Lion in Winter: Talat Mahmood

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Talat Mahmood, the gentle, silken voiced ghazal master passed away nearly 20 years ago but remains a much loved voice among South Asian film and music fans.  I wrote a piece on him several years ago which provides some basic biodata of this often overlooked playback singer.

Around the same time that I wrote that article I got my hands on this album but have hesitated to share it.  Though the back cover gives a date of 1966 these tracks were clearly recorded much later. Probably in the mid-late 1980s would be my guess.

Mahmood‘s soft voice with its incredible capacity to emote melody and melancholy is instantly recognisable.  Its a voice from a bygone era. But also gone is the strength and control.  Talat sahib‘s voice wavers frequently and he struggles to hit notes that once came so effortlessly.  From time to time he slips out of key.  And for this reason I kept this record buried deep in my collection.  I didn’t want to do a disservice to the once beautiful voice by sharing a record that was clearly far below the standard he himself set.

But perhaps because I have recently passed a certain chronological milestone myself I now think differently.  We are familiar with the ‘official’ portraits of Queens, Prime Ministers and dictators which show them in that airbrushed eternal moment when they were 40. No matter that they are now twice as old and decrepit, it is this image we are supposed to remember.

I have always found this ridiculous.

Several years before the end of his fabled life Johnny Cash released a couple albums made when he was under real physical and emotional stress. That thunderous trumpet of a voice was now a hesitant near whisper.  And yet if was full of power and conviction. And in its way a necessary part of his life’s work. When I listen to those last tracks I get a complete, honest picture of Cash. If I never moved beyond Folsom Prison Blues not only would I be missing out but I would be cheating Johnny himself.  He was not ashamed of his state and never thought he should censor his voice. Why should I?

And so with Talat. He never made an excuse for not liking the direction—disco, rock n roll, electronic beats–Hindi film took in the 1980s. He settled into semi retirement and seemed content not to partake in the film world again.  But as this record shows, he never gave up on the ghazal. 

This is touching and humane record. A labor of love by Talat and his dear friend and collaborator, the arranger Enoch Daniels. It is a final hurrah of a master who is well aware of his limitations and the dimming of the day.  But it also a triumph of passion. The much weakened but still vital roar of a lion in winter.  And I am pleased at long last to finally share this collection of fine ghazals that should be part of every genuine Talat-lover’s collection.

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Talat saaz back 904

Track Listing:

01 Kahin Sher-o-Nagma Ban ke

02 Har Ek Mod se Milta Hai Rasta Koi

03 Ghazal ke Saaz Uthao

04 Dil Hi To Hai Na Aaye Kyon

05 Main Nazar Se Piraha Hun

06 Jo Tu Nahin To

07 Gulshan Mein Leke Chal

08 Mere Saqiya Mere Dilruba

Lion

Quartet of Qawwali

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I hesitate to try to say anything about qawwali because there are so many who are far more knowledgeable about this distinctive South Asian form of music.  But I really enjoy qawwali and over the years my appreciation and understanding of the wide variety of styles of qawwali has grown immensely.

My first introduction to qawwali was filmi qawwali a very low brow, often humorous, certainly not serious, form of the music that spiced up  the Hindi films I watched as a young lad in India. It was an addictive and attractive style. The call and response, the male chorus, the handclaps and the driving drums were hard to resist.

Not until I heard Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan when I lived for some years in Pakistan did I begin to appreciate how magnificent qawwali really was.  During those years I often would spy Aziz Mian (paan-stained teeth and lips; crisp shalwar qameez; wild unruly hair) one of the all time greats of qawwali roaming the streets of Rawalpindi going about his daily business. His style of singing was so very different from Nusrat sahib’s that it seemed to be a completely different music.

Several years ago I happened across a fellow blogger, Musab bin Noor, who wrote about qawwali with such passion, insight and beauty it was irresistible.  I cannot and will not try to paraphrase his insights (where would I start, anyway?) and simply refer and recommend his blog to you.

I also think this excellent recent article from DAWN is worth reading. It traces the commercialisation of qawwali and places many of the contemporary styles in a historical context that is impacted by government policy, technology, suspicion of sufi traditions and decline of the shrine culture.

