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 .

Friday, November 20, 2015

...Of Further Stops Along The Journey

It's coming on to a full year since my fateful journey of musical discovery, and like the Farsi verse, 'the intoxication still lingers in mine eyes'. Over the last year, the partners in crime have begun piecing together the journey into a coherent whole that will be ready for presentation soon. Till then, we've also been regularly releasing some of our favorite selections in audio and video on our Facebook, YouTube and SoundCloud pages. There's also talk *hush hush* of a reprise of last year's journey this December. As a result, my levels of excitement have been on a wonderfully high plateau all year. There's also been the added benefit that I've been honing my rather shoddy translating skills with each video. Till there's new and more exciting news to share, here's a selection of some of my favorite recordings from our journey.

1. Al Ishqu Deeni Ma Dum'tu Haiyya - Taj Muhammad, Shad Muhammad Nasir Niazi Qawwal

2. Khayal In Raag Shahana - Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan

3. Surkh Aankhon Main Kajal Ke Doray - Ustad Ameer Ali Khan Qawwal

4. Maa Ra Ba Ghamza Kusht - Ustad Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal And Brothers

5. Khabaram Raseedah Imshab - Subhan Ahmed Nizami Qawwal And Brothers

Sunday, August 16, 2015

...Of The Journey So Far

Around five months ago, me and my co-conspirators announced the details of our collaborative project entitled "The Dream Journey - Discovering Musicians Across Pakistan". We had spent the end of December 2014 traveling cross the length of Pakistan, meeting, interviewing, listening to and recording some of the most talented traditional musicians across Pakistan. By the time the trip was over, we had accumulated hundreds of hours of footage and audio, and then began the arduous task of organizing and editing the material into a coherent whole. Apart from our fabulous director/editor, the rest of us had little or no past experience in putting together a project of this magnitude. However, through trial and error, communicating through email, Facebook chat and the occasional albeit wonderful meetings, the team has begun making progress.

We began by releasing short audio teasers on the project's Soundcloud page , which were greatly appreciated by the listeners. The next step was to begin sharing the wonderful performances we had recorded, in HD video and audio. And that's what we've been doing for the past three weeks. I was terrifically happy at having participated in this brilliant journey, and after seeing the performances being released, that happiness is mixed with a lot of pride. Our motley crew of enthusiasts has managed to create something really noteworthy, something that will live on long after this project has been forgotten. I am a voracious gatherer of Qawwali recordings (the understatement of the century) and thus have been privileged to see and hear a lot of performances, both on TV and online, and I can state unequivocally that I have not come across anything as wonderfully recorded as our project.

For those who wish to follow our journey, we are on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram; where our current as well as future releases are being curated. For those who wish to support our project, please go HERE to donate via PayPal. Any and all donations shall be gratefully received and acknowledged.

Well I can't just leave the gentle reader hanging after writing two paragraphs loaded with superlatives and not sharing what we've released so far. So, without further ado, presenting the first three performances from The Dream Journey - Discovering Musicians Across Pakistan.

P.S Be sure to watch in HD

1. Charkha - Ustad Ameer Ali Khan And Party 

2. Kaliyan Sang Karat - Ustad Fareed Ayaz - Abu Muhammad Qawwal And Brothers

3. Dil Burd Az Mun - Ustad Abdullah Niazi & Waqas Niazi Qawwal

Friday, May 15, 2015

The King Is Dead, Long Live The King.

BB King passed away today at the age of 89. Rest in peace sir, and thank you !

Friday, May 1, 2015

...Of The Envoy of The Forlorn

The best (and in fact only) way to keep the mind from going to dark and inhospitable places is to keep oneself busy. Therefore ...

Among the many common threads running through Arabic, Persian and Urdu literature is the extensive use of personification and anthropomorphism. Gazelles are coquettes, blooming flowers are the hearts of lovers, the moon is a lancet, reawakening old wounds, or a shepherd tending the flock of stars. These allusions, especially when used by poets  and artists with a mystical bent, are used to wonderfully encapsulate intricate metaphysical ideas and make them not only palatable but also relatable to the audience. The canon of folk and Sufi poetry is eminently enriched by these literary devices, and most of them are well known even to the lay-reader or listener.

A tree in the breeze. Mughal era painting, Masjid Wazir Khan
One of the most commonly used literary devices is that of the breeze - 'sabaa', 'naseem' or 'baad' - as a messenger, a confidant and a bearer of tidings. For centuries, poets have used the breeze to convey their innermost hopes and desires to the 'beloved'. With Sufi poets, the breeze is their only conduit to the faraway land of Arabia where their beloved, the Prophet (S.A.W) resides. They offer salutations, pleas, lamentations, offerings of devotion and hopes for Union, and hope that the breeze carries these messages across faraway lands to the court of the Prophet (SAW), where it will give a true account of all that they have endured in their separation. There is a charming, endearing quality to these kalaams, along with deep pathos and melancholy, as the poets seem unable to bridge the distances and instead pour their hearts out to the only envoy they can trust, the breeze.

Many Qawwali recordings feature such kalaams, in fact they are some of the most popular kalaams of the Qawwali repertoire. Probably because the listeners, both initiated into Sufism as well as novices, transpose their own hopes, fears and longings into those of the poets', and hope that the trusty messenger will fulfill its duty to them as it has done for the poets long passed. Following are some of my favorite Qawwali performances where the breeze is addressed as a messenger, and in choosing from among the hundreds of similar performances, I've followed the rules I lay down in some of my earlier posts; one recording per kalaam and one recording per artist.

1. Innilti Ya Reeh-as-Sabaa - Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party

This is my kind of Nusrat recording. Intimate, focused and 'ba-ihteraam'. So intimate in-fact that Nusrat's "munshi" or prompter can be clearly heard guiding him through the verses. The celebrated Na'at by Hz Imam Zain-ul-Abideen (R.A) is beautiful in its evocative imagery and its pensive and heartfelt adoration of the Prophet (S.A.W). Nusrat wonderfully displays these qualities of the kalaam and sets the perfect tone with the Rubaai's at the start of the performance -the title of this post is derived from one of the phrases in the introductory Rubaai. The microphones seem to have been placed in such a way that only Nusrat, his brother Farrukh Fateh Ali, Farrukh's harmonium and Dildar Hussain's tabla can be heard in the foreground. I don't know what Raag this performance is based on, but the mood it evokes is perfect for this kalaam. Dildar Hussain's tabla is restrained, even during the up-tempo parts, and it lends an Arabic cadence to the entire performance. The entire party (which is the classic 1980's party by the sound of it) is wonderful in fact, offering taans and murkis only when required. It is a masterclass in minimalism.

2. Saba Ba Soo-e-Madina Ro Kun - Abdullah Manzoor Niazi Qawwal

Abdullah Manzoor Niazi is a wonderful Qawwal, with a mature, well rounded performance style and perfect command on the amazing voice he possesses. He spent his formative years as part of his uncle Ustad Bahauddin Khan's party, and later accompanied his father, Ustad Manzoor Ahmed Niazi. His performance style encompasses the best qualities of both the great ustaads; the vigor and vitality of Bahauddin Khan and the sweetness and melodic depth of Manzoor Niazi Sb. In this live recording of Hz Nizam-ud-Din Auliya (R.A)'s kalaam, he is accompanied by his younger brother. Again, the mood is pensive and restrained, just like the morning breeze being addressed, with wonderful flourishes (like at the 4 minute mark). Hz Nizam (R.A) offers a series of instructions to his messenger, instructions that are both charming in their affection and deeply poignant with the sense of separation. I love this na'at very much, and Abdullah Niazi's performance suits it perfectly.

