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 .

Thursday, January 1, 2015

...Of The Agony And The Ecstacy : Baba Bulleh Shah (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

I've written in the past, both in light and sombre tones, about my lifelong love affair with asthma. It is a disease from whose clutches I have more or less managed to disentangle myself. This disentanglement has had less to do with my efforts and more with the fact that asthma tends to lose interest in its sufferers as they grow into adulthood. The first decade of my life was punctuated by an unhealthy amount of hospital admissions, the second decade with a gradual decrease in their frequency, and the last seven years have been more or less hospital-free. Like Ghalib's occasional digressions from temperance, my asthma returns in "cloudy days and moonlit nights", especially if said days and nights happen to coincide with heavy physical exertion. I now keep an inhaler with me whenever I exercise (or am forced to exercise, for I have an unholy enmity with anything involving physical exertion), and it more or less manages to tide me over for the duration of said exertion. My short and rather cryptic previous post was written as I was about to embark on an extended and rather difficult tour of duty, one where I would have had little chance of updating my blog. However, at the last minute, my old friend Asthma has come rushing to the forefront and instead of inconveniencing me, has proven to be something of a Godsend. Long story short, I have been deemed unable to proceed on the abovementioned e. and r. d. tour of duty because my asthma renders me physically incapable of handling the twice abovementioned e. and r. d. t. of d. As a result, the blog has been prematurely awakened from its cryo-sleep. Now, to business.

My series of "poet-centered-posts-featuring-Qawwali-recordings-where-there's-one-recording-per-kalam-and-one-recording-per-artist"  has entered the home stretch. I had decided to leave the most important contributors to the Qawwali canon till the end, and this post marks the penultimate step in the journey. Hz Syed Abdullah Shah Qadri (RA), commonly known and revered as Hz Baba Bulleh Shah (RA) (1680-1757) is arguably the most important poet in the Punjabi language. A contemporary of Waris Shah, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, Sachal Sarmast and Mir Taqi Mir; his poetry, like his illustrious contemporaries, has lost none of its power. The story of his life has become the stuff of legend, with so many apocryphal incidents attributed to him that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.
Illuminated print by Fatima Zahra Hassan
What is more or less certain is that Bulleh Shah, a member of a respectable Punjabi Syed family, had his life suddenly and violently convulsed by his meeting with Hz Inayat Shah Qaadri (RA), a lower caste mystic of the Qadiriyya sufi order. This led Bulleh Shah to renounce his entire way of life, from the city of Qasur to his 'Syed' heritage to his position of wealth and respectability, as he became a Sufi and a mystic himself. Following his "Pir" to Lahore, Bulleh Shah embarked on a voyage of self discovery that resulted in his being shunned by the conservative elements of his time, so much so, that on his death, the Mullahs refused to grant him the traditional Muslim funeral and burial rites. His poetry reflects his rebellion from traditional conservative mores and displays his emphasis on self-discovery as a means to achieving spiritual excellence. Borrowing from the rich idiom of the Punjabi language, as well as its inexhaustible store of simile, metaphor and folklore, Bulleh Shah's managed to leave behind a body of work that is startlingly modern and enlightened, yet at the same time displays a natural, organic evolution from the work of his predecessors like Baba Fareed (RA) and Shah Hussain (RA). Because of its rebellious modernity and an iconoclastic renounciation of orthodoxy and established power, Bulleh Shah's poetry has grown in popularity in the centuries following his death. Each new generation has appropriated his work to express their hopes, dreams and desires. So much so that Bulleh Shah remains the most popularly sung poet of the subcontinent, his words resonating with both Punjabi and non-Punjabi artists and listeners.

The Qawwals of the subcontinent have long performed Bulleh Shah's kalam as part of their repertoires. What follows is a selection of some of my favorite pieces, selected keeping in view the arbitary rules laid down above ; one recording per artist and one recording per kalam.

1. Avo Saiyyo Ral Deyo Ni Vadhaai - Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal

Even though Waris Shah was a contemporary of Bulleh Shah (RA)'s and completed his version of Heer Ranjha several years after Bulleh Shah's death, the immortal romantic tragedy had been a part of Punjab's folklore for several centuries preceding Waris Shah's version. This 'Kaafi' of Bulleh Shah's describes Heer's joy on meeting Ranjha and her acceptance of Ranjha as her soulmate. It is a moment of celebration, and the joyous mood is perfectly captured by Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal's exuberant performance. From the 'gharra' and 'ghunghroo' that provide the percussion to the flute and clarinet that start off the piece, Heer's exultant declaration to her confidantes of her newfound love positively glows with delight. The taans by Bakhshi Khan and Mubarak Ali Khan, and Saddo Khan's sargams express Heer's unbridled joy, while Salamat Ali Khan's Punjabi girah-bandi hints, very obliquely, at the tragedy that awaits Heer and Ranjha at the end of their journey. But the tragedy can still linger in the shadows, this is a moment for celebration, and Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal perfectly capture the moment in this performance.

