Wednesday, January 22, 2014

...Of Festivals And Firm Refusals

There are very few excuses this time, and those few are flimsy at best. It has been laziness, plain and simple, that's kept me from writing for the better part of the last 5 months. I've had time - not ample time, but enough to hammer out a rough draft or two - and I've had ideas, but I've lacked the get-up-and-go that is the catalyst to productivity. A lot has happened over the last five or six months, several events warranting a write-up, but they've gone largely uncelebrated-or unmourned. Still, better late than never (God forbid). What follows is a hodge-podge of ideas that have been on my mind recently.

Notes On A Festival 

I plan my once-a-month weekend around events that interest me, so that my weekends serve a dual purpose; touching base with the folks back home and (barely) keeping my cultural interests alive. Even so, I miss most of what goes on in the metropolis; movies, concerts, book fairs etc that I would've given an arm and a leg to attend. Still, if there's a slim chance of catching something exciting, I don't mind traveling an extra two or three hundred miles or spending an extra four or five grand on fuel so that I can return to the jungle with something more than a jar of Nano's mango pickle.

Last month I made a quick one-night trip to Lahore to attend a series of plays performed by a wonderful theatre group from across the border, and this month I managed to attend (and convinced more than two dozen family members to attend) the Mystic Music Festival held at Alhamra. The fact that the family would also attend meant a lot of organizational and coordinational (a word I just made up) hassles, but it was well worth it. Over two nights, I had a fair amount of fun, managed to listen to - and watch - some exceptional performances and accomplished the 'touching base with the family' task fairly adequately as well.

I won't go into detailed descriptions of the acts but I did carry away some pretty clear impressions from the two nights that I attended. Some were positive, but a few things niggled me as well. It was pretty easy to pick out favorite performers from amongst the twenty or so acts that I saw. First and foremost, Saeen Zahoor is a gift from God. His voice, especially in the high registers, is spine-tinglingly, goosebumping inducingly powerful and his wonderfully unassuming style perfectly complements his phenomenal talents. I've rarely found myself teary-eyed at a concert, but Saeen ji made me almost break into sobs.God bless him for that.

The other veteran performer who was totally on-the-money was the wonderful Akhter Chinar Zehri from Balochistan. I've grown up watching him on TV as the uncle who sings "Dana-pe-dana", which he obligingly performed at the festival. But what clinched the performance for me was his rendition of Hz Maulana Rumi (RA)'s wonderfully charged ghazal from the Diwan-e-Shams

بیدار شو بیدار شو ھین رفت شب بیدار شو
بیزار شو بیزار شو وزخویشہم بیزار شو

This he performed in his trademark style, lingering on and emoting each verse, whirling and swaying all the while. It was a trance-inducing performance and I won't forget it any time soon. 

Then there were two rather young acts who impressed me very much, and were appreciated pretty generously by the audience as well. The "Bazm-e-Liqa", a group of Ismaili musicians; male and female of relatively young ages, from Hunza in the Gilgit-Baltistan region who accompany themselves on traditional instruments like the Rubab and the lute, with percussion provided by tambourines and Daff's. They were unhurried, completely lost in their own performance, with wonderful voices and a soothing and tranquil performance style. They performed, among other things, a Hamd of Pir Naseeruddin Naseer(RA)'s and a wonderful ghazal of Hafiz Sherazi's and were probably my stand-out favorites among all the performers.

The other performer that really impressed my was Wahdat Rameez, a young musician with no family background in music but possessing a wonderfully melodious voice. He was accompanied by his brother on the harmonium and they sang only two pieces, the "Rohi" and a traditional folk tune made famous by the Wadaali brothers. The style was unassuming, the voices clear and melodious and classically trained. I'm pretty sure I'll be hearing a lot more from them in the future. Honourable mentions also to Kishan Lal Bheel from Cholistan and his band of traditional musicians/dancers/fire-eaters.

While these were the standout performers in my view, the other performers, barring one or two exceptions, were also pretty good. However, there were one or two things that rankled and proved major bummers. One of the things that annoyed me was something I have written about previously. There were seven Qawwal parties featured over the two nights that I attended the festival, and they all performed at least three items each. The irritating bit was that all the twenty or so items performed by the Qawwals boiled down to half a dozen Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan pieces. Some Qawwalis, like "Allah Hoo Allah Hoo" and  "Saanson Ki Mala" were repeated four times each night, and I have now grown to hate, literally loathe "Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor Hai" mainly because I heard it performed four times in a single night by four different Qawwali parties. I feel sorry for Nusrat, God rest his soul, but I feel doubly sorry for the hundreds of Qawwals whose growth and development became stunted when they couldn't grow out of his enormous shadow. Not one Qawwal performed an original composition-except maybe Imran Aziz Mian. who decided to forego half-hearted Nusrat covers in favour of half-hearted covers of his father's famous Qawwalis. 

The other thing that Qawwals in particular, and most other performers in general, suffered from was counter-intuitive sound mixing. With a few exceptions- "Bazm-e-Liqa", Wahdat Rameez and Arieb Azhar-, each performer's sound-mix consisted of an ultra-loud tabla/dholak and earscreechingly loud vocals; with the harmoniums, guitars, saxophones, clarinets and violins completely drowned out. It was a sad sight to see a rather elderly clarinet player playing the bejeezus out of his instrument,sitting in the back-row of a Qawwali party with no microphone in front of him, while at the same time there were two microphones each for the two dholak players. I've never been able to understand why performers - and in some cases audiences - prefer this setup. It was at the performers' insistence that the levels were adjusted, with many vocalists urging the sound engineers to literally 'take it up to 11', ala Spinal Tap. What resulted was a muddled mess of noise that was pretty distressing to the ears. I'm afraid this is what most of the concerts I've attended have sounded like, and it represents a pretty sizeable hurdle in the way of enjoying the precious few live musical events that take place in Pakistan. 

