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Sunday, November 5, 2017

...Of The Punjabi Blues

The last two posts were devoted to an exploration of the Ghazal, a centuries old poetic form popular across the Indo-Persianate region, including the states of modern-day Central Asia. A number of famous ghazals were sung by ghazal singers and traditional Qawwals, allowing for an interesting comparison between the two musical forms. The distinct qualities of the ghazal; it’s nuanced and multifaceted meanings, its rich store of similes and allusions and its sensitive evocation of love and longing (both spiritual and temporal) are self-evident in the hands of skilled musicians, regardless of their preferred musical style. This post is somewhat similar to the last two in that it deals with a very specific musical form and its interpretation by Qawwals. That is where the similarities end.

The “Mahiya” is a distinct and very popular musical form in the Punjab. It has been sung for centuries and is an integral part of the region’s folk culture. It differs from the ghazal in several key aspects however. The most important difference is that like most other folk musical traditions of the world, Mahiyas aren’t written down and compiled in the form of Diwans. They’re part of the oral tradition, passed down from performer to performer, ever changing and ever evolving. They do not aspire to literary greatness, with an absence of complex similes and allusions, alliteration and nuanced meanings. The Mahiyas are written mostly by the people who sing them; itinerant folk musicians. In fact, they’re a popular literary pastime in the Punjab; I personally know at least half a dozen men and women in my village and the surrounding areas who regularly write Mahiyas and either sing them themselves, or pass them on to the ‘Mirasis’; members of the traditional Punjabi musician clans.

In the last post, I used an excerpt from Stephen Fry’s book to describe a ghazal to the readers unfamiliar with it. Unfortunately, Mr. Fry hasn’t written much about the Mahiya so I’ll have to use my own execrable rhyming skills to construct a prototype English Mahiya. The word “Mahiya” means “My beloved”, and has been ascribed to this musical form because it occurs very frequently in it, as a recurring coda at the end of each verse. The verses themselves follow a set pattern of three verses per stanza, with the first and third verses rhyming. The first verse is thematically unrelated to the next two, it’s main aim is simply to provide a rhyming counterpart to the third. It’s usually an everyday observation, a random phrase or a non-sequitur, something the singer has picked up from his everyday life. The second verse begins expounding the main theme and the final verse is the pay-dirt, the punchline and the soul of the entire stanza. So it goes, stanza upon stanza, three verses unrelated to the previous ones as far as rhyming is concerned, but in the same metre and expounding more or less the same theme. They’re sly, full of lovely vernacular wordplay and rooted in the everyday slangs and idioms. Here’s an example off the top of my head:

Two birds on a wire my love.
It ain’t any fever that I’ve got
I’m just burning with desire my love!

The sky’s so blue my love.
You wouldn’t ignore me this way
If your heart was true my love!

Fresh fruit on a cart my love.
I don’t know how I’ll survive
If you break my heart, my love!

Children play with a ball my love.
I’ve been staring at my phone all day
Waiting for you to call, my love.

P.S. the last stanza is a literal translation from one of this year’s most popular Punjabi folk tunes.
The Mahiya has a number of similarities with the blues, based on its interesting rhyme scheme, its use of everyday phrases and its origins among the rural itinerant singing community. Blues like Robert Johnson’s 32:20 blues, Howlin’ Wolf’s Smokestack Lightning and even songs like Dylan’s Buckets of Rain remind me of Mahiyas. Like I wrote earlier, Mahiyas are written solely in Punjabi/Seraiki. I don’t know of Mahiyas in any other subcontinental language, with one remarkable exception. Fawad Zakariya has written a wonderful post about it on his blog which saves me from waxing too eloquent about it. Suffice to say it’s one of the most famous and most beautiful pieces of Pakistani music ever recorded.

One final illustrative example of a Mahiya before I go into the meat of this post. The earliest recording of a Mahiya that I’ve been able to dig up is from a brilliant, brilliant 1951 Folkways record titled “Folk Music Of Pakistan”. Along with beautiful recordings of folk music from all regions of Pakistan (including the erstwhile East Pakistan), it has a lovely Mahiya duet by Munawwar Sultana and Ali Bukhsh Zahoor, two of the now forgotten pioneers of the early Pakistani music industry. Ali Bukhsh Zahoor is one of my favorite voices and I’m constantly looking for more recordings by him. The recording is Track 1 in the playlist embedded below.