3. Saba Madinay Main Mustafa Se - Manzoor Ahmed Niazi Qawwal Aur Hamnavaa

This is a recording of strange and enchanting power. Taken from the series of priceless recordings released by Zaheer Alam Kidvai Sb, it features three members of the original "Barri Party" - Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed, Ustad Manzoor Niazi and Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami. The recording is from a performance at somebody's home during the 1960's. The qawwals are launching into their standard performance of this kalaam but are immediately interrupted by the listener who instructs them to perform the kalaam in Raag Lalit. The remaining eleven minutes are a perfect reminder of why these qawwals are considered great Ustaads. The mood immediately becomes introspective, melancholy and resigned, as if the enormity of the separation from the Prophet (S.A.W) has suddenly become apparent to performers. The three voices are absolutely beautiful, Razi mian is rapier sharp, Manzoor Niazi is mellifluous and earthy, and Iftekhar Nizami is full of longing and love. Considering how woefully underrecorded he was in his brief life, I especially love this recording because of the prominent place Iftekhar Nizami's voice occupies here. His taans and girahs elicit sighs of 'haaye' from Razi mian, and I don't blame him. The taans are powerful, the performance is brilliant, and the sustained last note is perfect.

4. Naseema Jaanibe Bat'haa Guzar Kun - Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal & Party

In my opinion, this legendary Na'at of Hz Jami (RA) rightfully belongs to Ustad Manzoor Niazi, but since I've included him in the recording above, I'll share a recording by another artist who can rightfully stake his claim on the na'at. Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi was arguably the greatest shagird of Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Khan ( that's saying a lot considering other shagirds included Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal, Agha Bashir Qawwal and Nusrat himself), and he was probably the only shagird who consciously or subconsciously moulded his style on that of his Ustads. In this performance he is accompanied by younger brother Abdul Majeed Fareedi and Inayat Ali Khan, with Naseeb Khan on tabla, all of whom had performed in Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali's party at one time or another. The recording is very shoddy, but the power comes through unhindered. Ths shifts in tempo, the exquisite girahbandi and taankaari, and the various thundering yet complicated takraars have rarely been emulated by any other qawwal, the takraars especially. There are a million wonderful facets to this performance, and it takes multiple listenings to appreciate them. It is a fitting testament to Fareedi Sb's talent that when I was planning this post, I chose his performance of Naseema over his Ustads.

5. Naseema Qasidaana Vais Laveen - Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal

One of the main reasons I kept off writing this post was because I originally intended to do a post on this subject featuring only recordings by Haji Mahboob Sb, such was the depth of his repertoire. Later, when I decided on including a number of artists, I couldn't decide which of Haji Sb's recordings would best serve as a representative sample of his repertoire. Finally, I decided on this one because of a number of reasons. The main kalaam is a Punjabi 'nazm' written by Hz Pir Mehr Ali Shah (RA) in the style of Hz Jami (RA)'s mathnavi 'Yousuf Zulaikha", and Haji Sb uses verses from a number of other kalaams in Farsi and Punjabi to create a seamless whole from disparate sources. In the background is Haji Sb's sitar, Haji Mushtaq Ali's voice, his harmonium and the tabla; and at the fore are love, devotion and longing for the Prophet (S.A.W). The mood is languorous and pensive, full of the desire for Union. Like Hz Nizam-ud-Din (RA)'s kalaam above, the breeze is instructed to hurry to the 'land of the beautiful beloved' and there, offer prostrations and salutations to the beloved. With instructions on respectful etiquette, the breeze is dispatched with offerings of love, tales of longing and entreaties for union. Along the way, almost imperceptibly, the na'at morphs into something out of the great Punjabi love epics. It is a wonderful performance.

6. Payaam Laayi Hai Baad-e-Sabaa - Manzoor Hussain Santoo Khan Qawwal

The breeze is usually a messenger for the lover, taking away messages of longing and despair, but occasionally, when the Beloved is generous with his benevolence, it can also bring back news from faraway lands. That's the case in this recording by Manzoor Hussain Santoo Khan and party. The trademark clarinet starts it off, and the powerful voices take it over from there. This leaders of this party were instructed by Santoo Khan Qawwal, a disciple of Bhai Lal Rabaabi of the Gwalior gharana, and their style is distinct from their contemporaries. The voices are rich, deep and incisive, the instruments are unobtrusive and the tempo is lively and energetic. Manzoor Hussain Santoo still performs regularly with his son's party and despite the frailties of age, his occasional taans still retain the vitality and vivacity of this and ealier performances.

7. Ayi Naseem-e-Koo-e Muhammad (SAW) - Nusrat and Azimullah Qawwal

This kalaam of Bedam Shah Warsi (RA) is one of the most famous na'ats in Urdu, and justifiably so. Its imagery, sentiments and natural melodiousness make it a favorite of qawwals and na'at-khwaans, ensuring that almost everyone has sung it. I shall end this post by one of the simplest, most unadorned and understatedly brilliant performances in my collection. Three performers - hereditary qawwals from Firangi Mehal in Lucknow, one harmonium and one tabla, in a performance barely lasting five minutes.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

...Of Sabeen Mahmud - A Personal Reminiscence

Bad news has a habit of locating me in the remotest of locations. I was in a tent in the middle of the Cholistan desert when, despite practically nonexistent mobile coverage, I received a text from a friend telling me that Sabeen Mahmud had been fatally shot. In a mix of panic and increasing despair, I texted back for a confirmation which, with the dogged inevitability that is the hallmark of horror, arrived soon enough. That was two nights ago. I spent the next twenty-four hours in a jittery, shell-shocked state. Last night when I returned to civilization I had managed to calm down a bit. But as if on cue, my phone started filling up with messages of condolence, tribute and sheer numb despair; and my composure crumbled again. After two sleepless nights, I've finally convinced myself that perhaps writing something might calm me down somewhat.

It was on Twitter four odd years ago that I was introduced to Sabeen by a mutual friend who thought we shared a common taste for Qawwali (or as Sabeen liked to spell it, Qavvali). I soon discovered that our common interests also included Bruce Springsteen and Hugh Laurie (whom Sabeen fell for after blissfully binge-ing on House MD). As an emotional adolescent who still lives by the credo espoused by High Fidelity's Rob Gordon, "what really matters is what you like, not what you are like", this formed an instant connection. Over the next years, I kept in touch, sometimes helping her translate some knotty Farsi, or comparing notes on which was The Boss' best bootleg (we both eventually agreed it was "Live At The Agora, '78"), or more frequently, asking her to send over the latest Qavvali CDs that Kidvai Sb regularly put out (the last release has a charming photo of Sabeen on its cover), and then having conversations about the recordings we'd both loved.

All through this time, I had been keeping up with the wonderful happenings at The Second Floor, the wonderful hub that, to me at least, was Karachi's beating cultural heart. It was the sort of place I'd gladly spend my entire life at if I'd had my druthers. There were film screenings, poetry recitals, seminars and talks, Qavvali performances (which I regularly pestered Sabeen to send me recordings of, and she always graciously complied). Sabeen had almost single-handedly established T2F and had weathered problems that would make a lesser mortal lose hope and give up. Especially harrowing was the armed burglary that had interrupted a session at T2F and had forced it to shut down. But Sabeen found a new, safer location, reopened T2F,christened it T2F 2.0 and went back to what she called her 'ridiculously high-minded' ambition of providing a safe, open and engaging hub of intellect and culture for Karachi.

