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 .

Monday, September 4, 2017

...Of The Two Streams - Part 2

This is the second part of a rather long post featuring recordings of Ghazals by mainstream ghazal-singers and Qawwals, offering a contrasting view of the pre-eminent Urdu poetic and musical form of the last two to three centuries. Here we go!

Poet: Aziz-ul-Hasan Majzoob/Majzoob Dakkani?
Ghazal: Saari Duniya Mujhe Kehti Tera Saudayi Hai
Gayaki Angg: Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami
Qawwali Angg: Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal

The first ghazal in this second half is by a truly enigmatic poet. I was initially unaware of the poet of this ghazal. I contacted Subhan Ahmad Nizami, the grandson of Ustad Iftekhar Ahmad Nizami (and one of my favorite Qawwals) and he told me that the poet was one Majzoob Dakkani. I mentioned the name to a few gentlemen who are interested in some of the more obscure poets but they had not heard of such a poet before. The only Majzoob they’d heard of was one Sheikh Aziz-ul-Hasan Majzoob. Again, very little biographical information was available about him but I’ve been able to piece together a few facts. Majzoob passed away sometime in 1944. He had served in the colonial bureaucracy at several important positions in District Saharanpur, UP and had been conferred the title of Khan Bahadur by the Colonial government. In addition to being a government servant and a poet, he was of a mystical bent and used to sing his verses and occasionally break out in dance. A few of his ghazals that I’ve read are very good, but there are precious few available.

The first recording in this post is a bit of a cheat in that it is sung by someone who was primarily a Qawwal. Ustad Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami was, along with his cousins Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed, Bahauddin Khan and Manzoor Ahmed Niazi, part of the original pre-1969 Manzoor Ahmad Niazi Qawwal party (The Barri Party). He possessed a unique, rough-hewn and weather-beaten voice that possessed a virile, earthy beauty. In the Barri Party recordings, his voice is distinct and immediately grabs the listener’s attention. He passed away at a relatively young age, leaving behind precious few recordings. The few solo performances of his that remain were recorded at Mr. Zaheer Alam Kidvai’s wedding ceremony. Here he sings some lovely ghazals and a couple of really sweet dadras. The audio quality is iffy at best, however his unique style shines through splendidly. It really is a lovely ghazal, and sung by Iftekhar Sb, it literally sparkles!


The Qawwali rendition of this ghazal is by Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi. My deep appreciation and admiration of Fareedi Sb is not a secret. I consider him one of the greatest Qawwals of the 20th century and arguably the finest shagird of Fateh Ali Mubarak Ali. In this recording, the party sings the kalam in a lovely arrangement based on a Raag that sounds really familiar but one I can’t for the life of me seem to recognize (Bhairvi?). The tarz is perfectly suited to Rasheed’s hefty voice, allowing Majeed Ahmad Fareedi to weave his magical taans at will. Even though the tempo picks up as the performance proceeds, the Qawwals are in no hurry whatsoever, lingering on each verse, repeating it for good measure, building takraar upon takraar. There is no girahbandi here, not even an opening preamble. What it lacks in text, it makes up for in the quality of the taans; there’s mellow taans, ghamak taans, and lovely Pahari style taans. It’s a 20-minute express train-ride through the ghazal, with an expert engine driver at the helm.


Poet: Anwar Mirzapuri
Ghazal: Main Nazar Se Pi Raha Hoon
Gayaki Angg: Iqbal Bano
Qawwali Angg: Maulvi Ahmed Hassan Akhter Hassan Bheranwale Qawwal

One enigmatic poet follows another. I have to admit that I know absolutely nothing about Anwar Mirzapuri. The only description I’ve found for him is “A poet very popular in Mushairas in India in the 50s and 60s.” Let’s leave it at that I guess.

Iqbal Bano was one of the queens of Pakistani music, lending her distinctive voice to innumerable ghazals and film songs that have become standards. In addition, she was an excellent light classical singer; her thumris in Tilak Kamod are especially lovely. Like her great contemporary Farida Khanum, her ghazals are marked by immaculate ‘talaffuz’, an understanding of the nuanced meanings of the kalam, and selection of arrangements that did not overshadow the text. This ghazal is no exception. She sings each verse almost lovingly, interspersed with short but excellent taans. One can almost imagine sitting in front of her, listening as she waves her left hand, plucking at invisible notes around her, entrancing the audience. It’s a short piece but a really lovely one.

The Qawwals performing this piece are those wonderful, exquisitely unpolished gems from Faisalabad, Maulvi Ahmed Hassan, his phenomenally talented son Maulvi Akhter Hassan (a voice if ever there was one), accompanied by Muhammad Mohsin and Zahid Hassan Bheranwale, with the voices of Maulvi Haider Hassan and Zameer-ul-Hassan somewhere in the mix. I’ve always had a grudge with whoever recorded this party (the otherwise brilliant Haji Hidayatulah I’m guessing) in that they usually didn’t adequately mic anyone except Maulvi Akhter Hassan. The result is that the rest of the voices lose their power a bit. But all that does is put Maulvi Akhter Hassan’s lovely voice front and center. This performance is one of my very favorite ones. The opening minute-and-a-half of the doha alone is worth the price of admission, as are the lovely short taans where Maulvi Akhter Hassan’s voice cracks so beautifully. You won’t find proper Urdu ‘talaffuz’ here, nor will you find sweet, classically trained voices. Instead, there are voices straight from the earth, striking, rough-hewn, powerful and absolutely beautiful.




Poet: Faiz Ahmad Faiz
Ghazal: Dil Main Ab Yun
Gayaki Angg: Mashooq Ali Khan
Qawwali Angg: Muhammad Ahmad Warsi Rampuri Qawwal

Faiz is arguably the greatest and most popular Urdu poet of the 2nd half of the 20th Century, and one of the great poetic voices of the world. The beauty of his ghazals and the stark magnificence and tenderness of his nazms is known and loved wherever Urdu is spoken and understood. I don’t think I can do justice in one paragraph to the importance of Faiz’s poetry in my life. For as long as I can recall, there has been a copy of “Nuskha-haaye Wafa” at the side table and another in the bookshelf. There have always been half a dozen cassettes of Faiz in the car; his own recitations of his poetry, Abida Parveen’s renditions, Iqbal Bano’s renditions, Farida Khanum’s renditions and so forth. Some of the most important memories (and an extremely embarrassing one) of my life are associated with Faiz’s poetry. This lovely ghazal is an example of Faiz’s utter mastery over the classical aspects of this poetic form and his ability to imbue it with modern sentiment without violating its romantic core. Also, what a mat’la!

Mashooq Ali Khan sings the ghazal here. He was a Radio Pakistan artist from Karachi who performed from the 50s to the end of the 70s. His specialty seems to be ghazals and light classical pieces, although I have a qawwali recording of his which is rather lovely. His voice is somewhat similar to Nasir Jahan, the famous Na’at-khwan and Soz-khwan, it’s obviously aged and past its prime, but its flexibility and mild tremulousness is very endearing. In this recording the sarangi creates a lovely, wistful atmosphere and the simple Keherva taal by the tabla gives Mashooq Ali Khan’s voice a firm foundation to weave his magic, which he certainly does.

When I began taking a keener interest in Qawwali around ten years ago (Jeez! It’s been ten years!!) I was a tad nonplussed to find that Faiz’s poetry wasn’t represented at all in the Qawwali canon. This, despite the fact that Faiz had written a couple of pieces specifically as Qawwalis. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan had sung a lovely version of his Punjabi geet “Kidray Na Paindiyan Dassaan” but not as a Qawwali. There is an appreciable difficulty in translating Faiz’s more political and revolutionary verses to Qawwali but that still leaves a large body of work that has been left largely unexplored by Qawwals. The performance I’ve included in this selection was actually part of an active attempt to correct this long-standing oversight.

A few years ago, a rather interesting Qawwali mehfil was held in Delhi. The chief guest was the renowned Urdu scholar, Prof Gopi Chand Narang, with a number of luminaries in attendance. The aim was to recite a number of pieces by famous Farsi and Urdu poets. They couldn’t have chosen a better Qawwal than Ustad Muhammad Ahmad Warsi for such a mehfil. Warsi Sb is an acquired taste. His style is relaxed, languid, a tad dishevelled and loose, which might put off anyone who prefers Qawwals who stick to the taal and laye and don’t wander into digressions. But I love him. His performance of this ghazal is the perfect example of his unique style. He strays behind the beat one moment, catches up and races past it the next. The performance is slow, methodical and measured, and his style of girah-bandi is like no other Qawwal I’ve ever heard. If there can’t be more Faiz kalams in the Qawwali canon, at least the ones that are present are being sung by Ustad Muhammad Ahmad Warsi, and that’s fine by me.