This collection of qawwali over four volumes are personal selections of mine that I have enjoyed over the past few years. There are ALL types of qawwali represented in this collection from commercial to authentic dargah-based and everything in between including a few selections that may surprise.

There are many omissions too, most notably, the aforementioned Aziz Mian. This is not intentional. Perhaps I will put together a separate volume of his fantastic stuff one day. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these selections.

Qawwali

Track Listing Vol. 1

1-01 Alaf Allah (Baba Sultan Bahoo) [Wadali Brothers]

1-02 Avo Sayo Rul Davo Vadhai [Bakhshi Salamat Qawwal]

1-03 Bhai Murad aur Tajo Bahen [Abdur Rab Chaus]

1-04 Thal Wich Kharee Sassi Hakan Mardi [Muhammad Ali Faridi]

1-05 Ya Muhammad Noor-e-Mujassam[The Sabri Brothers & Ensemble]

1-06 Dekha Tamasha Lakdi ka [Yusuf Azad Qawwal, Talib Husain Warsi Qawwal]

1-07 Hai Mera Tan Man Nabi Pe Qurabaan [Unknown]

vol.1

Qawwali 2

Track Listing Vol. 2

2-01 Vah Vah Mouj Fakeeran Di [Tufail Niazi & Party]

2-02 Man Kunto Maula Ali [Ghulam Sabir and Ghulam Waris]

2-03 Shahar E Madeena Dikha De [Chand Nizami Brothers and Khurshid Alam]

2-04 Jhoom Barabar Jhoom Sharaabi [Aziz Nazan]

2-05 Sahib Teri Bandi [Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan]

2-06 Main Zuba Se Kaise [Ghulam Sabir and Ghulam Waris]

2-07 Jannat Ki Rel Hai [Yusuf Azad Qawwal]

Vol 2. 

Qawwali 3

Track Listing Vol. 3

3-01 Qurbani Qurbani [Anwar, Aziz Nazan, Babban, Kishore Kumar]

3-02 Malan Dil Mein Baasale [Yusuf Azad Qawwal]

3-03 Mohabbat Husain Ki [Shamshad Begum]

3-04 Khawaj Toore Daware [Maqbool Sabri Qawwal]

3-05 Na Karo Juda Khudara Mujhey Apney Aastan Se [Ameer Rafeeq Murkian Wale Qawwal]

3-06 Chomah Ho Dar Arzo Sama [Jafar Hussain Khan Badayuni Qawwal]

3-07 Khabaram Raseeda Imshab [Fareed Ayaz Al Hussaini Qawwal & Party]

Vol. 3

Qawwali 4

Track Listing Vol. 4

4-01 Adam Se Layi Hai [Jafar Hussain Khan Badayuni Qawwal]

4-02 Mujhe Peer Mila Subhanallah [Ghulam Sabir and Ghulam Waris]

4-03Jab Se Lagi Hai Aankh Bhi Meri Lagi Nahi [Fateh Ali Mubarak Ali Qawwal]

4-04 Ganj – E – Shakar [Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan]

4-05 Na Qaboo Main Dil Hai[Agha Bashir Faridi Qawwal]

4-06 Har Lehza Hai Momin [Manzoor Niazi Qawwal Aur Hamnavaa]

vol. 4

Ragamala Vol. 6: Bhimpalasi

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Way back in 2013 I began this Ragamala series.  I wanted to collect a variety of tracks from diverse genres that were based upon or direct interpretations of particular ragas.  I have to confess that despite many years of listening to South Asian classical music my ear is still as wooden as when I began to seriously pay attention to khyaldhrupad and other forms of classical music.  I think I can identify Malkauns but that’s about it.

I feel terrible about this. Surely, I should be more competent and clever. But each time I try to read anything about the structure of ragas the better to tune my ear, my eyes glaze over and my mind closes up shop.  There is simply too much new vocabulary to learn and I’m not sure how much such knowledge would increase my listening pleasure.

Of more interest to me is the mood each raga attempts to induce in the listener. I like to see if it works on me, and I’m happy to report that Bhimpalasi does.

Bhimpalasi is an afternoon to early evening raga. A time of day that for most modern families is stressful. Kids back home from school. Commotion all over the place and pots and plates banging in the kitchen.

