Multi-coloured soul: Susheela Raman

susheela_raman

Queen Between, Susheela Raman’s 2014 album, is grownup music by an artist of exceptional quality. When I say ‘grownup’ I mean, mature, substantial, packed with musical nutrition, polished and accomplished. I do not mean serious, ponderous or boring.

 

Raman, of Indian Tamil (Thanjavur) origin, was born in the UK and grew up in Sydney where she began exploring her gift in a number of ‘funk/rocknroll’ bands. In 2001 her debut album Salt Rain (highly recommended) caught the attention of the British and European progressive music scene, garnering her a shortlisting for the UK’s prestigious Mercury Award.

 

In Queen Between on which she jams with and is supported by Indian/Pakistani musicians as well as Tony Allen (Fela Kuti’s long time drummer), Raman takes us on a journey into her multi-coloured soul.

 

Sharabi, opens the album with a nod to the sharabi qawwali popularized in the late 70s by Pakistan’s giant king of qawwali Aziz Mian. Sharab literally means, wine/liquor, hence sharabi is generally a pharase used for a drunk. But in the context of qawwali there is always the hidden implication of spiritual intoxification and it is this ecstatic feel that infuses Sharabi.

 

The qawwali theme is woven throughout the album, flowering up again in the beautiful Sajana (Beloved) and the killer final track Taboo. The former settles into the familiar male voiced clapping/chorus on top of which Raman sings of anguish, pain and love sounding like a cross between PJ Harvey and a whirling dervish. The atmosphere is explosive and intense: harmonium, men chanting ‘sajana’ over and over, and guitars acoustic and electric picking and stabbing out their riffs.

 

Taboo which closes the album is a tour de force; a mythic, tale of soul-searching and mortal caution. One thinks immediately of Dylan’s epic story songs like Idiot Wind or Isis. But then we are pushed into some desert shrine in the faraway Tharparkar Desert where ecstatic, frenzied qawwals invoke god and all the saints, long into the night. The drama ultimately subsides and gives way to the very sounds of the Universe which carry, sparkle and whisper the majestic piece to its subdued end.

 

Karunei, sung in Tamil, is another gem. Acoustic guitar and traditional Indian mouth harp (morchang) form an electric nest for Raman’s stunning, resonant, slithering and orgasmic voice to do its dance.

 

The remaining songs, Corn Maiden, Riverside, North Star and the title track, are showcases of her rock n roll side. These vary in quality with Corn Maiden being the best of the lot. It moves like a freight train and Raman sings with a Coltrane like intensity.

 

The moods, rhythms and atmospheres of this album are several but the whole thing hangs together beautifully thanks to Raman’s spectacular voice and the qawwali.

 

I have no doubt this album will rank among your favourite after just a couple of listens. So much meat on this bone.

Queen Between

 

Track Listing:

01 Sharabi

02 Corn Maiden

03 Riverside

04 Sajana

05 North Star

06 Queen Between

07 Karunei

08 Taboo

SRQB

Lost Heiress: Mehnaz Begum

imgres

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

Mehnaz Begum_back

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.

The Balladeer: Sharif Idu

beyondinner

 

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!

beyond_front

beyond-back

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

ustad_759

 

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.

timeless-music-from-pakistan-vol-3

Track Listing:

01 Raga Bageshri

02 Raga Naraini

03 Raga Madhmad Sarang

04 Raga Multani

05 Raga Bheemplasi

Ustad FAK

Grace and Flow: Mehdi Hassan

mehdi

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!

mh-in-ny-v-5-front

mh-in-ny-v-5-back

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