Poet: Qateel Shifai
Ghazal: Garmiye Hasrate Nakaam
Gayaki Angg: Zahida Parveen
Qawwali Angg: Agha Bashir Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal

Qateel Shifai is rightly acclaimed as the greatest lyricist in the history of Pakistani film. However, recognizing him only as a lyricist is a great disservice to his career as one of the pre-eminent Urdu ghazal poets of the 20th century. This was a burden borne by a number of great lyricist poets, including Sahir Ludhianvi and Kaifi Azmi; the burden of their film career overshadowing their serious poetic aspirations. Qateel however was recognized early on as an important modern Urdu poet. His ghazals are modern and were popular amongst the masses despite being molded in the framework of classical Urdu poetry. He started reciting and publishing his poetry before partition and remained an important figure of the Urdu literary landscape until his death in 2001. Two of his ghazals are included here.

If I were to name the single greatest voice I have ever heard, it would have to be Zahida Parveen. She is rightly acclaimed as the Empress of the Kafi. No one has sung the kalam of Hz Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA) with deeper understanding and more emotion. She was also a highly accomplished classical singer who had trained first under Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan of Patiala and later under Ustad Chotay Ghulam Ali Khan of the Kasur/Qawwal Bacchon Ka Gharana. Her khayal performances are hair-raisingly good, though very hard to come by. Her ghazals, recorded in the late ‘50s and the ‘60s, are singular, incomparable to any other singer before or since her. There are flights across three octaves, there are taans of exquisite beauty and staggering dexterity, the bol-baant is perfect and there is an uncanny awareness of the taal and the laye. Despite all that, the text of the ghazal is never neglected, never overburdened with vocal calisthenics. Zahida Parveen’s power shines through in everything she ever recorded, be it Kafi, Khayal or the ghazal shared here.

The Qawwal performing this ghazal is the great Agha Bashir Ahmad Qawwal. Agha Bashir was the elder brother of Agha rasheed Ahmad and Abdul Majeed Fareedi and was an excellent Qawwal. After Partition, he was employed at Radio Pakistan Lahore and eventually became Station Director, becoming known in the process as Agha Bahsir Ahmad Lahore-walay. His style is characterized by a powerful, rough voice and his astounding ghamak taans. He performed regularly for more than half a century and recorded a number of excellent performances for Radio Pakistan as well as EMI. This ghazal is also taken from one of his 1960s Radio Pakistan recordings. He is accompanied by a rather lovely and striking voice that I’d love to be able to put a name to. He doesn’t resort to girahbandi or too many takraars, giving the ghazal a run-through from start to finish without too many distractions. His trademark taans arrive after the four-minute mark.




Ghazal: Tumhari Anjuman Se Utth Ke
Gayaki Angg: Fareeda Khanum
Qawwali Angg: Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi Qawwal

I’ve been listening to a lot of Fareeda Khanum lately, searching out deep cuts from the early decades of her career and every time I hear something new by her, I am stuck by the immensity of her talent. The sweetness of her voice, the perfection of her talaffuz and her mastery over ghazal singing are universally acknowledged, the result of her own innate talent coupled by years of rigorous training under her sister, the legendary Mukhtar Begum as well as Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan of Patiala. Since her arrival at the musical scene shortly after Partition, she has been at the very top of the Pakistani musical hierarchy, and one doesn’t need to wonder why. As just one example of her many talents, notice her exquisite and effortless sense of rhythm and tempo in this recording. When she sings, she seems almost oblivious of the tabla, but never does she lose the thread of the ‘taal’, landing each note perfectly on the rhythmic cycle. It’s a lovely performance by a superlative artist

Few Qawwals have had a longer or more impactful career than Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi. From the early 1930s till the late 1970s, he led a brilliant qawwal party that included his son Abdur Rahim among others. His influence is obvious on the generations of Pakpattan based Qawwals that share his surname, a nod to their devotion to and service at the shrine of Hz Baba Fariduddin Ganjshakar (RA). From his earliest 78 RPM recordings to the mehfil recordings he made near the end of his life, Muhammad Ali Fareedi’s distinct voice and charming talaffuz remained distinct from any other Qawwal. His recording of Qateel Shifai’s ghazal is taken from a 78 RPM disc released in the early 1950s. The voice isn’t as sharp as it used to be two decades ago and there aren’t any taans or takraars, but the Ustads meandering vowels and short tremolos lend the ghazal a lovely color. 




Poet: Qamar Jalalabadi
Ghazal: Kabhi Kaha Na Kisi Se
Gayaki Angg: Mehdi Hassan
Qawwali Angg: The Sabri Brothers Ensemble

A contemporary and friend of Qateel Shifai, Qamar Jalalabadi was also predominantly known as a lyricist. He started his career around five years earlier than Qateel, and scored an early hit with the wonderful songs of 1942’s big hit Khandaan. (One of my favorite film soundtracks btw). He was one of the leading lyricists of the 1940s and early fifties, but was later overshadowed by the next generation of lyricists including Sahir, Majrooh, Bedi, Rajinder Krishen etc. He was a regular presence at Urdu mushairas in India and abroad till the start of the 21st century. Unlie Qateel though, he is primarily known as a lyricist, with his poetical career overshadowed by his popular songs.

It is fitting that the final ghazal in this post should be by the King of Ghazals Mehdi Hassan. I needn’t go into any detailed analyses of Mehdi Hassan’s voice, his style or his career. Suffice to say that he does full justice to this ghazal, just like he did full justice to whatever he sang. The recording is from the early 80s when his voice had started mellowing and descending into the lower registers. The composition perfectly suits the sombre and resigned mood of the ghazal, and Khansaheb sings it wonderfully.

The commercially released Qawwali records of the late 60s and 70s are an odd proposition. On one hand, some of the greatest qawwals of the last century were being recorded using state of the art recording equipment in a studio setting, allowing them to record the ‘type’ specimens of their repertoire for posterity. On the other hand, these recordings were made using arrangements that were a tad too “filmi” and more often than not, overshadowed the kalam being recorded. This was the case with a number of recordings made in the 1970s by Bahauddin Khan as well as the Manzoor Niazi party. No one did this type of recording better (if that’s what you can call it) than the Sabri Brothers, who were the pre-eminent Pakistani Qawwals in the 1970s. Just take a listen to the opening ninety seconds of this recording. Once the opening salvo is over though, Les Freres Sabri jump into the kalam like nobody’s business. The opening doha is brilliant, the girahs are brilliant, the takraars are brilliant. The brothers sing the ghazal straight through until they get to the ‘hasil-e-ghazal- verse, which is then embellished with three or four really interesting girahs. It’s a perfect example of a Qawwali that is populist as well as respectful to the kalam being performed. In short, the perfect bookend to this post about the ghazal, an art-form that has strived for centuries to achieve the perfect balance between artistic excellence and popular appeal.




Monday, August 14, 2017

...Of The Two Streams - Part 1

I spent the last month atop a 9000-foot mountain in the middle of nowhere, for all practical purposes cut off from the rest of the world. Finding themselves in such a situation, I’m sure each person would react differently. Some would take to meditation; others, encouraged by the bracing mountain air (though too thin for an asthmatic like me) give in to the evils of physical fitness and exercise. Still others would be possessed by the creative impulse and begin painting, composing poetry or writing the Great Pakistani Novel (which in my opinion has already been written and is called Udaas Naslain). I, of course, did none of the above. There were no attempts at self-improvement, spiritual or physical, and there was no intrusion of the creative spirit. My pursuits were altogether more prosaic. The demands of an ongoing clinical residency meant that I should use this opportunity to study, which, surprisingly, I did. The rest of my time was devoted solely to listening to, organizing, editing and generally tinkering with my music.

When I said that there were no intrusions of the creative spirit, I may have been selling the old c.s a tad short. It did nudge me towards attempting to find threads and patterns in the music I was listening to. As any music geek knows, the first step towards making sense of a heap of music is making playlists, which was my first step too. From these playlists emerged what I hope will be a series of rather interesting posts on a number of topics relating to what is apparently the raison d’etre of this blog, Qawwali. Here goes the first one:

For the last three hundred years, the dominant poetic form in the Urdu-Persian idiom has been the ghazal. The constant innovation and endeavor of generations of poets has made it a unique, exceptionally polished art-form within the wider purview of Urdu-Farsi poetry. So much so that it has gradually accumulated its own sets of idioms, similes, allusions, allegories and a syntax that has ensured its continued popularity while other, older poetic forms such as the masnavi and the ruba’I have faded from the popular imagination. Even in this era, when the perennial laments over the decline of Urdu poetry can actually be considered something of an understatement, the ghazal (along with Verse Libre) remains the main form of expression for poets in Urdu and Farsi as well as Punjabi and, in the diaspora, English.

