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, 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.

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