahadi folk-tune. Following this is Jaidev's wonderful composition for 1973's Prem Parbat. Jaidev is an oft overlooked composer, but here, with more than a little help from Lata, he allows the mountains, the streams and flowers to sing their song in their own words. The next two songs are from the soundtrack to 1964's "Shagoon" by Khayyam. The first song is as perfect an evocation of the mountains as I've ever heard, the castanets literally chirping in the background. The second is a stunning song, part accusation - part lament - part love song, sung by Khayyam's very gifted wife, Jagjit Kaur. Of all the classic Bollywood songs, these four were on most heavy rotation this past month and a half, and the reason is obvious I think.

13. Ajj Na Javeen Ve - Mubarak Ali Lahori - Agha Majeed Fareedi Qawwal
14. Saif-ul-Mulook - Inayat Hussain Bhatti   

I had to pick a Qawwali recording for the playlist, and I chose this mehfil performance by two relatively obscure but immensely talented performers because, musically and lyrically, this performance brings Pahadi to life. The beloved is leaving, with only the weather and the pleadings of the lover tarrying him. It has a rich Potohari flavour, with glimpses of the Do-Aba style of Punjabi singing, and I've listened to it many a rainy, stormy night. From the folk canon, I have selected a recording of THE seminal mountain epic in subcontinental Sufi poetry, Hz Mian Muhammad Bukhsh (RA)'s Saif-ul-Mulook. This recording from a delightful cassette features the monumental voice of one of my personal heroes, Inayat Hussain Bhatti. Each word, each cadence of the poem is soaked in mountain dew, and Bhatti Sb's magnificent voice brings it to life. 

15. Star Dust - Lester Young With The Oscar Peterson Trio
16. Winter - Edward Simon Trio  

The two jazz recordings that conclude this playlist are very special to me. As soon as I arrived in Swat, I was sent to a remote valley, where there were ten of us living in an abandoned building located next to a mountain stream. There were no sources of artificial light for miles around, and for almost two weeks I was almost totally cut off from the rest of the world. The beauty of the place and the sound of gushing water nearby made the days extremely pleasant, but it was at night that the place truly came alive. An hour or so after Iftar (it was Ramazan back then), a group of locals would gather near the stream next to our building and sing local folksongs, accompanying themselves on the Rubab. Almost simultaneously, the stars would begin appearing in the night sky. I had never seen such a wonderful sky in my life, and for the first time in my life, I actually saw the band of stars that form the Milky Way, our galaxy. After the musicians would leave, I would listen to these two recordings on repeat, and watch as the stars wound their way across the night sky. Most nights I fell asleep with the music still playing in my ears, and I can still hear a faint tinkle of it whenever I look up into the mountain sky. In the first, Lester Young plays with unbelievable feeling and restraint while Oscar Peterson offers faint glimmers of starlight in the background. Lester Young is one of my favorite jazz musician and here he turns the Tenor Sax into a living, breathing creation. The final recording (pardon the poor audio, I recorded it off the late Masood Hasan's wonderful radio show) is by a group that I haven't heard much by. It evokes all the various shades of mountain life; the streams and breezes, the children playing up and down steep mountain tracks, the buzzing of the bees in the honey-farms, the gently falling snow of winter and the sudden torrents of spring. 

Mountain Melodies - A Swat Playlist

That was the audio part of my audiovisual travelogue, and to end this post, here's the visual part, a selection from the photos I took over the last five weeks.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

...Of The Benevolent Breeze : Maulana Abdur Rehman Jami (RA)

Previous entries in this series :

1. Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA)

2. Allama Muhammad Iqbal (RA)

3. Bedam Shah Warsi (RA)


In a remote valley in central Afghanistan, at the confluence of two rivers, nestled amongst rugged mountains stands a solitary tower of staggering beauty. It is the only remaining symbol of a once glorious city, the capital of a magnificent dynasty. At almost 2000 metres above sea level and with a height of 65 metres, this tower quite literally "speaks with the stars", as one description puts it. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the UNESCO website defines the following three criteria for its selection :

1. Its architecture and ornamentation are outstanding from the point of view of art history, fusing together elements from earlier developments in the region in an exceptional way and exerting a strong influence on later architecture in the region.

2.  The innovative architecture and decoration of the Minaret played a significant role in the development of the arts and architecture of the Indian sub-continent and beyond.

3.  The Minaret  and its associated archaeological remains constitute exceptional testimony to the power and quality of the civilization that dominated the region in the 12th and 13th centuries.

4.  The Minaret is an outstanding example of Islamic architecture and ornamentation in the region and played a significant role for further dissemination.