Looking At It From Smaug's Point Of View 

Once upon a time there was a phenomenal treasure trove of music in a folder on a file-sharing site. It had been uploaded by a gentleman of Pickwickian benevolence and consisted of hundreds of hours of extremely rare recordings by some of the greatest musicians of the last century. It was freely available to the public to listen to, share and download-albeit with moderation. You were allowed a limited number of downloads per day so the servers wouldn't get overloaded. People mostly minded the rules and listened/downloaded with restraint, enabling the folder to remain online for almost three years. Well, one day, as was inevitable, someone greedy came along. The download limit was exceeded, the servers got overloaded, the filesharing site investigated and decided the folder seemed suspicious in terms of copyright infringement and shut it down. The greatest online repository of music, which had taken at least two years to upload and organize, is no more. The gentleman who had painstakingly uploaded the folder is unwilling to go to all the effort again, just to accomodate those he now calls 'selfish freeloaders'. 

Some friends of mine knew an elderly gentleman who was rumoured to possess several extremely rare Qawwali recordings and had a few hundred tapes in his collection. Overtures were made to him to share some, if not all, of his recordings with us, in exchange we'd digitize and organize them for him. these overtures were met with a firm refusal. The gentleman provided a reason for his refusal, which I'm paraphrasing here. The recordings that he possessed had been personally recorded by him at various Qawwali mehfils over the last half-century. In order to attend those mehfils he'd had to travel many hundreds of miles, spending days and weeks in travel just to listen to -and try to record- his favorite artists. Getting invited to these mehfils had involved first being accepted into the community of organizers, conoisseurs and performers. This acceptance had been cultivated over years, and involved meetings, discussions and active participation in the various activities associated with shrines and dargaahs. After he'd been deemed worthy of an invitation, had made the week-long trek to some far off location and been allowed to attend the mehfils, he had to receive permission to record; permission which was not always forthcoming. It was therefore, quite a challenge to record these mehfils.

If he heard about a recording in the possession of somebody else, the whole odyssey would be repeated. He often had to travel a couple of hundred miles in search of a single recording and return empty-handed, but the recordings he managed to get were cherished possessions. The recordings in those tapes, he said, weren't just audio snippets of obscure musicians. They were a record of the places, people, relationships, time and effort that were associated with acquiring them. They were, in short, milestones to his life. What we were suggesting, he said, was that he hand over those milestones to us when we had experienced/suffered/enjoyed/felt none of the things he considered the price of the recordings. Hence the flat refusal. Both 'zauq' and 'shauq' had to be amply demonstrated before he'd be willing to part with any one of them. So, while my friends were allowed to listen to some of the recordings, they came back empty handed.

The late Lutfullah Khan Sb was the foremost audiovisual archiver/collector in Pakistan. His collection of audio/video and documents related to the performing arts is unparallelled in its breadth and scope. He had painstakingly collected, edited, organized and cataloged the entire audiovisual history of Pakistan. This obsession consumed and controlled most of his life, and is enshrined in the most extensive audiovisual library in Pakistan. He left clear instructions to his family that after his death, his archive should be given over to the person or organization who could provide adequate financial compensation to his family for what is an incalculably rich treasure. This financial compensation would have to run into tens of millions of rupees ( a fair assessment in my opinion), otherwise there would be no-sale. On no account would the archive be donated free of cost, in fact Lutfullah Sb preferred setting fire to the whole collection rather than allowing it out of his family's hands without 'adequate financial compensation.' Almost a year after Lutfullah Sb's death, the archive remains closed to the public.

The small music collection that I've managed to acquire over the last three or four years owes much of its existence to the kindness of friends and total strangers. With a few exceptions, I have not had to travel hundreds of miles, or offer proofs of my 'zauq' or 'shauq'. I have often bickered when, in search of recordings and such, I have been faced with a firm refusal or delaying tactics. But I have also come to see that there is some, if not complete, then at least some justification in the refusals. In an age where the internet and filesharing have made gazillions of hours of audio and video freely available, some of us, myself included, have started taking this easy availability for granted. We have started to consider it something of a right to be able to see everything, hear everything and enjoy everything. I'm not saying this free availability is a bad thing. I'm sure my music collection, and come to think of it, my life would've been woefully incomplete if not for those angels in human shape who share so much of their collections on filesharing sites and YouTube. 

But consideration must be paid to the dissenting voices, who believe that simply desiring something isn't enough, one must do something to deserve it too. 

P.S Look up Bazm-e-Liqa and Wahdat Rameez, you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

...From Nothingness to 'Being' - Hz Bedam Shah Warsi (RA)

Around two years ago I started a "Rather Ambitious Project". I had recently arrived in the jungle and had eons of time at my hands. After acquainting myself with the local flora and fauna -comprising mainly of snakes and giant insects - I had to find something useful to do. After spending a month or so transcribing some of Haji Mahboob Sb's recordings and digitizing some of my cassettes, I was looking for something else to occupy my time. I had brought along a Farsi primer to learn the rudiments of that language, mainly to help me understand the kalam I was transcribing, but that required just an hour or two of my time per day. My FCPS Part 1 exam was a year and a half away, so my course books were still technically out-of-bounds for me. All I did was lie in my room in the middle of the jungle and enjoy the lack of electricity, running water and human contact with my aforementioned friends - the snakes and giant insects.

Finally I decided I'd try my hand at organizing my music library. I had a fairly large number of recordings of various kinds in my harddrive and I used iTunes as my primary music player. iTunes has a very pedantic attitude towards organizing your library, and if it's not done just right, it can take you hour to search through it. So I decided to knuckle down and try to sort out the jumbled mess of music in my harddrive. I had seen my friends over at "Qawwali Central" use a simple yet effective way of organizing their Qawwali recordings. Under the 'Genre' tab, they used to place the name of the poet. So all of Maulana Jami's kalams were under the genre of "Jami" and so forth. This was useful when you needed to identify the poet of a kalam, as well as for when you were in the mood to listen to, say nothing but Khusrau (RA) for example. The artists, albums and tracks would remain true to those listed on the recordings, while the genres would divide them neatly among the various poets. This seemed like a great idea, so that's how I started organizing my music too.

Once I had done so -and it took me quite a few days due to the lack of electricity mentioned above, I began to pay more attention to some aspects of the recordings that I hadn't noticed before. For example, how each artist; based on his background, training and influences etc, interpreted the same kalaam in a way entirely different from another artist. Some performers brought out the spiritual meanings of the kalams, while others embellished them in musical adornment, while still others flew off at new tangents altogether. Very soon, I had my definitive versions of each kalam, and those I listened to repeatedly.

