Swabi Hero: Kifayat Shah Baacha

Kifayat Shah Baacha

The handsome gentleman depicted above is a Pakistani singer based in Dubai. I stumbled upon his music while searching randomly for something else, which often is the way I find some of the most remarkable music. I chase down one rabbit hole and up several others and when I come up for air I have abandoned my original search. But I’m still smiling because what I’ve discovered is more exciting than that thing I started off chasing.

I’ve not visited Pakistan for (too) many years and its been even longer since I lived there, so I should not be surprised that a whole generation of artists has emerged, about whom I know nothing. Still, I was taken aback that a star such as ‘Baacha’–a big name in the Pashto speaking parts of Pakistan and the Afghan/Pashtun diaspora–had some how escaped my radar. [On the other hand, eventually the radar did find him, so I guess it depends on one’s perspective!]

Another frustration is that I can find little beyond the barest of biographical data about Mr Baacha. I am sure there is plenty out there but in languages I don’t speak or understand, though I have put a dear friend, currently Covid-stranded in Pakistan, on to the case. What I do know is that Kifayat Shah Baacha is from the village Zaida, in Swabi District, about 100kms almost due east of Peshawar. A quick squiz of YouTube also reveals that he’s not just popular but quite prolific with a large number of CD and MP3 collections released in Pakistan as well as a relatively long list of TV appearances on Pakistani, Middle Eastern and European channels, including the BBC.

I share with you today the quaintly titled Gulistan Program Vol. 12. [Don’t bother searching for the first 11 volumes or any volume after number 12; these titles are simply created by the small enterprises that put them out. Sounds impressive. But as far as describing a particular set of songs by a particular artist…well, don’t get your hopes up.] It’s a charming set of 8 folk songs played on mostly traditional instruments (rubab, tabla, harmonium) as well as a bit of power chording on an electric keyboard. Baacha has a lovely, sweet voice which he uses mostly in a quiet way. From time to time he does take a deep breath and hits the higher registers at full force–a technique popular among Pakistani male singers as a way to frame an especially emotional passage–but overall Baacha seems content to vocalise in the mid-range. He is a skillful artist, bringing different colours to each track and creating a sound that is genuinely attractive.

Its an art he no doubt has learned from his father and uncles. While I don’t know this for a fact, I would bet a fair amount that Baacha is from a clan of musicians who have historically been attached to one of the tribal khans that dominate the NW regions of Pakistan. Baacha claims to be a Yusufzai Pathan, a clan with a long and glorious lineage.

According to a popular mythical genealogy, recorded by 17th-century Mughal courtier Nimat Allah al-Harawi in his book Tārīkh-i Khān Jahānī wa Makhzan-i Afghānī, the Yusufzai tribe descended from their eponymous ancestor Yūsuf, who was son of Mand, who was son of Khashay (or Khakhay), who was son of Kand, who was son of Kharshbūn, who was son of Saṛban (progenitor of the Sarbani tribal confederacy), who was son of Qais Abdur Rashid (progenitor of all Pashtuns). Qais Abdur Rashid was a descendant of Afghana, who was described as a grandson of the Israelite king Saul and commander-in-chief of the army of prophet Solomon. Qais was claimed to be a contemporary of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and a kinsman of Arab commander Khalid ibn al-Walid. When Khalid ibn al-Walid summoned Qais from Ghor to Medina, Qais accepted Islam and the prophet renamed him Abdur Rashīd (meaning “Servant of the Guide to the Right Path” or “Servant of God” in Arabic). Abdur Rashid returned to Ghor and introduced Islam there. The book stated that Yūsuf’s grandfather (and Mand’s father), Khashay, also had two other sons, Muk and Tarkalāṇī, who were the progenitors of the Gigyani and Tarkani tribes, respectively. Yūsuf had one brother, Umar, who was the progenitor of the Mandanr tribe, which is closely related to Yusufzais.” [Wikipedia]

Tha Yusufzais are among the most revered of clans in the Pashtun world and their dialect of the Pashto language is considered the most refined. And while Baacha sings in Pashto, he does mix Urdu–Pakistan’s national language–and other regional languages like Hindko into his repetoire. Pakistan is a land of several major languages –Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashto and Baluchi, English–as well as hundreds of variations of these. And the regions where the Punjab meets Khyber Pakhtunkwa (formerly the North West Frontier Province) a number of dialects get jumbled together as ‘Hindko’ which is a centuries old name given by Persian language speakers to differeniate the Indian (hence, Hind) tongues from the more Persian based ones, like Pashto.