With that, let’s get to the Qawwali portion of this post. As Mahiyas are a Punjabi musical form, most of the Qawwals featured here are Punjabi, with one rather quaint exception. Most of the Qawwals sing the same verses, or at least various permutations of the same verses. This signifies a shared wellspring of folk poetry that all of them draw from. Most of the recordings are snippets from Mehfils and aren’t professionally recorded, so be prepared for incomplete recordings, with scratchy, imperfect sound quality. Another interesting thing is that since most Mahiyas are directed towards a specific “Beloved” and the Qawwals are performers in the Sufi tradition, the Beloved here is either God, the Prophet (S.A.W) or a specific spiritual master or Pir. There’s only one performance per artist, as with most previous Qawwali posts. That’s enough exposition I think, let’s begin.

1. Koi Chittay Way Rupay Mahiya – Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal

Ustad Salamat Khan’s voice would be considered divinely crafted for the Mahiya if not for the fact that it seemed divinely crafted for whatever he chose to sing, be it ghazal, kafi or classical. This Mehfil recording from the late 1970s is as perfect an example of a traditional Punjabi musical performance that you can get. The earthy beauty of Salamat Ali Khan’s voice as he sings the first verse of a beautiful Punjabi doha, Ustad Bakhshi Khan’s pathos soaked voice repeating the first verse, that makes even Salamat Khan utter an ‘Aha!’, and the powerhouse vocals of Mubarak Ali Khan as he hijacks the 2nd verse from Salamat Ali Khan, and then Sadiq Ali “Saddo” Khan’s sweet, melodious voice as he takes up the slack; all this happens in the first two minutes of the recording, before they’ve even gotten to the text of the Mahiya itself. Then Salamat Ali Khan says, “Now we’ll sing some mixed verses from a Punjabi Mahiya for you” and they’re off. With a non-sequitur about white banknotes, they launch into a beautiful Punjabi masterclass. As with the rest of the Mahiyas in this post, the theme is of the love of God, the Sufi concept of “Wahdat-ul-Wujood” along with pleas and remonstrances to the Pir.

2. Gal Kurta Shahiye Da – Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal

When I wrote earlier that the Mahiya suffers from “an absence of complex similes and allusions, alliteration and nuanced meanings”, I didn’t realize that in the hands of an absolute master like Fareedi Sb, a Mahiya could contain all of the above and much more. In this recording, Fareedi Sb isn’t accompanied by his brother Agha Majeed, so there is a dearth of beautiful taans and sargams. Instead, the accompaniment is provided by a truly wonderful second vocalist who takes the lead in converting a simple Mahiya into a grand exposition of Sufi ideals including the search for God and the Truth, the concept of ‘Wahdat-ul-Wujood and the elusive nature of Divine love. The lovely ‘volte face’ by Fareedi Sb at the 12-minute mark takes the theme to a whole different place altogether. It’s a pure ‘Khanqahi’ performance with superlative, unmatched Punjabi girahbandi. It’s interesting (and very rare) to see Fareedi Sb take the backseat and let his co-vocalist drive the performance, but that’s exactly what happens in the first half of the performance, which is essentially a long series of stupendous Punjabi, Urdu, Purbi and Farsi girahs on a single theme. For someone like me who adores girahbandi, this performance is a diamond-mine.

3. Do Zulfaan Challe Ve Challe – Maulvi Ahmed Hassan Akhtar Hassan Bheranwale Qawwal

Next is a fully realized “studio” performance of a Mahiya by Maulvi Ahmed Hassan, Maulvi Akhtar Hassan and Co. They are accompanied by a lovely Clarinet, with the voices of all the vocalists taking center stage one by one to expound on the theme of love of the Prophet (S.A.W). I’ve written at length at the unpolished beauty of Maulvi Akhter Hassan’s voice and I needn’t go into it again. He’s in top form here and is ably assisted by the entire party. The girahs here are again absolutely brilliant, in Punjabi, Farsi and Urdu. The themes are the same as those explored by the previous two performers and indeed by those that follow. It’s to the credit of Maulvi Akhter Hassan and Party that they imbue these themes and lyrics with an entirely unique freshness, vigor and vitality. The whole performance seems less like a series of Mahiyas and more like a Na’at written by one of the Classical Punjabi poets, an impression heightened by the use of the traditional Heer arrangement to deliver a number of lovely Girahs near the end. It’s a lovely performance, that leaves the listener amazed at the inventiveness and alacrity of the Qawwals.