Despite frequent difficulties, financial and otherwise, Sabeen and T2F powered on and became an integral part of Karachi's cultural landscape. She was also the one person who unreservedly deserved to put the word "activist" in her bio. An unabashed bleeding-heart liberal, she was a street-fighter and a rabble-rouser ; marching, rallying and protesting in Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar or wherever she felt the need to voice her opinions, actively and joyously participating in political rallies irrespective of the political party involved. She voiced opinions that were either unpopular or at the very least  unmentionable because of fear of reprisals. But her self-confessed cavalier attitude towards fear led her to shout from the rooftops for everything she believed in.

At the end of last year, when I was planning my trip to Karachi, one of the things I was most looking forward to was finally meeting Sabeen and visiting T2F. We had planned to hold a number of Qavvali mehfils at T2F and had asked her for permission. Sabeen and the entire T2F staff were busy curating and organizing the "Creative Karachi" festival at that time and were neck deep in the administrative and logistical jumble that the festival entailed. Not only did she allow us to use her premises, she instructed her staff, who had been working nonstop for the last week or so, to make sure that we had everything we needed to make our recording sessions a success, even allowing us to tinker with T2F's decor to suit our needs. We had coordinated all of this on Facebook and I was aching for a face to face meeting, so the day I landed in Karachi, I hurried off with a few friends to the Creative Karachi festival, hoping to catch Sabeen.

I found her patiently answering a list of boring questions posed by a television reporter who clearly had better things to do and better places to go to. When she caught my eye, her wonderful half-smile and a resigned shrug of her shoulders told me how much she was enjoying the interview. After she'd finished, I introduced myself, received a wonderful hug and instructions to look her up later that evening when the chaos had settled a bit. Before returning from the festival, I met her again and we chatted for a while before she was again swept away to her administrative duties. The next day, she visited T2F as we were getting ready to record a performance by Subhan Ahmed Nizami, and this time we chatted for a good half hour. She was utterly exhausted after the successful conclusion of the festival, but she was pleased and awfully proud of her staff for having carried it off so well. After she'd left, we finished our recording sessions, bought the latest batch of Kidvai Sb's CDs, thanked the staff, rearranged whatever we had altered in T2F and left, hoping to return again. After completing our journey and returning home, I thanked Sabeen for allowing us use of T2F and her staff, and hoping to meet again soon, and she responded with similar hopes.

A photo posted by Musab Bin Noor (@musabbinnoor) on

The trip to Karachi is a source of many wonderful memories but one of the biggest thrills for me had been finally meeting Sabeen and visiting T2F. She was exactly like I'd imagined her to be, and more. Animated, frank, with a brilliant sense of humor and a complete absence of cynicism, she was a person so absolutely and vitally 'alive' in every sense of the word that it is absolutely impossible for me to think of her in the past tense.The outpouring of grief, messages of condolence and support has been widespread, and I hope Sabeen's family and friends find comfort in the fact that she was respected, admired and genuinely loved by so many. Once the initial, paralyzing shock has passed, it will be time to carry her legacy forward. T2F will (hopefully) carry on, providing a template to encourage the development of similar safe havens for thought and speech. Her tradition of activism will continue to inspire more people to leave the comfort of their armchairs and actively engage in the causes they believe in. Her half-smile will continue to live in the hearts of her friends and admirers, providing encouragement when despair and cynicism start creeping in.

It is sadly fitting that a friendship that began online should have had it's premature end online too. A week ago, idling the hours away at the internet, I'd stumbled across a silly little quote about one of Bruce Springsteen's songs. It had made me laugh and I decided to share it on Facebook. As I was typing it out, I remember thinking to myself, "I bet Sabeen would get a laugh out of this". Sure enough, five minutes later, there was a comment by her, a chuckle. That was the last time I heard from her and that's how I'd like to remember her, chuckling at something silly, with the twinkle in her eye and the characteristic little shake of her head. Like many others, I too shall find closure and her memory will become a source of solace and comfort for me. But for now, while the wound is still fresh and tears are still precariously close, I shall listen to one of her favorite pieces of music by one of her favorite artists; a recording that has, in a cruel twist of fate, become a lament for her. As for how I shall honor her memory, I was discussing it with a friend last night and I think I've decided what I shall do. If and when I ever have a daughter of my own, I know what to name her, and hopefully she shall grow up to be worthy of that name. Goodbye Sabeen, God bless !!

"Ae Daiyya, Kahan Gaye Vae Log?"
"Lord, where have those people gone?"

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Dream Journey - Discovering Musicians Across Pakistan

The Dream Journey – Discovering Musicians Across Pakistan

Subhan Ahmed Nizami
A film about an exhilarating eight day journey of five friends with a shared passion for discovering and recording musicians in their living environments across Pakistan.

The sessions of in depth conversations and vocal musical performances recorded and filmed cover several musical forms in the Indo Pakistani tradition, including Thumri, Kaafi, Ghazal, Qawwali and Khyaal. The kalaams that the musicians drew from spanned the whole spectrum of great poets: Khusrau, Jalal ud din Rumi, Kabir, Baba Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah, Iqbal, Faiz and numerous mystic poets of India and Pakistan. The performances evoked memories of the verdant lushness of the Punjab, the haunting mysticism of the Great Rajputana and Sind Deserts, the vibrancy of Hazrat Nizamuddin’s Delhi, the great aura of Ajmer, the majestic beauty of the Indo-Gangetic plain.

Some of the musicians are established and famous, others are amongst the brilliant budding talent that adorns Pakistan’s musical scene. Each of the mehfils has a distinct atmosphere and mood, but there is a common thread. We asked each of the musicians to stay close to their respective inherited musical traditions, allowing the singers an opportunity to present some pieces that are rarely heard today.

Shafqat Ali Khan Qawwal
We are inspired to present the brilliance of this contemporary Pakistani vocal music to a wider audience in a documentary film of the journey and an additional series of HD audio/video releases of each Mehfil.


Mustafa Khan & Muhammad Shah
Hamza Akram 
Moiz & Ghayoor Ahmed
Ahmad Raza
Taj Muhammad & Shad Muhammad Niazi  
Subhan Ahmed Nizami
Ustad Abdullah Niazi & Waqas Niazi
Ustad Ameer Ali Khan & Imran Ali Khan
Ustad Farid Ayaz & Ustad Abu Muhammad
Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan
Ustad Abdullah Niazi Qawwal

Produced by:
Zain Mujtaba
with assistance from viewers like you.

Ustad Naseeruddin Saami
For more information:

Email : dreamjourneyfilm@gmail.com
Facebook : facebook.com/dreamjourneyfilm
Twitter : @dreamjourneyflm

For donations and Contributions, please go HERE.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

...Of Sacred Soundtracks

I shall begin this post with a gigantic understatement. Music, and specifically film music is an integral part of subcontinental popular culture. Film music has not only entertained the masses for more than eighty years, it has provided a rich vein of music and lyrics that have been mined for everything from advertising slogans to political pitches, from vernacular idioms to the evolution of language itself. In what seems a natural process, the various musical forms of the subcontinent have borrowed freely from one another. The preponderance of Devotional music in film soundtracks is obvious to every lay listener, as is the frequent use of musical arrangements, imagery and lyrics borrowed from everything from Bhajan to Qawwali. On the flip-side, sacred devotional music also bears undeniable imprints of its temporal cousin, with the catchy melodies of famous (and certain not so famous) film songs being molded into everything from Na'ats to Bhajans to Qawwalis.