They say this raga speaks to the melancholy, sad aspects of the human soul. And in so doing, is effective for the release of stress and anxiety. Some recommend Bhimpalasi as part of the treatment for depression.

I began this weekend listening to Ali Akbar Khan‘s interpretation from his Bangla Desh album (1972).  I’ve since listened to it a couple more times and this afternoon let Saskia Rao’s doleful cello sink slowly beneath the skin.   And I am proud (and surprised) to report I feel absolutely peaceful, light and relaxed.

There are some very nice interpretations here.  Lata sings two film songs (one composed by SD Burman, the other by Madan Mohan) including one of my all-time favorites, Khilte Hain Gul Yahan. An enigmatic early fusion/jazz group from the UK give us Bhimpalazi (1969) and Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan contribute two straight-ahead versions on sitar and sarod, respectively. The Dutch cellist Saskia Rao shows how beautifully that instrument fits into the Indian soundscape and finally, Mehdi Hassan gives us a filmi ghazal from Azmat (1973).

PEACE. SUKOON. SHANTI.

Bhimpalasi

Track Listing:

01 Raga Bhimpalasi [Ali Akbar Khan]

02 Nainon Mein Badra Chaaya [Madan Mohan and Lata Mangeshkar]

03 Bhimpalazi (Looking Eastward to the Blues) [Indo-Jazz Ensemble]

04 Raga Bhimpalasi [Ravi Shankar]

05 Khilte Hain Gul Yahan [SD Burman and Lata Mangeshkar]

06 Bhimpalasi Alap Jod Jhala [Saskia Rao]

07 Zindagi Main To Sabhi Pyar Kiya Karte Hai [Mehdi Hassan]

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Lost Heiress: Mehnaz Begum

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Some of you may know that I am currently writing a book on Lollywood, the not-very-original sobriquet for the movie making industry of Pakistan based in Lahore.

 

As I continue to dig and uncover more information about this rather unknown industry and cultural enterprise I am discovering all sorts of new singers, composers and musicians.* Or re-discovering some that I knew a bit about previously but hadn’t necessarily associated with filmi music.

 

Mehnaz Begum is one such artist and it is a great privilege to share with you some of her wonderful singing in this post.

 

Mehnaz Begum was born (1950) into a family which had a very particular musical heritage. As the Mughal Empire began to weakened after the death of Aurangzeb Alamgir, who exhausted its authority with incessant expansionary wars in the Deccan, smaller principalities and ‘kingdoms’ across the subcontinent began to exert power in their regions. One of the most important and prosperous of these was Avadh, which had its capital in the city of Lucknow. The Avadhi rulers were Shi’a, a major branch of Islam that pays special allegiance to the Prophet’s (PBUH) son-in-law Ali and grandson Hussain. Significant ritual and spiritual space is given to commemorating the

Martyrdom of the latter at Karbala [present day Iraq] during the month of Moharrum.

 

Two distinct but related forms of artistic expression developed in Avadh that were used to accompany Shi’a religious practices: marsiya and soz khwani. Marsiya is elegiac poetry recited in praise of Hussain and other Shi’a martyrs. The poems are recited or sung a cappella and solo as inspiration for the faithful to persevere in their spiritual lives. Generally, marsiya is classified as a poetic, rather than musical genre.

 

Soz khwani is a modified and refined form of marsiya. An innovation of the 19th century it is a consciously melancholy music and as such, and given the occasion, it is considered jayiz (permitted) by Shi’a orthodoxy. Unlike marsiya soz khwani involves [the] singing of poetic content without instrumental or rhythmic support, but a group of accompanying vocalists hums along [with] the lead singer, maintaining emphasis in the ground notes of the composition and producing a drone-like effect that helps the lead singer to stay on pitch.  (The Last Avadhi Songstress by Sheraz Hyder, TFT Feb01-07, 2013)

 

Interestingly, the Nawabs of Avadh not only tolerated women singers but actively encouraged a cohort of females to perform soz khwani for the royal women. Mehnaz’s mother, Kajjan Begum, was one of these. She grew up and was trained in the feudal estate of the raja of Mahmoodabad in Avadh by her mother Imam Bandi one of the first Indian singers to be recorded in the early 20th century. Though Imam Bandi and Kajjan Begum and other female soz khwan were primarily trained in the signing of lamentations they also became well versed in other forms such as thumri, dadra, Banarsi ang, tappa and hori.

