Spent a slow weekend down the coast with a close male friend. On Saturday night, after a day of beach walking and a maddeningly disappointing result by our football team, I lumbered off to bed beset with a weird and uncomfortable set of emotions.
To help bring some calm to my middle aged soul (and churning stomach, smarting with frustration with the evening’s sports viewing) I strapped on the headphones and pressed play on this freakishly good recording.
Abida Parveen needs zero introduction to even a casual fan of South Asian, Pakistani or sufiana music. But in case you are absolutely new to this world, this profile and this one should give you enough to get you started.
Hazrat Shah Hussain, aka Madho Lal Hussain, whose poetry Abida sings, on the other hand, may benefit from a prelude of sorts. Here is a blurb from that ever dubious but ubiquitous source, Wikipedia:
He was born in 945 AH (1538) within the Walled City of Lahore in what is now Pakistan. His father was Sheikh Usman, he was a Kulsara (a clan of Rajput), and by occupation, he was a weaver (in some of Shah Hussain poetic rhymes he used his pen name as Faqir Hussain Julaha which means “Saint Hussain the weaver”),his father, in his early age, enrolled him in a local school where he started to memorize the Quran. His teacher was Hafiz Abubakar. It was 955 AH (1548) when at the age of 10, a renowned Sufi master Sheikh Bahlol Qadri (d. 983 AH/ 1575) met him who later became his mentor. One day in the month of Ramadan his mentor asked him to fetch water for him from river and there he met Al-Khidr (Green One) who blessed him and Shah Hussain recited the whole Quran in Tarawih prayer while he memorized only 7 parts of the Quran, this miracle news spread in the city, Sheikh Bahlol, after some time, went to his town and directed Shah Hussain to regularly visit the Ali Hijwiri shrine in Lahore, Shah Hussain regularly at night stands in the river Ravi and recites the whole Quran utill Fajar prayer and then visits to the shrine of Ali Hijwiri and till Zohar prayer recites whole Quran and he never missed a single congregation prayer, he also studied Tafsir Quran from a famous scholar Sheikh Saadullah Lahori in the year 981 AH (1573). While he was studying the Tafsir, he suddenly went out of the mosque and abandoned the path of ascetic and stepped into the path of self-blamers and became a self-blamer Sufi, he started to dance and drink in public, some slandered him, and some had faith in him.
Sheikh Madho Lal, the love of Shah Hussain, born in 983 AH (1575), when for the first time looked at his matchless beauty and fell for him, it was the love at first sight. At the time, Sheikh Madho was 16 years of age and Shah Hussain was 54 years old in the year 999 AH (1590). Sheikh Madho, at the age of 18 in 1002 AH (1593), embraced Islam and became a Muslim. Shah Hussain raised him as his vicegerent and became his spiritual master. Shah Hussain died at 63 years of age in 1008 AH (1599), and before his death, he predicted that his first shrine will be built in Shahdara (located near river Ravi), then after 12 years a flood will appear in the river that will reach to my shrine and then my grave will be shifted to Babu Pura (now Baghbanpura in Lahore; the Shalimar gardens) and my beloved Madho Lal will sit on my seat for 48 years after my death and it happened as the saint predicted, Sheikh Madho Lal, for the rest of his life, followed the footsteps of Shah Hussain and completely secluded himself from the world and confined himself into the shrine of his master Shah Hussain and in 1056 AH (1647) at the age of 73 died and was buried next to Shah Hussain.
In short, Shah Hussain is a key cultural and literary figure for Pakistanis and Punjabis more generally. His lyrics have been sung for centuries at shrines, in homes, in concerts and since the early 20th century in recording studios. Other giants of Pakistani/Punjabi music such as Hamid Ali Bela and Pathana Khan made their names interpreting Shah Hussain’s work and I highly encourage you to click the links to check out some of their awe inspiring singing.
Much to my personal regret I am only able to understand the very basics of these lyrics, and clearly am in no position to comment on them. I can however recommend this article by Dr Tanvir Anjum and Dr Naila Pervaiz, of Quaid-e-Azam University and Government College respectively, which analyses the use of a particular motif (cotton spinning) in Shah Hussain’s poetry but also provides a wealth of contextual and biographical information as well.
I suggest you read the article as you listen to this CD. Recorded in India, the production quality is consistently high with a crisp, articulate and plump sound quality. The music fills the room and demands to be turned up high. And that is before Abida Parveen utters a syllable. But don’t worry. This is not the same as blasting out Van Halen and David Lee Roth, a distinctly unspiritual experience of metal bombast. Something that might grate against your soul rather than soothe it.
When you listen to this music you are certainly overcome by its power, even its strength. It is a big sound. And of course there is no one who quite shares the vocal might of Abida Parveen. But unlike many of her recordings in which she channels the wild winds of the Spirit and allows the music to take her to the ragged edges of ecstasy, here she is firmly in control. In some of her more exuberant singing you get the feeling she is a vessel; that the music and sound is having its way with her and that she has no Will. But in this instance she has grabbed each word of Shah Hussain’s poetry and given it her undivided and total loving attention; made it shine. Abida Parveen or her spectacular vocals are not the focus this time. Rather it is the sublime meaning and imagery of the poet’s lyrics.
I simply love this music. This is not a rare or hard to find CD. But the quality of the singing, the material, the musicianship and the arrangements, all deliver: translating the deep and powerful visions of a mediaeval mendicant into the sonic language of the 21st century.
The day has finally arrived. The first episode (Introduction) of Lollywood Tales has now been uploaded and is available for download or listening on the Episodes page. And of course, it is live on Apple/iTunes, Spotify and most other places where you like to get your podcast fix.