A while before leaving for the jungle, I had put up a couple of posts highlighting the different versions of the same kalaam by different artists , highlighting what I've mentioned above. While organizing my music, I thought of another approach. I would share my favorite versions of kalams by one poet only, showing how their various kalams were performed by different artists. And to avoid giving preference to one artist over the other, or one kalam over another, I would include only one version of the kalam and only one recording by an artist per post. Otherwise the recordings would number into the dozens and my poor file-hosting server would crash.

So, with that in mind, I set out to select recordings, which was easier said than done. To include Munshi Raziuddin's version of the Qaul or Bahauddin Khan Sb's, to include the more popularly known version of a kalam or to include an unheard track by an obscure performer and so forth. Still, after a couple of weeks of picking and cutting, I had a sizeable stash of 45 odd recordings that I was ready to share. the next step was writing about the recordings and preparing the posts themselves. In those days, I had the habit of writing down most of the post before hand, on paper or as MS word documents, so I could just paste the text and upload the recordings, saving me time on my once-a-month weekends. I have a habit - which I'll have to get rid of someday - of writing in a very florid and overlong style, a result of worshiping Wodehouse I suppose, and it took me quite a while to get all the write-ups done. But a couple of days before I was about to come home on a weekend, the write-ups were finished too. Now all I had to do was come home and post the stuff.

That's when the jungle decided to play a trick on me. Lightning struck - quite literally- and fried my laptop. Thank heavens my harddrive wasn't attached to it at that time, for I hadn't backed up my data then. But my laptop, with all the write-ups and recordings, and tons of other important data, was kaput. Thankfully it was still in warranty and the vendors were able to replace it, but I had lost my enthusiasm along with my data and decided to put the project on an indefinite hiatus.

Several times during the last two years, I thought of restarting work on the project, but laziness and a recollection of the enormity of the task always dissuaded me. In these two years, I managed to brush up my Farsi slightly, pass my FCPS Part 1 exam, get engaged and alleviate my electricity/running water/communications problem - still no luck with the snakes and giant insects, and managed to reclaim some of the absolute idleness that I enjoyed at my arrival in the jungle. So, a month or so ago, I started earnestly working towards revvitalizing this long dead project. Collected the recordings again and made backups. Thankfully this time there have been no mess-ups -so far, touchwood - and I think I'm finally ready to get back to what I started more than two years ago.

This time, I have more recordings to choose from, and I find that I have inadvertently posted two installments of the project already, so this makes it the third post.

1. Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA)

2. Allama Muhammad Iqbal (RA)

And now, the third post on Hz Bedam Shah Warsi (RA).

Hz Bedam Shah Warsi (RA) was born in 1882 in Atawa, a town in present day UP, India. He was named Ghulam Hasnain by his parents, but this name was forgotten once he took on the mantle of mysticism. His spiritual murshid was Hz Syed Waris Ali Shah (RA), and Bedam Sb, under the influence of his murshid, became an adept sufi. Spending most of his life in the garb of a 'Faqeer', Bedam Sb passed away in November 1936. He is buried near the shrine of his murshid. Not many biographical details are available on Bedam Sb, but what is known is that he was a contemporary of most of the great Sufis of the turn of the century, including Pir Mehr Ali Shah (RA), Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA) Hz Hasan Nizami (RA) - who said about Bedam Sb's 'Diwan', Hast Irfan dar zabaan-e-Poorbi, and poets like Hz Allama Iqbal (RA).

Bedam Sb's kalam is a wonderful mix of modern Urdu idiom and the Farsi/Purbi traditions that shaped the Sufi poetry that preceded him. His Purbi kalams led him to be given the title of 'Khusrau-e-Saani' - the Second Khusrau. His Naatiya kalaams are in a league of their own, wonderfully expressing the love for the Prophet (SAW) while at the same time retaining the fragrances of his native land, emanating - as he himself says - a "Bheeni bheeni khushboo". His non- Naatiya kalaams contain treasures of meaning, and all the main Sufi concepts are wonderfully visible- Wahdat-ul-Wujood, the concepts of 'Fanaa' and 'Baqaa', of love towards the Murshid and all creations of Allah.

Bedam Sb's kalaam has been sung by Naat-khwaans and Qawwals since his lifetime. His ghazals were readily picked up by contemporary Qawwals, and Tazmeens were sung on them. Even today, almost eighty years after his demise, Bedam Sb's kalam retains the same freshness, the same depth of ideas and emotions and the same "bheeni bheeni khushboo" that it did when it was created. What follows is a group of Qawwali recordings of Bedam Sb's kalam, spanning almost seventy years from the '30s to the present day. The performance styles are different, but Bedam Sb's distinct style shines through nonetheless.

1. Begaangiye Dil Ke Afsaane - Kallan Qawwal Meerthi

I have very few recordings of Kallan Qawwal Meerthi - I have slightly more of his namesake Kallan Qawwal Sikandarabadi, but still they're few in number, but those few recordings have turned me into a fan. He used Sitar, Bulbultarang and in one case, a wonderful slide guitar lick that would've made any Bluesman proud, in his recordings, and managed to squeeze a large number of girahs, verses and takraars into the three-odd minutes that could fit onto a 78 RPM record. Here however, he sings the kalam with a simple harmonium and swirling clarinet accompaniment, supported by his hamnavaas. This recording is from the late thirties, so might be considered contemporary with Bedam Sb's life.

2. Adam Se Layi Hai Hasti Main - Jafar Hussayn Khan Badayuni Qawwal

Jafar Hussayn Khan Sb is one of my favorite performers. Distinct from all other Qawwals I've heard, he always conveys a wonderful sense of 'thehraao' or calmness, along with a wonderful mellowness that seems to have been a part of his personality as well. He sings each word with such wonderful affection and ihteraam that the kalaam comes alive. His classical prowess shines through in his lay-kaari, his alaaps and his bol-baant. In this recording he is accompanied by his nephew and Shagird, Wajahat Hussayn Khan Badayuni and they sing together brilliantly. In a sawaal-jawaab style reminiscent of Nusrat when he took a very young Rahat under his wing, the two vocalists share alaaps and compliment each other wonderfully. Jafar Hussayn Sb spends ample time on each verse, constructing brief takraars and embellishments before moving onto the next verse. It is a performance that exudes love for the Prophet (SAW), wonderfully suited to the kalam.