The Minaret shares its location with the subject of today's post. The location is the town of "Jam", birth-place of one of the greatest Sufi poets and mystics of the Persianate civilization,  Nur ud-Dīn Abd ur-Rahmān Jāmī (RA). Read the above description again, overlook the word 'architecture' and replace the 13th century with the 15th, and you have a perfect description of Maulana Jami (RA). Jami (RA) towers over the landscape of Sufi literature and forms an important link between the land of his birth and the rest of the Persianate Empire. He is the last of the great Persian Sufi poets, the culmination of centuries of development and innovation in thought and expression. The only difference is that where the Minaret Of Jam speaks to the stars, Jami (RA) speaks to all of God's creation; the moon and the stars, the trees and the flowers, the nightingale and (most poignantly and beautifully) the breeze.

Maulana Jami (RA) was born in 1414 and died in 1492. His era forms the bookend to the Classical Era of Farsi poetry and his poetry is enriched by the influence of all the major Sufi poets of the preceding five centuries. What emerges is an idiom characterized by simplicity, depth of meaning, an abundance of simile and metaphor, and most importantly; the defining characteristics of Maulana Jami (RA)'s poetry, deep love for the Prophet (S.A.W). His poetical works, especially "Haft Awrang" and "Baharestan", as well as prose (including the beautiful "Lawaaeh") are canonical pillars of Sufi literature and were part of the curriculum of both Sufi and secular studies for centuries. But what sets Jami (RA) apart from all the poets who preceded or followed him, is his complete mastery over the "Na'at" - poetry in praise of the Prophet (S.A.W) ; so much so that the name of Jami (RA) is synonymous with Farsi na'at.

The na'at is not a verse form per se. A ghazal can be a na'at, so can a mathnavi, or a ruba'ai. In fact, na'ats have been written in all known verse forms of Urdu and Farsi. Thus, Jami (RA)'s mastery over the na'at implies a mastery over multiple verse forms. He wrote ghazals, beautiful ruba'ais and in the "Haft Awrang", seven books of mathnavi. All of his na'ats share the same ideas of humility, depictions of the physical and spiritual beauty of the Prophet (SAW) and the overarching theme of his poetry, the mercy and benevolence of Allah expressed through the character of the Prophet (SAW). His intense love for the Prophet (S.A.W) is best summed up in this (perhaps apocryphal) tale that I also mentioned in a previous post.

"It so happened that once this ‘ishq' was at its peak and poor Jami became restless. He composed a wonderful naat in the praise of Allah’s Habib and in the agony of love made a vow to recite that very poem in front of the Prophet’s Mausoleum in Madina. So, gathering some of his many disciples with him, he set off on the long and arduous journey to fulfil his vow.

After many a month of travel, the caravan led by the Imam of Love, Abdul Rahman Jami, reached the outskirts of the City of the Prophet and Madina was only a few miles journey away. As they camped for the day, they saw a rider on a horse coming towards them at a galloping pace. The strange rider stopped in their midst and asked the group, “Which of you is Jami?” The disciples pointed out Jami and said, “That is our leader, Shaykh Imam Abdul Rahman Jami!” So the rider guided his horse towards Jami and, alighting, greeted Jami with the words, “Assalamu alaykum!”

  “Wa alaykum as-salam! Who are you? Where are you from and why are you here?” asked the venerable Sufi.   

“Jami, I have come here from Madina!”

At the mention of these words the lover of the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa sallam), Jami, took off his turban and placed it the feet of the stranger saying, “May I be sacrificed for these feet!  They have come from the city of my Prophet!”


Jami continued, “Good sir! Tell me, why have you come?”

The man went silent for a while and then answered, “Jami what I am going to tell you, you must promise to hear it with a stout heart.”

 “I will”, said a slightly bemused Jami, “but tell me!”   

“Jami”, continued the rider, “I have been sent to you by the Prophet (Sall’Allahu Ta’ala Alayhi Wa’alihi Wa’sallam) himself"

“Tell me! What does my Master say?” interjected Jami. 

“Jami, the Prophet (Sall’Allahu Ta’ala Alayhi Wa’alihi Wa’sallam) has sent me to tell you that he has forbidden you to enter Madina and visit him!”    

At these words Jami was thunderstruck, his head swam and his legs gave way beneath him and with an agonised shriek the Shaykh fell to the ground in a swoon. The disciples were terrified that their Shaykh had passed away but after many hours Jami came back to a state of consciousness and he wept copiously.    The messenger was still there and Jami asked him, “Tell me O’ bringer of such tidings! Why does my Master prevent me from entering Madina? What sin have I committed? Why is my Medinan Lord angry with me?” 

The messenger replied,”the Master is not upset with you. Indeed, he is very happy with you!”.

"Then why does my liege-lord prevent me from visiting him?” 

“Jami! The Prophet(Sall’Allahu Ta’ala Alayhi Wa’alihi Wa’sallam) said to me that tell Jami that if he comes to Madina with such love in his heart I will have no course but to come out of my tomb and greet him in person – such would be the recompense for his love! – so tell him not to enter Madina. I will visit him myself! Tell Jami not to come and visit me – I will visit him!”

