Jazz Darwinism: Rez Abbasi

Was out enjoying a pint of dark ale yesterday afternoon with a friend who plays a bit of jazz guitar. Just a pick up group of elderly Sri Lankan emigres–doctors, accountants–who love Miles Davis and Monk. And my friend Rob. An Aussie public servant who just wants to make music. They don’t perform publicly, preferring the casual camaraderie of doodling and grooving a couple times a month.

As the hot wind blew through our hair Rob mentioned that he was finding it hard to find inspiration in the same old jazz music. As good as it is and as genius as Monk, Davis and Oscar Peterson are, Rob was lamenting his being in a rut. Not knowing where to look for more contemporary or at least different jazz sounds. I shared a similar predicament, one that has bothered me for a number of years and had me listening to less and less jazz.

The way I unblocked the sink was to go on to Reddit–that truly amazing platform of information (and of course dis-information; you got to check your sources)–and shout into the void, “I’m bored with jazz. Help!” Within minutes the replies came back in echoing waves, “Try this!” “You gotta check this out!” “How about some Polish trumpet playing?'” “Its all happening in the UK.” “Nubya Garcia’s the bomb!” “Yazz Ahmed and Kokororo are the best.”

It worked. I followed some of those rabbit holes and they of course led to others and within a few weeks I was fully immersed in a whole new world of Jazz. One that had little to do with Milt Jackson (whom I adore) or Miles or Sonny or Ella. The centre of my jazz world shifted from New York and Chicago to London and Beirut.

I immediately offered to send a few files Rob’s way and included Natural Selection a 2010 album by Pakistani-American guitarist Rez Abbasi. Abbasi has been at the critical forefront of American jazz guitarists for many years now and continues to release music in a variety of styles and with a changing guard of collaborators. Known primarly as an innovative electric guitarist, in this album he plays (primarily) the acoustic, and is accompanied by a small group that includes drum, bass and vibes. The latter is particularly interesting and affective here.

The album offers a several covers of other’s work like Punjab (Joe Henderson) Personal Mountains (Keith Jarrett) and a gorgeous Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers) to close out the album. The opening track Lament too is an homage, if not straight cover, to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Overall the album shimmers with sound and the cover art that depicts water drops against glass is an apt visual representation for the sound. Light yes, but not superficial or simple.

Track Listing:

01 Lament

02 Pakistani Minor

03 Personal Mountains

04 Up On the Hill

05 When Light Falls

06 Bees

07 Blu Vindaloo

08 New Aesthetic

09 Punjab

10 Ain’t No Sunshine

Abbasi

Mystic Orb: Sufi Moon

Now here’s something interesting.

Sufi Moon is a fusion of Qawwali Music and Alphorns, composed of three Swiss jazz musicians and two Pakistani qawwals.

One of the more interesting musical performances at the Sufi Soul World Music Festival in Lahore, Pakistan, the Sufi Moon project explores the spiritual symbolism of the moon, which Anna Grichting sees as ‘a universal symbol as well as the symbol of Islam – the crescent.

The Swiss group was first exposed to subcontinental Sufi philosophy three years ago and ‘Sufi Moon’ was created with Pakistani qawwal Sher Miandad Khan and tabla nawaz, Waris Ali Balu Khan, whom they met at the first Sufi Soul Festival in 2000. The fusion has also been performed during the Urs at Pakpattan (the yearly celebrations that take place in the sufi shrine on the birth date of the saint) and at venues across Switzerland and the Punjab.

Jean-Jacques Pedretti and Robert Morgenthaler’s wonderful bass performances, mostly with wind instruments, (the trombone, alphorn and didgeridoo and conch shells), were complemented by the rhythm of Balu Khan’s tabla and the spiritual voices of Anna Grichting and Sher Miandad Khan, and their performance left the audience enthralled.

I really enjoy listening to this album. And while at first a bit surprising, the prominence of the trombone, used here more as part of the rhythm section–a steady metronomic presence–than a melody maker, is actually quite effective. Lyrics switch between English, French and Urdu and apparently performers of the world famous Rafi Peer Theatre Group contributed to the production of this fine experimental album.

Track Listing:

01 Moon Chant [Ali Ali Keyan Gham Taldey]

02 We Three  [Rumi]

03 Gem of the Night  [Haq Farid Ya Farid]

04 Moon and stars [Iqbal]

05 Reason and Love [Dorey Baba Bulleh Shah]

06 Haq Mollah Ali Mollah

07 Voyage dans la lune [Cyrano de Bérgerac]

08 Lost in Space [Chiryan Boldiyan]

09 New Moon [Iqbal]

10 Tides. Ishiq Nachaya

11 Sufi Moon

12 Autour de la Lune [Jules Vernes]

13 Moon [Dil Dey Ander Tu]

Moonshine

Desert Silk: Reshma

The Lok Virsa Institute, situated on a campus in the woods at the feet of the Margalla Hills in Islamabad, is one of those public institutions that governments like to create and forget. ‘We should have some appartus,’ they reason, ‘that preserves and promotes our unique national cultures.’ An Act of Parliament is passed. A new building or two are constructed. A semi famous person is installed as the Director and then the budget is cut year after year until ultimately the Institute is barely able to pay staff salaries let alone maintain a website, fund research or publish books, reports or release recordings.

When I lived in Pakistan I was quite familiar with the leadership of the Institute. This was the mid 80s. Budgets were always tight but there was still some breath in the thing. Concerts were quite regularly sponsored, their range of cassette tapes of folk music from every corner of the country was widely available and very affordable and often Lok Virsa connected with international scholars to do some amazing research. The long jagged knives of politics were always flashing (they always are in a country where sinecurism is both a personal economic and a national political strategy) but Lok Virsa seemed to be liviing up to its founding principles–promoting and preserving the folk cultures and especially the music of Pakistan.

In the intervening years my friends who worked there kept me appraised of the shenanigans but also, more damaging, the utter neglect of the Institute by the government. Its funding dwindled to a trickle and its campus became overgrown, if not literally then spiritually, by weeds and dead wood. Given the material it had to work with and the relatively untapped sources of culture in that amazing country, Lok Virsa was gutted; offering little and broadly unknown.

What a surprise then to find in recent years a whole series of music releases of some of Pakistan’s greatest singers and musicians. Nicely produced and often in multiple volumes, the Lok Virsa Series of (mostly) live recordings are such a treasure.

Reshma

Today I share a set of folk songs by the outstanding singer Reshma, one of my favorite South Asian artists, and someone whose music I’ve shared many times before. This double CD set includes her most famous song Lambi Judai as well as a nice mix of Rajasthani folk melodies and Punjabi lokgeet. The only weak (ish) cut here is the final one, a rather uninspired version of the Sufi standard. But throughout the album, Reshma’s strong alto voice is melodic and untrammeled by artifice or unnecessary adornment. Its simple, beautiful, life-giving singing by a supremely gifted artist.

I never grow tired of listening to Reshma. And I think you’ll enjoy this collection as well.

Track Listing:

01 Rajasthani Lok Geet

02 Bandra-Rajasthani Geet

03 Ve Main Chori Chori

04 Sade Wal Mukhdra Morr

05 Aksar Shab-E-Tanhayee Mein

06 Na Dil Dendi Bedardi Nu

07 Kithey Nain Na Jordi

08 Naeo Lagda Dil Mera

09 Meri Hum-Jolian

10 Lambi Judai

11 Akhian Nu Rehn De

12 Mayaa-Lok

13 O Lal Mari Pat Rakhio Balla

Reshma Lok Virsa

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

Baacha

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

thumri