3. Ganj Shakar Ke Laal Nijamuddin - Zaki Taji Qawwal 

It was kalaams like these that earned Bedam Sb the title of 'Khusrave Saani'. Steeped in pure Poorbi, reminiscent of Khusrau's paeans to Hz Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya (RA), this kalam is sung very regularly at dargaahs to this day.  I must confess that I don't know much about Zaki Taji Qawwal and his party apart from a few fragments of information. As is obvious from his name, he was a devotee of Hz Baba Tajuddin (RA) and was a frequent performer at mehfils in Karachi in the '60s and '70s (according to a friend). There's only one album of his circulating on the internet, an EMI release, and it's a slickly produced, instrumentally rich affair. With a crisp voice that reminds me at places of abu Muhammad Qawwal's, Zaki Taji sings the kalam with wonderful economy and marvelous "ghinaa'iat". As he almost lovingly utters the names of the Sufi saints, the shehnai and sitar offer sparse yet effective punctuation. I don't know if one can hear the phrase 'Pir Nijamuddin chatar khilaadi' without a hint of a smile, I know I can't.  A sudden shift in tempo mid-way through the kalam lends a nice sense of urgency to the second half of the kalam.

4. Kaash Mujh Par Hi Mujhe Yaar Ka Dhoka Hojaye - Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal

Agha Rasheed Fareedi is one of my most favorite Qawwals, one of the absolutely most favorite ones. This was the first recording that I heard of his, and it sent me into such a wonderful state of mental and spiritual 'hejaan' that I still can't hear it without getting goosebumpy all over.  The arrangement is unusual, and I don't know what Raag it is based on, but whichever one it is, it is arresting, urgent and induces a wonderful sense of loss and nostalgia, or maybe that's just how I hear it. Starting slow, it picks up pace wonderfully, ending at the breakneck pace that most of Fareedi Sb's performances ended in. I've always thought of Fareedi Sb's performances as Express trains. They start slow, as you grab on to a railing and climb aboard. The scenery passing by is interesting, but the thrill of the ride prevents you from disembarking. Imperceptibly, it starts picking up speed. You sense that hanging on to the railing would be dangerous, but you begin to get mesmerized by the chugging of the engine, the trail of smoke and the gentle swaying of the train. Naseeb Khan's tabla accelerates your heartbeat, Majeed Fareedi's unbelievable alaaps cause you to lose your footing and hang on for dear life, but Rasheed's voice urges you to hang on. When you regain your senses, the train's pulling up to the station, and you're thanking your lucky stars that you decided to stay on.

 5. Iss Taraf Bhi Karam Ae Rashk-e-Maseeha Karna - Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

In the eighties, when Fareedi Sb was alive, him and Nusrat were both claimants to the title of the ablest shagird of Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwals. Fareedi Sb remained true to the traditional Punjabi-Khanqahi style of Qawwali while Nusrat veered off at a slightly different tangent, spurred on by his almost impossibly unique talent. Nusrat left behind a huge body of work of variable quality, but I've always been partial to his earlier recordings. That was when he had not let his experimentation get the best of him and was able to let the kalaam take precedence over his vocals. This is one of those early recordings. The arrangement is almost the same as Fareedi Sb's from the recording above, but Nusrat's arrangement - actually Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan's arrangement, he was the arranger for most of Nusrat's repertoire - lends it a more melancholy, almost sepulchural tone. Farrukh's harmonium flourishes and Nusrat's doha - one he used very frequently - set the mood for a stately performance. Nusrat doesn't waste time on vocal calisthenics, instead letting the kalaam ebb and flow through a series of takraars. Again, I'd like to know what raag this composition is based on, because it stirs me up like nobody's business.

 6. Kaun Sa Ghar Hai Ke Ae Jaan Nahi Kashana Tera - Murli Qawwal 

My last post was on the 'Tazmeen", a verse form that has fallen out of favor recently. This recording is of a verse form that is even more obscure, the 'Mustezaad'. It is similar to the ghazal but with each verse followed by a short rhyming phrase. For example

کون سا گھر ہے کہ اے جاں نہیں کاشانہ تیرا۔۔۔۔۔اور گلو خانہ تیرا
میکدہ تیرا ہے کعبہ تیرا بت خانہ تیرا۔۔۔۔۔ سب ہے جانانہ تیرا

Another famous example is Maulana Rumi(RA)'s famous mustezaad "Har Lehza Ba Shaklaan But-e-Ayyar Baraamad - Dil Burd Nehaan Shud". Here Murli Qawwal performs it in his distinctive takraar based style. I sincerely hope I can get to listen to recordings from Murli's youth one day. His aged voice is wonderful in itself, but Imagine what it must've sounded in its prime.

7. Bekhud Kiye Dete Hain Andaaze Hijabaana - Farid Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal

This is probably the one kalam of Bedam Sb that's performed the most nowadays. It is a fairly long ghazal and Qawwals tend to include either the verses pertaining to Ishq-e-Haqiqi (Divine love) or Ishq-e-Majazi (Temporal love) in their performances, but rarely both. I prefer the former style of performance, but that's a personal preference. In this uptempo performance, Farid Ayaz employs short sargams and taans while Abu Muhammad propels the verses along. Sung in a very 'zor daar' andaz, with a lively dholak and taali accompaniment, this performance exudes the joy and intoxication of 'visaal', regardless of the veils that lie between one and the beloved.

8. Ayi Naseeme Kooe Muhammad (SAW) - Aziz Ahmed Khan Warsi Qawwal

This is probably Bedam Sb's most beloved Naat. Literally hundreds of Naat-khwaans and Qawwals have sung it  over the years. Aziz Ahmad Khan Warsi sung it regularly in his mehfils and he sang it wonderfully. Here is the most complete version in my collection. His unique staccato harmonium and the ubiquitous dholak accompaniment are present here, as his his distinctive piercing voice. He builds takraars on 'Sallalaahu Alaihiwasallam" and then inserts rather wonderful takraars in Urdu and Farsi, all the while the dholak provides a steady beat. The takraar is resumed after every verse, with fresh girahs inserted. Warsi Sb's short alaaps and taans punctuate this wonderful performance.