 The following selections from my collection serve to highlight Jami (RA)'s mastery over the na'at. I follow the same rules as the previous posts ; one recording per artist and one recording per kalam. Enjoy !

1. Naseema - Manzoor Ahmed Niazi, Abdullah Manzoor Niazi Qawwal 

It is completely natural that I start this collection off with the recording that started my love affair with Qawwali. As I've mentioned previously, Manzoor Ahmed Niazi (RA)'s Naseema was one of the first Qawwali recordings I heard that fateful evening almost seven years ago. Since then, I have heard dozens of versions of the kalaam, most of which I cataloged in a previous post, but Naseema belongs to the late Ustad Manzoor Niazi. His voice, perfectly contrasted by Abdullah Manzoor Niazi's crackling delivery, lends a wonderful earthy flavor to this recording. And despite the presence of younger, more vigorous performers in the party, it is clear that Manzoor Niazi Sb still leads the group. The many brief takraars are wonderful, the percussion gives the performance a wonderful swing, and most importantly, the group never lapses into undue loudness or vocal histrionics, presenting a melodious, vigorous yet stately performance.

2. Jahan Roshan Ast Az Jamal-e-Muhammad (SAW) - Meraj Ahmed Nizami Qawwal 

From one grand old man of the Qawal Bacchhon Ka Gharana to another, arguably the grandest old man of all. Meraj Ahmed Nizami is the senior-most living Qawwal of the sub-continent ; both in terms of age as well as  longevity of career and mastery over repertoire. He has steadfastly refused to tamper with the traditional style of performance, eschewing such newfangled monstosities as electric accompaniment or fusion sessions, opting instead to preserve the centuries old style of Khanqahi Qawwali. The similarities in style to his late cousin Ustad Manzoor Niazi are obvious, and the octogenarian Ustad delivers this kalam in a wonderfully crisp performance.

3. Ya Muhammad (S.A.W) Ba Maney Be Sar-o-Samaan - Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party 

This is the kind of Nusrat performance I prefer. None of the vocal calisthenics, undue urgency or auditory bombast that plagued so many of his live performances especially during his latter years. This is Nusrat at his serenest, his tempo perfectly complimenting the kalam, ably accompanied by his party. Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan's wonderful sazeena at the start is filled with nice flourishes, Dildar Hussain's tabla maintains an unobtrusive madhyalaya beat and the performance is allowed to flow smoothly. Nusrat begins with a mellow alaap and some wonderful Farsi verses and the mood is set. The tone is pensive and subdued, as befits a humble plaint to the Prophet (SAW), especially when Nusrat addresses that favorite of Jami (RA)'s , the breeze.

Ae Saba, W'ae paek-e-mushtaqaan ba dargaah-e-Nabi
O breeze, O envoy of us yearning ones in the court of the Prophet (SAW)

Throughout the performance, Nusrat uses Farsi and Urdu girahs to excellent effect, the harmonium provides little flourishes throughout and Nusrat is at his most melodic. There are mini-takraars ( at "Shah-e-Shahaan" and "Chashm-e-Rehmat" for example) and sargams but they never overwhelm the mood of this wonderful performance.

4. Mun Khaake Kaf-e-Paaye Rindaane Kharabaatam - Subhan Ahmed Nizami Qawwal 

Subhan Ahmed Nizami is one of the most exciting young Qawwals performing today. Grandson of Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami, one of the members of the original Manzoor Niazi Qawwal party of the 50's and 60's, Subhan embodies all the qualities of the Qawwal Bacchon ka Gharana. He is a wonderful innovator, always staying within the bounds of "Rivaayat" or traditional Qawwali, all the while improvising and exploring the nuances of the kalaam and the composition. His preference towards performing canonical mystical texts sets him apart from most modern Qawwals, and this has gained him a wide following among Qawwali conoisseurs both in Pakistan and abroad. His performance style is vigorous and lively, but never overloud or jarring. This kalam of Hz Jami (RA)'s has become something of a signature tune of Subhan's, and in this Mehfil recording, he sings it with wonderful verve. The girahs towards the end of the performance are wonderfully apt and display his mastery over the nuances of the kalam, rounding out the performance nicely.

5. Ze Rehmat Kun Nazar Bar Haal-e-Zaaram - Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed, Farid Ayaz & Abu Muhammad Qawwal 

This is one performance to savour, recorded during a home mehfil in the latter stages of Munshi Raziuddin Sb's life, when he had handed over the Qawwali party to his extremely talented sons. His voice weakened somewhat by age, he nevertheless leads the performance. A brilliant sazeena leads on to a wonderful little performance "Koi sheher Madina jaaye", which Farid Ayaz embellishes with that exquisite voice of his. The performance within a performance continues till, just short of the 10 minute mark, the Qawwals launch into the main kalam.

