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

Qawwali Collection: Shan-e-Rasool

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An interesting collection of concise qawwali performances from an even more interesting group of singers.

Shan-e-Rasool-o-Aal-e-Rasool (roughly translated by me as The Glory and Grandeur of the Prophet) includes performances by some famous qawwals including Abdur Rab Chaush and Yusuf Azad Qawwal, a couple film playback singers [Mahendra Kapoor and Shamshad Begum] as well as a few (to me) new names such as the delightfully named Pyare Timmu Qawwal (Jaipuri) and Master Habib Nizami.

With the inclusion of filmi qawwali this record presents a sort of qawwali – lite which most connoisseurs would not rate very highly. The messages are simplistic and the language is of the sort someone unfamiliar with High Urdu or Persian can easily understand. Case in point: title of track 9 [Allah Bahut Bada Hai]!

The music, composed mostly by one Mami Bhachu, [any information on him would be much appreciated], is consistently lively and employs a range of traditional and more modern instruments including clarinet and guitar.

What I like about this sort of qawwali is that not only is it ‘simple’ and pretty straightforward but it has lots of stylistic similarities to some Christian gospel music. The lyrics tell stories of the heroes and villains of the Faith, as well as ordinary devout people grappling with the mystery of God’s ways. The philosophy and moral lessons are easy to discern.

And finally, what makes this recording special is the variety of voices. Ismail Azad Qawwal and Shafi Niazi and Yusuf Azad each bring a clear diction and suppleness to their singing that is perfect for story telling. And then of course, there is the grand Shamshad Begum, a very non-traditional qawwal, indeed.

Enjoy with blessings.

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Track Listing:

01 Sine Mein Rahne Do Hoton peh na Lao

02 Zindagi ka Sahara Madine Mein Hai

03 Qaflia Haj ko Chala

04 Ya Mohammad Kisi Haal Mein Bhi

05 Khuda Ne Tumko Rasoolon Mein Aftab Kiya

06 Dar-e-Huzoor pe Hazir Ghulam Ho Jata

07 Hasnain ki Takhti ka Vaqya

08 Mohabbat Husain Ki

09 Allah Bahut Bada Hai

10 Mohammad ke Dularon Par

SHAN O AAL

The Voice of the Golden Age: Noor Jehan

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1971 was not a very good year for Pakistan. Fighting their third war with India, the Generals, who had grabbed power more than a decade earlier, managed to lose half of the country’s territory and nearly half its population in a matter of a few weeks.

 

1971, on the other hand, was a very good year for the fledging country that emerged out of the debacle, Bangladesh.

 

Away from the battlefields and political humiliation that saw the military pushed back to the barracks and the capture of tens of thousands of prisoners of war, the Pakistani cinema industry had been enjoying a pretty neat run.

 

Indian films had been banned several years earlier which, regardless of your views on such policies, had enlivened the local, Lahore and Karachi based industry. A Golden Age had dawned. Between 1968 and 1971 the country was releasing over a hundred films a year, many of them of a comparable quality to those produced in Mumbai.

 

Fans had a whole galaxy of stars to admire. Directors were innovating and pushing the envelope with ventures into science fiction and horror. A more liberal, capitalist oriented economy allowed the music studios access to new instruments and better equipment than their socialism-constrained peers in India.

 

But then the war came along.

 

Many of the top creative minds (directors, critics, actors, singers, music composers) were Bengali and in a dramatic repeat of 1947, they were forced to choose sides: stay on in Lahore or help build a new industry in Dhaka.

 

The blow was huge. But the story of Lollywood is as much one of resilience as it is of art. Losing half the market was a challenge but not fatal. Much of Bengali talent continued on, though moving now between the two countries.

 

The Golden Age of Pakistani films continued for half a decade or more and was eventually ended by a combine of economic and political factors that included the re-emergence of the military into affairs of State.

 

Today the skies over Lollywood are brighter. Fine films are again being produced and the audience is slowly coming back to the cinemas. This is reason for excitement!

 

The album we share today was released in 1971, that Fateful Year. It captures Pakistan’s greatest, most beloved popular artist in her full glory singing hits from films the Golden Age.

 

Noor Jehan, of whom much has been written, was not Pakistan’s pride and joy alone. In a career that had all the characteristics of a rocket shooting toward the highest heavens, Noor Jehan was on track to be one of the biggest actor/singers in Indian cinema. But with the Partition, she opted to return home to Punjab. Without doubt, her decision to do so provided the devastated Lahore film industry with just the artistic gravitas it required to recover. As an actor, director, singer and icon her presence and commitment to film making inspired others to keep going and allowed the Golden Age to emerge.

 

This is a wonderful collection of hits from films released between the mid-1960s and 1970. Noor Jehan was by this stage only a singer. Her acting career had been ended by dictat of her second husband. And it really is for her voice that Madam is most loved and revered.

 

There are so many nuggets of joy in here. Kutch Log Rooth Kar, Abhi Dhoondh hi Rahi and Mujhe Chand se Dar are my favorites. The lively musical arrangements of Mujhe Chand are simply delightful. Madam’s voice is at its peak. The record company proclaims 12 moods. That may be so, but each performance is commanding and assured.

 

Enjoy this slice of Golden light.

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Track Listing:

01 Kutch Log Rooth Kar [Andaleeb]

02 Bay Iman Rasiya [Jalwa]

03 Khath Par ke Ab Dil [Insaan aur Aadmi]

04 Aey Kash Mere Lab Pe [Head Constable]

05 Bain Kare Mera Pyar [Lakhon Mein Ek]

06 Abhi Dhoondh hi Rahi [Bewafa]

07 Mujhe Chand se Dar [Qatal ke Bad]

08 Kahan Ratiyan [Aurat]

09 Main ne Ek Aashiyan [Rim Jhim]

10 Man Mandir ke Devta [Lakhon Mein Ek]

11 Gunghunati Huvee [Naya Savera]

12 Lat Uljhee Suljha [Sawal]

NoorJ

Lucknow’s Great Son: Naushad Ali

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Naushad Ali

Naushad Ali of Lucknow was arguably the first giant of Hindi film music. Not as a singer, but as an inventive composer and arranger.

His sound is instantly recognizable for its deep connection to the folk music of north India and especially the Gangetic plain. Flutes, matkas (clay pots) and other folk instruments embellish his compositions like  glimmering light off a paddy field.

Responsible for the music of so many classics he is one of those of whom it can be honestly said, ‘his music was the soundtrack to an entire generation’. Indians who came of age in the first 2 decades after Independence will probably save the sweetest corner of their hearts for his music.

Naushad was a sharif Musalman. A man of great taste and dignity and culture he also brought a deep love and understanding of raga based melodies into his film scores.

Here is a collection of some of his greatest hits sung by voices as diverse as Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Suraiya and Shamshad Begum. Thank you to Mr Balkar Bains (once again!) for the gift of this wonderful LP.naushad-front

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Track Listing

01 Jawan Hai Mohabbat [Anmod Ghadi]

02 Bachpan ke Din [Deedar]

03 Murliwale Murli Baja [Dillagi]

04 Gaya Ja Geet Milan Ke [Mela]

05 Dil Toote Na [Andaz]

06 Panchhi Ban Mein [Babul]

07 Chhod Babul ka Ghar [Babul]

08 Aja Meri Barbad-e-Mohabbat [Anmol Ghadi]

09 Maan Mera Ehsan [Aan]

10 Sawan ke Badala [Rattan]

11 Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki [Dulari]

12 Jhoom Jhoom ke Nacho [Andaz]

Naushad

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]

RafiGhaz