9. Yaad Ne Teri Kiya Khud Se Faramosh Mujhe - Ameer Rafeeq Murkiyanwale Qawwal

If there's one Qawwali party who's every recording exudes pure joy, it's Ustad Rafeeq Ali, his son Ameer Ali and their party. What a wonderful group of performers, three exceptional vocalists, each with their distinctive vocal stylings, a brilliant dholak/taali section and the wonderful use of Sarangi and Violin. Rafeeq Ali's taans are matchless, and apart from the late Haji Maqbool Sabri, I've rarely heard a Qawwal with a more melodious and mellifluous voice. In this performance, he uses one of Bedam Sb's verses as a doha - one that he used in many other performances as well, then a trio of short, triling taans and we're off. Most performances are led by Ameer Ali, with his father providing occasional vocal support, but this performance is wholly and completely Ustad Rafeeq Ali's, and thank heavens for that. The girah-bandi, the taans, and the gayeki on this recording are absolutely brilliant, and it's a shame that there aren't more than a dozen or so good recordings available of this group. I'll have to specifically ask around for them on my next trip to Faisalabad.

10. Kaash Meri Jabeene Shauq - Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal

When I started compiling these recordings two years ago, and again more recently, I was struck by an interesting observation. The depth of Haji Mahboob Sb's repertoire was so great that I could post pretty comprehensive selections of all these poets culled only from Haji Sb's recordings. Bedam Sb's kalams were an essential part of his repertoire and Haji Sb performed them with and without Tazameen pretty regularly. This recording is taken from a mehfil that was devoted solely to Bedam Sb's kalams, and each one of the performances deserved to be posted here, but the 'one recording per artist' rule is here for a reason. Haji Sb's girahs , from Farsi to the Punjabi Baits of Hz Ali Haider Shah (RA), are extremely apt, his sitar drones wonderfully in the background and Haji Mushtaq offers alaaps, accompaniment and harmonium flourishes admirably. This is a deeply spiritual kalaam of Bedam Sb, with each verse containing, in his own words a "Jahaan-e-Raaz", and one that is very close to my heart. It will serve admirably to close out this compilation of Hz Bedam Shah Warsi's kalam.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

...Of Codicils And Collaborations - The Tazmeen

I think it's proper to preface this post with an apology for laziness, tardiness, negligence and all-round faience (I had to look that up, how's that for not being lazy). I've neglected writing a new post for way too long. I could make excuses; some of them pretty valid too, but the underlying cause of not regularly updating the blog has been downright procrastination. I haven't been able to devote the extra time and effort that goes into earmarking the hours that I usually carve out of my once a month weekends. The realization that this temporary hiatus might insidiously turn into something of  a permanent rut that might be impossible to get out of has been bothering me for quite some time. Therefore, when the time came for a period of extended leave - 10 days is about as extended as my leave can get, sigh - I started planning a series of posts aimed at rectifying the long hibernation and revivifying the blog. Over the next week or so, I'll try to make up for the absence, in quantity if not in quality.

Now that that's taken care of, let's get to the point, shall we.

Qawwals are distinct from other performers in many respects, and one of the qualities that distinguishes a great Qawwal from the run-of-the-mill performers is versatility of repertoire. To put it another way; with obvious exceptions, a good ghazal singer sings ghazals, a good folksinger sings mahiye or tappay or baits or whatever he specializes in and a good classical performer sings classical/semi-classical pieces. A good Qawwal, a really good Qawwal sings all of the above and then some. Or perhaps, good Qawwals used to be able to sing all of the above and then some, for most of the current crop of Qawwals - especially the innumerable Nusrat clones - have painfully limited repertoires. This was borne out to me on my most recent "Organize your Library Week" -yes, it takes me a week to organize my music library, I'm that annoying a stickler for order - when I realized that among almost two hundred recordings of one of the most important Qawwali parties of today, I could find only thirty-odd kalaams being repeated. The repertoire that just one generation ago had spanned hundreds of kalaams was now whittled down to three or four dozen pieces mish-mashed together in various combinations.

This is something of a natural phenomenon in an art form that mostly relies on centuries-old canonical pieces passed down generation to generation, but it's still a troubling trend. Some forms of poetry have almost disappeared from the repertoires of most Qawwals - it's been ages since I heard a Ruba'i performed by a Qawwal - and performers have mostly fallen back on the Farsi/Urdu/Punjabi ghazal as a staple of their repertoire, with the Punjabi qawwals borrowing from the kalaams of Hz Baba Bulleh Shah and Khwaja Ghulam Fareed (RA) and derivations thereof.

One of my favorite forms of poetry, which is sung very rarely by Qawwals, and which is written even more scarcely by modern poets is the Tazmeen. A tazmeen is a slightly unusual verse form, and it needs some explaining. It's when a poet takes a ghazal - usually of one of the "Asaateza" of Urdu or Farsi - and appends three rhyming verses before each couplet, converting the verse from a couplet (two lines) to a cinquain (five lines) and changing it from a ghazal to a "mukhammass". A 'mukhammas', another verse form rarely written today, consists of series of five-line cinquains in which the last 'misrah' or hemistitch of each cinquain rhymes with the last misrah of each succeeding cinquain and constitutes the 'samm' of the kalam while the first four misrah's of each cinquain rhyme with each other and follow a different rhyme scheme for each cinquain. The result is a hybrid, with each cinquain or 'bandd' containing three lines from one poet and the final two lines from another.

I know it sounds confusing, all this talk of cinquains and hemistitches leaves the gentle reader's mind boggling,so let me give an example. The following is a wonderful Farsi ghazal of Hz Quddusi (RA).

آستین بر رخ کشیدی ہمچو مکار آمدی
با خودی خود در تماشا سوۓ بازار آمدی

در بہاران گل شدی درصحن گلزار آمدی
بعد ازان بلبل شدی بانالۂِ زار آمدی

خویشتن را جلوہ کردی اندرین آئینہ ہا
آئینہ اسمے نہادی خود بہ اظہار آمدی

شورِ منصور از کجا و دارِ منصور از کجا
خود زدی بانگِ اناالحق بر سرِ دار آمدی

گفت قدوسےؔ فقیرے در فنا و در بقا
خود بخود آزاد بودی خود گرفتار آمدی

And now here's the same kalaam with a Tazmeen by Amjad Hyderabadi.