I shall assume that my readers, or a sizeable majority at least, are aware of what comprises a ghazal. But for the minority who requires an explanation, I shall yield the floor to the “internationally tall” Stephen Fry. Quoting from his excellent book “The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within”:

GHAZAL:
The lines in GHAZAL always need to run, IN PAIRS
 They come, like mother-daughter, father-son, IN PAIRS

 I’ll change the subject, as this ancient form requires
It offers hours of simple, harmless fun, IN PAIRS

 Apparently a Persian form, from far-off days
It needs composing just as I have done, IN PAIRS

And when I think the poem’s finished and complete
I STEPHEN FRY, pronounce my work is un-IMPAIRED

My version is rather a bastardly abortion I fear, but the key principles are mostly adhered to. The lines of a GHAZAL (pronounced a bit like guzzle, but the ‘g’ should hiccup slightly, Arab-style) come in metrical couplets. The rhymes are unusual in that the last phrase of the opening two lines (and second lines of each subsequent couplet) is a refrain (rhadif). It is the word before the refrain (qafiya) that is rhymed, in the manner shown above. I have cheated with the last rhyme-refrain pairing as you can see. Each couplet should be a discrete (but not necessarily discreet) entity unto itself, no enjambment being permitted or overall theme being necessary. It is usual, but not obligatory, for the poet to ‘sign his name’ in the last line as I have done.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

After partition, ghazal-singing was promoted to the top of the Pakistani cultural hierarchy along with Qawwali and folk-music, with North-Indian Classical music relegated to the lower ranks. The reasons for this shuffle were many. The abolition of the Princely States and their attendant system of patronage meant that music needed to be somewhat populist to survive. In addition, there was an active attempt by the powers-that-be to distance the new nation from the Sanskrit-infused strains of Classical music and move towards the musical forms that felt culturally more “Islamic”, more in tune with the centuries old Farsi/Urdu idiom and the rich traditions of the local languages of the new land as well as the philosophy of Sufism, all of which were considered the building blocks for the new Pakistani culture. (I must learn to write shorter sentences) A discussion of the pros and cons of this policy is something better left for people with inordinate amounts of time on their hands.

The result was that the musical forms of ghazal, qawwali and folk music flowered and flourished in Pakistan throughout the second half of the 20th century. The sheer number of truly superlative ghazal singers, qawwals and folk-singers that shone on the Pakistani stage is beyond belief. The advantage was that despite being somewhat populist as compared to Classical music, these musical forms served to improve and elevate the audience’s musical tastes, inculcating a newfound love and appreciation for Urdu poetry that ensured that even the lay-listener couldn’t help but be well versed with at least a few nuances and niceties of the ghazal.

The verse form of the ghazal is the largest and possibly most important part of the Qawwali canon. Ghazals in Farsi and Urdu remain the mainstay of most Qawwals’ repertoires. The main difference between the Qawwals and ghazal-singers is that (for the most part) Qawwals tend to sing ghazals whose literal or figurative meanings, allusions and idiom can be considered in the spiritual context. The open-ended nature of the ghazal ensures that a large number of popular Urdu ghazals have satisfied these criteria and have made their way into the Qawwali repertoire. These include pieces by the legendary Urdu poets of the 18th and 19th century (the Asateza) as well as the modern 20th century greats. Comparing renditions of the same ghazal by ghazal-singers and qawwals opens up new avenues into the meanings and context of the poetry and offers a unique glimpse into the evolution of these two art forms, the predominant art forms of Pakistani music.

In keeping with the previous posts, I have restricted myself to only one performance per artist. I have however, relaxed my self-imposed rules to allow for a poet to be represented more than once. I’ve excluded the ghazals of the recognized Sufi poets, e.g. Bedam Shah Warsi, Hz Shah Niaz, Zaheen Shah Taji etc. as they’ve been sung by a number of Sufi performers such as Abida Parveen etc. I’ve arranged the ghazals chronologically in terms of the poets’ lifetimes, starting from the 18th century, counting down to the 20th.  Here goes:

Poet: Siraj Aurangabadi
Ghazal: Khabar-e-Tahayyur-e-Ishq
Gayaki Angg: Shaukat Ali
Qawwali Angg: Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal and Brothers

The ghazal I’ve chosen to start off this post is a rather strange one, by a rather strange poet, and I’m not saying that pejoratively. Siraj Aurangabadi was a Deccani poet of the 18th century, a contemporary of Mir Taqi Mir. That in itself isn’t very strange. What marked him as different from his contemporaries as well as successors was the fact that he was a ‘Sahib-e-Tariqat Pir’, an ordained Sufi who accepted disciples and imparted Spiritual knowledge. I can think of Khwaja Mir Dard as the only other example amongst Urdu poets of standing. His spiritual bent is prominent in his poetry, including this enchanting ghazal. For me, this ghazal always evokes a strangely magical atmosphere, one with fairies, enchantments and evil breezes from strange lands. The theme is of Wahdat-ul-Wujood, of Fanaa and the subservience of logic before Love. There is a lovely ‘ghinaiyyat’ or internal rhythm to the ghazal which makes it ideally suited to be sung.

The first performance is by Shaukat Ali. Shaukat Ali burst onto the Pakistani musical scene in the early 1960s as a wonder-kid while still a student at Government College Lahore. His powerful, almost operatic voice made him perfect for the folk epics that he has continued to sing in his inimitable style. But “Shauki”, as my grandmother affectionately calls him, achieved his early renown as a very gifted ghazal singer. Over the last half century, he has sung a number of remarkable ghazals, all the while maturing from the erstwhile “Prince of Folk” to a senior statesman and an institution of Pakistani music. I love the arrangement of this ghazal and the fact that the power and heft of Shaukat Ali’s voice lends itself to the meaning of the ghazal rather than distracting from it.

The Qawwali performance of this ghazal is by Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal and Brothers from their triumphant performance at the Kabir Festival in Bangalore, 2009. Farid and Abu Muhammad have the wonderful ability to capture the mood of an audience and use it to add to the performance. Farid’s charming spoken preamble and the spoken interludes within the performance itself (interspersed with an effortless smattering of Hindi words) serves to introduce the audience to the central themes of the ghazal, while the lovely girahs guide them further into its deeper layers. It’s a ghazal the brothers frequently sing, and considering this masterful rendition, one hardly wonders why.




Poet: Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib
Ghazal: Jahan Tera Naqshe Qadam Dekhte Hain
Gayaki Angg: Ejaz Hussain Huzravi
Qawwali Angg: Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwal

One of the books I brought with me to my mountain sojourn was Maulana Hali’s landmark “Yadgar-e-Ghalib”. Apart from being an invaluable biographical resource on the great poet, the book’s detailed analyses of Ghalib’s literary achievements allowed me to deepen my researches into Ghalib’s poetry. A detailed exposition of said poetry isn’t warranted here, especially as I have devoted a previous blog-post to it at some length. This ghazal is one of Ghalib’s most famous, featuring subtle yet lovely word-play, nuanced meanings and an evocation of the Beloved’s beauty. It has been sung by many, with some of the greatest singers of the subcontinent attempting to interpret this charming ghazal, with varying degrees of success.

Hailing from the small town of Huzro near Attock, at the border of Pakistan’s Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa provinces, Ejaz Hussain Huzravi was an enigmatic and deeply underrated ghazal singer. I had considered him (terribly unjustly) amongst the lesser Ghazal singers of Pakistan until my friend Nate posted a compilation of his ghazals on his blog. To say that the selection opened my eyes would be an understatement. I was awestruck by the sweet dolorousness of Huzravi’s voice, his excellent selection of Kalam and the understated style of singing. Here he evokes the resigned, tragic nuances of the ghazal, in a performance imbued with longing and a remembrance of Love’s beauty.

The wonderful duality of meaning in Ghalib’s kalam is evident from the Qawwali performance of this ghazal. Like the Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad performance above, this one too is taken from a triumphant concert in India. Ustad Fateh Ali Mubarak Ali Qawwal gave several concert performances in India post-partition, including a magnificent concert at Bombay in 1958, from which this performance is taken. I’ve included this performance in my previous posts on Ghalib as well as the raag Kedara, but its so good that it bears sharing a third time. It’s a joyful, lively, ‘khilti hui’ rendition prefaced by Salamat Ali’s lovely harmonium. In stark contrast with Ejaz Hussain Huzravi’s performance, the Ustads turn the ghazal into a playful account of the adventures in the Beloved’s pursuit, cheerfully facing the travails of love. The Ustads’ trademark takraars, taans and vociferous style are in full display here.

Ghazal: Mazze Jahan Ke
Gayaki Angg: Ustad Amanat Ali Khan
Qawwali Angg: Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal

I stated at the beginning of this post that after partition, Ghazal quickly supplanted Classical as the officially patronized musical form in Pakistan. The perfect example of this change is the career of Ustad Amanat Ali Khan. The crown prince of the young and vigorous Patiala Gharana of North-Indian classical music, Amanat Ali along with his brother Fateh Ali Khan were seen as the rightful claimants to the throne vacated three decades earlier by Ali Bakhsh-Fateh Khan, the stalwarts of the Patiala Gharana. Possessing a deeply emotive voice that perfectly complimented his brother Fateh Ali’s gravelly and powerful baritone, Amanat Ali was the pre-eminent Pakistani classical singer. But he was aware of the changing trends and in the early 1960s, began his foray into ghazal singing. His classical excellence, coupled with the sensual emotiveness of his voice quickly made him one of the pre-eminent ghazal singers of Pakistan. Before his untimely death in the early 1970s, Amanat Ali Khan recorded a number of excellent ghazals, including this version of Ghalib’s wonderful kalam. He sings it in a light, melodious arrangement in which the simple beauty of his voice shines through despite the rather heavy instrumentation.