The na'at is stylistically very similar to Maulana Jami (RA)'s other seminal na'at, "Tanam Farsooda Jaanpara', and the melody suits it wonderfully. Munshi Raziuddin Sb's performance lends gravity to ther performance, and the Qawwals don't lapse into the loudness that sometimes overpowers the later recordings of Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad and Party. The performers, especially Munshi Raziuddin Sb, are clearly enjoying the performance and it shows. The girahbandi is faultless and Farid Ayaz displays flashes of his uncle Ustad Bahauddin Qawwal's style in his taans and girahs. Abu Muhammad's voice is crisp and powerful as always, and the taali and percussion are forceful, another hallmark of this group. The wonderful interludes at the 21-22 mark are especially endearing, bandishes that have ceased to be performed after Munshi Raziuddin Sb's death. The taali and takraar at the end of the performance are especially 'zor-daar' as Farid Ayaz offers a final, wonderful girah.

6. Tanam Farsooda Jaanpara - Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal 

 The undisputed masters of Qawwali performed a number of different versions of this seminal kalam. Varying in tempo, arrangement, duration and girahbandi, each performance is a masterpiece. They were probably the best exponents of incorporating traditional Hindustani instruments in Qawwali, steering well clear of harmoniums in their studio recordings. Using sarangis, sitars, sarods, clarinets and occasionally flutes, they were experts at evoking just the right mood for each kalam. Here, as the instruments strike up a melancholy note, expressing the longing and desire in the poet's heart, the scene is set for Mubarak Ali Khan's piercing alaap. As in all their other studio recordings, the accompanists only provide the taali, with the vocal duties shared exclusively by the three brothers. This lends a unique dignity and stateliness to their performance.

The tempo is gradually accelerated for each verse, before being reined back again. Each verse provides opportunities for Mubarak Ali Khan's taankaari and Fateh Ali Khan's mini-takraars. Some of these taans and takrars were later copied verbatim by Nusrat and the other disciples of the Ustads in their performances of this kalaam. A full seven minutes are spent exploring the final verse of the kalam. Mubarak Ali offers vacillating taans, that were later used by his son Mujahid Mubarak Ali as a member of Nusrat's party and his disciple Majeed Fareedi as a member of various wonderful Qawwali ensembles. Fateh Ali and Salamat Ali construct takraar upon takraar as the Ustads prove once and for all that a performance can be vibrant, energetic and 'zor-daar' without overwhelming the kalaam. Mubarak Ali's celebrated 'Pahaari' taan arrives at the 17 minute before the Ustads deliver one final verse, topping off a wonderful performance.

7. Tu Sultaan-e-Sahib Sareer Aamadi - Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal 

This is a powerful, vigorous performance, different from Haji Mahboob Sb's usual style in that it lacks much girahbandi.  What it lacks in girahbandi, it more than makes up in a million other ways. Starting with a brief, crisp sitar and harmonium sazeena and Haji Mushtaq's customary alaap, the dholak-driven performance proper begins. This arrangement allows for wonderful takraars and (in another departure from his usual performance style) taankari by Haji Mahboob Sb. Haji Sb's delivery on this performance is almost 'jalaali' as he stresses each word in each verse. This is one of Maulana Jami (RA)s most melodious na'ats, giving the Qawwals ample opportunities to vary the tempo without losing track of the thread of the main kalam.

I had to strictly enforce the 'one recording per artist' rule in Haji Mahboob Sb's case. Haji Sb's repertoire was so varied that I could have constructed a post comprising of his versions of all of the kalaams in this post and then some. Although given the title of "Andaleeb-e-Rumi", Haji Sb was adept at performing Maulana Jami (RA)'s naats. Maybe one day when I have the requisite permission, I'll write a post consisting only of Haji Sb's exquisite renditions of Jami (RA)'s na'ats.

8. Cho Mah Dar Arz-o-Samaa - Jafar Hussayn Khan Badayuni Qawwal 

 Ustad Jafar Husseyn Khan possessed a style completely his own, unlike any of his contemporary Qawwals. Mellow, takraar-based, with loving attention paid to each and every word, each note of the performance; his was the most endearing style among all the Qawwals I have heard. In this wonderful performance (one of my favorites) , he is at his best, accompanied by his nephew Wajahat Hussayn Khan (who passed away in tragic circumstances recently). The takraars are reminiscent of Murli Qawwal (especially the wonderful takraar at 'Rashk-e-Malak') and the taans are sweet and melodious. When he enunciates "Mun Aasiyam, Mun Aajizam", one can feel the humility and the plaintiveness dripping from his voice. Wodehouse talks of spreading "sweetness and light", something Jafar Hussayn Khan was an absolute expert in, capturing the mood of this na'at perfectly. The final flourish is the superb mini-takraar at "Jaan-o-Dilam" before the performance winds down.