Linguistic map showing major languages of Pakistan

I speak Urdu well and so am familiar with many of the Arabic and Persian root words that many Pakistani languages have incorporated into their vocabularies: mohabbat (love); sang-e-marmar (marble); qatl (murder) and; gulistan (garden) for example. So as I listened to these songs I was struck immediately by references to terms such as charsi (hashish addict) and sharabi (drunkard; boozer). Not knowing Pashto I wondered if Baacha was using them in a cautionary way, [i.e. kids watch out, don’t drink and smoke] or laudatory way [I had a hell of party last night and got sloppy drunk].

As luck would have it, my Pakistani friend called me a little while ago and so I asked him about this. “You’d be surprised at how openly Pashto literature, poetry and music address these subjects,” he said. “Far more than many other South Asian languages. They constantly sing and write about drunkness, getting stoned and homosexuality. It’s just part of the culture going way back.”

“But what about the Taliban, and all those fiery conservative Muslim politicians who come from the Pashtun community,” I asked. “Surely, they must censor this stuff and try to suppress it.”

“What are you talking about,” my friend laughed. “They depend on singers like Baacha for their livelihoods. If they didn’t sing these sort of ‘sinful’ songs, the fundamentalist mullahs wouldn’t have anything to rail about! It’s a symbiotic relationship!”

So there you have it friends. A cool set of Pashto folk songs about drinking, getting stoned and probably a whole lot more, sung by an expatriate Pakistani in Dubai with a hairdo straight out of 1972. You could do a lot worse this weekend.

Track Listing:

01 Adam Khana Charsi Katt
02 Grana Yaara Yaara Mah Krah
03 Khuli Zaan Singaar Sho
04 Somra Zeenat Chi Da Gulo
05 Wuran De Gulistan De
06 Za Ba Tre Na Shama Angar
07 Za Bal Sok Na Yama Aulad
08 Zo Kho Sharabi Yuma


Singing the Lilting Song of Love: Savita Devi

Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Khan holding court as ladies and men sing

In the years after the Mughals had ceased to command anything beyond the city limits of Delhi but before the British were to declare full imperial rule over the Indian sub continent, the nawabi state of Awadh with it’s capital and cultural heart the city of Lucknow, for a short time, was one of the great shining jewels in a pretty devastated landscape. Under Wajid Ali Khan the strongly Shia but also culturally confident and inquisitive final leader of Awadh, Lucknow became synonmous with the fine arts. Poetry, dance, architecture not to mention the culinary, sartorial arts as well as sports were all taken to new levels of innovation and excellence. India’s first novel, Umrao Jaan Ada is recognised as being written by a Lucknawi, Mirza Hadi Ruswa.

Among the myriad art forms that thrived in courtly, genteel Lucknow was a light classical musical genre dating back several centuries, the thumri. Like all Indian music –with the exception, arguably, of the most rustic of folk musics– thumri was a raga based form which unlike khyal or dhrupad was sung in a more gentle, delicate mode with a greater emphasis on lyrics that spoke of the passions of and for Lord Krishna.

That thumri was a sung in a softer and more melodic mode did not mean it was an easier art to master. In fact, all the great masters (male and female) of khyal also took great pride in singing thumri and its related genre dadra, often finishing off a concert with one or two. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, arguably one of the top two or three classical singers of his generation, was a master not just of the khyal but of thumri as well, and recorded several albums of these beautiful love songs.

At the center of the thumri is the lyric. It is a love song; unabashedly carnal yet sublimely divine. Many lyrics openly mention Krishna, the flute playing, handsome and virile cow keep who is often depicted surrounded by equally sensuous and voluptuous young women with whom he cavorts, swims and plays sexual games. The songs are full of longing and desire, regret and sadness. The opening track of the album we share today is titled Shyam Mori Gali Aaja (Shyam/Krishna Please Come Visit My Lane). Given that shyam, a name for Krishna, also means, dark and evening, and gali, a narrow lane way, the sexual overtones are hard to overlook and indeed only heighten the emotions.

A good thumri singer is judged by how well she/he is able to play with and draw out meaning and emotion from the words of the couplets. It is that essential play between annunciation and suggestion, the explicit and the implied, the seen and the Invisible that makes the thumri so exciting.

