I used to do a lot of road trips in Pakistan. In those days (almost 30 years gone now) it was the best way around the country. Whether it was by public bus (those heavily made-up ladies of the highway), the humble ‘wagon’ (discarded Ford minibuses from the UK) or the evocatively named Flying Coaches (Toyota buses that moved like the wind), getting to your destination was always at least half the fun. The conversations, the scary attempts at passing at full speed and the enchanting landscapes (sometimes dusty, sometimes lush) were some of the strongest memories I took from those wonderful days.
I travelled all over Punjab, NWFP (as it was known then) and the Northern Areas on rubber wheels and amazingly am still alive to tell the story. In all those trips there were more then a few breath-defying moments: stoned drivers trying to light a cigarette and change the tape at the same time; a couple buffaloes hit in the dead of night and even an old man who happened to jump the wrong way when we rolled up behind him and tooted the horn. But no deaths or serious injuries.
Music was ALWAYS playing on every trip. Those were the days of the ‘kaset’ tape and booming if crackling speakers. Bollywood film music was the favourite, especially old classics by Rafi, Lata, Mukesh and Asha. More contemporary fare did get played but only if the film was a super mega hit across the border. When it came to folk music Pakistan artists were preferred, especially the love-sick melodies of Attaullah Khan Niazi ‘Issakhelvi’ and soulful songs of any number of female singers like Mehnaz, Tina Sani, Musarrat Nazir or Munni Begum. Ghazals alternated between Ghulam Ali and Jagjit and Chitra Singh. Mehdi Hassan was also a frequent feature, though usually only on the Flying Coaches. Wagons preferred local talent, often singing in Pastho, Shinko or Seraiki.
Like ragas, certain genres were played at specific times of the day or night. The album we share tonight was the sort of music you got an hour or so after nightfall. People had eaten, said their prayers and were starting to fall off into slumber. The driver, himself feeling the pull of a soft bed, would shuffle through the chaotic jumble of tapes in the glove box and inevitably come up with a cassette of soothing tunes.
These songs may or may not have made an appearance in a film but it didn’t matter. These were songs which focused on the poetry. The lyric was all important. The sort of stuff a tired traveller could close his eyes to but enjoy as he went off to sleep. The subjects were always about love, separation, difficulties in realizing love and hopes for reunion.
The instrumentation was always classy, bringing together strings and horns, guitars and bass, with tabla, harmonium, sitar and bansuri. The mood was contemplative. There was an openness to the time signatures, unhurried but never slack. I always got a feeling of possibility as well as resolution and assurance as the vehicle tore through the night and Asha or Tina or Iqbal Bano entertained us.
This album is classic of this style. It reprises to historic collaboration of Khayyam, one of Indian cinema’s classiest composers and the loveliest (depending on which side of the Lata Mangeshkar divide you sit) female voice in Bollywood. In 1981 they combined to produce a stunning soundtrack for the period film Umrao Jaan, which in one fell swoop lifted Asha Bhosle out of the shadows of her sister, Lata, and positioned her as an artiste of incredible potency in her own right.
The poetry is also first class by some of India’s best lyricists. The sonic feel is similar in many ways to the mature period of Jagjit and Chitra Singh, when they were able to perform ghazals of a bit more sophistication and subtlety than their early 80s hits. Together the three elements of this collection, music, lyric (the language is nafees Urdu, which makes the delight of the experience even sweeter) and performance combine to make a record that never grows stale or old. And makes you hope the road trip will never end.
01 Chaha Tha Ek Shakhs Ko
02 Log Mujhe Pagal Kehtain Hai
03 Mudatain Beet Gai
04 Aanchal Mein Phool Chand
05 Dil Ka Lagana Khel Na Jano
06 Jaane Kya Haal Ho
07 Zamane Bhar Mein Jo
08 Meri Nigah Chalakta Hua