9. Az Husne Malihe Khud - Haji Ghulam Fareed Sabri And Party 

Haji Ghulam Fareed Sabri possessed one of the most astounding voices of the last century. From his earliest recordings with Kallan Khan to his final performances in the early 1990s, his was an instantly recognizable, almost magical presence. With Haji Maqbool Sabri's superbly melodic voice as his counterpoint, he reigned over the Qawwali world for almost two decades. Some of his best work however, is found in the solo albums that were released by various European labels in the late 1980s adn 1990s. This recording is taken from one of the best Qawwali records ever produced, "Jami" , released in 1995 by Piranha Records, Germany. Everything in this performance, from the wonderful Sazeena that prefaces it to Haji Ghulam Fareed's hefty alaap, exudes energy and life. The dholak is especially lively, and Haji Sb propels the performance along at an explosive pace. The takraars are embellished by powerful taans, wonderful melodic improvisations (Khud tegh zadi bar man, naame digeraan kardi). Each verse is individually explored, displaying glimpses of the twenty year old Ghulam Fareed Sabri from Kallan Khan's party. This recording, as well as this album, is the most fitting tribute imaginable to one of the most vital, most powerful Qawwals of his age.

10. Ze Shaukat Jaan Ba Lab Aamad Tamaami - Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal 

 The final recording in this post is by the Qawwal group that defies superlatives. Exceptional vocalists, superb instrumentalists, brilliant shagirds of Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal, Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal are one of my favorite Qawwals. Bakhshi Khan's voice has no parallels, and accompanied by Salamat Ali, Mubarak Ali and Sadiq Ali Saddo, it was a fearsome instrument. Like their Ustads, they were experts at using instruments, especially in their wonderful studio recordings, including this recording. It is a short recording, but wonderfully melodious, with the voices of all three vocalists on full display. Saddo Khan's taans and Bakhshi Khan's hefty vocals lend an added poignancy to the words. Having listened to it on repeat on many occasions, I am always transported by this performance, and it forms a fitting bookend to this post.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

...Of The Bahawalpur Blues

I spent the last three years in a jungle. After a bit of R&R, I'm off to my next assignment tomorrow, Bahawalpur. I've been to South Punjab before during the catastrophic floods of 2010. During my month-long tour of duty back then, I had spent five days in Bahawalpur, making it my base camp for further explorations. The few days I spent in Bahawalpur were enough to leave an indelible image of the city's beauty and history. Now, I'm going there on a slightly more permanent basis. I could stay there for a year or so, or, given recent developments, I might simply touch base there and head off to greener pastures.

Bahawalpur is the de-facto capital of South Punjab, and as such, the heart of the Seraiki belt ; the Rohi. I have written in the past about my affiliation for the culture of the Rohi, so I won't rehash that (mainly because, like this post, I've left most of my packing for the last minute). What I will do is share a sampling of what willl essentially be the soundtrack of my life down there. The Kafi is the major poetic tradition of the Rohi, and Hz Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA) is the poet synonymous with the Seraiki Kafi. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting ...

The Bahawalpur Blues

1. Ishq Anokkhri Peerr - Ustad Salamat Ali Khan - Nazakat Ali Khan

"Love is a peculiar ailment, awakening hundreds of sorrows inside me" sing the Ustads. With a preamble taken from another of Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA)'s kafis, this is a splendid exploration of the central themes of the Kafi; love and separation. As the tempo picks up and Ustad Salamat Ali Khan's taans become more plaintive, more urgent, one can't help but be moved.

2. Peeloon Pakkiyaan Ve - Hussain Bukhsh Dhaadhi

A student of Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan, Hussain Bukhsh Dhaadhi was a consummate, classically trained musician. His Taankari was legendary - albeit a little vociferous like his Ustad's, - and his voice was clear and piercing. Here he sings about the arrival of spring, when the fruits are ripe for picking and the desert takes on a colorful mantle. The vigour and vitality of the desert Spring are perfectly encapsulated in this performance.

3. Neenh Ta Avallhra Okha Laayam - Iqbal Bano

Iqbal Bano had a voice that was equally suited to ghazal, thumri, playback and folk. Here she sings a wonderful Kafi; "What a stubborn, difficult love I have set my heart on". The earthiness and heft of her voice perfectly suited to the kalam, using selections from the Sufi canon as girahs, Iqbal Bano gives a powerful performance.

4. Ajj Waal Firaaq Dassaindi Ae - Zahida Parveen

The greatest performance of the undisputed Queen of the Kafi, period. I have loved each and every note of this recording for as long as I can remember.

5. Na Maar Naenaan De Teer - Taj Multani

Taj Multani has a softer, more urbane sound as compared to his contemporary folksingers, but his adayegi and choice of kalaam are wonderful. Here he uses extensive girahs on a Kafi of Hz Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA), delivering a mellow, mellifluous performance.

6. Shah Ranjha Albela - Muhammad Jumman

Muhammad Jumman of "Yaar Daadhi" fame gives the studio treatment to this Kafi, turning it into a lively, Sindhi-style ditty. The violins and vibraphones take nothing away from the simple beauty of the kalam.