Today I share a collection of thumris, dadras and hori, all related song styles in a light classical mode, by the famous and accomplished singer Savita Devi. A proponent of the Purab ang (Eastern style) of singing popularised in Lucknow and Banaras/Varanasi characterised by an emphasis on “‘Bhav‘ (emotion) contained in the lyrics of the Thumri to evoke subtle shades of matching emotions using different tonal combinations and melodic phrases.” Popularised by such icons as Siddeshwari Devi and Girija Devi, Purab ang is more the dominant style of thumri in India. In Pakistan, the Punjab ang (Punjabi style) championed by Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and others has a faster metre and is more rhythmic.

Track Listing:

01 Shyam Mori Gali Aaja – Thumri Bhairvi
02 Zulmi Sanvaria Na Jane Kadariya – Bhairavi Dadra
03 Salone Sawan Aayo Re – Kajri
04 Mooratiya Man Men Basi Tori – Thumri Based On Misra Tilang
05 Banke Saiyan Na Jane Man Ki Batiyan Ho Ram – Dadra Based On Pahari
06 Hori Main Kheloongi Shyam Se Dat Ke – Hori Based On Shahana


Blow Your Horn: Joe Gomes

Joe Gomes (right) with Manhori Singh

I’ve been on the hunt for this album for many years. I discovered Indian/Goan reed man Joe Gomes‘ second LP, Golden Sax (1979) round about the time I started blogging and was instantly reconnected with a sound from my boyhood in India. It was the jazzy sound which came out of upscale restaurants, nightclubs and cabarets in the big metros Silky, smooth instrumental renditions of the big ilm hits of the day.

Gomes is one of those many Goan musicians who were trained in and or brought up in an environment where Western classical and jazz was a big part of the daily reality. Many of them migrated to Bombay to find work playing in the vibrant orchestras that provided the soundtracks that for several generations provided the tunes Indians hummed, sang and danced to. Though relatively little is known of Gomes if you are interested to know more about this incredibly lively and fecund time in Indian pop music you should read Naresh Fernandes’ outstanding, groundbreaking book and blog, Taj Mahal Foxtrot as well as watch Rudradeep Bhattacharjee’s amazing film The Human Factor.

This album which is a collection of songs from films released in 1976–not a particularly memorable year as far as Hindi films go–is upon first listen not as exciting as the 1979 EP that followed. But the more I listen the more it grows on me. While Joe’s clarinet and alto sax are the key melody makers, Enoch Daniels, the composer who arranged the tunes, is an equally bright star. Each track is a mini-symphony bursting with the sounds of a full Bombay studio orchestra: grunting trombones, sparkling Hi-Life trumpets, a warehouse of percussion instruments and drums, guitars both electric and acoustic. Each track opens a window into the incredible eclecticism and curious adventurism of the Indian film composer’s world. Not just the diverse instrumental palette they used but the different moods they could create, be it a James Bondish spy theme (Jab Tum Chale Jaoge) or a wide screen Mexican western (Prem ka Rog).

Lots of fun here. [Note: this is a 2000 Saregama release of the original Odeon album. A couple tracks are missing that were included in the original]

Track Listing:

01-01 Na Jane Kyoon [Chot si Baat]
01-02 Bambai Se Aaya [Aap ki Khatir]
01-03 Jab Tum Chale Jaoge Yaad Bahot Aaoge [Bullet]
01-04 Jan E Man Jan E Man[Jaaneman]
01-05 Prem Ka Rog Bada Bura [Das Numbri]
01-06 Ek Se Badhkar Ek [Ek se Badhkar Ek]
01-07 Johnny Ko Main Ne To Jana Hai Aaj [Ginny aur Johnny]
01-08 Roothe Hain To Maan Jayenge [Kalabaaz]
01-09 Dil Sajan Jalta Hai [Mukti]
01-10 Suhani Chandni Raten [Mukti]

Joe and Enoch

The Most Amazing Discovery of South Asian Music in the 21st Century.

Aziz Baloch

What follows is one of the most beautifu and fascinating stories to come out of the South Asian music world in the last several (many) years. How a young, mystically-minded Muslim lad from Sindh in 1930s British India was captured by the sound of Spanish flamenco and against all odds travelled to Spain to learn this ancient art. And how he became one of the most respected cantors (singers) in his adopted country. And how… Well let me get out of the way and allow Stefan Williamson Fa, the young Spaniard who uncovered this amazing tale to give you the low-down himself.