نازدکھلاتی ہے پردے میں تیری جلوہ گری
حوربنکر تو نظر آیا کہیں بنکر پری
پھر کہو سیکھا کہاں سے ہے یہ طرز دلبری
آستین بر رخ کشیدی ہمچو مکار آمدی
با خودی خود در تماشا سوۓ بازار آمدی

جب سمایا میرے دل میں اُٹھ گیا نقشِ دوئی
نور یک رنگی کا چمکا مٹ گیا حرفِ دوئی
باغ میں کھل کھل کے کہتی تھی چمن کی ہر کلی

در بہاران گل شدی درصحن گلزار آمدی
بعد ازان بلبل شدی بانالۂِ زار آمدی

روح میں میری اَلَسْتُ جس گھڑی تو نے کہا
سنتے ہی کہنے لگی قَالُوبلٰی قَالُوبلٰی
پھر نظر آۓ نہ کیوں ہر شان میں جلوہ تیرا

خویشتن را جلوہ کردی اندرین آئینہ ہا
آئینہ اسمے نہادی خود بہ اظہار آمدی

یہ معقولہ عاشقِ صادق کا بے شک ہے بجا
اس نے جلوہ شان کا ہر رنگ میں دکھلا دیا
تو ہی کہہ دے معرفت میں اے کریمِ بے نوا

گفت قدوسےؔ فقیرے در فنا و در بقا
خود بخود آزاد بودی خود گرفتار آمدی

Tazmeens were regularly written on the ghazals of the "Asaateza" of both Urdu and Farsi, in both Urdu and Farsi, by the leading poets of the past. It was a both a way of paying tribute to poets by their students and admirers as well as a means of exploring or highlighting the hidden meanings of the ghazal. Most of the "asaateza" of Urdu and Farsi have themselves written Tazameen to ghazals of their predecessors. This tradition is shared by the Sufi poets, with everyone from Hz Hafiz Sherazi (RA) to more recent Sufi poets like Bedam Shah Warsi, Amjad Hyderabadi and Isa Amritsari (RA) having written Tazameen on various ghazals.

The Tazmeen was a regular part of the repertoire of Qawwals of the past, with some Qawwals like the seminal Sufi Ali Buksh Waiz Qawwal and Muhammad Ali Faridi Qawwal writing their own tazmeens to canonical kalams. In fact, Hz Pir Mehr Ali Shah (RA) bestowed the title of "Sufi" to Waiz Qawwal after hearing him perform a tazmeen on Pir Sb's immortal Punjabi kalam "Ajj sikk mitran di wadheri ae". Several of Waiz's tazameen - on poets ranging from Kabir to Khusrau (RA) - survive in his 'Beyaaz'. Succeeding Qawwals also regularly performed tazameen, however they have gradually disappeared from repertoires. An important distinction must be made here. Some listeners confuse the meaning of the terms "girah" and "tazmeen". A Tazmeen is the verse form I described above, while a girah constitutes a verse or group of verses that a Qawwal inserts between the verses of the main kalam that help elaborate the main kalam. These verses may or may not be in the same language, the same metre or the same verse form as the main kalam. For example, Haji Mahboob Sb used to insert girahs of Maulana Rumi's (RA) Mathnavi in most of his performances.

The Tazmeen in itself is a wonderful verse form, and is especially suited to Qawwali. The aim of the Qawwal is to perform a text in such a way as to bring out its various mystical and spiritual meanings, while at the same time conveying to the listener it's more literal meanings. A tazmeen fulfills both requirements admirably, with an added benefit. Urdu or Punjabi Tazmeens to Farsi kalams help the non-Farsi literate members of the audience in understanding the meaning and message of the main kalam. Before I acquired the smattering of Farsi required to understand what was being performed by various Qawwals, it was the girahs and Tazmeens sung by the Qawwals that helped me in connecting the dots and understanding the main kalam. It is therefore, doubly sad that the Tazmeen in Qawwali is gradually disappearing, for it is a wonderful verse form to introduce the lay-listener to the nuances of the canonical kalaams. It's heartening to note that Khanqahi qawwals - as opposed to the more commercially oriented ones - in both India and Pakistan continue performing Tazmeens in their repertoire, thus maintaining this important medium of spiritual instruction.

After this rather lengthy preamble, I'd like to share some of the Tazmeens in my collection to illustrate how an expert Qawwal can use this unique verse formin the Qawwali context to highlight and explore the deeper meanings of sufi texts. These recordings range from some of the very earliest Qawwali recordings produced in the subcontinent, to a mehfil from just a couple of years ago.

First off, two grand old masters of Qawwali, who were pioneers of their field. Baba Din Muhammad Jalandhri Qawwal, father of Miandad Khan Qawwal, grandfather of Badar Miandad Khan Qawwal,uncle to Fateh Ali-Mubarak Ali Qawwals and a very important Ustad whose influence can clearly be heard in many of the Fareedi/Fatehkhani shagird Qawwals of the modern era. In this recording he sings the landmark Na'at of Hz Bedam Shah Warsi, Adam Se Layi Hai Hasti Main Arzooe Rusool (SAW). He uses an Urdu tazmeen by an unknown poet, and sings it in his highly distinctive sing/speak style. Along with his trademark shouts of "Haan!" and his fullthroated voice, he uses vacillating taans that were later perfected by Agha Basheer Fareedi, a shagird of Baba Din Muhammad's nephews Fateh Ali and Mubarak Ali.

 Next up is another seminal Pre-Partition Qawwal, Azim Prem Ragi Qawwal , who performs his own Tazmeen to Maulana Rumi's (RA) Naat from the Diwan-e-Shams Tabraiz, Ya Rusool-Allah Habibe Khaliqe Yaktaa Tu'i. Prem Ragi was well known for writing his own kalam and performing canonical kalams with his own tazmeens. Here he uses his remarkably emotive voice and minimal instrumentation to embellish a very famous naat.

