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.

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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.

Grace and Flow: Mehdi Hassan

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A little New Year’s gift for all the dear followers of Harmonium.

 

This album claims to capture Mehdi Hassan live in concert in New York. I find that to be a somewhat dubious statement as each track has a very ‘studio’ feel to it. Clean, sonically level and with none of the rough edges and spoken asides that accompany all live performances.

 

But I’m happy to be proven wrong.

 

Regardless of the veracity of the album’s title, the music is top quality. Mehdi’s tenor is suave and unforced. He delivers each ghazal with the panache of the supremely accomplished, hardly breaking a sweat. That doesn’t mean he is simply running through the material passion-baghair. Rather, he is at the top of his game. In the flow and full of grace.

 

And that seems to be a good attitude to possess as one year ends and another is soon to begin.

 

Happy New Year 2017. Thank you for dropping by from time to time!

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Track Listing:

01 Fitrat ka wo Paimana Bata Yaad Hahin Hai

02 Kabhi Kaha na Kisi Se Tere Fasane Ko Na Jane Kaise Khabbar ho Gayi Zamane Ko

03 Haath Men le ke Jam-e-mai Aaj Wo Muskara Diya

04 Gulon ki Baat Karo

05 Ajab Janoon-e-mussafat Mein Ghar se Nikla Tha

06 Yoon to Pahle Bhi Hui Us Se Kayi Baar Juda

07 Sehar Hoi Bhi to Ham ne Deeye Bhujai Nahin

MHv5NY

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.

 

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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

Mixed up Blue: Talat Mahmood

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An interesting album that immediately caught my eye. In a Blue Mood is a very western title. It would fit right in with the 1950s and early 60s trend of moody jazz album covers.

So right away, you see this album is marketed to a sophisticated cosmopolitan Indian audience. Perhaps the upper middle classes, the ones who had the disposable income for record players and LPs in a country and at a time when such things were the height of luxury. A class of people who rarely went to the cinema but who loved the music. A sort of people who probably had Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra records in their collections.

The color blue in Hindu color does not signify the same thing it does in English—sadness. Rather, blue is the colour of manliness and valour. Leadership. Recall the pictures of Krishna and Shiva, both often represented in blue and both icons of Hindu manliness.

But in keeping with the Western/jazz idea of blue, in this album each song is a sad one. Songs of broken hearts, tears, unrequited and rejected love. Talat Mahmood, the silky-voiced ghazal singer par excellence, renders each one with a vulnerability that you can almost touch. No one is able to voice the feelings of the dejected lover better than Talat. He conveys resignation but never bitterness; disappointment but never despair.

There are so many great tracks here but my favorite are Hain Sab Se Madhur Woh Geet (The Sweetest Song) and Sham-e-gham ki Qasm (The Sad Evening’s Promise).

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01 Yeh Hawa Yeh Raat [Sangdil]

02 Main Dil Hu Ek Armaan Bhare [Anhonee]

03 Hain Sab Se Madhur Woh Geet [Patita]

04 Ae Gham-e-Dil [Thokar]

05 Husun Walon Ko [Babul]

06 Sham-e-gham ki Qasm

07 Meri Yaad Mein [Madhosh]

08 Ansu Samajh Ke [Chhaya]

09 Dekh Li Teri Khudai [Kinare Kinare]

10 Raat ne Kya Kya [Ek Gaon ki Kahani]

11 Ham se Aaya Na Gaya [Dekh Kabira Roya]

12 Main Pagal Mera Manwa Pagal [Ashiana]

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New and Old Ghazals: Mohammad Rafi

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In 1976 things were not so cheery in India.

Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule was at its apogee. Sycophancy and sloganeering were the order of the day. Political dissent was forbidden. And, the general unruliness of life as lived in India was frowned upon.

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Of course, that has nothing to do with this record. Except in an indirect way. That no matter what politicians and dynasts do to try to cling to power, they all ultimately end up in the dustbin of history.

12 months later, in 1977, Indira was tossed out of office when she very injudiciously believed her own press releases and called a general election. So much for ‘More Work. Less Talk’ and mass sterilization campaigns!

What remains and will always remain is truth. As expressed in art. As expressed in music. As expressed in these eight massive ghazals which are brought to a soulful life by the inimitable Shri Mohammad Rafi.

Rafi sahib, like all the great play back singers of his generation, loved the opportunity to ‘stretch’ himself by getting away from film music.   Films made him his millions but as an artist there is a limit to how many variations on a theme you can credibly sing.

I have a number of records of non-filmi music by Lata, Asha and Rafi which I consider to be among their finest. Without the contraints and pressures to deliver to a specific formula for a specific scene in a specific film by a specific music director, you can sense the freedom and joy in their voices.

On this record Rafi renders on Side 1 four ghazals by contemporary poets such as Sudarshan Faakir and Shamim Jaipuri.   Faakir’s lyrics in particular are ones I’ve admired for many years.   Ek Hi Baat Zamane ki Kitabon Mein Nahin, (The One Thing that Will Not be Found in the books of history) the last track on Side 1, seems especially appropriate to the spirit of 1976. All the things that will not be written in this books of history.

 jo gam-e-dost me nasha hai sharabo me nahi 

(The buzz from wine can not be compared to the intoxication of friends’ sorrow)

That line can be read as a boozer’s lament, but also as a comment on the profound tragedy of lost friendships, something that divisive period of Indian history delivered in spades.

Side 2 is a quartet of classic ghazals from some of the greatest Indian poets, including Ghalib, Mir and Dagh Dehlvi. All of them are wonderful. Taj Ahmed Khan the music arranger has done an outstanding job making sure to give Rafi’s voice just the instrumental and rhythmic support it needs to shine. My favorite is the opening track on Side 2

Haae Mehman Kahan Yeh Gham-e-Jaana Hoga which is full of blue notes and mournful glissandos.

The record is a treasure. I am grateful to Balkar Bains of Queensland for his gift.

 

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Track Listing:

01 Falsafe Ishq Mein Pesh Aaye Sawalon ki Tarah [Sudarshan Faakir]

02 Talkhi-e-Mae Mein Zara Talkhi-e-Dil Bhi Gholen [Krishen Adeeb]

03 Kitni Rahat Hai Dil Toot Jane ke Baad [Shamim Jaipuri]

04 Ek Hi Baat Zamane ki Kitabon Mein Nahin [Sudarshan Faakir]

05 Haae Mehman Kahan Yeh Gham-e-Jaana Hoga [Dagh Dehlvi]

06 Diya Yeh Dil Agar Usko Bashar Hai Kya Kahiye [Mirza Ghalib]

07 Dil ke Baat Kahi Nahin Jati [Mir Taqi Mir]

08 Na Shauq-e-vasl-ka Dawa [Ameer Minai]

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