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, 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.


  1. Came back to listen to Ganj Shakar Ke Laal Nijamuddin from your post on Bedam, and found today's post. Have been listening to these since then.

    I also read your last post - was touched by your sense of extreme bereavement and desolation in losing a fearless activist and wonderful human being.

    Hope that in my lifetime I get to see peace and prosperity in the subcontinent.

  2. First track seems to be based on raag bhairav.


  3. Sir Musab how can I contact you?