Jumping ahead in time to another brilliantly gifted Qawwal, about whom Nusrat had once remarked, "Takraar main unn ka koi saani nahi hai" (No one comes close to him in Takraar). Sadly, I only have a dozen or so recordings of Murli Qawwal ,but the ones I have are ample proof of his prodigious talent. And as Nusrat said, he has no parallels when it comes to Takraars, seemingly conjuring them out of thin air and seamlessly flitting from one takraar to another, picking up little phrases and repeating them just perfectly. Here he sings a Tazmeen to Hafiz Sherazi (RA)'s ghazal, Ba Mulazimaane Sultan Geh Rasaanad Een Dua Ra.

 Among the modern Qawwals, one of my favorites is Muhammmad Ahmed Warsi Qawwal , hailing from Rampur. One of a very small group of pure khanqahi Qawwals who are also well versed in classical music, Muhammad Ahmed Warsi Sb is a wonderful Qawwal. His unique style, with a staccato harmonium and a seemingly dishevelled performance style that comes off as endearing rather than slipshod, is perfectly complimented by his vast knowledge of Sufi texts and the obvious enjoyment he derives from performing. Here he performs a Tazmeen on Hz Amir Khusrau (RA)'s kalam, Aamada Ba Qatle Mun Aan Shokh Sitamgaaray . The recording is taken from a wonderful mehfil uploaded at .

The final Tazmeen is by Haji Mahbooob Ali Qawwal (RA) , who in my opinion fulfilled all the criteria of a perfect Khanqahi Qawwal. Nurtured and trained personally by Hz Syed Mohyeddin Gilani (RA) - Hazrat Babuji (RA) - Haji Mahboob Sb was extremely well versed in Sufi kalam. His grasp on talaffuz, adayegi and especially girahbandi was legendary. His relative weakness in classical musical education - which he was always the first to admit - was more than balanced by his unique Sitar playing and his wonderful spontaniety as a performer. Tazmeens were his specialty, and special tazmeens were written by poets like Isa Amritsari (RA) for him to perform. His version of Maulana Jami (RA)'s landmark naat "Nasima Janibe Bat'ha Guzar Kun" with a wonderful tazmeen is absolutely spellbinding. In his almost six decades of daily performance at Golra Sharif, he regularly performed Tazmeens. From the recordings that survive, here is a wonderful Tazmeen written by Isa Amritsari to Hz Badruddin Hilali (RA)'s ghazal Ae Teer-e-Ghamat Raa Dil-e-Usshaaq Nishana . Haji Sb's girahs on the final two verses - especially the girah-dar-takraar that he performs on the second last verse- open up whole vistas of hidden meanings in this kalaam. It is one of my favorite Tazmeens, and serves as a fitting bookend to this post.

P.S  I briefly mentioned the "mukhammas" or "makhmas' as five-line verse form that the Tazmeen resembles. Mukhammas is a very popular verse form in the Darri/Farsi culture and is regularly performed by musicians there. Almost all the classical Farsi poets have written Mukhammas, and many of these are still performed today. As an added treat, here's a beautiful Mukhammas of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi (RA) , performed by the phenomenal Ustad Muhammad Hussain Sarahang. This Mukhammas was a special favorite of the Ustad, referencing as it does his hometown Kabul suburb of "Kharabaat", once the cultural heart of the city. So, to end this post, Ustad Sarahang performing Maulana Rumi (RA)'s Mukhammas Mun Jaane Kharabaatam.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

...On Manzoor Niazi Sb's Passing

It seems the only thing that can awaken - at least momentarily - this long slumbering blog from its stupor is the passing of one of the Great Ones; the Touchstones that support the spiritual/cultural/psychological/whateverelse-ical framework of my life. In the past I've had to write - briefly or at length, depending on my state of mind at that time- about my thoughts on the passing of Iqbal Bano, Mehdi Hassan, Jagjit Singh, Shammi Kapoor etc, and one one rare occasion, of my grandfather. It's like the only time my thoughts crystallize into a coherent whole is when another one of my Touchstones crumbles and I have to frantically try and balance myself , my Self , on the precious few that remain.

Ustad Manzoor Ahmed Khan Niazi has passed away today. He was 98. He was, both age-wise and stature-wise the senior-most Qawwal in the Indo-Pak Subcontinent. He had one of the most instantly recognizable and absolutely, mellifluously endearing voices in all of Qawwali. He was the leader of the most phenomenally gifted, albeit short-lived Qawwali group of the last century, a Supergroup which included his cousins Munshi Raziuddin Khan. Ustad Bahauddin Khan and Iftekhar Ahmed Nizami, and whose surviving recordings seem to date from a time and place that's almost too phenomenally wonderful that merely listening to them sometimes feels like an act of desecration. His last recordings, from when he was 90 years old, still carried the same verve, the same 'taazgi' as his recordings from the '60s
His was the voice that first sang Maulana Jami's "Naseema" and Nawab Hilm's "Yaad Hai Kuch Bhi Hamaari Kanhaiyya" to me, and even today I can scarcely appreciate these two canonical Qawwali kalaams in any other Qawwal's voice. With Niazi Sb's passing closes the chapter of the Golden Age of Pakistani Qawwali. He was a predecessor of, and later a contemporary of Nusrat, The Sabri Brothers, Aziz Mian Qawwal, Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal, Aziz Ahmed Warsi, Jafar Hussayn Khan Badayuni and ALL the Qawwals of the latter three quarters of the twentieth century. He survived them all well into the twenty-first century before finally returning to his Maker

I hope that Manzoor Niazi Sb's legacy - in the form of the Qawwal Bacchon Ka Gharana, of which he was the senior-most doyen - flourishes and thrives, and keeps on serving, nurturing and promoting the art of Qawwali that its three stalwarts; Qawwal Bahauddin Khan Sb, Munshi Raziuddin Khan Sb and Manzioor Ahmed Niazi Sb served so nobly. His son Abdullah Manzoor Niazi Qawwal has inherited his father's unbelievably melodious voice and is among the foremost Qawwals of the subcontinent today. I'm sure that Abdullah Niazi Sb, along with Farid Ayaz & Abu Muhammad, Qawwals Najmuddin Saifuddin And Brothers, Subhan Ahmed Nizami Qawwal and the third generation of the Qawwal Bacchay will carry on the wonderful and unbroken 700 year old tradition that their ancestors learnt from Hz Amir Khusrau (RA).

I shall now spend the rest of the day listening to Manzoor Niazi Sb's version of Naseema and praying for his departed soul; and I'd request the readers to do the same.