The Qawwali interpretation of this kalam is by Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal. It’s one of my most favorite pieces of music ever and that’s all the description I am going to write.




Poet: Ameer Minai
Ghazal: Tu Ne But-e-Harjayi
Gayaki Angg: Nayyara Noor
Qawwali Angg: Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal

Ameer Minai was one of the younger contemporaries of Ghalib and an important poet of the 2nd half of the 19th Century in addition to being a lexicographer, jurist and Islamic scholar. The first half of his life was spent in relative ease in Awadh, but after the War of 1857, his condition become strained until he was accepted into employment as the poetry teacher or “Ustad” to the Nawab of Rampur – a position in which he succeeded his friend Ghalib. The last years of his life were spent compiling and securing financial backing for a comprehensive Urdu dictionary. He was able to complete the volumes pertaining to the first three letters of the Urdu alphabet before he passed away. His fame rests on his lovely Na’ats and ghazals. His “Zahir main hum fareefta husn-e-butaan ke hain” sung by Fareeda Khanum is one of my eternal favorites. The ghazal chosen here is a light piece in which the poet laments his choice of the object of his affections, and the various travails he has encountered on Love’s path. As with most of Minai’s ghazals, and most of the selections in this post, the decision whether the Beloved is temporal or spiritual is left entirely to the audience’s imagination.

Nayyara Noor is unique among Pakistani ghazal-singers. The startling quality of her voice has been acclaimed by none other than the late Anil Biswas, who wrote her a letter of appreciation which she considers her most prized possession. In the early ‘70s she was able to put a modern, youthful spin on the art of ghazal singing without compromising on its aesthetics or the quality of the performance or the choice of kalam. In addition to her forays into modernity and in collaboration with Producer/Writer Shoaib Hashmi and Composer Arshad Mehmood, Nayyara carried out a series of bold, experimental recordings. These involved rendering ghazals in a style that had flourished in the 1920s-1940s and had then gone extinct: the Parsi Theater style of ghazal singing exemplified by stalwarts like Mukhtar Begum. Her rendition of this ghazal is also in that style, and it suits the kalam very well, heightening its melodic surprises and giving it a long-ago-and-far-away feel.

The Qawwali performance of this ghazal is by Haji Mahboob Sb. There are just four performers. Haji Sb leads and plays Sitar. Haji Mushtaq accompanies and plays the harmonium. A third accompanist handles clapping duties while the fourth is on the tabla. Each of the four performers fulfils their duties to absolute perfection. The recording is from the early ‘70s, when Haji Sb used to perform choice ghazals in front of Hz Babuji (RA) without excessive girah-bandi or tazmeen. The lack of excess in this recording is part of its beauty. The talaffuz is perfect, the brief takraars are perfect, Haji Mushtaq’s mini aakaars are perfect, the two-man rhythm section is perfect. It is a perfect example of Khanqahi Qawwali.




Poet: Allama Muhammad Iqbal
Ghazal: Har Lehza Hai Momin
Gayaki Angg: Noor Jehan
Qawwali Angg: Manzoor Niazi Qawwal aur Hamnavaa

At the start of the 20th century, Iqbal was one of the brightest and most promising ‘shagirds’ of the recently deceased Mirza Daagh Dehelvi, the undisputed master of the light-hearted, playfully romantic ghazal. Over the next four decades, Iqbal’s poetry assumed the more imposing spiritual, political and philosophical mantle that made him the Poet-Philosopher of the East. But his poetry still retained the wonderful rhythms and internal rhymes he had learnt from Daagh at the start of his career. As a result, a large number of Iqbal’s ghazals, both political as well as romantic, have been put to music, to excellent effect. After partition, “Iqbaliyat” or the singing of Iqbal’s kalam was actively introduced as a sub-genre of Pakistani music, with a large number of artists singing his kalam on Radio and subsequently Television. This ghazal is one of Iqbal’s overtly political ones, defining what Iqbal believes are the essential qualities of a perfect Muslim. Despite its rather heavy political and revolutionary message, it’s not top-heavy. There is a lovely flow and lilt to it which is superbly exploited by the two artists performing it.

If the musical history of Pakistan is to be distilled into a single performer, it would most probably be Noor Jehan. From precocious film-star in the ‘30s to THE female voice of Pakistani cinema for four decades, Noor Jehan was a prevalent cultural presence in the subcontinent for more than 60 years. One of the reasons for her longevity was a remarkable career reinvention in the late ‘70s when she decided to fully exploit the opportunities provided by the medium of television. In a series of landmark programs titled “Tarannum”, she re-recorded her famous film hits and commissioned new compositions of ghazals by the best Urdu poets, both old and new. Then, she had these recordings ‘picturized’ on herself, employing all the charming techniques from her career as a cinematic leading lady. In doing so, she introduced herself to generations of new listeners, won legions of new fans and added a number of remarkable ghazals to the Pakistani musical canon. Her rendition of this ghazal is among her more famous recordings from that era, rendered in a sober yet powerful style, with perfect ‘ehteraam’ to both the words and the meanings of the kalam.

The Qawwali recording of this ghazal is taken from a Radio Pakistan performance recorded for broadcast on Iqbal Day, the birthday of Allama Iqbal that was a major annual cultural event each year on the 9th of November. Radio and TV used to devote the day to Iqbaliyat and a large number of recordings were commissioned each year. Sadly, most of them have only been heard once or twice and remain stored away in the Radio Pakistan vaults. The rendition is by the original Manzoor Niazi Qawwal aur Hamnavaa, sans Bahauddin Sb, which dates this recording to the early 1970s. The party is led by Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed, accompanied by Manzoor Ahmad Niazi and Naseeruddin Saami. Raziuddin Sb’s ‘kharri’ enunciation and Manzoor Niazi Sb’s sweet, clear taans are the highlight of this lovely piece that is devoid of any girah-bandi except for a wonderful Arabic prayer near the end and the short preamble at the beginning. The recording fades out as Raziuddin Sb leads the party into the stratosphere.




Poet: Jigar Muradabadi
Ghazal: Iss Ishq Ke Haathon Se
Gayaki Angg : Begum Akhtar
Qawwali Angg: Aziz Ahmad Khan Warsi Qawwal

Ali Sikandar “Jigar” Muradabadi is a giant of Urdu literature and one of the great poets of the 20th Century. He is recognized as one of the very few “Ustads” in modern Urdu poetry, a vital link between the romantic sensibilities of the 19th Century and the modernist, progressive attitudes of the 20th. His poetry has remained popular amongst all strata of society, from the Urdu-speaking elite of North and Central India to the Sufis and devotees of shrines dotted across the subcontinent. There is a striking spiritual element to his poetry, that makes his ghazals a mainstay of the Qawwali repertoire. In addition, his ghazals have been sung by almost all the great ghazal singers of the subcontinent. He was fond of reciting his ghazals in a unique ‘tarannum’ style which relied on the innate musicality of his kalam. He is a personal favorite of mine.

The year is 1952. The setting is the Bombay residence of famous businessman and patron of the arts Mr. Khatau Vallabhdas. An evening of music has been arranged for a small gathering of carefully chosen aficionados. The singer is 38-year-old Akhtari Bai Faizabadi, still some years away from completing her transformation into Begum Akhtar. The mehfil starts at 7 in the evening. What follows is utter and absolute magic. One astonishing ghazal follows the last, followed by a selection of choice Thumris, Dadras, Chaitis and Horis. Akhtari Bai sings magically, she applauds her accompanying musicians and occasionally bursts into a girlish giggle. Amongst her many renditions that night is this ghazal of Jigar’s, in a performance that defies description. Also, the tabla player is a genius.

Aziz Ahmad Khan Warsi is unique among the Qawwals of the 20th century. He was a major Qawwal of the Qawwal Bacchon Ka Gharana who made Hyderabad his home, rather than Delhi. The majority of his repertoire comprised of Urdu ghazals rather than the more overtly spiritual repertoire of his contemporaries. His performance style was like no other, with a staccato harmonium and a similarly staccato style of singing that frequently teetered on the edge of the taal before returning to the ‘samm’ in a startling flourish. He has sung ghazals by the greatest Urdu poets and is a landmark figure in the Deccani culture of the second half of the 20th century. This ghazal is amongst my most favorite of his performances.




Ghazal: Shab-e-Gham Ki Daraazi
Gayaki Angg: Pandit Vitthal Rao
Qawwali Angg: Nazeer Naseer Warsi Qawwal

If I’m lucky, once every two or three years, I stumble upon a new Musical Discovery. An artist that I instantly fall in love with and begin obsessing over. My musical discovery of 2017 has been Pandit Vitthal Rao. In a way, discovering him has been the inspiration for this post. The ghazal posted below had been among my favorites, having been sung by a number of Qawwali artists. One day, while flicking through YouTube videos, Istumbled upon Pandit Vithal Rao’s rendition of it and I was hooked. I may be a tad biased considering he’s now one of my favorite artists but I consider him one of the better ghazal singers from across the border, a list that I can count on the fingers of one hand. His ‘talaffuz’ and phrasing is excellent, his voice is beautifully fragile and tremulous, and he sings the ghazal beautifully. Like Aziz Ahmed Warsi above, he was a fixture of the post-partition Deccani culture and was, until his death recently, one of the pre-eminent (though highly underrated) ghazal singers of India.

