I've been maintaining this blog (for better or for worse) over the last eight years. Over these years, its natural evolution has led it into becoming something of a niche place for discussion of music in general and Qawwali in particular. Rather than trying to return my existing blog to its pre-Qawwali eclectic roots, I decided I’d start anew on Tumblr. So if you’re interested in music, Qawwali and subcontinental culture, keep reading/listening/watching/commenting here. For all of the above and everything else under the sun, head on over to my Tumblr page .

Wednesday, 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.