I ask for your patience (hopefully not, interminable) with me as I finesse the technology of podcasting. For example, you’ll notice in the Trailer and Introduction, the intro and outro music is repeated (😂😒) and some of the transitions may be a bit a rough. But I promise, these will improve in coming episodes.
At this stage I aim to have a full episode up every two to three weeks. So the best thing to do is ‘Subscribe’ and get notified directly when a fresh or bonus episode is available.
Thank you for spreading the word about Lollywood Tales (even it is may not be something you’re interested in, some of your friends may enjoy it).
Indian classical music had been introduced to American and European audiences as early as the 1930s when Uday Shankar‘s famous dance troupe was a global cultural phenomenon. His younger brother Ravi was a part of many of those tours, first performing as a dancer but then eventually focusing on the sitar.
Throughout his life Ravi was a tireless and energetic pracharak (evangelist) of classical music who made spreading its beauty to audiences in every corner of the globe a key reason for living. The itinerary of some of his tours simply boggles the mind and aches the back thinking of all those plane flights: London, Budapest, New York, San Francisco, Sydney, Fiji, South Africa on one leg. Helsinki, Moscow, Boston, and Tokyo on a second leg a few months later.
It was a slow process that at first targeted only Ravi’s and Ali Akbar Khan‘s (his brother in law and fellow traveller) classical music counterparts. While their response was mixed, jazz musicians immediately cottoned on to the improvisational aspects of Indian classical music and throughout the 50s and early 60s flocked to Indian music concerts for inspiration in relatively big numbers.
But it was in the mid-1960s when rock and roll had established its presence as the dominant form of popular music all across the western world that suddenly Ravi Shankar became a superstar. In same way that Elvis tore down the pillars of the temple of staid suburbia with his hipswinging bluesy grinderman music, Ravi blew the minds of Coltrane and Gillespie with the intimate marriage of rhythm and melody, drone based modalities and his blistering virtuosity.
By 1965 The Beatles, The Byrds, The Yardbirds and Rolling Stones (just to drop the big names) were all experimenting with the sitar and singing the praises of the charismatic pandit from Varanasi. This association and in modern parlance, appropriation of Hindustani classical music, by drugged out rockers was not something that necessarily sat comfortably with Ravi but for a time he accepted the doors it opened and the new audiences it brought to his concerts.
One of Ravi’s earliest disciples and assistants was a south Indian named Harihar Rao. He settled in California at the beginning of the 60s and became the face of the famous ‘Music Circle’ that Shankar had established as part of his campaign to expose Americans to Indian music. Rao taught for some years at UCLA and remained a mainstay and critical part of the art and culture community of the United States until his passing in 2013.
In 1966 as the sitar/Ravi Shankar/eastern music mania was approaching boiling point Ravi Shankar’s American record company World Pacific rushed out an oddity with the blatant aim of milking the newly arrived cash cow before it wandered off into another paddock. The album was called Raga Rock by The Folkswingers. [The number of cultural buttons Richard Bock, the label’s head–and close friend of Ravi’s–tried to push on this one product is hilarious: folk music (which was now nearly dead), swinging 60s lifestyle, rock and roll and Indian classical music!]
Bock got together a crack group of jazz and studio musicians (Herb Ellis, Larry Knetchel, Hal Blaine, even possibly Glen Campbell who was a member of The Folkswingers already) along with Harihar Rao and asked them to create a musical gumbo of sorts. What came out was a set of awkward instrumental renditions of some of the biggest rock and roll hits of the day by the Stones, the Byrds, Simon and Garfunkel and The Beatles. Apparently, Ravi was in India at the time it was released. A friend sent him a clip of an article from the Village Voice with a handwritten enigmatic “Raga Rock! Can you believe it?” Its not known what the great man actually thought of the record. He could have hated it or he could have begrudgingly endorsed it. After all it was during these years that his friendship with George Harrison which was long lasting and genuine was developing and that relationship saw him collaborating on a lot of rock concert stages and as I profiled here, one other ‘fusion’ album.
I actually don’t mind this album. Overall, Rao’s sitar playing is not obtrusive or inappropriate and adds the required touch of ‘the exotic’ to what is a quick run through of contemporary pop songs. Given the calibre of the performers the playing is tight and of high quality and as a curiosity, Raga Rock is worth having in your collection. Several of the songs had sitars in the original (Paint it Black and Norwegian Wood) which raises the question: what’s the point? Others, especially Homeward Bound don’t exactly call out for a sitar, so again, what’s the point? And the most ridiculous aspect of the whole thing is the ‘drone’ on Norwegian Wood which had me thinking not only was Bock milking the cash cow but he was asking the musicians to cut its throat!
Anyway, for what its worth I’ve had it playing in the background over the last few days and have mostly enjoyed it. Maybe you will too!
I’m really quite excited about this. Soon (hopefully, within the next month) I will launching my first podcast. It’s called Lollywood Tales: the incredible untold story of the Pakistani film industry.
In the podcast I will trace the history of the Pakistani film industry–based in and around the city of Lahore– and tell the stories of the starlets, heroes and villains, singers, dancers and directors that made Lollywood one of the largest film centers in the world…until the generals and mullahs decided it was the source of all moral corruption and did their best to shut the industry down.
When you subscribe and listen you’ll become an expert on something very few people in the world know about. You’ll be amazed at the connections between Lollywood and Bollywood. You’ll thrill to the music that accompanied the movies. You’ll gasp at the scandals, fall in love with the characters and be inspired by the commitment of Pakistanis to make entertainment and a unique brand of cinema…against all odds.
Stay tuned for further information on how and where and when. In the meantime, here is a wonderful clip from the 1971 movie, Anjuman to keep you smiling.