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 ...

4 comments:

  1. Thank you. This is just exquisite. Is there any way that I could 'possess' these incredible recordings as separate downloadable files?

    Nausheen H Anwar

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    1. Thanks a lot for appreciating the post. There are download buttons on each embedded track but they don't seem to be working. You can download from the following link.

      https://app.box.com/s/bqe5tprlb2nox8pjya2q

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  2. wah wah janab. dil khush ho gaya sun ker. kaisi zordaar mehfil hai. pyari gayeki. aik se bardh ker aik. can't shake it off. want to continue listen. ps the appreciation of the knowledgeable audience also adds to the atmosphere.

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  3. Musab Bhai..you out-do yourself with this one..crown jewels indeed!! Its completely unbelievable how these ustads can change the concept of time..a 60+ minute version seems short...while one struggles to sit thru a 5 minute song these days.
    I also note with some sadness that you are suggesting a delay in the next post...wish you all the best and a quick return to your absolutely amazing blog (and may I add..civilization!). Thanks once more for all the kindness you shower on people like me.

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