2. Bhavain Tu Jaan Na Jaan Ve - Abdur Rehman Fareedi Qawwal & Party

Abdur Rehman Fareedi, afflicted since childhood with the deforming condition known as micrognathia, was a Qawwal who never really managed to escape the shadow of his illustrious father Muhammad Ali Fareedi. Till the late seventies he performed in his father's party, and after his father's death his first few years as the leader of his own party were inauspicious. This all changed in 1986 when the death of his cousin Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi caused the disintegration of the latter Qawwal's party. This led to Abdur Rehman recruiting two of his late cousin's most talented party-members, Agha Majeed Fareedi and Mubarak Ali "Makha" Lahori Qawwal. For the next 8-10 years, Abdur Rehman Fareedi's party performed across the globe, earning plaudits from listeners in both Pakistan and abroad.

This wonderful performance begins with a lengthy Punjabi 'doha' or preamble, with the Qawwals singing verses from Ali Haider Shah's superb 'Abyaat' before they launch into the main kalam. It isn't long before the beautifully distinct voices of Makha Lahori and Majeed Fareedi start weaving their magic. This recording lacks most of the peculiar affectations that would later plague Punjabi Qawwals, especially those who refused to escape Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's shadow. There is no shouting, vocal acrobatics, overloud percussion or clapping. Abdur Rehman Fareedi's world-weary voice is perfectly suited to the plaintive nature of the kalaam, and when the plaint morphs into an exhortation, Makha Lahori and Co. admirably come to the fore. In short, this is a perfect half-hour sample of traditional Punjabi Qawwali.

3. Ghunghat Chhak Ve Sajna - Mubarak Ali - Nusrat Fateh Ali Qawwal

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's first public performance was in Spring 1965, a year after his father's death. For the next 6 years, he shared the leadership of his father's Party with his phenomenally talented uncle and Ustad, Mubarak Ali Khan. After Mubarak Ali Khan's death in 1971, Nusrat assumed sole leadership of the party and the rest is history. The few recordings that Nusrat made with his uncle are unique and extremely interesting. The traditional, Khayal based, languid andaaz of Mubarak Ali Khan and his younger brother Nazakat Ali Khan provides an obvious contrast to the youthful, powerful voice of Nusrat. It is a lovely amalgam of old and new, with the elder Ustads' takraars and sargams providing a steady backdrop to Nusrat's girahbandi. Nusrat is, even at this young age, a consummate performer and a natural leader of the Party. His style, which he would continue to perfect over the next two decades, is already established, and the calming influence of his uncles keeps him from resorting to the high octave histrionics that would sometimes mar his later performances.

4. Ilmon Bus Kareen O Yar - Fateh Ali - Mubarak Ali Qawwal

This recording precedes the previous one by almost a decade, and the difference in style between the succeeding generations is immediately apparent. Ustad Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali's performance displays a beautiful languor, an unhurried pace that lends the peace a stately dignity. Brief bursts of urgency propel the takraars forward, as the sarangi and shehnai follow the vocalists' soaring taans. Fateh Ali Khan's voice remains unmatched in its earthy gravity, and his choice of girahs is absolutely word-perfect while Mubarak Ali Khan's short, sharp vocal flourishes reveal a voice still unravaged by age. As the performance progresses, the tempo picks up and the taans become more and more forceful, before terminating in a short decrescendo. It is a slow burn powerhouse of a performance, encapsulating a wealth of musical craftsmanship in just under ten minutes.

5. Main Ho Gaya Kujh Hor - Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal

This recording is the latter half of a one hour tour-de-force. The first thirty minutes of this performance (which I've chosen to omit) consist of a series of "Haal" inducing verses, serving as a preamble to the main kalaam. As is evident from the audio, several members of the audience are in a state of "Haal", and Haji Mahboob Sb maintains this state by building a staggering takraar that sustains the listeners until their trance-like state gradually subsides. In a pure 'Khanqahi' setting, where the "Shaikh" presides and the Qawwals serve as spiritual instructors, the maintanance and gradual resolution of the trance-like state of 'Haal' is a tricky proposition at best, but Haji Sb carries  his performance with consummate skill. The deep spiritual meanings of Bulleh Shah's kaafi - the annihilation of self and the doctrine of 'Fanaa-fil-Sheikh' - are explored with the help of a series of apt girahs, with sources ranging from traditional Farsi poetry to the dohas of Kabir Das, all the while maintaining the five word takraar. The instrumentation is rudimentary at best, but Haji Sb, ably accompanied by his younger brother Haji Mushtaq Ali, conveys the full power of Bulleh Shah's kaafi to the audience. This is an especially moving kaafi, one not sung regularly, and Haji Sb does full justice to what would've been a lukewarm performance in anyone else's hands. The performance ends on a series of electrified takraars on the verses of Kabir Das before sugueing back into the main kalam, as the thundering locomotive of a performance comes to a halt.