The exploration of connections between flamenco, the main musical and dance tradition of Andalusia and the Romani people of Spain, and the music of the ‘Islamic world’ has been in vogue in recent years. Countless collaborative and ‘fusion’ projects have brought together artists and musicians from across the Strait of Gibraltar and beyond. Some of these projects, including Tony Gatlif’s 1993 film, Latcho Drom, have attempted to trace Romani routes from South Asia to the Iberian Peninsula. Others, such as Faiz Ali Faiz’s Qawwali-Flamenco, have focussed on the genre’s perceived ‘Islamic roots’ in Al Andalus. Having been born and brought up in Gibraltar with family on both sides of the Strait, I have long been interested in music from across the Mediterranean. My own interest in the Islamic history of Andalusia developed over time and eventually led to my decision to train as an anthropologist specialising in music and sound in Islamic contexts. Although I have been drawn to these attempts to ‘uncover’ lost connections or ‘bridge’ cultural gaps between the place I was born and the music I love, many of these projects have unfortunately failed to impress me. While some productions achieve popular, commercial and critical success they have often represented a fairly superficial and unequal engagement across musical boundaries geared towards particular audiences of ‘world music’ consumers.

This changed in late 2009. Whilst listening to a weekly flamenco radio programme on Spanish national radio, I came across a voice which made a huge impact on me. The radio presenter said little before playing a recording announcing the name of the performer as ‘Abdul Aziz Balouch’ and mentioning he was a Pakistani singer who had travelled to Spain in the early twentieth century. The recording was an immaculate rendition of a Malagueña – one of the traditional styles of flamenco song. Balouch’s voice was moving and though there was little to tell that the singer was not from Spain, the idea of a singer travelling from Pakistan to Spain to study flamenco almost a century ago completely took hold of my imagination. 

Years passed and I was unable to find much more information about this singer or any of his recordings. The radio presenter’s announcement gave me little to search with on Google or in libraries. I had given up all hope of listening to this voice again until one day I managed to find, by chance, an online bookseller in England with a lot for sale containing books by an author called Azizullah Balouch. Amongst the various books – with titles like What is a Sufi?, Mystic Songs of IslamSelections from the Poems of Shah Latif – was one titled Spanish Cante Jondo and Its Origin in Sindhi Music. I realised that this must be the same singer I had heard years ago, purchased the books immediately and waited impatiently for them to arrive at my door. Upon delivery I opened the first page and was struck by an image of Balouch wearing a karakul hat with Spanish guitar in hand. I was sure I had found the man behind the voice I had heard years ago. As I read through the pages, I slowly began to piece together a rich and fascinating life of a fellow soul who had a similar passion for music, flamenco and Islamic history and culture. A life which intersected with mine in multiple ways – not only did we share these interests but Gibraltar, my home town had been a central part of his life journey. While my attempts to learn about this extraordinary life have since been extensive, taking me in the opposite direction, from Gibraltar to Sindh, there are still many gaps in his story. 

I began by tracing the path of Aziz Balouch as he travelled first from modern-day Pakistan to Gibraltar, where he began training as a flamenco singer and later between London and Madrid, where he propagated Sufi philosophy, poetry and practice and proposed a hypothesis of the South Asian and Islamic origins of flamenco. Although his work may not have been conclusive in proving the Islamic or South Asian roots of the genre, his life reveals a complex and lesser told story of music, movement and Islam across continents in the twentieth century.

Azizullah Abdurahman Balouch was born into a Buledi family in Baluchistan (under British colonial rule) on the 5 March 1909. Shortly after his father’s death his family moved to Sindh where they settled in the town of Pir-jo-Goth, the centre of the Hur Sufi community headed by the Pir Pagaro who had led several armed insurgencies against British rule. It was here that he began his studies at the madrasa of the Pir Pagaro’s Dargah, learning Sindhi, Arabic and Persian and studying the Qur’an alongside the lyrics of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi and the seventeenth century Sindhi Sufi-poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai amongst others. At the shrine, he was also exposed to Sindhi devotional song through the chants of devotees who came to the dargah from across the province during festivals. Later on, at secondary school in Hyderabad, he developed his early interest in song learning to recite Sindhi folk verses and melodies, and he performed regularly at various social functions across the town. It was here in Hyderabad, while simultaneously working and studying for his entrance exams for Aligarh University, that he had his first encounter with flamenco when he listened to the record collection of a successful Hyderabadi Hindu businessman Hotu-Khemchand, who had established a business and house in Gibraltar. Balouch was so enamoured and ‘spiritually uplifted’ by the voices of the singers he heard that he did not have to think twice when he eventually received a job offer by the said businessman to go and work in Gibraltar. 