Subcontinental film music from the 'Golden Age' - the 1940's to the 1960's - is probably the earliest in my list of pop-culture affections. For as long as I can remember, I have been humming - and in the early, dark days of pre-pubescent debauchery, even dancing to - those wonderful melodies that seem to have achieved immortality the moment they were released. My love of early film music has been well documented before, as has my (slightly) recent love of Qawwali. I think its about time I did some amalgamatin' and brought both of my favorite forms of music together. There are dozens of Qawwali recordings by dozens of artists where film tunes have been used with slight (or extensive) lyrical modifications, but I'll restrict myself to some of my favorites. Here we go !

1. The Film song : Yeh Lo Main Haari Piya - Geeta Dutt. (OP Nayyar, Majrooh - Aar Paar - 1954)

Guru Dutt is one of my favorite filmmakers, OP Nayyar one of my favorite composers and Geeta Dutt had one of the most distinctive voices ever. This song from Aar Paar has Nayyar's trademark castanets and Majrooh's easygoing lyrics, and combined with Geeta Dutt's flirtatious delivery and Lahore born Shyama's twinkling eyes, the song manages to win not only Guru Dutt's heart, but of the listeners too.

The Qawwali - Bande Di Soorat Vicchon - Barre Karam Din Sabri Qawwal

this is the earliest evidence I could find of a film tune being used in a Qawwali, I'm sure there are ones from even earlier, and I'd love to see them mentioned in the comments. This recording, labelled only "1956" when i found it, is by a group of Punjabi Qawwals with a wonderful set of voices. It's a Naatiya kalaam - a kalaam in praise of the Prophet (SAW) released as a 78 RPM two years after the release of the film song that directly influences it. Karam Din Qawwal, one of the three major Qawwals of the Jalandhar region from the '30s - (along with Din Muhammad Qawwal and Arhooray Khan Qawwal) was the father of Mattay Khan-Nazeer Hussain Qawwals and the grandfather of Kashif Hussain-Zahid Hussain Qawwals.

2. The Song - Thandi Hawaien -Lata Mangeshkar ( SD Burman, Sahir - Naujawan - 1951)

What's not to love about this song ? Lata's voice is at its peak of youthful vitality, SD Burman provides a twinkling cascade of clarinets, xylophones, slide guitars and pianos, and Sahir Ludhianvi uses the word 'jhainp - جھینپ' in a song (a feat worth a Filmfare award at least). And its picturized on Nalini Jaiwant, the wonderful combination of Betty Boop and Bette Davis who I've had a crush on for as long as I can remember.

The Qawwali - Taeba Ko Jaayen, Bipta Sunaayen - Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal

Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi, accompanied by Abdul Majeed Fareedi and Inayat Ali Khan, with Ustad Naseeb Khan on the tabla turn the SD Burman composition into a wonderful supplicating Na'at. Beginning with a brilliant sazeena and doha, Fareedi Sb leads his able and willing party into what is a complicated musical arrangement to say the least. But Abdul Majeed Fareedi's effortlessly beautiful Taans and the party's trademark Takraars turn what could have been a trying endeavor into a brilliant musical journey. As the first of the takraars starts around the 12 minute mark, and the girahs and taans start following each other, the Na'at becomes almost a marching song, leading the party of travelers towards Taeba. The recording quality deteriorates towards the latter half of the performance, but this is one journey worth sticking with till the end.

3. The Song - Bahaaro Mera Jeewan Bhi Sanwaaro - Lata Mangeshkar (Khayyam, Kaifi Azmi - Akhri Khat - 1966)

Khayyam is one of my favorite composers, imbuing each of his melodies with a unique sense of calm and serenity. Here he uses Kaifi Azmi's lyrics and Lata's voice and colors the black and white cherry blossoms with fleeting notes from the Sitar and the Flute. Plus, an impossibly young Rajesh Khanna !!

The Qawwali - Pukaro, Shah-e-Jilaan Ko Pukaaro - Mubarak Ali Niaz Ali Qawwal

Mubarak Ali, Niaz Ali, Tufail Khan and Gulloo Khan; four of the most distinctive voices in Qawwali, all in one party ! This party adopted a 'take no prisoners' attitude towards each performance and injected a million kilowatts of energy into each recording, yet at the same time prevented themselves from straying down the path of screechy bombast. This popular manqabat has been sung by many artists, both Qawwals and otherwise, but Mubarak Ali-Niaz Ali's version is my favorite. Why ? Just listen to the voices man !

4. The Song - Chandni Raatein - Noor Jehan (Feroze Nizami - Dopatta - 1952)

Dupatta, one of the few early Pakistani films I'm really fond of, had a lot going for it. Noor Jehan, Ajay Kumar and a boyishly hnadsome Lala Sudhir as stars, with my favorite character actor Ghulam Mohammed in a meaty part; a wonderfully sensitive restraint and a lack of melodrama that distinguished it from most films of that period, and an interseting, twisty-turny plot. But above all, the music by Feroze Nizami is what sets this film apart. This song by Noor Jehan is one of the most recognizable songs in subcontinental film history, and needs no dissections on my part.

The Qawwali - Chandni Raatein - Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal

Of the many, many versions of this Qawwali, this one is my favorite by far. Despite its wobbly recording, it is a fifty minute tour-de-force. I will not say anything about this recording other than presenting it as Exhibit A in favor of my argument that Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi and his party were the true successors of Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal.

5. The Song - Mera Dildaar Na Milaya - Suraiyya (Husnlal-Bhagatram - 1954)

Shama Parwana is a case of a horrible movie redeemed by beautiful music. It would not have been a horrible movie otherwise, but it's end consists of *SPOILER ALERT* Shammi Kapoor being cooked alive in a giant cauldron !! Leaving that unpleasant image aside, the music by the talented but under-appreciated Punjabi brothers Husnlal-Bhagatram is beautiful. Suraiyya sings for herself and Shammi is playbacked by Mohammad Rafi. This song has both male and female versions, and despite the male version featuring Shammi and Rafi Sb - my most favorite combination ever - Suraiyya's version is the one I prefer.

The Qawwali - Taen Ta Mera Yaar Na Milaya - Fateh Ali Mubarak Ali Qawwal

Everything Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali recorded seemed to bear traces of the 'music of Ainur' that Tolkein talks about. They seem to belong to a different time and place, in fact a different celestial plane altogether if you can indulge my hyperbole for a moment. This 'mehfil' recording made in 1960 in Faisalabad takes Husnlal-Bhagatram's tune and turns it into a mysterious living breathing entity. The tabla sounds like a Pakhawaj or a Mradingam, ringing out each note as the Ustads sing a Punjabi 'shikwa'.  The girahs begin at the 2:20 mark and are hair-raising to say the least. An unusual combination of Punjabi and Urdu, it is a recording that I have not heard the like of before or since.

6. The Song - Nigaahen Mila Kar Badal Jaane Waale - Noor Jehan (Rasheed Attre, Qateel Shifaai - Mehboob - 1962)

Rasheed Attre was another composer who knew how to effectively use Madam's voice, and along with Master Ghulam Haider, Feroze Nizami and Khwaja Khurshid Anwar, provided countless classics in her voice. This song from 1962, like most Pakistani film songs from the '60s, features spartan instrumentation, propelling itself on a simple dholak beat. But Madam's voice and the well constructed asthaais, along with Qateel Shifaai's simple yet evocative lyrics make this an undisputed classic of subcontinental film music history.