The tail end of this post has taken on something of a Deccani hue, as the last performers in this post are also from Hyderabad. They are the grandsons of Aziz Ahmad Khan Warsi and are amongst the most sought after Qawwals currently performing in India. Their style has tinges of their late grandfather and they share his penchant for selecting excellent kalam to perform. Their repertoire includes a number of Jigar Muradabadi ghazals, including this mehfil rendition from 2002. Like their grandfather, they eschew excessive girah-bandi, focusing instead on the rendition of the kalam. Similarly, there isn’t an excess of vocal gymnastics. It’s an excellent rendition of an excellent ghazal, just the way I like it.




When I started writing this post, I didn’t realize that it would turn out to be such a large undertaking. If I’d known from the start, I would’ve balked and let laziness take its course. But now as I glance at the word count and realize that it’s crossed 4000 words, I guess I might as well pull up my socks and complete the darned endeavor. Writing another 4000 words is one thing, inflicting an 8000-word opus on the unsuspecting reader is entirely another. So, I’ve decided to leave the second half of the post (yes, you’ve only reached half) for the second installment, to be published two weeks from now. Till then, happy listening.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Of Eagles With Eagles...

کند ہم جنس با ہم جنس پرواز
کبوتر با کبوتر، باز بہ باز

Birds of a feather fly together
Doves fly with doves, Eagles with eagles

A word of warning. This is another of those "Pucca" Qawwali posts that feature scratchy recordings, obscure biographical details and other items that may not be interesting to the lay-reader but which - for me at least - are THE reason I fell in love with Qawwali. Let's begin...

Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal was born in Pakpattan in 1914 and died at Golra in 1992. Although young Mahboob was trained in manufacturing silver flake (chandi kay warq), his father was intent on making him a Qawwal and sent him to the legendary Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi (Mahboob 's brother-in-law) to be trained. Haji Sb spent seven years under the tutelage of Muhammad Ali Fareedi but was unable to imbibe much in the way of Qawwali, and was sent back to his father as a "gone case". On one of his visits to Pakpattan, Hz Ghulam Mohyeddin Gilani (Hz Babuji R.A) - the son of Pir Meher Ali Shah of Golra(R.A) was approached by Mahboob's father who requested that Hz Babuji take the youngster under his wing and train him to be a Qawwal. Hz Babuji agreed and took the young Mahboob with him to Golra. Initially, Mahboob was sent to the famed Sufi Ali Bukhsh "Waiz" Qawwal to learn his unique style of Qawwali with Sitar accompaniment, but Waiz Qawwal also found himself unable to teach the student to his satisfaction, and Mahboob returned to Golra. 

At Golra, Hz Babuji decided to train Mahboob himself and took him to Pir Meher Ali Shah (R.A) to obtain his blessing. After Pir Meher Ali Shah (R.A)'s blessing, Mahboob started practicing Samaa under Hz Babuji's direct training as the Darbari Qawwal of the Golra Sharif shrine. Throughout Hz Babuji's lifetime, he taught Mahboob the intricacies of music, thousands upon thousands of Sufi texts and their explanations, as well as the core Sufi concepts that - as the Darbari Qawwal - Mahboob's task was to transmit to his audience. The result was that Haji Mahboob was acclaimed - by his audiences, Sufis and other Qawwals - as THE Darbari Qawwal. He was recognized as the spokesperson of the shrine, who effectively educated his audience under the direct supervision of the custodians of the shrine. Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal performed almost daily at the Golra Sharif Shrine for more than half a century and his Mehfil recordings are a treasure for anyone who prefers Qawwali the way it was intended - as a form of spiritual instruction.

Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal was born in 1922 in Batala, (Gurdaspur) and died in 1985. He belonged to a traditional Qawwal family; he was the nephew of the great Muhammad Ali Fareedi, his elder brother Agha Bashir Ahmad was a famous Qawwal in his own right, while his younger brother Agha Majeed Ahmad Fareedi was one of the greatest accompanists in qawwali history. Agha Rasheed's journey to becoming a qawwal wasn't easy. He began his musical career as the tabla-nawaz with his elder brother Agha Bashir's party but became determined to become a Qawwal after being scolded (and reportedly slapped) by his elder brother due to a mistake in one of their performances. 

He then went to the great Qawwal of the first half of the 20th Century, Fateh Ali Khan, and asked to be taken under his wing. The story of his first day under as Fateh Ali Khan's shagird is also very interesting. Fateh Ali Khan had told the young student to stand next to a wall and loudly practice the musical scales. While Rasheed was practicing in his (even then) loud and raspy voice, an acquaintance of Fateh Ali Khan's passed by and commented in earshot of Rasheed, "Who is this donkey you've got braying next to the wall?". Luckily for Qawwali, Rasheed didn't take affronts like this to heart and studiously learnt Qawwali under Fateh Ali, ultimately becoming - in the opinion of wiser heads than mine - his pre-eminent pupil and the most perfect exemplar of his Ustads' style of Qawwali.

The stories of Haji Mahboob Ali and Rasheed Ahmad intersect at several key points. For one, they were cousins. Secondly, Rasheed was a disciple of Hz Babuji (RA) - he had obtained 'ba'et' on Hz Babuji's hand. Third, even though Rasheed wasn't permanently attached to any specific Sufi shrine, he practiced the "Darbaari" style of Qawwali throughout his life, eschewing - either willingly or through a lack of opportunity - the more commercial style of his peers. Further, both Haji Mahboob and Agha Rasheed Ahmad considered it their sacred duty to bring about a spiritual change in their listeners. Haji Mahboob had once said, "If there is one "Sahib-e-Haal" in my audience, my job is done; otherwise dust upon my face and upon the audience!". Agha Rasheed had once expressed similar sentiments, saying "If it were up to me, my audience would leave the mehfil with their clothes in tatters." Another important similarity was that both Qawwals were accompanied by their phenomenally talented brothers; Haji Mushtaq Ali with Haji Mahboob and Agha Majeed Ahmad Fareedi with Agha Rasheed. Both these accompanists were superbly talented in their own right but kept their talents subservient to their elder brothers for almost their entire careers. It is a fitting (and touching) tribute to their association that after the deaths of both Haji Mahboob and Rasheed, both their younger brothers joined hands and took over the duties of Darbaari Qawwals at Golra, each performing regularly till they passed away.

The two great Qawwals, as a result of their spiritual allegiance to Hz Babuji (RA), were great friends and admirers of each other. Agha Rasheed would visit Golra regularly during the days of the Urs, and out of deference to Haji Mahboob's seniority in both age and as the Darbari Qawwal of the shrine, would sit in with Haji Sb's party as an accompanist. On the conclusion of the Urs, Haji Mahboob would return the favor by giving the entire sum of money collected as "Nazr" during the 'Chaadar' ceremony over to Rasheed. Very few recordings exist of the two great qawwals singing together, but the few that remain are phenomenally powerful. Even when they were not singing together, their repertoires often contained kalaams that were distinct from their contemporary Qawwals. Most of these unique kalaams were either written by succeeding generations of the Pirs of Golra Sharif or by devotees of the Golra shrine like Isa Amritsari. By listening to both these Qawwals renditions of a common repertoire, one gets a better idea of their contrasting styles. While Haji Mahboob preferred an emphasis of text over music (mainly because he confessed to being relatively untrained in the intricacies of classical music), Agha Rasheed fully utilized the superb musical tutelage of Fateh Ali with taankari, sargams and stupendous takraars. Haji Sb's style was more meditative, mellower and more explanatory. Rasheed's was dramatic, brashly powerful and exclamatory. Both Qawwals succeeded where most others have failed, in their ability to transfer the spiritual meanings of the kalaam to their audience effectively.

Haji Mahboob Ali (with Sitar) and Haji Mushtaq Ali (on harmonium), with Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi (extreme left) and Agha Majeed Ahmad Fareedi (6th from left)  in the 2nd row.


Baaz Ba Baaz - Haji Mahboob Ali and Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal

1. Aa Punla Mor Muharaan Ve
2. Khuda Ki Qasam Hai Khuda Jalwagar Hai
3. Arzooe Wasle Janaan
4. Apni Ghurbat Se Teri Shan Se

These first four kalaams are by Pir Sahibaan of Golra [the first by Pir Naseeruddin Naseer (RA), the next three by his father, Pir Ghulam Moinuddin (RA) who used "Mushtaq" as his takhallus] serve to highlight both Qawwals' approaches to Qawwali. Haji Mahboob presents these three pieces without much girahbandi or embellishment, as was his wont when performing the kalaams of Pir Ghulam Moinuddin (RA); adopting a beautiful, hauntingly melodic arrangement (especially in the latter three kalaams which are amongst my most favorite performances of his). What emerges is a series of performances steeped in longing, love and melancholy. Agha Rasheed on the other hand, uses long takraars to build up the kalaams to a series of crescendos. In between, there is lovely Punjabi girahbandi and superb taankari that highlights the Qawwals' musical credentials. The highlight is his rendition of the second kalaam, a masterpiece in the construction of a Qawwali performance. The performance builds in tempo and "zor" with each passing second, like a locomotive slowly gathering speed before whisking away the listeners to destinations unknown.