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Western Mediterranean port city of Gibraltar became a hub for Sindhi merchants who travelled across new routes opened up by the creation of the Suez Canal and who settled along what was referred to as ‘the lifeline of the British Empire’, Karachi to Aden, Cairo, Malta and Gibraltar. As a result of this movement, the Sindhi community of Gibraltar had been in existence since 1870 when the first business was established selling cotton textiles. The expansion of businesses based on patron and client relationships between families meant that a relatively steady flow of, mostly male, merchants and workers came to the colony. Some stayed for short periods while others decided to remain longer, eventually making a home for themselves there. As the Hotu-Khemchand family still own a number of shops in Gibraltar’s Main Street, I managed to track down the daughter of the businessman who had first invited Balouch to work with him. She remembered that her father and Balouch had worked and lived together in Hyderabad, Karachi and Gibraltar and were so close that they referred to each other as brothers. Her grandfather Khemchand Mahtani was also so fond of Balouch that he used to say he had adopted him as his son. The Hindu family’s close relation with Balouch, a Muslim, is said to have been quite unusual. However, they had been heavily involved in the founding of the Theosophical Society in Karachi, something which clearly must have appealed to Balouch and had a profound influence on him. 

For Aziz Balouch, moving from Sindh to Gibraltar was more than just an opportunity to make a living – it was a chance to pursue a spiritual and musical path. Other than his love for the flamenco records, he had read and heard much about the history of Al-Andalus, the wonders of Cordoba and Granada and the great Andalusi mystic, Ibn-Arabi. It was a joyful Balouch who arrived in Gibraltar by boat in July 1932. In his memoirs he writes: ‘we arrived at Gibraltar, the historical Jabal al-Tariq; when I beheld the peñón and the Castle of Tariq, the frontiers and the first vistas of Southern Spain, I felt like one returning to his own land.’ Despite this romantic arrival his first year was spent working long hours in a shop and it was not until the following year that he would have his first live experience of flamenco. For much of Gibraltar’s history the land border with Spain has been relatively fluid with people living, working and socialising across the frontier in the neighbouring town of La Linea de La Concepcion. One evening Balouch had the chance to attend a live performance in La Linea by the most renowned flamenco artists of the time, including Pepe Marchena. Ecstatic about the performance, Balouch insisted his friends invite the artists to their house in Main Street Gibraltar the next day as he wished to sing for them. Accepting this odd request, the artists visited the business premises in town where Balouch performed a number of flamenco pieces and Sindhi songs accompanying himself on a harmonium he had brought from Sindh. Astonished by the short recital Marchena invited him to perform on stage with him the following evening at the Teatro Cómico de La Linea. Balouch gave a rendition of Marchena’s own song ‘La Rosa’ which proved so popular he was called back seven times before the curtain fell.

This event, reported in the newspapers of Gibraltar at the time as, ‘an extraordinary event in the history of flamenco’, was the beginning of Aziz Balouch’s fascinating, though now rather forgotten, career in music. Marchena agreed to take on the young Balouch as his student and he soon took on the nickname Marchenita – ‘Little Marchena’. Balouch became an established singer in Gibraltar, eventually travelling on to Madrid. His reception there was mixed. It is clear that some, including Marchena himself, were truly impressed and inspired by Balouch’s talent and passion for the genre while others saw him only as a curiosity. In concert posters he was often billed as such – ‘THE INDIAN who sings flamenco, disciple of Marchena, with his MAGICAL INSTRUMENT’. On several occasions he was also confronted by journalists requesting to see his passport, believing he was really just a Spaniard masquerading as a foreigner. Along with Marchena he also established a group of musician and artist friends in Madrid, who facilitated opportunities for him. 

Balouch made various concert appearances in Madrid, which led to an invitation from the director of Parlophone Records in Barcelona for him to record a number of his songs. The short four track EP, his only catalogued release, was a first on many levels. It was not only unprecedented for a young man from South Asia to record an album in Spain, but it was also the first example of experimentation and ‘fusion’ in flamenco music. The release was titled Sufi Hispano Pakistani as Balouch blended Persian, Sindhi, Arabic and Hindi poetry with the melodies and Spanish lyrics of Cante Jondo.

In one track, Aziz Balouch transitions from the poetry of eleventh/twelfth century Persian poet Sanaito the expressive mood of the seguiriya. 

Malikā zikr-i tu goyam ki tu pākī-yu khudāyī

Naravam juz ba hamān rah ki tu’am rāh nu(a)māyī’ 

Oh King, I sing your dhikr, for you are pure and regal

I shall not fare except on the path that you have pointed out to me

Ahora tú vienes hincá de rodillas pidiendo perdón,

 te apartaste de mi vera y te fuiste sin apelación. 