The Qawwali - Khuda Ki Qasam Hai Khuda Jalwagar Hai - Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal

The post will end on one of my most favorite Qawwali recordings ever. This kalaam is rarely sung, infact I've only heard it sung by Haji Sb and Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi, and they've both sung spectacular versions of this kalaam in a number of musical arrangements. Here Haji Sb uses the Rasheed Attre tune from the song above, and despite the film-derived tune, the kalaam does not lose an iota of its power. With the trademark taali-Sitar intro, and a selection from the Mathnavi - Haji Sb was the 'Andaleeb-e-Rumi' after all, this scholarly exposition of the Sufi concept of 'Wahdat-ul-Wujood' starts off. It is a kalaam with deep spiritual meanings, utilizing allegory, simile and references to verses from the Quran to delineate the One-ness of God with His creation, and each verse is pregnant with a wealth of meaning. Haji Sb doesn't use much girah-bandi here, letting the verses unfold their meanings unhindered.

I am sure I have left out a number of examples, some by design and many others because I might not have heard them yet. All the recordings above go to prove that a) subcontinental film music from the Golden Age is one of the most beautiful of all our cultural treasures, and b) intelligently using popular tunes in devotional music doesn't cause a decrease in their spiritual appeal but actually enhances it.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

...Of The Alpha and The Omega - Ameer Khusrau (RA)

Previous entries in this series:

1. Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA)

2. Allama Muhammad Iqbal (RA)

3. Hz Bedam Shah Warsi (RA)

4. Maulana Abdur Rehman Jami (RA)

5. Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib

6. Baba Bulleh Shah (RA)

Two months ago, I took a monumental trip. With a group of wonderful friends (some of whom I was meeting for the first time), I traveled to a number of cities towns and villages across the length of Pakistan, savoring the many musical delicacies our country possesses. In Karachi we met and listened to Qawwal parties who are torchbearers of distinguished lineage and rich tradition; in the town of Deepalpur we were invited to spend the day with one of the most stupendous Qawwals performing today, and in Lahore, we heard two generations of wonderful Khayal-singers, and chatted with a performer whose career encompasses both Qawwali and Khayal. To call this the proverbial "trip of a lifetime" would be a gross understatement, and I'm hoping I get to experience many more trips like this in my lifetime.

The level of planning and coordination required for the trip meant that there were many chances for things to go wrong. Flights could be missed, performers could be unavailable, the political situation in the country could take one of its customary nosedives, a million things could happen. But in the end, despite one or two minor hiccups, it all went perfectly. As a few of us remarked then, there seemed to have been a guiding spirit watching over us as we made our way from one musical feast to another, and I've been constantly thinking about who that guiding spirit could be. As I began preparing this post, I came to realize that our guiding spirit, and the thread connecting all our various musical experiences on this trip, was Ab'ul Hasan Yamīn ud-Dīn "Ameer" Khusrau (RA). 

Amir Khusrau by Qasim ʿAli in a 15th century manuscript
Ameer Khusrau's presence pervades almost all of Indo-Pakistan culture, and he was a constant throughout all our trip. The Qawwals in Karachi either claimed their lineage from their disciples or performed specific 'bandishes' attributed to him; the khayal singers in Lahore sang bandishes invented by him in'raags' invented by him, accompanied by instruments invented by him, and even in Deepalpur - the heart of Punjab - the link to Khusrau was strong; Khusrau had been captured as a soldier by enemy forces during Balban's reign and kept as a prisoner in an ancient fortress in Deepalpur. Calling him a renaissance man or an epochal figure would be doing him a great disservice. His list of accomplishments, inventions and innovations defies count. He invented, among other musical instruments, the sitar; he wrote poetry and prose in Persian and the then nascent Hindvi languages; he served in the courts and armies of seven different Sultans of Delhi; he created a number of Raags and styles of music. One of his most important innovations was turning the ancient Sufi tradition of 'Samaa' into the progenitor of 'Qawwali'.

In one of the many interesting conversations I had over the course of my musical trek, someone offered a unique insight into Khusrau's personality, an insight that has led me to see his kalaam in an altogether different light. Khusrau was a courtier, a soldier and an acclaimed poet; in short a man of the world. This meant that despite his close relationship with Hz Nizamuddin Auliya (RA), he was never accepted by Hz Nizamuddin (RA) into the inner circle of his disciples and 'khalifaas'. Despite Khusrau's repeated attempts, Hz Nizamuddin (RA) kept him almost at arm's length, possibly because of Khusrau's worldliness. This led to a constant yearning for acceptance and union that literally screams out in his poetry. 

I have chosen 24 kalaams for this post, 12 each from Khusrau's Farsi and Hindvi writings. The sheer number of his kalaams in the Qawwali canon, as well as the literally hundreds of performers who have sung him was what initially led me to form the arbitrary set of rules that has governed this series of posts almost from the start. The rules were mainly borne out by a desire to include as wide a selection of kalaams as possible while insuring that none of the kalaams or artists were repeated. For example, I picked a Fateh Ali Mubarak Ali recording of an obscure Khusrau kalaam over their absolutely superlative recording of another kalam that had also been sung by a number of othre Qawwals; similarly with obscure artists taking precedence over mor epopularly known artists. Some of my inclusions might seem completely out of the left field, but I hope they will introduce the readers to a number of kalaams and artists they haven't heard before. With that, we begin ...

1.    Ae Sarve Nazneene Mun – Prof. Miran Buksh Qawwal

Let’s start this post with one of the oldest recordings in my possession. Miran Buksh Qawwal , or as he is titled in his recordings, “Professor” Miran Buksh Qawwal lived in the first half of the 20th century and belonged to Peshawar. Beyond this basic bio-data, I cannot hazard a conjecture. What is beyond doubt however, is the Professor’s superlative vocal ability and style. He sings Farsi kalam with the proper ‘Darri’ lilt, he uses powerful, vacillating taans, he utters “Qurban ! Afreen !!” at particularly moving verses, and packs a wealth of meaning and power into a 3 minute recording. As I wrote in a previous post, Qawwali recordings from the first half of the twentieth century are markedly different from what we recognize as Qawwali today. In the days of 78 RPM records, the Qawwali genre was dominated by solo performers who often sang without the dholak/taali accompaniment synonymous with Qawwali. The three minute recording was often a template that was later embellished and expanded on during live performances. Prof. Miran Buksh is a very obscure artist, but judging from the wealth of medals he is seen sporting on his chest in the few photographs that exist, he got due recognititon for his talents within his lifetime.

2.    Ae Ba Darmaandgi Panaahe Hamaa – Gappu Qawwal

This is the only recording I have of Gappu Qawwal, and it was ripped from a video of his performance. The title says, ‘Gappu Qawwal – Rajasthan’, and the setting is a wonderful interior of a shrine, with the Qawwal party sitting amid a backdrop of cut-glass mosaics and intricate tile-work, with a small group of Sufis sitting across from them. Gappu is an elderly gentleman, with a shock of white hair, and he is accompanied by what seems like a ragtag bunch of ‘hamnavaas’. I have a special liking for recordings by elder Qawwals. The ravages of time lend a certain mellowness and an endearing fragility to their voices; what they lack in power, they more than make up for in feeling. Throughout the performance, he has a beatific smile on his face. The smile is perfectly in tune with the subject of the kalaam, praise of the Prophet (SAW) and his benevolet grace, and an assurance that this grace will be the source of salvation on Judgement Day.

