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 .

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

...Of Festivals And Firm Refusals

There are very few excuses this time, and those few are flimsy at best. It has been laziness, plain and simple, that's kept me from writing for the better part of the last 5 months. I've had time - not ample time, but enough to hammer out a rough draft or two - and I've had ideas, but I've lacked the get-up-and-go that is the catalyst to productivity. A lot has happened over the last five or six months, several events warranting a write-up, but they've gone largely uncelebrated-or unmourned. Still, better late than never (God forbid). What follows is a hodge-podge of ideas that have been on my mind recently.

Notes On A Festival 

I plan my once-a-month weekend around events that interest me, so that my weekends serve a dual purpose; touching base with the folks back home and (barely) keeping my cultural interests alive. Even so, I miss most of what goes on in the metropolis; movies, concerts, book fairs etc that I would've given an arm and a leg to attend. Still, if there's a slim chance of catching something exciting, I don't mind traveling an extra two or three hundred miles or spending an extra four or five grand on fuel so that I can return to the jungle with something more than a jar of Nano's mango pickle.

Last month I made a quick one-night trip to Lahore to attend a series of plays performed by a wonderful theatre group from across the border, and this month I managed to attend (and convinced more than two dozen family members to attend) the Mystic Music Festival held at Alhamra. The fact that the family would also attend meant a lot of organizational and coordinational (a word I just made up) hassles, but it was well worth it. Over two nights, I had a fair amount of fun, managed to listen to - and watch - some exceptional performances and accomplished the 'touching base with the family' task fairly adequately as well.

I won't go into detailed descriptions of the acts but I did carry away some pretty clear impressions from the two nights that I attended. Some were positive, but a few things niggled me as well. It was pretty easy to pick out favorite performers from amongst the twenty or so acts that I saw. First and foremost, Saeen Zahoor is a gift from God. His voice, especially in the high registers, is spine-tinglingly, goosebumping inducingly powerful and his wonderfully unassuming style perfectly complements his phenomenal talents. I've rarely found myself teary-eyed at a concert, but Saeen ji made me almost break into sobs.God bless him for that.

The other veteran performer who was totally on-the-money was the wonderful Akhter Chinar Zehri from Balochistan. I've grown up watching him on TV as the uncle who sings "Dana-pe-dana", which he obligingly performed at the festival. But what clinched the performance for me was his rendition of Hz Maulana Rumi (RA)'s wonderfully charged ghazal from the Diwan-e-Shams

بیدار شو بیدار شو ھین رفت شب بیدار شو
بیزار شو بیزار شو وزخویشہم بیزار شو

This he performed in his trademark style, lingering on and emoting each verse, whirling and swaying all the while. It was a trance-inducing performance and I won't forget it any time soon. 

Then there were two rather young acts who impressed me very much, and were appreciated pretty generously by the audience as well. The "Bazm-e-Liqa", a group of Ismaili musicians; male and female of relatively young ages, from Hunza in the Gilgit-Baltistan region who accompany themselves on traditional instruments like the Rubab and the lute, with percussion provided by tambourines and Daff's. They were unhurried, completely lost in their own performance, with wonderful voices and a soothing and tranquil performance style. They performed, among other things, a Hamd of Pir Naseeruddin Naseer(RA)'s and a wonderful ghazal of Hafiz Sherazi's and were probably my stand-out favorites among all the performers.

The other performer that really impressed my was Wahdat Rameez, a young musician with no family background in music but possessing a wonderfully melodious voice. He was accompanied by his brother on the harmonium and they sang only two pieces, the "Rohi" and a traditional folk tune made famous by the Wadaali brothers. The style was unassuming, the voices clear and melodious and classically trained. I'm pretty sure I'll be hearing a lot more from them in the future. Honourable mentions also to Kishan Lal Bheel from Cholistan and his band of traditional musicians/dancers/fire-eaters.

While these were the standout performers in my view, the other performers, barring one or two exceptions, were also pretty good. However, there were one or two things that rankled and proved major bummers. One of the things that annoyed me was something I have written about previously. There were seven Qawwal parties featured over the two nights that I attended the festival, and they all performed at least three items each. The irritating bit was that all the twenty or so items performed by the Qawwals boiled down to half a dozen Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan pieces. Some Qawwalis, like "Allah Hoo Allah Hoo" and  "Saanson Ki Mala" were repeated four times each night, and I have now grown to hate, literally loathe "Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor Hai" mainly because I heard it performed four times in a single night by four different Qawwali parties. I feel sorry for Nusrat, God rest his soul, but I feel doubly sorry for the hundreds of Qawwals whose growth and development became stunted when they couldn't grow out of his enormous shadow. Not one Qawwal performed an original composition-except maybe Imran Aziz Mian. who decided to forego half-hearted Nusrat covers in favour of half-hearted covers of his father's famous Qawwalis. 

The other thing that Qawwals in particular, and most other performers in general, suffered from was counter-intuitive sound mixing. With a few exceptions- "Bazm-e-Liqa", Wahdat Rameez and Arieb Azhar-, each performer's sound-mix consisted of an ultra-loud tabla/dholak and earscreechingly loud vocals; with the harmoniums, guitars, saxophones, clarinets and violins completely drowned out. It was a sad sight to see a rather elderly clarinet player playing the bejeezus out of his instrument,sitting in the back-row of a Qawwali party with no microphone in front of him, while at the same time there were two microphones each for the two dholak players. I've never been able to understand why performers - and in some cases audiences - prefer this setup. It was at the performers' insistence that the levels were adjusted, with many vocalists urging the sound engineers to literally 'take it up to 11', ala Spinal Tap. What resulted was a muddled mess of noise that was pretty distressing to the ears. I'm afraid this is what most of the concerts I've attended have sounded like, and it represents a pretty sizeable hurdle in the way of enjoying the precious few live musical events that take place in Pakistan. 