Now you come to me on your knees begging forgiveness,

You left my side ignoring my appeals. 

Despite his love for flamenco, Balouch was critical of the licentious behaviour of the musicians and their audiences. His insistence on avoiding the ‘excesses of physical pleasures’ for the benefit of singing was not taken seriously and was even ridiculed by some. Early on in his engagement with flamenco he felt that there was a spiritual and mystical heritage of flamenco which had largely disappeared but remained hidden in a few modes of Cante Jondo, such as the more sorrowful melodies and themes of solearesseguiriyas, serranas, fandanguillos and the Holy Week laments of saeta

During his first period in Madrid, Balouch founded the Sufi Society whose aim, in his own words, was ‘to propagate the ideas of Sufism, a soul-purifying philosophy of the East in which music also plays an important part’. In Madrid he gave several lectures on the ‘intellectual, mystical and practical side of Sufi philosophy’. In his own writing he claims there was sufficient interest amongst musicians and intellectuals there, but the outbreak of the Civil War quickly disrupted his activities. As the fighting intensified Balouch was injured during a bombing in Madrid and had to flee the country in order to receive treatment in the United Kingdom. He was hospitalised for a year in Southampton before moving to London.

Once recovered, Aziz Balouch continued his musical development undertaking vocal tuition at the London College of Music and performing flamenco at social gatherings as well as making a few appearances on BBC radio. Now settled in London, Aziz sought to continue his promotion of Sufism, founding the ‘Sindh Sufi Society’ in 1948. Compared with Madrid, London provided perhaps a more fertile ground for the propagation of his ideas. The Theosophical Society, with its interest in ‘non-Western religions’ had already been established in the city and ‘Sufism’ was known amongst certain social circles. The imperial connection between Britain and South Asia meant that there were already scholars from the subcontinent present in the capital. The Theosophical Society had published a book in 1924 by Jethmal Parsram Gulrajani titled Sind and its Sufis with short biographies of saints from the region along with some extracts from their lyrics translated for English readers. Furthermore, Inayat Khan had already established the idea of Universalist Sufism in London over two decades before Aziz Balouch’s arrival in the 1940s. Though Aziz makes no mention of these predecessors in his writing, they no doubt provided a substrate for him to carry out his own activities, organising regular events, writing and publishing from his small home in Notting Hill, West London. 

The inaugural meeting of the society was held on 12 December 1948 at the premises of a Mr. C. Ramchand where Balouch gave an introductory lecture on Sufism and a performance of the songs of Shah Abdul Latif attended by friends from Spain, Morocco, Bombay and Trinidad. The following meeting was held in a private venue again and attracted a large number of both Europeans and Sindhis before the meetings were moved to Alliance Hall on Palmer Street, SW1, a venue belonging to the Temperance movement, a social movement against the consumption of alcohol, and thereon known as ‘Sufi Hall’ to regular attendees. The Fifth Meeting on 16 December 1949 at this new location was a lecture on ‘The Sufis of Persia and their influence over the spiritual and literary world’, with half the programme given over once more to a performance of Sufi music by M. Minovi, an Iranian critic and writer. This was followed by a performance by Prince F. Farhard of songs by Hafiz and Rumi accompanied on the tar

The topics of the society’s sessions over the following years ranged from lectures on other Sufi poets from Sindh (such as Sachal Sarmast), the Sufi influence on European authors and medicine, music and spirituality. Of course, Balouch’s passion for music meant these events were always complemented with a musical programme, with live recitals of Persian and Indian Classical music; Balouch gave renditions of Sindhi lyrics, accompanying himself on guitar or harmonium, and even of Spanish Andalusian folk songs for a celebration of a ‘Sufi interpretation of Christmas’. From the breadth of these events and available correspondence it is clear that Balouch managed to grasp the attention and interest of a wide range of personalities from European musicians to established intellectuals from the Subcontinent living in the city. Balouch used the society’s publication as a means of elaborating on his own interpretation of Sufism. The ideas he presented resonated strongly with the Universal Sufism of Inayat Khan or the Theosophical Society, who were some of the main distributors of his works, and often downplayed the centrality of the sharia in Sufism to open aspects of Sufi thought and practice to others of different faith backgrounds, the majority of those interested in the society. His insistence on the idea that God was to be found everywhere was clearly drawn from the thoughts of Mansur Al-Hallaj and Ibn Arabi who he repeatedly quoted and referenced in these works, alongside the lyrics and tales of Persian language Sufis such as Hafiz, Rumi, Saadi Shirazi and Sanai, whom he must have come to know through his Persian language education in Sindh.