3.    Ae Chehrae Zebaae Tau – Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal ?
The cassette that this recording came in was labelled “Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal”, and later this recording was posted online attributed to Muhammad Ali Fareedi Qawwal. But I’m not sure that although similar in style, this is by neither of the above artists. My guess is, it is Salamat Ali Khan from the Bakhshi Salamat party slumming it for a Radio Pakistan recording. With the attribution out of the way, let’s turn to the performance itself. The sitar overture at the start is short yet brilliant,the clarinet adds a wonderful warmth and the tabla/taali/ is wonderfully Punjabi in style. Some verses are presented with an Urdu tazmeen, others are sung unembellished. There are a couple of verses flubbed and presented in the incorrect order, but these hitches do not derail the performance. There is a wonderful raspy edge to the voices of the vocalists, and they employ a few short but wonderful mini-taans to great effect. To top it off there’s also a ‘zordaar’ takraar or two thrown in for good measure in this energetic 11 minute performance.

4.    Bakhubi Humchoo Mah – Ghulam Hussain Niazi – Sultan Niazi Qawwal

Ghulam Hussain Niazi and his sons Sultan and Usman Hussain Niazi hail from the ‘Hapur’ gharana, a gharana traditionally associated with Dhrupad. Being ‘Pagri-bandd Qawwals’, they regularly perform at the shrine of Hz Khwaja Nizamuddin Aulia (RA) in Delhi as well at the other important sufi shrines of India. Their style consists of a no-frills approach, with emphasis on ‘talaffuz’ and ‘takraaar’. Their style bears imprints of the great Aziz Ahmad Khan Warsi and Jafar Hussain Khan Badayuni Qawwal, but they have a style uniquely their own. In an age where many Qawwals rely on bombast, or do not lay adequate emphasis on ‘talaffuz’, Ghulam Hussain Niazi and sons are ably carrying forward the tradition of ‘Khanqahi’ qawwali.

5.    But-e-Nau Raseeda-e-Mann – Ustad Muhammad Ahmad Warsi Qawwal

This recording proved to be a case of love at first listen for me. Muhammad Ahmad Warsi sahab of Rampur started performing at a very young age, accompanying his father Abdul Shakoor Khan Qawwal. He holds the ‘pagri’ of ‘darbaari qawwal’ at the shrine of Hz Nizamuddin Auliya (RA)’s father Khwaja Syed Ahmed (RA)’s shrine at Badayun. In his early seventies now, Warsi Sb still conveys a youthful vigor and vitality in his performances. I especially love his unique staccato harmonium and his wonderful lay-kaari. This performance of a romantic ghazal of Khusrau’s, meanders along like a stream at a languid and leisurely place; occasionally eddying at a specific phrase here, swirling around a specific takraar there. At the seven minute mark, the flow halts for a superlative, wonderful girah before gathering pace again. Further girahs follow, each girah effortlessly fusing into the main kalaam, which ultimately comes to a halt with a flourish of tabla-notes.

6.    Chashme Maste Ajabe – Ustad Iftekhar Ahmad Amrohi Qawwal

Iftekhar Ahmad Amrohi Qawwal is an anomaly in the world of Khanqahi Qawwali. While most other Qawwals belong to specific ‘gharaanas’ and proudly list their lineages to anybody who will care to listen (and many who couldn’t care less), Iftekhar Ahmad Amrohi proudly owns up to be a first generation Khanqahi Qawwal who actually had to struggle to gain acceptance at the various shrines of the subcontinent. As with the two performers above, an absolute lack of pretense is the hallmark of his performance. In this recording the takraars are especially interesting, short and crisp, a maximum of three to four repetitions of the phrase before the party moves on to the next verse. There are no girahs or long digressions into taankari, just a simple exposition of the main kalaam from start to finish.

7.    Dilam Dar Ashiqi Awara Shud – Fateh Ali – Mubarak Ali Qawwal

They are undisputedly the greatest Qawwals of the 20th century, their mastery over Farsi, Punjabi and Urdu kalaam is unparalleled, their deep grounding in Khayal/Dhrupad means each performance is finely attuned to the Classical idiom, their takraars are dizzyingly electrifying and their taans are vertigo inducingly brilliant. Here Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali perform a kalaam of Khusrau’s that the poet has imbued with a wonderfully melodious qafia and radeef. The voices flutter, bob and weave; Mubarak Ali dives into a taan and the shehnai follows him in a spiralling descent; Fateh Ali takes a verse and whips it into a takraar and the clarinet swirls around his voice. The phrasing and bol-baant here is wonderful, each word is broken down into half a dozen syllables as part of a bol-taan, all the while maintaining perfect lay-kaari. This is a twelve minute exercise in superb craftsmanship and absolute mastery.

8.    Dishab Ke Mi Rafti Butaan – Subhan Ahmed Nizami Qawwal

Subhan Ahmed Nizami was one of the Qawwals I got to interact with in the course of my Karachi trip. He is the son of the late Afaq Ahmad Nizami and the grandson of Ustad Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami. His grandfather and father passed away at relatively young ages, which meant that Subhan is mostly self-taught, and what a teacher he has proven to be. Dubbed “the thinking man’s qawwal” by my companions in the recent Karachi trip, Subhan’s personality and his performance style are wonderfully cerebral and restrained for someone as young as him. The ghazal sung in this khanqahi performance is said to depict the Prophet (SAW)’s arrival at Makkah, and Subhan wonderfully delivers each vignette, accompanied by a thumping dholak and a lively taali.

9.    Dilash Gar Meherbaan – Ghaus Muhammad Nasir Niazi Qawwal

On the recent trip to Karachi that I mentioned above, I got a chance to interact with some wonderful Qawwals of the Rampur-Atrauli gharana. They will be revisited further down the post, but first a recording by their late elder brother, Ghaus Muhammad Nasir. The son of the wonderful Moin Niazi Qawwal – whose name graces the Qawwali Street in Karachi which houses 31 families of Qawwals – Ghaus Muhammad Niazi started his career by accompanying his father, and after Moin Sb’s death, led his own party. He had a wonderfully mellow and sweet voice, and had a style that perfectly suited his voice. Here he sings a lovely Farsi ghazal of Khusrau’s in his trademark style. His voice is front and center, and the taans and takraars are pleasing without being overpowering. This is a ‘halki-phulki’ ghazal, and the performance perfectly encapsulates the lightness of the verses. It is a tragedy that Ghaus Muhammad Niazi passed away a couple of years ago at a fairly young age, but his and his gharana’s legacy is ably being safeguarded by his younger brothers. Which brings us to …

 10 .  Har Shab Manam Futaada – Taj Muhammad, Shad Muhammad Niazi Qawwal

Taj Muhammad Niazi, Shad Muhammad Niazi and Shaukat Niazi are the younger brothers of the late Ghaus Muhammad Nasir. When he led the party, the brothers performed as accompanists but now they lead the party. Young in age but well-grounded in the Classical style, the brothers are forging their own identity, all the while nurturing the legacy of their elder brother and father. In this home recording, they sing a wistful ghazal of Khusrau’s as sounds from Moin Niazi Qawwal Street waft in through the windows. The talaffuz is correct, the style is mellow and respectful and the voices are confident in tackling the taans; the legacy of the Rampur-Atrauli gharana is in safe hands.