N.B.  A selection of Niazi Sb's recordings can be found here. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

...Of The Voice Of The Rohi

If you stopped me on the street tomorrow and asked, "What's the proudest day of your life?" I wouldn't hesitate a second before answering, " 30th October, 2010. "

It's not the day I got admission into Med School, it's not the day I graduated, or the day I started my professional life, or the day I got to talk to Mushtaq Ahmed Yusfi Sb (although come to think of it, that's a very close second). It's the day almost exactly two years ago when I ended my five day exploration of South Punjab with a visit to the shrine of one of the greatest Sufi poets in the history of the subcontinent, Hazrat Khwaja Ghulam Fareed Sb (RA).

I think I've written about it before but I'll give a quick recap. During the disastrous floods of autumn 2010, I went to Dera Ghazi Khan in Southern Punjab for a month of flood relief duties. Towards the end of my spell, I was given five days leave. Since my one month tour of duty was almost ending, I decided to use these five days to explore South Punjab; traveling more than 2000 kilometers over the course of five days and visiting Multan, Bahawalpur, Cholistan, Derawar, Ucch Shareef and various other places east of the river Indus. On the final day, when I was to return to DG Khan, I crossed the Indus and travelled a further 120 miles to the southernmost tip of Punjab, a little town called Mithan Kot. I was there to pay my respects at Khwaja Sb's mazaar.

Before going on to describe what happened that day, I'd like to take a few moments to explain the reason of my visit. My fascination with places of spiritual and historical significance had started during that one month of flood relief duty, yet my visits to various shrines and mazaars weren't motivated by any spiritual reasons. Of course I had the proper respect for them, but I wasn't going there as a pilgrim, merely as a tourist. With Khwaja Sb's shrine however, the motivation was different. I was going there out of spiritual and emotional affinity.

The reason for my "spiritual and emotional affinity" was that since earliest childhood, I had been exposed to Khwaja Sb's poetry via some of the greatest voices of Pakistani history. The names of Pathanay Khan and Zahida Parveen - especially Zahida Parveen - were not just familiar to me, their voices were part of my childhood. My grandparents listened to them - my Daada had me play Zahida Parveen's Kafis to him in his last days - my parents listened to them and in turn, I listened to them. The voices were filled with the sights, sounds and scents of the deserts of the "Rohi". Their tones depicted longing and hope, optimism and regret, love and heartbreak all in the same breath. It was much later when I started to better understand Seraiki that I really began to appreciate what was being sung by these amazing artists.

I think no other subcontinental Sufi poet has better expressed the feelings of longing and separation better than Khwaja Sb. Drawing from Punjabi romantic epics as well as the folk idiom of Seraiki, Khwaja Sb created a distinct language based solely on the concept of Love. Love in Khwaja Sb's poetry, whether spiritual or temporal, is a source of fulfillment and completion, while at the same time leaving one unfulfilled and incomplete. It's hard for a layman like me to explain the nuances of his kalaam, suffice to say that Khwaja Sb is the only poet whose verses have made me burst into tears.

What happened on that October day two years ago was described by me in a previous post as follows;

The obvious step after paying my respects was to ask around for anyone who might sing one of Khwaja Sb's immortal kaafis for me. Somebody directed me to a group of Fakirs sitting in a corner of the shrine courtyard, one of whom was the current Khalifa of the shrine. I introduced myself and expressed my desire to listen to some of Khwaja Sb's kalam and the Khalifa Sb graciously consented to sing some for me, albeit making excuses for his voice. As I brought out my cellphone camera and he started singing, goosebumpy silence was quickly followed by a sudden gush of emotion as tears came to my eyes. I looked around and realised that I wasn't alone, very soon the entire circle of Fakirs was gently sobbing (some of which can be heard on the recording). This in itself would've been enough to make this an unforgettable experience, but somehow I plucked up the the courage to ask the gathered audience if  I could sing something too. they graciously consented and there, right next to Khwaja Sb's resting place, in the company of a group of Fakirs, I sang one of my favorite (and my parents' and grandparents' favorite) kaafi. When I ended, the teary-eyed assemblage very kindly appreciated me and we prayed together for a while before I took my leave. Nothing, and I mean nothing has come close to the sheer spiritual and psychological elation I felt that day.
 Qawwali performers have mined the rich veins of Punjabi Sufi poetry for centuries, drawing from the inexhaustible well of poetry by the likes of Baba Fareed Ganj Shakkar (RA), Baba Bulleh Shah (RA), Hz Waris Shah (RA) and others, and although they have used Khwaja Ghulam Fareed Sb's Kafis in Qawwali too, the use hasn't been very widespread. His Kafis are mostly used as girahs, or as Dohas at the start of the performance, but relatively few Qawwals have performed Khwaja Sb's kalams as a separate piece. This may be due to a reluctance to use the lesser understood Seraiki dialect or due to the unusual Rubai-like quatrains of Khwaja Sb's Kafis which pose some difficulties when it comes to arranging and performing them in Qawwali settings. Yet the few Qawwals who have performed Khwaja Sb's Kafis, and the fewer still who have performed them well, have managed to rival the likes of Zahida Parveen, Pathanay Khan, Hussain Bash Dhaadi, Jumman Khan, Abida Parveen and other folk singers in elucidating the spiritual power of his kalaam.

The following collection comprises of some of my favorite Qawwali recordings of Khwaja Sb's Kafis, accompanied by renditions of the same kalaams by the pre-eminent Folk and Classical singers of their day. Three of these recordings have a very special place in my heart for various reasons, and all of them are very dear to me, as indeed are all renditions of Khwaja Sb's kalam.

Pathanay Khan and Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal - Aa Mil Maroo, Mararroo

Ustad Salamat Ali Khan-Nazakat Ali Khan and Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal - Ishq Anookhri Peer

Zahida Parveen and Akhter Shareef Aroop Walay Qawwal - Itthaan Main Mutthri Nit Jaan Ba Lab

Abida Parveen and Agha Rasheed Ahmad Fareedi Qawwal - Yaar Sipahiya Aa Wass Mandray Kol

Haji Mahboob Ali Qawwal and Miandad Khan Qawwal - Bandi Te Bardi, Taen Dilbar Di O Yaar