The Balladeer: Sharif Idu

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Sharif Idu is probably the most widely known dhadhi singer in India. Of course, dhadhi is not a massively popular genre. Least of all in the urban, recorded-music consuming markets of India. So the word ‘widely’ needs to be tempered somewhat.

 

Dhadhi is a genre of traditional music performed mostly in Punjab and some border areas of Rajasthan and Haryana. Its natural audience lives and works in the agricultural villages and small towns of Punjab. While the recent folk music revival in India has given artists like Sharif Idu more ‘fame’ than they would normally enjoy, dhadhi, like so many other indigenous, local forms of singing and playing music is struggling to withstand the forces of digitally-consumed commercial popular music.

 

Punjab is blessed with an incredibly rich traditional/folk culture which includes a number of distinct styles of singing and playing music. While certain geographic areas of the State are ‘home’ to specific styles, most have been enjoyed widely by Punjabi speakers across India and Pakistan. The characteristic that distinguishes one genre from another is not geographic as much as the performance context.

 

There are songs that are performed to accompany major events and milestones in the life of a family: childbirth, marriage, death, business success. These are sung by amateur musicians, family members and neighbors and according to some scholars are the true ‘folk’ music.

 

Other genres are devotional. They are performed by professional musicians in a specific context of worship, spiritual ecstasy or reflection.

 

Still other styles, are secular and relate well known folk stories, tales of local heroes and pure entertainment. These are performed by specific classes of professional hereditary musicians at fairs, festivals, as part of travelling revues or in private functions.

 

In addition to various hereditary castes such as bazigars, mirasis and jogis, (to mention just three), who specialize in specific genres, each style is often associated with a particular instrument or combination of instruments. In the case of dhadhi, the sarangi and the dhadd, a small hand held hour glass shaped drum.

 

Greater Punjab is a huge area in northwestern India and eastern Pakistan. It is wealthy (based largely on agriculture) and has historically been a place of intercommunal harmony. Muslims have always been the most numerous but prior to Partition in 1947, large populations of Hindus and Sikhs lived all across the state. Since 1947, almost all Muslims moved west to what is now Pakistan and likewise, virtually the entire Hindu and Sikh populations moved east to Indian Punjab.

 

Prior to 1947, Punjabis of all faiths participated in and shared a common musical and artistic culture. Divisions between the three groups, while never irrelevant, were far less rigid than in other parts of India. Sikhs and Hindus intermarried. All three communities were familiar with the myths and legends of the other and often included elements of ritual from other religions in their daily practice. Indeed, Punjab’s most famous folk tales, what have been called the Tragic Love Stories, were ‘owned’ and appreciated by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs equally.

 

As part of this amicable arrangement several groups of hereditary Muslim musicians served the Sikh community. One of these groups, the rababi, were attached to the main Sikh gurdwaras, where they sang and recited the beautiful Sikh hymns known as shabad and gurbani.

 

The origins of the dhadhi have been traced back to the Sikh Gurus as well. Many of the gurus, including the first, Nanak, referred to themselves as dhadhi, or balladeers of God.   Though balladeers and minstrels had been a feature of rural Punjab much earlier, it was the deliberate patronage of Sikh gurus that catalyzed the dhadhi into a particular group of performers and style of singing.

 

The dhadhi’s main function was to inspire the Sikh community (then quite persecuted) to valour and courage as well as to sing the praises of the gurus. Very quickly a sub genre, var, developed that was focused on singing of the heroic (martial as well as spiritual) deeds of Sikh leaders.

 

At the same time, (1600-1650), dhadhis began putting the dramatic and emotional story of star-crossed lovers, Hir and Ranjha, into song. Hir Ranjha is just one, but probably the most revered and loved of Punjab’s tragic love stories. The first reference to dhadhis being integral to the performance of these secular epics is from the late 18th century.

 

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries dhadhis were attached to princely courts such as Patiala and Faridkot. Though all dhadhi are non-caste and within broader society considered unclean, within the context of their service to Sikh nobility and the religious hierarchy, they were accorded a certain respect and even material privilege.

 

With the collapse of the princely states by the early 1950s, dhadhis (and other musicians, including some of the biggest names in classical music) were cut loose to fend for themselves. For some years they were able to secure a subsistence living by performing at village fairs and festivals where their stage shows which often ran for three or more days, were a highlight of the annual calendar.

 

But first records, then cassettes and finally the humble mp3 and rapid change in musical tastes put the tradition on the ropes. When Sharif Idu was re-discovered he was working as a day labourer in Chandigarh.

 

Born in Patiala district around the time of the Partition, Sharif Idu’s father was a well known singer and so the boy was brought up in the environment of dhadhi. His reputation grew after singing in the wedding of a Punjabi movie star and with his eldest son and nephew on dhadd , and Idu himself on sarangi he formed his first dhadhi group. After his rediscovery, in 1986, he stole the show at a national performance in Delhi, receiving acknowledgement from the then Prime Minister himself for this powerful singing.