 

When Mehnaz came on the scene in the mid-1970s, primarily as a playback singer for films, her early exposure to such a rich tradition and lineage of music, allowed her to find an audience as a ghazal singer as well. That she was successful in both spheres—film and ghazal—is an impressive testament of her talent, for in films she had to contend with the iconic Madam Noor Jehan and in ghazal with the storied voices of Iqbal Bano and Farida Khanum.

 

As I’ve listened to her with more intent in the past few weeks I am coming to the conclusion that Mehnaz’s voice is one of the most beautiful and pleasing I’ve heard. It is full of melody, lilt and a deceptive softness that is actually power under masterful control.

 

The collection of ghazals I share today is one of the fabulous (and now out of print) 57 CD Box Set of Pakistani music produced by Shalimar Records. According to critics and fans with more awareness and experience than myself this particular CD also contains some of the best examples of popular ghazal singing ever recorded.

Mehnaz Begum Mehnaz Begum_center

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Track Listing:

01 Kaise Kaise Khwab

02 Ishq jab Zum Zama

03 Jo Dil mein Khatakti

04 Ab Dekhiye kiya Haal

05 Shaheed e Ishq Hue

06 Zahir ki Aankh

07 Lutf Woh Ishq Mein

08 Rang batain karein

09 Tu Uroose Shaam

10 Hazar Gardish Sham O Sahar

11 Kissi ki Yaad Ko Dil

12 Be tabiye Dil

13 Gham mujhe

14 Garehe So bar

15 Ashk aankhon mein

16 Ho teri yaad ka

 

Mehnaz

 

*I have another blog where I share music that is specific to Pakistani films which I invite you to enjoy.

Overlooked Gem: S.B. John

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S.B (Sunny Benjamin) John is known in Pakistan primarily for his hugely popular song Tu Jo Nahin Hain from the film Savera (1959). It is a wonderful song with lyrics by Fayyaz Hashmi The song introduced John to a national audience. Critically acclaimed as one of the all time classics of Pakistani film music, John almost missed his date with destiny.

 

He had been down with the flu and fever for several days and only went to the audition on the insistence of a friend.  He apologised to the infamously moody music director Master Manzoor, “I’ve got a fever so won’t be able to sing well,” but Manzoor cut him off and told him to get on with it. After his rendition, Manzoor sat back stunned and exclaimed, “Where have you been all these years?”

 

History was made and a new voice was discovered.

With the advent of television in the mid-1960s, John commenced singing Christian hymns and carols every Christmas Eve, a tradition that has been embraced by the country’s Christian community.  In 2010, John was awarded Pakistan’s highest cultural award, the President’s Prize of Performance, for his outstanding services to music.

 

That most famous of his songs does NOT appear on this short collection. But I’m sure you will enjoy the music nonetheless. Every one of these songs is plump with melody. And John’s innately honeyed voice gives them that extra layer of cream that turns them into things of luxury.

 

I am taken by the difference in the timbre of John’s voice in these songs and Tu Jo Nahin Hain. The latter has him floating somewhere close to the sound of K.L Saigal—dark and heavy. (Perhaps it is was his ill health on the day that was the X factor!)

 

On these songs, John’s voice is like his name, sunny. He delivers each with a gentle and light touch that really is quite unique. I’ve not been able to identify any other male playback singer who has such a voice. There is a quality of openness and simplicity in it, no frills. But very pleasing. I’ve been listening to nothing but these songs for the past couple of weeks. They keep delivering.

 

For those of you who love ghazals, geets and filmi songs but looking for a rare, very overlooked voice, I commend this collection to you.

 

saza-e-jazbat-main

Track Listing

Dekha Unhain To Apni Tabiyat

Ik Khalish Ko Hasal Umre Rawan

Mehke Gaysoo Rangeen Anchal

Raaste Bandh Kiye Dete Ho

Sare Gilley Tamam Hooey

Saza E Jazbat Main

Soch Raha Hoon

SBJ