6. Mera Aih Charkha Naulakha - Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Qawwal & Party

The "In Concert At Paris" recordings that Nusrat made in 1988-89 represent him at the absolute peak of his powers, with the iconic line-up of his backing Party behind him. I could have chosen more than a dozen Nusrat performances for this post, as among his peers Nusrat was arguably the finest Qawwali interpreter of Bulleh Shah. I don't think I need to go into long descriptions for this performance. Nusrat sings Bulleh Shah, period.

7. Mainoo Nit Udeekan Teriyaan - Maulvi Ahmed Hassan Akhtar Bheranwale Qawwal

I must express my one doubt about this recording right at the start, I don't think this is Bulleh Shah's kalaam ; I haven't been able to find it in his collected works and the style is very unlike Bulleh Shah's other kaafis. That being said, Bulleh Shah's name in the last verse merits its inclusion in this post. Doubts aside, this is a stupendous performance. A short clarinet intro and a heartbreaking Punjabi 'doha' preface this recording. As Maulvi Ahmed Hassan's beautifully gravelly voice intones notes of longing and separation, his father and other members of the party contribute their own girahs. The performance is drenched in the beautiful East-Punjab / Doab style, with girah following melancholy girah. A full 10 minutes are spent on the first verse, as they use girahs to extract each and every drop of feeling from the opening phrase. The last 3 minutes go by in a whirl as the kalaam and the performance winds down, but the urgency doesn't prevent the Qawwals from inserting one final series of beautiful girahs.

8. Mera Piya Ghar Aya - The Sabri Brothers Qawwal Ensemble

Every Qawwal on God's earth has probably sung their version of this Qawwali but The Sabri Brothers take the mood of celebration and joyous union pervading this kalaam, and take it to the next level. Their North-Indian origins and Haji Ghulam Fareed Sabri's years of performing at the Kaliar Sharif shrine meant that the Sabris had a substantial command over Punjabi, and didn't sound (endearingly) awkward when performing Punjabi kalaams, unlike most of the other non-Punjabi Qawwals who migrated to Pakistan after partition. In this live concert recording, the brothers and their party are in a mood of exuberant celebration. There's a simple, thumping, pulsating dholak beat propelling them forward as the brothers launch into one takraar after another. Haji Maqbool Sabri's malleable and supremely melodious voice offers glimpses of the Rajasthani 'Maand', as Haji Ghulam Fareed dives into his trademark lower register whisper-chant intonation. The percussion takes center stage in the latter half of the performance, as the vociferous takraars are interrupted temporarily by the Sabris singing the successive verses of the kaafi. The wonderful sazeena at the 9 minute mark is an added treat, staccato harmoniums dueling before Haji Maqbool Sabri takes over with his wonderful murkis and taans. The joyous performance concludes with the brothers engaging in a taan/sargam duel, that makes Haji Ghulam Fareed and the listeners offer "Wah-wahs", before a beautifully constructed crescendo.

9. Ranjha Ranjha Kardi - Muhammad Ali Fareedi Qawwal

After recordings from Ustad Fateh Ali and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, there is room for one another cross-generational selection. The father of Abdur Rehman Fareedi, and one of the seminal Ustads in Qawwali history, Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi was fairly advanced in years when this recording was made, but his voice remains strong and potent. In this recording he is accompanied by (among others), his son Abdur Rehman Fareedi, a young Mubarak Ali "Makha" Lahori, and the future powerhouse taan-kaar of Rasheed Ahmed Fareedi's party, Inayat Ali Khan. Like most of the recordings in this post, this is a simple, unadorned Punjabi Qawwali performance, containing no histrionics, no calisthenics and no 'shor-sharaaba'. The Qawwals instead perform the entirety of the kalaam, using only brief murkis and taans along the way, maintaining a steady, lively tempo throughout.

10. Tere Ishq Nachaya - Inayat Hussain Bhatti, Saieen Akhter, Munir Hussain and Party

Choosing the artists for this final selection left me stumped. Its ubiquity in Qawwali repertoires is borne out by the fact that I devoted an entire post to it, with each performance worthy of inclusion here. In the end I decided to pick *horror of horrors* a Filmi Qawwali to end this post. The reasons are very simple. This four-and-a-half minute performance contains everything a Qawwali performance demands; an emotionally charged 'doha', a series of brilliant, forceful taans and murkis, takraars and girah-dar-takraars, and a perfect 'ihteraam' for the kalaam. It doesn't hurt that three of the most distinctively beautiful voices in Pakistani musical history are leading the performance. Inayat Hussein Bhatti offers vocal dexterity, Saieen Akhter lends gravity and heft, while Munir Hussain's achingly beautiful voice delivers girahs of startling beauty. The flavor of Punjab; the unique mix of temporal and divine love and of monastic tradition and popular culture, pervades all the recordings in this selection, and can be tasted most tantalizingly in this final recording.