4. Sonay Da Kil Mahiya – Bahauddin Qutbuddin Qawwal featuring Abdullah Manzoor Niazi Qawwal

The one Qawwali performance of a Mahiya by a non-Punjabi artist in this post is an anomaly in more ways than one. The Qawwal Party of Ustad Bahauddin Khan and Qutbuddin Khan included, for two decades, a young and rather precocious singer who would later go on to become a brilliant Qawwal in his own right. That young singer was Abdullah Manzoor Niazi who was part of his uncle Bahauddin Khan’s party off and on from the early 70s to the end of the 1980s. In addition to vocal duties, he was also part of the rhythm section, playing the bongos (or a miniature version at least) and sitting in the front row. So important was Abdullah in the greater scheme of things in the party that his uncles let him lead the party in several recordings, themselves hanging back as accompanists. This is one such recording in which young Abdullah is singing Mahiyas with the voice of Qutbuddin Khan clearly audible among the accompanists. There is a clear non-Punjabi accent which I find endearing, and there is no attempt at trying to elicit deeper, more spiritual meanings from the simple Punjabi poetry. Instead, the Qawwals do a straight sing-through of around a dozen Mahiyas. What the performance lacks in raw emotion, it makes up for in the sweetness of young Abdullah Niazi’s voice.

5. Har Koi Sohna Ae – Ustad Muhammad Ali Fareedi Qawwal

The Qawwals are already well into their performance when this recording begins, making the listener feel like they’ve jumped on a moving train. But what a train, and what a journey! This recording is from the tail-end of the venerable Muhammad Ali Fareedi’s career, when his son Abdur Rahim had come into his own and was calling some of the shots. We start at the takraar, and what a brilliant takraar, with the rhythm section chugging along like Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Three. It’s clear that this Mahiya is being performed as a Manqabat in the praise of a Pir. The themes are again those of ‘Wahdat-ul-Wujood’ with the Qawwals exploring the idea of discovering God through temporal love. The verses her are those that have been sung in the previous four selections, but it’s lovely to hear them embellished with new and interesting girahs by the Ustad as well as his accompanists, including Abdur Rahim Fareedi. It’s a testament to the elder Ustad’s command over the subjects being sung and his mastery of girah-bandi that, near the end of the performance, he successively uses an Arabic, Farsi and Urdu girah on the same Punjabi verse. The performance ends all too soon, with a resounding final beat of the dholak, leaving the passengers longing for further journeys on this wonderful locomotive.

6. Koi Jora Pakkhiyaan Da – Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal (RA)

The final Mahiya in this post is also a journey well in progress when the listener joins in. Stretching the train metaphor from the previous selection, Haji Mahboob Sb is driving a steam locomotive at a leisurely pace through beautiful rolling countryside. There is a beautiful sway and an unhurried swing to the performance as Haji Mahboob Sb sings verse after verse in praise of the Prophet (S.A.W). The fact that this Mahiya is sung as a Naat may not be overtly obvious from the words, but the innate affection and love in the singing makes the fact abundantly clear. Haji Sb was fond of singing Mahiyas in his performance and there exist a number of recordings, with each performance distinct from the others despite the Mahiya verses being the same in most of them. The difference was down to Haji Sb’s superlative power to evoke a staggering number of Spiritual meanings from a single text by altering the tempo and arrangement of the composition as well as by using his matchless girah-bandi. Even though a few verses in this Mahiya are to be found in the previous five performances, the vast majority are totally unique, another testament to the vastness of Haji Sb’s repertoire. The recording fades out mid-performance, making the listener realize almost with a start, that the meandering locomotive has dropped him off at his destination and moved on, leaving behind a distant echo of its whistle.

1 comment:

  1. واہ جناب بہت عمدہ پوسٹ،۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔۔زندہ باد