Looking At It From Smaug's Point Of View 

Once upon a time there was a phenomenal treasure trove of music in a folder on a file-sharing site. It had been uploaded by a gentleman of Pickwickian benevolence and consisted of hundreds of hours of extremely rare recordings by some of the greatest musicians of the last century. It was freely available to the public to listen to, share and download-albeit with moderation. You were allowed a limited number of downloads per day so the servers wouldn't get overloaded. People mostly minded the rules and listened/downloaded with restraint, enabling the folder to remain online for almost three years. Well, one day, as was inevitable, someone greedy came along. The download limit was exceeded, the servers got overloaded, the filesharing site investigated and decided the folder seemed suspicious in terms of copyright infringement and shut it down. The greatest online repository of music, which had taken at least two years to upload and organize, is no more. The gentleman who had painstakingly uploaded the folder is unwilling to go to all the effort again, just to accomodate those he now calls 'selfish freeloaders'. 

Some friends of mine knew an elderly gentleman who was rumoured to possess several extremely rare Qawwali recordings and had a few hundred tapes in his collection. Overtures were made to him to share some, if not all, of his recordings with us, in exchange we'd digitize and organize them for him. these overtures were met with a firm refusal. The gentleman provided a reason for his refusal, which I'm paraphrasing here. The recordings that he possessed had been personally recorded by him at various Qawwali mehfils over the last half-century. In order to attend those mehfils he'd had to travel many hundreds of miles, spending days and weeks in travel just to listen to -and try to record- his favorite artists. Getting invited to these mehfils had involved first being accepted into the community of organizers, conoisseurs and performers. This acceptance had been cultivated over years, and involved meetings, discussions and active participation in the various activities associated with shrines and dargaahs. After he'd been deemed worthy of an invitation, had made the week-long trek to some far off location and been allowed to attend the mehfils, he had to receive permission to record; permission which was not always forthcoming. It was therefore, quite a challenge to record these mehfils.

If he heard about a recording in the possession of somebody else, the whole odyssey would be repeated. He often had to travel a couple of hundred miles in search of a single recording and return empty-handed, but the recordings he managed to get were cherished possessions. The recordings in those tapes, he said, weren't just audio snippets of obscure musicians. They were a record of the places, people, relationships, time and effort that were associated with acquiring them. They were, in short, milestones to his life. What we were suggesting, he said, was that he hand over those milestones to us when we had experienced/suffered/enjoyed/felt none of the things he considered the price of the recordings. Hence the flat refusal. Both 'zauq' and 'shauq' had to be amply demonstrated before he'd be willing to part with any one of them. So, while my friends were allowed to listen to some of the recordings, they came back empty handed.

The late Lutfullah Khan Sb was the foremost audiovisual archiver/collector in Pakistan. His collection of audio/video and documents related to the performing arts is unparallelled in its breadth and scope. He had painstakingly collected, edited, organized and cataloged the entire audiovisual history of Pakistan. This obsession consumed and controlled most of his life, and is enshrined in the most extensive audiovisual library in Pakistan. He left clear instructions to his family that after his death, his archive should be given over to the person or organization who could provide adequate financial compensation to his family for what is an incalculably rich treasure. This financial compensation would have to run into tens of millions of rupees ( a fair assessment in my opinion), otherwise there would be no-sale. On no account would the archive be donated free of cost, in fact Lutfullah Sb preferred setting fire to the whole collection rather than allowing it out of his family's hands without 'adequate financial compensation.' Almost a year after Lutfullah Sb's death, the archive remains closed to the public.

The small music collection that I've managed to acquire over the last three or four years owes much of its existence to the kindness of friends and total strangers. With a few exceptions, I have not had to travel hundreds of miles, or offer proofs of my 'zauq' or 'shauq'. I have often bickered when, in search of recordings and such, I have been faced with a firm refusal or delaying tactics. But I have also come to see that there is some, if not complete, then at least some justification in the refusals. In an age where the internet and filesharing have made gazillions of hours of audio and video freely available, some of us, myself included, have started taking this easy availability for granted. We have started to consider it something of a right to be able to see everything, hear everything and enjoy everything. I'm not saying this free availability is a bad thing. I'm sure my music collection, and come to think of it, my life would've been woefully incomplete if not for those angels in human shape who share so much of their collections on filesharing sites and YouTube. 

But consideration must be paid to the dissenting voices, who believe that simply desiring something isn't enough, one must do something to deserve it too. 

P.S Look up Bazm-e-Liqa and Wahdat Rameez, you won't be disappointed.


  1. Thought provoking .....v nicely described plus few mehfils...u enjoying akely akely ;) .......

  2. Musab bhai..I enjoy whatever you write and post and couldn't hold back from making a suggestion - it'd be really cool to see you put up a post of modern day qawwals - ones who are less than 50 in 2014 for example, singing traditional farsi/ other compositions made before 1900.

    1. Thanks a lot for the appreciation Ajith. Your suggestion is a great one, I'll see if I can cobble something together like you've suggested.