7. Hik Hai Hik Hai Hik Hai - Hamid Ali Bela

Hamid Ali Bela made a name by singing the Kafis of Hz Shah Hussain (RA), and sang few kalaams of other poets. Here he sings Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA)'s declaration of the One-ness of God. Again, simple lyrics and a studio arrangement, with Bela's deep baritone weaving a simple melody.

8. Aa Wass Maandre Kol - Abida Parveen

Lacking in vocal calisthenics, this recording of Abida's is a favorite of mine. A plea, a paean, an evocation of love, this Kafi is an endearing message to the beloved. Taken from a wonderful album released by EMI in the early '90s, the percussion, the Sarangi and Abida's unhurried style make this a superb performance.

9. Jindrri Lutti Taen Yaar Sajjan - Pathanay Khan

It is fitting to close out this selection with the de-facto National Anthem of the Rohi, sung by the greatest Kafi singer in Pakistan's history. Again, nothing much needs to be said about this performance other than that it is one of the most sublime pieces of music I have ever heard.

This post constitutes a (hopefully) temporary goodbye, as I don't know if and when I will find the time for further posts. Given my usual slovenliness, that shouldn't ruffle too many feathers. Till then ...

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

...Of The Crown Jewels

I have made it abundantly clear in previous posts that I consider Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal and their party to be the greatest Qawwali ensemble of the 20th century. With an almost supernatural mastery of Kalam, a style that was rooted in Classical Hindustani music yet was strikingly modern, a vast repertoire featuring both ancient and contemporary poets (their contemporaries included Hz. Allama Muhammad Iqbal (RA), Hz. Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA), Hz. Bedam Shah Warsi (RA) among others), and telepathic synergy between the ensemble; Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali are THE seminal Qawwals of the recorded era. This is further borne out by the fact that after the Ustads' demise and the party's dissolution; it was their Shagirds who dominated the next 3-4 decades of Qawwali almost unchallenged. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi, Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal, Agha Bahseer Ahmed Qawwal and others carried forth the style of their teachers, emulating but never really matching the creative prowess of their Ustads.

Thanks to the efforts of their countless devotees, a number of their recordings have come down to us. Ustad Fateh Ali Khan passed away in 1964, with Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan following in 1971; thus recordings of the ensemble are at least 50 years old; and as such, are rarely found in good sound quality. Regardless of the quality, whatever has survived is worth its weight in gold. Here I would like to take a moment to express the huge debt of gratitude we all owe to those people who put in the time and effort and managed to record not only Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Khan but the countless other performers whose voices wouldn't have reached us otherwise.Here is a wonderful recording of a letter written by a fan of the Ustads', giving us a glimpse into the effort that went into saving their performances for posterity and the high esteem and affection they were held in by their fans.

I was first attracted to Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwals when I saw a Youtube clip of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan discussing his father's music. It was a brief clip from "Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan: le dernier prophète", a documentary from 1996, and featured a (painfully) brief recording of his father. I was instantly mesmerized by it. The voice, the takraar, the girahbandi, it was unbelievable. Like I've mentioned before, it sounded like an echo from a long-forgotten world, like a brief glimpse of the cave paintings of Lascaux or the earliest recordings of Enrico Caruso, and the mere act of listening to them felt like an intrusion, but one was compelled to intrude further.

Over the years, I've managed to collect a hundred odd recordings of the Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal party, ranging in audio quality from pristine studio recordings to extremely shaky Mehfil recordings from the early '50s. The quality of the audio may falter at times, but the quality of performance remains unsurpassed. I have gathered recordings from cassettes, reel-to-reel records and LPs, and can't help but feel greedy for more. The search for new (or better quality) recordings is neverending and I hope I'll be able to unearth a few more treasures.

There are three Qawwali recordings that I treasure above all others. All three recordings are from the 1960s and show the respective performers at the peak of their powers. One is the unbelievable 1969 Mehfil at Mr. Mehdi Hasnain's residence showcasing the original Manzoor Niazi Qawwal party. It is an absolute gem of a recording, and has to be heard to be believed. My second most treasured recording is of Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal (RA) from a 1964 Mehfil in which he performs Hz Pir Mehr Ali Shah (RA)'s kalaam. It is an otherworldly performance which leaves the audience in a state of Haal. The third recording from the 1960s is a Mehfil recording of Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal, and that recording is the subject of today's post.

The unearthing of this recording has been both an archeological and an investigative endeavor. I have followed a series of leads and clues; these clues leading me to further discoveries. Over a number of years, and piecing together from a number of sources, I have managed to assemble an archeological dig of staggering beauty. Four complete recordings and a snippet of a fifth constitute what collectively amounts to the GREATEST Qawwali performance I have ever heard. The audio quality on this recording is shaky at best, quality headphones are recommended for listening.Without further ado ...

Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Khan Qawwal Aur Hamnavaa - Mehfil In Karachi, 1961

1. Ae Ke Sharh-e-Wadduha Aamad Jamaal-e-Roo-e-Tau

The Ustaads begin the Mehfil with a series of couplets from the Masnavi, as Ustad Fateh Ali Khan informs the audience "Hamd aur Naat parhna zurroori hai". The languid andaaz of Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan is on full display at the start, as the party segues into the main kalaam. Observe the glacial, almost regal tempo at the beginning of the performance. The takraar ( the first of many) on "Sharh-e-Wadduha" is punctuated with wonderful girahs, from Farsi to Purbi to Urdu, and the moment Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan launches into his first taan in Raag Pahari, the magic is complete. The perceptive audience picks up the nuances of the performance and their enjoyment gives added impetus to the performers. Midway through the performance, the Qawwals launch into one of their trademark pieces, "Gaye Khalwat Main Jab", a retelling of the Prophet (SAW)'s flight to the heavens on Shab-e-Meraj. It is a wonderful, uptempo piece, with brilliant girah-bandi and taankari (another Pahari by Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan). Returning from this heavenly journey, the Qawwals resume the original kalaam, again constructing and embellishing takraars out of thin air. The takraar on 'Seen-e-Dandaan" and "Miskeen Hasan" have to be heard to be believed. The Ustads' trademark collaborative Sargams embellish the latter third of the performance, before culminating in a slow decrescendo. The recording is an hour plus of exquisite artistry, and it is just the start of the wonderful mehfil.

2. Khud-Daari-e-Ehsaas Ko

The second performance of the evening begins with a three and a half minute sazeena by Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, the third brother of Fateh Ali Khan and Mubarak Ali Khan. Salamat Ali Khan was an extremely gifted harmonium player, and ustad to Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan, Ustad Majeed Fareedi and others. Here he explores the main melody with wonderful embellishments. The Ustads preface the main kalaam with two wonderful couplets of Hz. Allama Iqbal (RA). The performance has a wonderful mid-tempo quality which can be described in Punjabi as 'Jhol". This ghazal was regularly performed by the Ustads, as evidenced by that other great mehfil recording of theirs, from 1958 in Bombay. They deliver each word, each phrase with loving detail. The takraars are wonderful as always, observe for example Ustad Mubarak Ali's "Ghunchae Meri" mini-takraar. This ghazal is especially suited to Qawwali, with wonderful melodic and lyrical surprises in each verse, giving the Qawwals ample opportunity to delight and surprise the audience. Another highlight is the takraar on "Woh Saamne Hain" which allows for girah-bandi of the highest order. The shades of "Wahdat-ul-Wujood" explored by the Ustads would've been too much for any lesser performers. Again, Ustad Mubarak Ali's Pahadi taans are a highlight, regularly leaving me teary-eyed.

3. Nami Danam Che Manzil Bood

The Ustads regularly performed Hz Amir Khusrau (RA)'s seminal kalaam, using different arrangements and performance styles to convert the ghazal into a dirge, a love-lyric or a Na'at. In the third recording, they have surpassed themselves (and ALL others to follow). If each performance from this mehfil wasn't equally eligible for the title, I'd unhesitatingly declare this performance to be the most perfect qawwali recording I have ever heard. There are a couple of girahs in this performance that regularly send shivers down my spine and leave me teary-eyed.

The performance begins with another wonderfully intricate sazeena on two harmoniums; Ustads Mubarak Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan. The Farsi couplets at the start are a foretaste of what is to come; an exploration of sacred love and a refutation of the profane. The couplets are a warning for the "B'ul-Havas" to stay away, as the first takraar takes hold. No other Qawwal has ever tried to elicit such meaning from just the first three words of this kalaam. The takraar on "Nami Danam Che"is a testament to the Ustads' skill, as are the wonderful girahs. Another takraar, and the audience is led in a "Raqs-e-Bismil". Here is where the recording takes off into the celestial plane. The Ustads are so adept at their craft that it is often easy to overlook the amazing dexterity involved.

The Ustads segue from hz Amir Khusrau (RA)'s kalam to Hz Bu Ali Shah Qalandar (RA)'s kalam to Hz Shah Turab Hyderabadi (RA)'s kalam; like a dream within a dream within a dream from Chritopher Nolan's "Inception". Seemingly defying all rules of physics, they weave in and out of the three kalaams at will, weaving a tapestry of unbelievable richness and complexity. This isn't one performance, or two performances or even three performances; this is a group of spacetime-travellers exploring alternate universes. The girahs and takraars on Hz Shah Turab (RA)'s kalaam are very VERY powerful. My favorites come at the 27:30 and 30:25 marks. I have regularly ended up crying at these two points.