11.  Khabaram Raseeda Imshab – Ghulam Muhammad Saaznawaz & Party

This seems a tiny bit like a cop-out, as Ustad Ghulam Muhammad Saaznawaz wasn’t a ‘Qawwal’ per se. He performed classical Sufi kalams with his party of vocalists and instrumentalists for over six decades and was the only internationally recognized proponent of ‘Kashmiri Sufiyana’. He passed away almost exactly one year ago, but hopefully some of his shagirds will carry his legacy forward. Ustad Saaznawaz’s party consisted of himself on Santoor, and accompanists on Tabla, Sitar, Madhyam and the ‘Saaz-e-Kashmir’ – a five member arrangement wonderfully titled “panj-hathyaar”. The accompanists also served as the vocal chorus. The sound of his party is difficult to describe, it seems to emanate from the sibilant breezes, chirping birds and gushing brooks of the land of his birth. The santoor remains at the foreground as the party navigates the traditional ‘maqqaams’ or raags of Kashmiri Sufiyana music. In this hypnotic recording of the canonical ghazal, the Ustad gives a meandering, mellifluous performance, lingering on the verses as the Santoor tinkles around the words. I could have chosen literally any Qawwal’s version of this ghazal, but I hope the unique quality of this performance justifies its inclusion.

 12.   Nami Danam Che Manzil Bood  - Abdullah Manzoor Niazi Qawwal

I have been enchanted by Abdullah Manzoor Niazi’s voice ever since I heard him for the first time. He was accompanying his father in a recording from the fabulous “Rung” album. Abdullah Manzoor Niazi’s superbly ‘kharri’ and powerful voice contrasted wonderfully with his father’s unbelievably ‘meethi’ one. Even during his father’s lifetime, Abdullah Manzoor Niazi led the family party with aplomb. This kalam was performed at one of the last mehfils recorded before Ustad Manzoor Niazi stopped performing, but in this recording he sits back and lets his sons carry the performance, occasionally uttering an appreciative ‘aha!’ or ‘wah!’ in the background. Abdullah Niazi, like he did in the performance I witnessed in Karachi, singlehandedly carries the performance. Around the 9 minute mark, he steers the performance into a series of extended girahs which are charmingly delivered around a powerful takraar.

1.      Aaj Racho Hai Basant Nijam Ghar – Afsar Hussain Khan Qawwal
Unlike the Farsi kalaam of Hz Ameer Khusrau, most of which was published in his lifetime in his various Dwaans, the Hindvi Bandishes and kalaams attributed to him have a more checkered lineage. These kalaams have been sung and modified by various performers over the centuries so I’ve tried to limit myself to pieces which are attributed to Hz Ameer by the performers themselves. Starting off the Hincvi selection is a kalaam that is regularly sung at the annual Basant celebrations at Sufi shrines all over the subcontinent. This year’s Basant recently concluded and I’m sure many Qawwals would have sung this kalaam over the last two weeks. This performance comes from a wonderful concert LP by the “famous qawwal of Lucknow”, Afsar Ali Khan and Party. I don’t know anything about this Qawwal party and the only recordings of theirs that I possess are from this one LP, but what an LP! Afsar Hussain Khan has a remarkable voice, and him and his accompanists - chief among them Kafeel Hussain Khan – work their magic in this bandish in Raag Bahaar. The ‘bulbultarang’ is wonderful as after a slow start, the takraars and the sargams begin as the tempo picks up. The girahs arrive one after another on the takrar, each of the lead singers participating in the girah-bandi. Some of the Purbi girahs are rarely performed by other Qawwals, and by the end of the piece, Afsar Hussain Khan and his party have justified the title of “famous Qawwal of Lucknow”.

2.      Allah Ta’ala – Nisbati Qaul – Mohammad Hayat Nizami Qawwal
The late Ustad Muhammad Hayat Nizami was a regular presence at the shrine of Hz Nizamuddin Auliya (RA) at Delhi. He belonged to the ‘Sikandra’ gharana and is survived by his sons Zafar Hayat Nizami and Hamsar Hayat Nizami, both of whom lead their own Qawwal parties. Here he performs a rarely sung Nisbati Qaul of Hz Amir Khusrau (RA)’s, accompanied by a Sarangi and a Tambour. The percussion and taali lay down a wonderful beat and the Sarangi weaves around the voice; a voice which displays agility and poise despite the ravages of age. This recording was made in the courtyard of Hz Ameer’s tomb, and the Qawwals seem to feed off the spiritual energy. Nizami Sb leads the Sarangi with a series of sargams, and when the Sarangi decides to go it alone, encourages it with shouts of ‘Shaba re!’. It is a rarely heard kalaam, performed by one of the old masters of the Delhi khanqahi qaawwals. Near the end, the beat changes and the Qawwals launch into another Qaul, which is featured in a more complete form further down the post.

3.      Ao Gye Balam – Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal
From Darbaari Qawwals of Delhi to Darbaari Qawwals of Pakpattan. Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi’s stature in my eyes increases with each passing day. I’ve written at length about him and he is one of my very favorite Qawwals, so I won’t go into too many biographical details. In this recording, Fareedi Sb and party perform a kalaam that has been performed for centuries on the occasion of Hz Baba Fariduddin Ganj Shakar (RA) at Pakpattan. The original ‘bandish’ goes ‘Vae gye Balam’, but the Qawwals at Pakpattan put a Punjabi spin on it. This kalaam is supposed to have been written by Hz Ameer (RA) when he returned from Sind to discover that his Murshid, Hz Nizamuddin Auliya (RA) had passed away.The effect is hypnotic as the takraar rumbles on, occasionally punctuated by a taan. Sadly, the recording is incomplete, but it is a powerful five minute exposition of Khusrau in a pure Punjabi andaaz.

4.      Bohat Kathin Hai Dagar Panghat Ki – Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed Qawwal
This recording is ripped from a video. The video was my first exposure to the absolute force of nature that was the late Munshi Raziuddin Qawwal. It took me barely five seconds to realize that I was witnessing a performer of superlative ability. Flanked by his two sons – young Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad – Razi Mian immediately commanded the attention of the viewer/listener. With a glance and a gesture, he guided his party through the kalam, suggesting a taan here, a girah there; and without fail, Farid and Abu Muhammad picked up on their musical cues and ably performed whatever was required, to the obvious satisfaction of their father, obviously the result of years and years of very rigorous training. Even though Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad had come into their own by this time, it is the spirit of Razi Mian that illuminates this performance.

5.      Panchayati Qaul – Meraj Ahmed Nizami Qawwal
Octogenarian Meraj Ahmed Nizami is currently the senior-most Qawwal in the subcontinent, and although in poor health these days, he is still the spiritual head of the Qawwal Bacchon Ka Gharana. Throughout his career, he has shunned newfangled concepts like fusion music etc and has steadfastly stuck to performing traditional khanqahi kalaams in a khanqahi style. Here he performs two traditional Qauls that are performed solely by the Qawwal Bacchon Ka Gharana, a fact that he proudly declaims at the start of the performance. The style is simple, with steady takraars and a series of wonderful girahs, and none of that superfluous taankaari that other Qawwals use. The first Qaul is the one which was sung briefly by Mohammad Hayat Nizami in the recording above, but Meraj Sb sings it from start to finish and then segues into the second, more rarely heard Qaul. In the latter third of the performance come the girahs, each more apt than the last. I sincerely hope that Meraj Sb regains his health and graces the Qawwali world with his presence for years to come.