The popularity of the Sufi Society was significant enough to catch the attention of the British magazine Tatler. In December 1959, the magazine published a feature on the  society with the terrible title ‘Oriental Religions Among Us’. The piece, covering a range of non-Christian religions present in London at the time, includes an image of Balouch playing the guitar with a young English man standing behind him. Next to the image the commentary reads: ‘Sufi teacher Aziz Balouch plays the guitar for his followers. Smallest of the eastern religious sects in London, Sufism preaches the pursuit of spiritual experience by bodily restraint and mystical intuition.’ Balouch did consider himself to be a teacher and was clearly trying to gain a following in London. His text The Sufi, first published in 1958, was his clearest attempt to lay out a practical guide for the members of his society. The volume deals with what he considered a number of important aspects of Sufism, including ‘Important Hints for the development of Spiritual Powers’, ‘Care of the Body’, and ‘Music in Sufism’, which he related to the disciples passing through four stages: right physical conduct, correct moral feeling, clear mental vision and spiritual realisation. Reading the work today it appears in places to be little more than a New Age self-help guide, with its discussions on ‘Mental and Emotional Development’, postures for meditation and insistence on vegetarianism. Balouch’s perspective on Sufism may seem somewhat outdated, deeply entrenched in the context of early twentieth century spiritual movements rather than in the works of eternal Sufi thinkers. Yet through a careful reading of his texts it is clear that Aziz Balouch had a deep knowledge and respect for the great Sufi philosophers whom he passionately desired to promote everywhere he went. Balouch’s devotion to the saints of Sindh – in particular to Shah Abdul Latif, whose lyrics he first sang to the flamenco artists that night in Gibraltar – can be seen throughout his life. His publications referred to and cited these figures more than anyone else. He put together a collection of translated lyrics from Sindh called Mystic Sufi Songs of Islam illustrated, transcribed and arranged though never released. While the poetry of the saints of Sindh had been brought to the attention of European audiences by Gulrajani, mentioned above, and early translations of Shah Latif’s Shah Jo Risalo and later the work of Annemarie Schimmel, Aziz Balouch brought these lyrics to life in his performances in their original language and attempted to demonstrate their relevance to his audiences’ own lives far from Sindh.

After his first stint in London, Balouch was invited to return to Madrid in 1952 at the request of the newly appointed Pakistani Ambassador to Spain, Syed Miran Mohammad Shah, who shared ‘a love of art and music, and devotion to Shah Abdul Latif of Sindh’ with Balouch. In Madrid, he was given the role of Cultural Attaché at the new Embassy of Pakistan. Here his intention was to serve his ‘two beloved countries’, as he called them – ‘the newly formed country of Pakistan – the land of his birth [and Spain] the land of his adoption through its music’. With the support of the embassy he founded an association called Amigos de Pakistan and continued to perform solo and alongside Pepe Marchena across Spain. However, this time his performances had the particular aim of demonstrating the similarity between Cante Jondo and the profound singing of Sindhi Sufi songs of Pakistan. Press reports attest to the general acceptance and appreciation of Aziz Balouch’s theory and work, all the more impressive given the context of the insular nationalist dictatorship of General Franco in Spain at the time. His tenure at the embassy ended following the departure of Syed Miran Mohammad Shah, but he continued his promotion of the connections between Spain and Pakistan in a personal capacity, writing his book in Spanish Cante Jondo su Origen y Evolucion – Cante Jondo Its Origin and Evolution (1955) — and even organising a recital for Pepe Marchena in Karachi in 1962.

In 1968 an English version of the book was published by the Mehran Arts Council in Hyderabad, Pakistan, under the title Spanish Cante Jondo and its Origin in Sindhi Music. With this publication he aimed to promote Flamenco in Pakistan as well as putting forward his theory of the Sindhi and Sufi origins of Flamenco. The book gives several examples of parallels between the two musical traditions and compares certain forms of these in depth. Balouch compares, for instance, the saeta, a lament sung in Andalusia during Holy Week, with the marsiya recited in Pakistan to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husayn. He writes:

Just as in Spain, the songs in the Holy Week are sung in processions without instrumental accompaniment except the drum, so are the Marthiyyas in Sind as well as in other parts of Pakistan sung only to the accompaniment of Ghazzi and drum. The most typical of these songs, falling within the general category of the Marthiyyas sung exclusively in the Lower Indus Valley of Sindh, are known as Osara. The semblance between the Osara of Sind and the Saeta religious songs of Cante Jondo is typical.