I've considered Murli Qawwal the king of Takraars, but the Ustads are up there with there with him. The takraars on "Manam Usman-e-Harooni (RA)" and "Pari Paikar Nigaare" - which I first heard in the Nusrat video above - are brilliant, and haven't been heard since. The little flourishes by Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan on the phrase "Laala Rukhsaarae" are wonderful. Like I mentioned earlier, this recording comes pretty close to being labelled the most perfect Qawwali recording I've ever heard.

4. Oh Disdi Kulli Yaar Di Gharreya 

This is the final complete performance of this mehfil, and at 90 minutes long, it is also the longest. Unfortunately this recording is of very weak audio quality. The shoddy sound quality doesn't detract from the fact that, along with the previous recording, this one is tied for being the greatest Qawwali recording I have ever heard. As the audience members say, this recording finds the Ustads exploring "Punjabi Takhayyul". The first two-and a half minutes of the preamble are worth the price of admission by themselves. The unique 'Do-aaba" style of singing is on full display, the Ustads are now in a most perfect groove. This recording perfectly encompasses what I consider the Ustads' great speciality, their wonderful command on the laya and the taal. Their bols and taans teeter on the very edge of being 'be-taal' before swooping back into the fold. Girahbandi continues in Farsi and Punjabi as the takraar on the first verse continues.

The response of the 'gharra' to Sohni's complaint provides the Ustads with further room for girahbandi. The exploration of carnal love versus the divine, true love versus affected love, and the physical versus the spiritual hasn't been explored better by any other Qawwal. The takraar on "Maen ki Karaan Hunn Maen Ki Karaan" and the girahs on it are on a higher, more exalted plane altogether. The Urdu girahs from the 18th minute to the 32nd minute are unlike anything I have ever heard. They are interspersed with Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan's taankaari. Like the previous recording, the Ustads segue into another kalaam, Hz baba Bulleh Shah (RA)'s kalaam, 'Maen Bhull Gyi Morr Toun Aa Ke" at the 33 minutes mark.

This new kalaam again offers countless opportunities for girahbandi to the Ustads, and the takraars are electrifying. A further segue takes them into 'Bohat Kathin Hai Dagar Panghat Ki". this kalaam is embellished with verses from the Masnavi, and especially of note is the percussion section which propels the performance through the takraars. As the hour mark approaches, the return to the original kalaam begins. Each exploration is brought to its logical conclusion; all loose ends are tied. What the Qawwals do next takes the listener's (or at least my) breath away.

At the one hour, five minute mark, the Ustads launch into Hz Pir Mehr Ali Shah (RA)'s seminal naat, "Ajj Sikk Mitraan Di", offering takraar upon takraar, girah after girah. They recite most of the verses that other Qawwals often leave out, exploring almost the entirety of this phenomenal kalaam. The audience is receptive, and the power builds to the crescendo on the shattering last verse "Gustaakh Akheen Kitthe Ja Larriyan". And just when it seems like the Qawwals can't go any further, they offer one final surprise; a wonderfully endearing Purbi thumri ' Balma Ke Dvaare Thaari Pukaroon". I can't help but smile at the phrase "Ahmad (SAW) hamaro chhaela ho!" It's a wonderful piece in praise of the Prophet (SAW) and the Ahl-e-Bait (RA). At the 90 minute mark, the performance concludes, leaving the audience (both in 1961 and today) moved to spontaneous applause and appreciation.

5. Tussi Kaun Hunday - Fragment
This mehfil is an archeological dig in progress. As I discover more recordings from this mehfil, or better quality versions of the recordings i already have, they are added to the archive. The recordings above have been completed from a number of sources, and for better or worse audio quality, are complete from start to finish. The fifth and final performance is unfortunately incomplete - so far. I remain hopeful that I might find a complete version, or more fragments of this performance. But until then, a fragment will have to do.

The fragment begins at a Takraar from the Ustads' performance of the tale of Laila Majnu. The takraar is propelled by a throbbing dholak beat, embellished by girahs in Punjabi and Farsi, including a wonderful set of couplets of Hz Girami (RA). The wonderful Bhairavi tarz traditionally used for performing Waris Shah (RA)'s Heer is used here. As the performance continues we find that it is actually a performance within a performance, with the main kalaam being "Uss Beparwaah Noo". Again, one marvels at the dexterity of the Ustads and their ability to move from one kalaam to another without losing the spirit or meaning of either.

These five recordings constitute an absolute treasure for me. They display the greatest Qawwals of their age performing some of the greatest Kalaams in the Qawwali canon. Their absolute mastery over Farsi, Urdu, Punjabi and Purbi is on full display, as are the wonderful individual talents of the three main members of this party. I was slightly reluctant in sharing these recordings because of their below-par audio quality and the incompleteness of the Mehfil, but I figured even a passing glimpse of Qawwali's (and my colllections' ) Crown Jewels would be worth having. Another reason is that after spending three years in the jungle, I'm about to embark on another assignment, and I don't know if and when I will have time to regularly update the blog again.

Hence, untill the next post ...