6.      Mohe Apne Hi Rangg Main – Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal
During Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed’s last few years, he sat with the Qawwal party but had deputed the leadership to Farid Ayaz, with Abu Muhammad and brothers in support. Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad have become Pakistan’s pre-eminent Qawwals in the years following their father’s death. This has been achieved by achieving a fine balance between the traditional Classical based andaaz of the Qawwal Bacchon Ka Gharana and the folk influences of the Punjabi Qawwali style. Here they perform a trademark bandish associated with their gharana, accompanied by their sons. Most of the performance is in the upper registers and barely escapes becoming jarring to the ears, but Farid Ayaz takes it down an interesting track arounf the 9 minute mark. He leads the rather reluctant party into a peculiar bandish with an unusual time-signature, and his obvious consternation at the party’s inability to satisfactorily follow him is slightly amusing, but the youngsters quickly recover. On my recent visit to Karachi, I had the pleasure of spending a day with Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad and the entirety of their party, and I can tell from first-hand observation that Farid is training the youngsters with a rigidity and single minded resolve that would have met the approval of his late father.

7.      Mun Kunto Maula – Shankar Shambhu Qawwal
The final Qaul in this selection is probably the original saying of the Prophet (SAW) that gave Qawwali its name. It has been sung by every Sufi musician worth (or in some cases not worth) their salt. It has been sung in Shyam Kalyan, in Shudh Kalyan and even in Bhopali. Depending upon the tastes of the audience and the qawwals themselves, it can either serve as a brief preamble to a performance, or a full production number with lengthy digressions and expositions. Years ago I wrote a post on some of my favorite versions of the Qaul, so for this selection I have picked the recording that I return to whenever I need to revisit the Qaul. Shankar Shambhu Qawwals – a duo of Hindu brothers – performed from the fifties to the early nineties and were fairly popular in the Qawwali circles of India, but weren’t that well known in Pakistan. This recording was taken from an LP they released in the late 1970s. Shankar starts off the Qaul in his wonderfully sweet voice as sitar notes cascade behind him. The start is languid and serene, with Shambhu joining the vocals. Past the two minute mark, the performance gathers steam, and in the up-tempo second half, Shankar lets his wonderful voice weave a series of brief taans. The tarana portion is short yet sweet, and the performance winds down just as quickly as it had gained steam. It is a four minute exercise in musical minimalism, and I love it.

8.      Phool Rahi Sarson – The Sabri Brothers  Ensemble
“Accha huzoor, sama’at farmaayen” begins Haji Ghulam Fareed Sabri, as the Sabri Brothers launch into the classical celebration of the arrival of spring. And what a celebration; a lot of purists tended to dismiss the Sabris as lacking in the proper Classical spirit. This ten minute rendition should prove them wrong. I needn’t write more about this performance beyond that it is my absolute favorite version of this kalaam.

9.      Najar-e-Karam Kun – Bahauddin Qutbuddin Qawwal
The seventh centennial of Hz Ameer Khusrau (RA)’s birth was celebrated across the subcontinent and the rest of the world in 1975. The governments of India and Pakistan marked the occasion with series of cultural activities, radio, television and the recording industry also took part in the festivities. In Pakistan, EMI in collaboration with Pakistan Television released a number of wonderful audiovisual recordings. In India, one of the most interesting releases was a dramatized audio-biography of Khusrau concieved and narrated by Prof. Zoe Ansari. The biography was interspersed with recordings of Khusrau’s kalaam performed by artists from India, Pakistan and Iran. Representing Pakistan were Ustad Bahauddin Qutbuddin Qawwals. Their recordings for this project are absolutely wonderful, and one of them is included here. The bandishes are in Raags Basant and Bahar, with a wonderful Sitar intoning in the background. Prof. Ansari occasionally interrupts with a spoken interlude, but mostly the Qawwals are left to their own devices. And left to his own devices, Ustad Bahauddin Khan dazzles. His voice is rapier-sharp as he starts off at a dizzying tempo and keeps ratcheting it up every minute. There are takraars and taans aplenty as the main kalaam seamlessly segues into a tarana. Ustad Bahauddin Khan’s voice was at its peak throughout the seventies, and here he effortlessly navigates the treacherous taraana. Bahauddin Khan had recently left the ‘Barri Party’ or the original Manzoor Niazi Party and was forging his own individual path. While he was recording in India …

10.  Tori Soorat Ke Balhari Nijam – Manzoor Ahmed Niazi Qawwal Aur Hamnavaa
…the rest of the Barri Party (sans Iftekhar Ahmad Nizami who had passed away) had been joined by the youthful voices of Naseeruddin Saami and a young Farid Ayaz and were recording their own LP for Khusrau’s seventh centennial celebrations. Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed led the party for this LP recording for EMI Pakistan. Naseeruddin Saami and Farid Ayaz start off the doha, which is completed by Ustad Manzoor Niazi. Accompanied by Sitar, which I have a suspicion was played by young Farid Ayaz, the Qawwals then launch into the main kalaam. In keeping with most of the recordings released during the seventh centennial celebrations, there is no girah-bandi. Instead, Munshi Raziuddin Sb leads the party through the main kalaam, while Manzoor Niazi Sb offers taans in his ‘koel-like voice’. It is a last glimpse of one of the greatest musical ensembles of the subcontinent, as a couple of years after this recording, the various Qawwals went their separate ways and formed their own Qawwal parties.

11.  Chaap Tilak Sab Cheeni – Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal
Every Qawwal and their mother has performed this kalaam, as has every light-classical or thumri singer, ditto for every other singer with an aspiration for being called Sufi. Some Qawwals highlight the temporal meanings of this kalaam, while others focus on the spiritual; but no one explores the mystical undertones of the kalaam better than Haji Mahboob Sb. From a Classical point of view, the performance isn’t up to scratch, the instrumentation is Spartan at best, but Haji Sb’s superlative girah-bandi frees the kalaam from earthly bounds. I tend to veer into superlatives whenever I discuss Haji Sb’s performances, but in this case I can’t help it. The moment I listen to the girah at the 6:41 mark, I am immediately transported into an altogether different state of mind. The girahs are in Urdu, Farsi and Punjabi and they continue with each verse of the kalaam. I find the penultimate verse especially endearing as Haji Sb substitutes the Urdu word for the color green –harri – into the Punjabi –saavi- thus immediately giving the whole kalaam a Punjabi tinge. It is a brilliant performance, and I love it to bits.

12.  Rung – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan And Party
Khanqahi Qawwali mehfils usually end with a performance of the traditional piece known as the ‘Rung’, so it is fitting that I end this post, as well as this years-spanning series of posts on the ‘Rung’ too. This kalaam, a celebration of ‘Holi’ – the traditional festival of colors, is usually sung as an up-tempo, bombastic dhamaal. But in this selection from his phenomenal 1987 series of performances at the Kufa Gallery in London, Nusrat decides to eschew bombast in favor of a wonderful manqabat. His party doesn’t intrude with needless calisthenics as Nusrat chants the names of the saints one by one, before taking the performance into a new and altogether wonderful direction around the 6 minute mark. From this point onwards, Nusrat, obviously enjoying himself, allows himself room to play with the verses and the themes and the raag itself, as he constructs takraars and sargams, diverting into other kalaams and returning to the main kalaam at will. Some of the bandishes he uses, especially towards the end of the kalaam, are rarely sung these days, and were rarely sung by Nusrat himself. It is an exercise in restrained artistry that became rarer and rarer as the years wore on.  

And that's that for a series of posts that has spanned four years and has survived laptop crashes, corrupted harddrives, acts of God and the greatest obstacle of all; my superhuman laziness. I have managed to share and write about more than a hundred Qawwali recordings, and in the process I have discovered many new artists and recordings that have enriched the countless hours I have spent listening to them. I hope I'll keep on discovering new things to enjoy and write about, and that this blog will help me interact with many others who share my passions.