He offers several different possibilities for the connections between Spanish and Sindhi music. Balouch makes the claim that the influential medieval composer Ziryab (789–857) was actually of Sindhi origin, something that he provides little valid evidence for. His suggestion that Romani in Spain originate in South Asia, therefore bringing elements of their musical culture with them, is slightly more credible given recent research on the topic. Despite the weak evidence for his claims, the book marks a first in the history of flamenco, in which a concrete connection between the current tradition and Islamic past was not only highlighted but celebrated. In Pakistan the work reached a limited audience but the idea that a musical tradition in a country far away had its roots in Sindh was popularly received. When I travelled to Karachi in 2018 to present a paper on Aziz Balouch’s life and work I was surprised to find that Balouch had a cult status amongst Sindhi intellectuals and nationalists. Though little was known about the man, he was proudly remembered as an individual who had proven the Sindhi origins of Spanish music.

Despite his deep-rooted love for Sindh and his homeland, Aziz’s life, work and efforts were characterised by an incredible openness to the worlds, cultures and love of others. In a lifetime riddled with struggle, strife and oppression – living through world war, Partition in his homeland, civil war in his adopted home of Spain followed by fascist dictatorship, and life in London, which was plagued by institutional and everyday racism – he stuck by what he believed to be a key principle of Sufism: love and equality for all. One of the stated aims of the ‘Sindh Sufi Society’ was ‘To fight against ignorance, starvation, disease and cruelty and to develop the intellectual and spiritual side of life’. Balouch stressed that the first requirement before any spiritual development can take place is that one be ‘Free of Caste, Colour and Creed’. Of course, his ability to travel and spread his ideas was partly due to his middle-class background and education but it is undeniable that he was uniquely driven on his path by his love and passion for Sufism and the arts. Unfortunately, the figure of Aziz Balouch and the values of cross-cultural collaboration, respect, love and dialogue he embodied and stood for, remain relatively unknown. Within Spain, Aziz Balouch’s legacy is that of a curious figure and episode in the history of flamenco. Other than an appearance in the 1963 Cordoba Arab Poetry Festival there is little trace of the final decade of his life. Records show that he married an English singer, Margaret Manella, and returned to England, where he spent the final years of his life. Aziz Balouch died in Surrey, outside London, in 1978 where he is buried in an unmarked grave. Five miles away from where I now live. How our lives continue to intersect.

Track Listing:

01 Granadina Arabe del Siglo IX
02 Fandangos
03 Seguiriya


Sounds of: Punjab

This is a quick post. Another gem from the DeKulture catalog. An album of field recordings that captures the unique sounds of Punjabi folk music. Not the current electrified, synthesised computer-generated sounds which are pumped out of the radio or across the YouTube-iverse, but the simple sounds of wandering, hereditary musicians.

The sort of music described by the Oxford Dictionary: music that originates in traditional popular culture. Folk music is typically of unknown authorship and is transmitted orally from generation to generation.

I tell you folks, there a number of truly dedicated, passionate individuals that have done more to keep Indian folk and classical music culture alive and in front of the public and who need to be recognised and lauded. The folks at Shalimar Recording Company in Pakistan, including my old friend Anwar Jahangir, the former Managing Director, who put together the Music Pakistan Boxset. Then there is Sambhav Bhora, the founder of DeKulture, the company that made these and many other wonderful recordings which I have shared on this site. When I was last in India I was dismayed to see that the label’s beautifully produced CDs–cloth bound boxes with wonderful photography and liner notes–are hardly available. A major musis/bookshop in Delhi had no idea they existed and in the airport gift shop a couple copies gathered dust, obviously of no interest to the shopkeeper or his customers. If you are one of those music fans who loves having the physical object on your shelf you can find a lot of worse ways to spend your money then seeking out and buying these CDs. They are simply the most gorgeous CDs I’ve ever come across.

I will share some music by some other amazing music lovers/impresarios soon, and in the meantime, hope you enjoy this authentic slice of South Asian folk music culture. There is no singing on this volume, just the ‘sounds’ of the instruments–drums, flutes, gourds, chimta–you would hear if you drove through the mustard and wheat fields of Punjab on any given day.

Track Listing:

01 Jugni – Veen Vaja
02 Lahera Dhun
03 Giddha Rhythm
04 Jaag Tenu Chhadke
05 Sounds Of Dauru
06 Kadh Sewanu
07 Chhalla
08 Tumbi Medley
09 Raag Talang
10 Algoza Lehra – Maler Kotla

Sounds of Punjab