4. Diya Hota Kisi Ko Dil

This is a rather famous piece by Bedam Shah Warsi and both qawwals have sung it in its traditional tarz; un-embellished, with minimal girahbandi or taankaari.

5. La Ilah Di Ramz Niari

This is a beautiful Kafi of Hz Baba Buleh Shah (RA) which is rarely sung by Qawwals. It's message is of the One-ness of God and the fact that the belief in this One-ness - Tauheed - is the central tenet of Islam and Sufism. also explored is the Sufi concept of  'Wahdat-ul-Wujood' as expounded by Hz Ibn-al-Arabi (RA) and his successors. Here it is Haji Mahboob who expands the performance, performing a profound exposition of the test, using girahs from sources as varied as Guru Nanak and Rumi, Iqbal and Kabir. His 50 minute performance is the perfect example of Qawwali as 'Sama', Qawwali as 'Wa'z' and Qawwali as the means to spiritual education, with the takraars in the latter half taking the listener to strange places indeed. In contrast, Agha Rasheed Ahmad's recording is taken from a Radio Pakistan performance featuring musical accompaniment by Shehnai and Sitar, It's lovely to hear the younger voices of the Fareedi brothers, and Agha Majeed really shines in this performance.

6, Prem Nagar Ki Raah Kathin Hai

A lovely Poorbi kalam - almost a bhajan - by the poet Mehmood Shah again displays striking differences in the performance styles of the two Qawwals. Haji Mahboob Sb is in an absolutely sublime mood; mellow, meditative and contemplative. His style is languid, almost loving as he steers the kalaam into beautiful territory, making it an allegory for the events at Karbala. In between, he exclaims to the audience, "These are dangerous things that I am about to relate, not for everyone's ears!". It's a beautiful performance, one that sounds absolutely intimate and deeply personal. Agha Rasheed's performance is similar in many ways. He uses most of the same girahs that Haji Mahboob uses, even using the same introductory verses. His performance, though still possessing a certain languor, is more regal, more magisterial, more declamatory. The arrangement is really beautiful, as is the taankari and girahbandi.

7. Salaam Aye Fatima Ke Laal

This powerful Manqabat to Hz Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani (RA) was written by Isa Amritsari. Isa was a mureed of Hz Pir Meher Ali Shah (RA) who wrote some beautiful poetry in Farsi, Urdu and Punjabi. He perished during the partition riots on a train bound for Pakistan in 1947 at a relatively young age. This manqabat is regularly performed at the Golra Sharif shrine on the eleventh of every Islamic month (Gyarhveen). This kalaam was also significant in that after Hz Pir Meher Ali Shah (Ra) had bestowed his blessings on young Mahboob Ali, this was the kalaam that Mahboob had recited in front of Pir Meher Ali Shah. This kalaam is usually sung at the conclusion of Qawwali mehfils at Golra so it is fitting that I end this post with this wonderful manqabat. 


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

...Of The Wellspring

The word Qawwali stems from the word "Qaul" or "saying". Put simply, Qawwali - the subcontinental variant of the traditional Sufi practice of Samaa - consists of the sayings and utterances of the Saints, set to music. The Qawwali repertoire has expanded over time to include Ghazal, Kafi, Classical bandishes and folk epics in almost all the languages of the Indo-Persian region. However, a very specific subset of the repertoire consists of compositions known as Qauls. Some scholars, and most Qawwals, consider these Qauls to be remnants of the very earliest style of Sub-continental Qawwali, originated by Hz Amir Khusrau (RA). The evidence for this claim is mainly the oral traditions of the Qawwal gharanaas, and like many attributions to Hz Amir Khusrau, the attribution of the Qauls may well be apocryphal at best.

Ages ago, I wrote a post comprising some of my favorite recordings of the most famous Qaul in Sufi music, "Mun Kunto Maula". Since that post, I have not only heard (and collected) many more wonderful versions of the famous Qaul, I have also managed to acquire a small number of other, lesser known Qauls. In this post, I'll share a few Qauls that are somewhat obscure, but deserve to be heard and appreciated. They all share very interesting combinations of languages, 'Raags' and 'taals'. Even though it's impossible to accurately trace their lineage and history, the Qauls sound absolutely distinct from the rest of the Qawwali corpus and occupy a distinct niche within the repertoire.

1. Mun Kunto Maula - Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi

The first item on the list is a very non-traditional recording of the traditionally famous Qaul. I featured this recording as the very last item in my 2006 post. Because of it's distinctness, it deserves to be shared again. Traditionally, the most famous Qaul is sung in raag Shudh Kalyan or raag Shaam Kalyan. Fareedi Sb however, begs to differ. As he garrulously declares at the start, his version of the Qaul is in raag Bhopali and in Teentaal ( a rythmic cycle of 16 beats). Ustad Naseeb Khan then lays down a steady rhythm as Agha Rasheed and his brother Majeed Fareedi commence their interpretation. Like many of his electrifying performances, Fareedi Sb accelerates the Qaul like a train slowly gathering speed, creating wonderfully powerful takraars along the way. The takraars build to a wonderful crescendo on a verse of Bedam Shah Warsi's, before Fareedi Sb suddenly changes gears and takes the performance in an entirely different direction altogether. Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi was a wholly unique performer, with a style distinctly his own. It's no wonder then, that his version of arguably the most commonly performed piece of Sufi music is wholly unique and absolutely distinct.

2. Allah Taala Qaula-namaa - Muhammad Hayat Nizami

The late Muhammad Hayat Nizami was one of the resident Qawwals of the shrine of Hz Nizamuddin Aulia (RA) in Delhi. He was the father of Hamsar Hayat Nizami, currently one of the leading Qawwals of India. I was first introduced to him via Yousuf Saeed's wonderful documentary "Khusro Bani", which featured a number of performances by Muhammad Hayat Nizami and his party. I wasn't able to find many recordings by him, but a wonderful film on YouTube shows the Ustad and his family in a wonderful light. His "pukka" vocal style impressed me greatly, and I cherish the few recordings of his that i possess. Here he presents a Qaul accompanied by a dholak beat that sounds almost like a Pakhawaj, as well as a Sarangi. His style is frenetic and lively, interspersed with frequent exclamations of "Shava Re !". It's a short but powerful performance, allowing the Ustad to use his raspy voice to great effect in a series of brief sargams and taans, as well as a lovely taraana at the end.

3. Qaul-e-Rusool Sunaayo - Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed Khan

Zaheer Kidvai Sb had once mentioned that the Lok Virsa folks in Islamabad had recorded a number of performances by Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed in the 1990's. This had sparked intense curiosity in me, which was quenched when the videos of not one but two separate recording sessions popped up on YouTube. Each performance was worth its (figurative) weight in gold, but the most interesting recording was of this beautiful Qaul. Raziuddin Sb is ably accompanied by young Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad in this recording. The tempo is stately, with a lovely rhythm and Raziuddin Sb's voice in fine form. He uses wonderful Farsi and Urdu na'atiya verses as girahs, embellishing an already wonderful piece. There is another very lovely rendition of this Qaul available on YouTube for the more curious readers to find and enjoy. Hint : It's by another stalwart of the Qawwal Bacchhon ka Gharana.


4. Laata Maafi/Aayo Re Yeh Kaun Pargato - Meraj Ahmed Nizami Qawwal

Speaking of stalwarts of the Qawwal Bacchon ka Gharana, the late Meraj Ahmed Nizami was rightfully considered the head of the clan. A strict traditionalist who steadfastly persisted with the style of performance that was handed down to him, he was a veritable treasure of musical knowledge. This fact was recognized by a number of ethno-musicologists including Prof. Regula Qureshi, whose seminal book on Qawwali is based mainly on a series of performances by Meraj Sb. He was also recorded by the Smithsonian institute in the late Eighties for a wonderful 2-CD set. This set of Qauls come from the same album. Meraj Sb prefaces the performance by claiming that his Gharana - the Qawwal Bacchon ka Gharana - claims sole ownership over these two Qauls. I find no reason to dispute this claim, as all other recordings of this Qaul in my possession are by musicians from the same Gharana, including an absolutely astounding rendition on the Sarangi by Ustad Bundoo Khan. Meraj Sb ends his lovely performance of the Qaul with a series of verses from a lovely ghazal that he was very fond of, bringing this brief performance to a fitting end.

5. Qaul - Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan and Party

In 1975, countries across the traditionally Persianate parts of Asia celebrated the 7th centenary of Hz Amir Khusrau's (RA) birth. A number of cultural activities took place, spanning literature and the performing arts. Under the supervision of the legendary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who was heading the the Pakistan National Council for the Arts, the Pakistani cultural community actively participated in these celebrations. Apart from special programming on Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television, a number of wonderful commemorative albums were released by EMI Pakistan, featuring artists from across the entire Pakistani musical spectrum. These albums included Qawwali, vocal and instrumental Classical music, Ghazal as well as Light-Classical performances by the leading artists of Pakistan. In addition, a series of now legendary concerts were held at (among other places) the Liaquat Hall, Rawalpindi.