 

Sharif Idu’s repertoire is made up of qissa (secular folk tales) the most prominent of which is Hir Ranjha. Unlike other dhadhi who have begun to incorporate their own compositions into their shows, Idu is a faithful and powerful interpreter of historic material. He continues to perform with his three sons and this recording made by DeKulture (Jaipur) is a wonderful example of his talent and passion as well as a valuable cultural document.

 

Note: Tracks 1,2,3 and 5 relate specific episodes of tragic love stories Sassi and Punno; Hir and Ranjha; and Mirza and Sahiban. Track 4 is a telling of the story of a 16th century Punjabi hero who did battle with the Mughals. Track 6 is a kafi (spiritual poem/lyric) by the great Sufi, Bulleh Shah.

 

Enjoy!

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Track Listing

01 Sassi Punno

02 Heer Di Kafi

03 Mirza

04 Dulla Bhatti

05 Heer

06 Baba Bulleh Shah

Dhadhi

Too much loss: Ustad Bade Fateh Ali Khan

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Eighty two years ago Fateh Ali Khan was born into a family of courtly singers in the Indian princely state of Patiala. His father and grandfather had established themselves as prized royal servants and indeed, had been instrumental in founding an entirely new gharana of classical Indian music.

 

The young boy grew up learning the intricacies of khyal and the ancient mode of singing, dhrupad. He was an excellent student. He would sit at the side of his elder brother Amanat Ali to perform for the maharaja who quickly promoted the lads to official positions in the court.

 

The brothers travelled across India to sing at the major music festivals and ‘conferences’ where they wowed the staid and serious audiences. In the rarified world of north Indian classical music, Amanat and his younger brother, Fateh were as close to superstars as you could get.

 

Though they were blessed with golden voices (Fateh specialized in the lower registers, balancing the elegiac tenor of his brother) they shared a curse with an entire generation of Indians.

 

In 1947 their country was divided. A sort of inchoate whirlwind swept up Indians from all across the northern tier of the country and dropped them to earth, crushing families, livelihoods and dreams by the million.

 

Like countless other Muslims, Fateh’s family made its way to a new place called Pakistan, the Land of the Pure, hoping and praying it would a mini paradise on earth.   Whatever the country eventually became, in those early years, Pakistan was in chaos. The country needed administrators, soldiers, judges and teachers. Classical musicians, no matter how gifted, were completely ignored.

 

The family scraped together a meagre living, teaching and performing from time to time. There were offers and invitations from fellow musicians to return to India where at least some musical structures existed. Where audiences still existed. Where patronage still existed.

 

But Fateh and Amanat declined. They stayed loyal to Pakistan and eventually garnered a name for themselves. Radio and then TV welcomed them. Private mehfils were still few and far between but at least they were singing and recording.

 

Disaster struck again in 1974 when Amanat by now one of Pakistan’s most loved and accomplished voices, passed. Fateh sank into despair. In a grand gesture he refused to sing for several years, and when he at last took the stage again, tears stained his cheeks.

 

Yesterday, Fateh Ali Khan himself passed away. His life was bittersweet and touched repeatedly by death. His nephew, Amanat’s son, Asad, himself a master singer passed away at a young age. Despite his lineage, accomplishments and talent, Fateh was never able to make much money as a singer. The old patronage system had died in 1947. The only regular support he could count on was state TV and radio. Hardly enough to raise a family on.

 

He did find audiences outside of Pakistan, not just in India but in Europe, Japan and North America, too. Teaming up with his younger brother, Hamid or his son, Shafqat, Fateh Ali continued to make impressive music for many years.   But a certain sadness accompanied him throughout his life. In his eyes, voice and words there was always the tinge of regret and loss. As if all things irreplaceable had been snatched from him before their time.

 

We will miss you Ustadji.

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Track Listing:

01 Raga Bageshri

02 Raga Naraini

03 Raga Madhmad Sarang

04 Raga Multani

05 Raga Bheemplasi

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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

From the Archives: Maqbool Ahmad Sabri

 

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Maqbool Ahmad Sabri, of the famous Sabri Brothers qawwali group died in South Africa on September 21st, where he had gone to seek medical treatment. He was 70 years old and had not sung for several months.  It is sad and ironic that the demise of the mighty voice of qawwali came with the softest of whispers in the world press.

I first heard the Sabri Brothers when they visited the States in the mid 70s. They played at Carnegie Hall and are credited with being the ones who introduced western audiences to traditional qawwali.  I loved them because they had long hair and connected me with a land I missed. For years when you heard the word ‘qawwali’ you automatically said, Sabri Brothers. The two words were synonymous.

In their steps would come others like Aziz Mian that other great purveyor of traditional naat qawwali.  And following behind him the giant Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who popularised and blended qawwali with contemporary sounds and western sensibilities to raise the form to an internationally loved and lucrative style.  [Original post with goodies]