One of these concerts was devoted solely to Qawwali and featured the leading Qawwals of Pakistan performing pieces attributed to Hz Amir Khusrau (RA). A couple of years ago, as part of the Dream Journey project, I was able to participate in an interview with Ustad Naseeruddin Saami, who had performed in the famed concert, accompanying his uncles Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed and Manzoor Ahmed Niazi. He spoke of the concert in hushed tones, claiming that the pieces performed that day have rarely been heard since. I'll end this post with a performance from that very concert. I'll forego any florid descriptions of this performance, as Mujahid Mubarik Ali Khan and Nusrat do an excellent job of introducing it themselves.

Til the next post, cheers !!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

...Of The Kedara

As I have frequently confessed on this blog and elsewhere, my knowledge of music is superficial at best. If occasionally I seem to be making some sense in the description of the pieces I post, it's mainly because I'm using sketchy information gleaned from innumerable sources to cover my embarrassing degree of ignorance. The theoretical, technical aspects of music completely elude me. I wouldn't be able to tell a 'Sa' from a 'Ni' if my life depended on it. In fact, this introductory paragraph also serves as a cry for help. If any of my readers (the few who haven't disappeared due to the blog's long hibernation) could guide me towards a resource I could use to learn note and interval recognition, I'd be really grateful. The complex system of Raags and Thaats and Vaadi-Samvaadis will have to wait until I've actually tuned my ear to recognize notes. I'll be waiting for the suggestions.

That being said, through sheer good luck and the efforts of a few very benevolent friends, I can now say that on good days, on my fourth or fifth try, I can recognize a few raags. Partly because they're the only ones I can confidently recognize and partly because they are absolutely beautiful, these few raags have become my favorites. I actively search out compositions in them and enjoy them immensely, trying to keep up with and anticipate the shifting sequences of notes. Like I said earlier, I can't really tell which notes are being played, which notes are vaadi-samvaadi or what's the difference between a bad'hat and a pakarr, but I love what I hear, and that has endeared these raags to me. It's a small list that includes Hameer, Tilak Kamod, Maru Behag, Chhayanat, Alhaiyya Bilawal and the subject of this post; Raag Kedara.


The Ragini Kedara (from a 17th century Raagmala manuscript)

The Kedara just wins out over the Tilak Kamod as my favorite raag. Oftentimes it feels that the beautiful "Sa Re Ga Sa Re" phrase of the Tilak Kamod sounds lovelier than the Kedara's descending 'meendh', but the Kedara eventually emerges the winner because of its evocation of a very special mood. It's a meditative, night-time mood, with mystical undertones and a strange, enchanting dignity. Much later, when I discovered the Raag-mala paintings of this Raag, I found that they depicted mystics, either listening to stringed instruments or conversing with their (generally royal) disciples while the crescent moon shines overhead. I think this goes to show that despite an ignorance of the fine technicalities of the Raag, one is still able to tap into the soul of the music if one listens often enough. I have a number of favorite renditions of this raag, from mainstream pop-rock to ghazal to vocal and instrumental classical music, but for this post, I'll focus on Qawwali.

Here then, is a selection of Qawwali pieces based on Raag Kedara

1. Ae Dil Bageer Daaman - Ae Sukh Daiyya - Taranas -- Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal & Brothers

The first recording in this post is rather special to me. It's from the very first Qawwali mehfil I ever attended. In the winter of 2010, I was in Rawalpindi for my Med School convocation when I got a message from Arif Ali Khan Sb, who was visiting Islamabad at that time. He invited me to a Qawwali mehfil at the residence of one of his friends, and I readily accepted. It was a chance to finally meet Arif Sb, with whom I had interacted with online for several years. It was also a chance to get to see Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammad live, quite an initiation into the world of Qawwali. It turned out to be a really memorable evening, with the Qawwals singing some beautiful pieces and the experience of live Qawwali supercharging my burgeoning interest into a full-blown obsession. The Qawwals started the mehfil with this lovely manqabat of Hz Shah Niaz's. Around the 11 minute mark, they beautifully segued into one of my favorite bandishes, Ae Sukh Daiyya, (The wah-wahs you hear are unfortunately mine). Finally came two lovely taraanas in raag Des I think, which again was one of my favorites from their father's recordings. The audio is from my trusty digital camera's microphone and is surprisingly listenable.

2. Chamanay Ke Ta Qayamat -- Fateh Ali Mubarak Ali Qawwal

This is one of those recordings that I fell in love with as soon as I heard the opening instrumental strains. There's clarinet in there, and a sarangi, and God knows what else; all brewing a heady, intoxicating prelude to the kalaam itself. The fact that the kalaam is one of the most beautifully mellifluous ghazals of Maulana Rumi (RA)'s Divan-e-Shams, being sung by THE greatest Qawwals of the 20th century in a superbly clear recording multiplied the pleasure a hundredfold. The two Ustads' voices have rarely complimented each other as beautifully as on this recording. The mini-takrars, the mini bol-taans and the lovely bol-baant make this piece and absolute and utter masterpiece. Despite the urgency of the takraars, there is no hurried-ness whatsoever, as the Ustads linger on every syllable and every note, taking two or three attempts in an attempt to get the pronunciation *just* right. I love this recording and have loved it from the moment I first heard it. Again, it was much later that I realized that the composition was in raag Kedara.

3. Dekhta Hoon Jab Unhain -- Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal

From a pristine studio recording of the "Ustaadon ke Ustaads" , we move to a rather shabbily recorded Mehfil performance of one of their greatest shagirds. Bakhshi Khan, Mubarak Ali Khan, Sadiq Ali Khan Saddo and Co. ably accompany Salamat Ali Khan in this lovely Urdu ghazal. The themes of the ghazal are the Sufi concepts of "Fanaa" and "Wahdat-ul-Wujood", encapsulated in the lovely final verse

یہ کمالِ بے خودی ہے یا مقامِ آگہی

آج تو اپنے ہی قدموں پر جھکا جاتا ہوں میں

It's a long piece with some lovely pieces of taankaari, without any extravagant or flashy embellishments, just the way I like it. I consider the recordings of Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal to be 'qawwali primers', perfect for introducing lay-listeners and neophytes to the wonderful world of Qawwali. This recording is presented as Exhibit A.

4. Iss Ishq Ke Haathon Se -- Aziz Ahmed Warsi Qawwal

The next selection is from the king of Deccan-style Qawwali. Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi's style is distinct not only from other Qawwals, but also from his cousins and nephews in the Qawwal Bacchon ka Gharana. His staccato harmonium-playing, loose-limbed layakaari and sharp, textured voice made him stand out from his contemporaries. His choie of kalaams was always impeccable, focusing on ghazals from Urdu's pre-eminent poets. Here, he sings a beautiful Jigar Muradabadi ghazal. Jigar has remained a favorite of both the Qawwals as well as the various Shaykhs of the Sufi shrines across the subcontinent. This performance makes the reason plain. There are themes of love, longing and yearning, with false hopes of benevolence and attention from the 'Beloved' couched in simple, evocative phrases that can appeal to the lay-listener and connoisseur alike.

5. Khabaram Raseed Imshab -- Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Qawwal & Party

I'll put this out there as a Universal Truth; "Live at the Kufa Gallery' is the greatest Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan album. It is the perfect album to gainsay his detractors who claim that he eschewed the Classical elements of Qawwali for showmanship and callisthenics. It is also one of the final recordings of his 'Original' party, consisting of Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan. Here, Nusrat takes a long alaap and starts with a lovely little verse. Dildar Hussain's tabla then provides a steady beat for Nusrat to weave his magic upon. In this recording, Nusrat uses the Kedara based tarz of this ghazal originally used by his father and uncle in a recording made in the early '60s. This ghazal becomes a tired chestnut in the hands of lesser performers. But with Nusrat actively applying his classical chops here, the ghazal rightfully takes its place as one of the absolute masterpieces of the Sufi canon. The shifts in tempo at each verse, the lovely bol-taans, taankaari and the sparse yet superb girah-bandi elevate this performance into the stratosphere, from where even Rahat's raw and (dare I say it) helium-infused voice can't manage to bring it down.

6. Main Vi Jaana Jhok Ranjhan Di -- Asif Hussain Santoo Khan Qawwal

In the past I have made no secret of the fact that I do not like Asif Hussain Santoo Khan as a Qawwal. Most of his performances devolve into scream-fests and screechy attempts at impersonating Nusrat. He's a very successful Qawwal and more power to him, but I just can't get myself to forgive the fact that he eschewed the legacy of his legendary grandfather Ustad Santoo Khan and father Ustad Manzoor Hussain in an attempt to become the next Nusrat. Anyway, let's move on. In searching for a Punjabi kalaam set to raag Kedara, I stumbled upon this rendition of Shah Hussain's immortal Kafi. It's taken from an episode of Firdous-e-Gosh, PTV's interesting and commendable attempt at reviving Classical music based programming. Each episode would focus on a single raag, comprising performances of Lakshan-geets, classical and semi-classical pieces in that raag. In the episode on raag Kedara, I discovered this rather nice Qawwali by our friend Asif Hussain Santoo Khan, playing against type. The kalaam is a famous Kafi by Shah Hussain, made popular by such stalwarts as Pathanay Khan, Suraiyya Multanekar and Hamid Ali Bela. In this recording, there is no shouting or shor-sharaaba and the Qawwals go through the entire text in a rather respectful style. There is sparse taankaari and a few very nice girahs. All in all, a decent performance of a lovely canonical piece of Sufi poetry. Goes to show that there's potential in most Qawwals if only they cease their attempts at aping Nusrat.

7. Wafaa Ki Main Ne Buniyaad -- Manzoor Ahmed Niazi Aur Hamnavaa (Barri Party)

 I have to thank Zaheer Alam Kidvai Sb for letting me share this recording. I've mentioned this a number of times in the past as well but the fact bears repeating that the recordings he has been releasing under his Ragni Recordings label are worth their weight in gold. The jewels of the collection are the 7 CDs of recordings by the legendary "Barri Party" of Manzoor Ahmed Niazi, Bahauddin Khan, Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami and Munshi Raziuddin Ahmed Qawwals. This beautiful and leisurely recording (30 minutes) finds the entire Barri Party at the peak of their form as they take Seemab Akbarabadi's lovely ghazal into the stratosphere. Despite the slightly scratchy audio quality, the Ustads' lovely layakaari and taankaari shine through. As a friend of mine was wont to say when talking about the Barri Party, "Jahan se ek Ustad chhorta hai, wahaan se doosra urraa ke le jata hai!"(When one Ustad is done with a note, the other swoops in and takes flight). Munshi Raziuddin enunciates each and every syllable of the main kalam, Bahauddin Khan Sb provides lovely sargams and and incomparable vacillating taans, Manzoor Ahmed Niazi Sb's starlingly beautiful voice offers astounding taans in the higher registers while Iftekhar Nizami Sb gravelly bass notes provide the bedrock for the performance. Occasionally there are glimpses of a precocious young Farid Ayaz shining through. Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad and Co were so entranced by this recording that they decided to include this ghazal in their performance repertoire in an emulation of their illustrious elders. My Dream Journey comrades were in Karachi last December to capture the first ever performance of this kalaam, ensuring that the Barri Party's lovely legacy continues to influence the next generations of the Qawwal Bacchon ka Gharaana. The performance ends in a beautiful Tarana which is the perfect bookend to these seven audio recordings of the Kedara.

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

In a brilliant recording of Amanat Ali-Fateh Ali Khan singing Raag Saakh posted on the Qaul blog, Fateh Ali Khan says, "Aap ke saamne ab hum apna ghar ka maal pesh kar rahe hain." (We are now laying out our personal belongings before you.) Emulating the laudable example of the late Ustads, the final two recordings in this post are "ghar ka maal" from our Dream Journey series of recordings. The first is a very unusual Arabic kalaam performed by Taj Muhammad, Shad Muhammad Nasir Niazi Qawwals. Taj Muhammad and Shad Muhammad are the younger brothers of the late Ghaus Muhammad Nasir Niazi Qawwal and are the sons of the legendary Moin Niazi Qawwal. They live in Karachi, in the Qawwal Gali or Qawwal Street, named afteer their late father. They hail from the Atrauli gharana and have a melodious and very understated style, similar to their illustrious brother. Their performances rarely descend into shouting matches and they have a unique repertoire featuring some very interesting pieces, such as this kalaam. The Arabic was a tad too knotty for me to translate alone, so we had some outside help, but it was worth making the extra effort, as the Ruba'i is really lovely. The Qawwals end this short and sweet performance with a lovely taraana in Raag Zeelaf.

9. Surkh Aankhon Main Kajal -- Ameer Ali Khan Qawwal

One of the Dream Journey collective's favorite Qawwali performances is "Surkh Aankhon Main Kaajal Ke Doray" by Ameer Ali-Rafeeq Ali Murkianwale Qawwal. It's a 30 minute sustained explosion of joy. When we planned to visit Ustad Ameer Ali Khan at Dipalpur for the December 2014 Dream Journey sessions, this kalaam was at the top of everyone's list of requests. Ameer Ali Khan himself was eager to present it before us and this eagerness and joy shines through in this performance. The atmosphere of the Qawwals' home, with their friends and family sitting in attendance; the infectiously joyous style of performance and the thrill of hearing our favorite kalaam live turned this performance into a truly magical experience for us all. No detailed descriptions here, the performance speaks for itself.




Saturday, March 25, 2017

...On the 'March' of Time

1. Earlier this month, I turned thirty. The big Three-O. A couple of weeks prior to that, this blog turned ten. I figured I'd maximize efficiency and kill two birds with one stone so here goes.

2. I started the blog at the fag end of my teens, so for better or worse, it has served as a sort of chronicle for the third decade of my life.

3. As decades go, this one has been a mixed bag. There have been a number of truly dark days, the sudden, shattering horror of which I shall not forget till my dying breath.

4. But there have also been moments of such absolute, sunlit perfection that the passage of years has not dimmed their glow one bit. Most of these days have gone undocumented because of my perverse habit of keeping my sorrows public and the joys private.

5. I started this decade in Med School in Rawalpindi. The med-school years - the first one-third of the decade - fulfilled their basic function of turning me into a doctor and then some. The lifelong (hopefully) friendships and camaraderie far overshadowed the occasional bouts bureaucratic and administrative ugliness. In addition, the Med-school years provided me with one of the BIG MOMENTS of my life - my introduction to Qawwali.

6. I did my medical internship (House-job) in Lahore. I can safely say that very few people would have been able to squeezed as much activity into one year as I did. Despite living there for only one year, Lahore remains my favorite city in Pakistan.

7. Post-Lahore were my by now world famous "Three years in the Jungle" where I cavorted with snakes, dodged lightning strikes, lived in a hole in the ground like a Hobbit and suffered through a telecommunications detox so severe that the sight of a phone was almost alien to me by the time I had left. I can only summarize the three years by saying that they were not un-enjoyable times.

8. After three years of a congealed existence, the next two years were spent being shaken, rattled and rolled all over the country; from the deserts of Southern Punjab to the frozen far north to the unwelcoming western borders.

9. As if to complete the circle, the end of the second decade of my life sees me back where I started it, Rawalpindi. In another strange coincidence, I am once again engaged in an education of the medical persuasion; a specialty residency this time, and I'm once again surrounded by (almost) the entire bunch of friends and associates from my Med-school days.

10. In an effort to revisit (and repair) the memories of the last ten years of the blog, I've tried to resurrect all the dead links and remove all the horrible coding errors. Everything works (for now) and everything's pretty much the way I wanted it to be. In a happy coincidence, that also applies to me as I enter my thirties.

Cheers !!

Monday, February 27, 2017

...Of Announcements, Astute Observations and the Aftaab-e-Sitar

I attribute the long hibernation of this blog to a number of factors. My legendary laziness is obviously at the top of the list, but it is compounded by a number of other contributing factors. There is the steady series of transcriptions and translations for the Dream Journey project , a project that has evolved into a continuously enriching part of my life. Then there's the fact that i'm a year and a half into a rather grueling four year post-graduate residency program in a medical specialty, and try as I might to procrastinate, I have to actually apply myself every so often in order to do justice to my chosen profession. A rather recent reason is the fact that I got married at the end of last year, something that - counter to Douglas Adams' views about the creation of the universe - has widely been regarded as a 'Good Move.'

I've frequently thought of resuming my sporadic blog posts but until now, havent really gotten around to it. This time however, I have come up with what Baldrick from Blackadder would call a cunning plan. Finding myself with a few days to spare before hunkering down to study for an important exam, I  have actually written down a series of posts and put them on ice to be published at pre-scheduled intervals over the coming weeks. It's a small step towards this blog returning to some semblance of life, but at least its a start. This post serves as the announcement for a resumption of festivities - or hostilities, depending on your point of view. 

As a welcome gift at the blog's Grand Re-Re-Re-Re-Opening, I'd like to offer an exquisite hour and a half of music. But first, a few words of introduction. Number one. The fact that I know next to nothing about Classical music didn't detract me one bit from my enjoyment of this piece, something that encourages me into thinking that same shall be the case with the readers, Two, one of the reasons I consider my recent betrothal a 'Good Move' is that the missus has proven herself to be surprisingly tolerant and appreciative of my eclectic (the understatement of the century) tastes in entertainment. Not only that, she is also an extremely astute viewing/listening companion. This was borne on me when I was first listening to the piece I'm sharing below. She listened to it for a while and remarked, "This gentleman is playing beautifully and knows it." That one sentences eclipses any further paragraphs I may have written in praise of this piece. So I'll eschew further descriptions altogether and share this beautiful, magical performance by a beautiful, magical musician.

Ustad Vilayat Khan - Raag Hameer - Live at the Royal Festival Hall, 1993