Damp Kindling: Jhalaak

arabic modern

I love the idea behind this album. Mixing hip-hop with Manganiyar folk is such an obvious choice I can only wonder, ‘why hasn’t it been tried earlier?’ The juxtaposition of hoary mystical traditions smack dab up against contemporary EDM sounds, the layering of righteous raps on top of Punjabi poetry and the combining of simple nomadic instruments with studio produced drum beats makes the blood race just a bit faster.

Jhalaak (Urdu: spark) is a project of Canadian-Indian DJ/rapper Ruby Singb.   It is “a Sufi Hip Hop project that leans back to mystic poetry from the 13th century and rides that current into the future with global bass sounds. Spanning two continents, Jhalaak brings together the powerful sounds of Qawwali (devotional Sufi music from Pakistan and India), Hip hop, and EDM. Internationally celebrated artists Chugge Khan, Salim Khan and Khete Khan are 19th generation Rajasthani musicians from the Manganiyar tradition, steeped in the elation and ecstasy of Sufi music and poetry. Under the constellations of the 2014 summer sky, they found a kindred spirit in Canadian born Desi Hip Hop artist, multi-instrumentalist, and composer Ruby Singh. To expand the spectrum of Jhalaak, Juno and Emmy nominated producer and DJ Adham Shaikh, contributes to their hypnotic and explosive chemistry.

Made up of an ensemble of artists who have toured the world over, Jhalaak is a potent combination of musicians sparking dance floors worldwide. Chugge Khan with recent project Junun toured extensively with Radiohead, and was mentored as a young vocalist by the inimitable Ustaad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Ruby Singh’s spoken word, rap and beat boxing have taken him across the globe throughout North America, Europe, and the South Asian continent, which prepared him for creating rap interpretations of these Qawwali songs that date back as far as 700 years. Six years ago they collided in Vancouver through the Indian Summer Festival and have been jumping back and forth between India and Canada ever since. Recently they have learned, through a long twist of fate, Singh’s ancestors migrated 300 years ago from the same city in Rajasthan that the Khan brothers have been living for generations. Destiny seems to have a hand in weaving this band together.” (bandcamp)

As I said, I love the ‘idea’ of Mr Singh’s project more than I like the execution of it.  Which is a pity because there is a lot to really like here.  The song selection for example is excellent.  Many are qawwalis made famous by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and harken back to his early 1990s collaborations with Michael Brooks and Peter Gabriel.   Then there’s the sonics themselves: a superb blending of contemporary mostly machine generated beats with traditional acoustic instruments from the desert regions of western India/eastern Pakistan–morchang, sarangi, bansuri, various percussion. Everything works very well together.

What doesn’t work well, sadly, is the singing of the Manganiyar artists. Based on the evidence here they are quite uncomfortable in this setting; they never find their place. They never feel free to really let loose and at the same time struggle to be contained within the hip hop / studio environment.  At first I thought Singh was trying to get something akin to a jazz feel from them but quickly changed my mind. These obviously talented and powerful singers were just not interested. Or perhaps they didn’t have the time to dedicate to finding their groove but by the time the beautiful Sanu ek Pal Chain na Ave comes along the singer is so off tune as to be singing in another country.  Its unlistenable.

So sad becuase clearly the concept is a worthy one. The songs are proven winners and the singers themselves some of the most potent and accomplished in the world. But the lack of attention to getting them to sing in tune completely undermines the whole project.  This is a fire that has no spark.

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Track Listing:

01 Akhiyan _ No Peace in my Sight

02 Mustt Mustt _ Enrapture

03 Jhalaak _ Spark

04 Woh Hata Rahe Hain Parda _ Lift the Veils

05 Challa _ The Beloved Wanderer

06 Maki Madni _ The Last Prophet

07 Kise Da Yaar Na Vichre _ The Lost Beloved

08 Main Naraye Mastana _ Herald of the Ecstatic

09 Sanu Ek Pal Chain Na Ave _ No Sliver of Peace

JHALAAK

 

Ragas and Riches: Amanat Ali and Fateh Ali Khan

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The music we share today was originally released as a LP in Pakistan in 1974 and then in the 1980s/90s as a cassette. The latter had an expanded playlist which unfortunately I don’t have.  (Anyone?) But EMI Pakistan reissued the original recording with art work from the cassette (a sort of hybrid approach) and that is the version I share today.

Amanat Ali Khan and his brother Fateh Ali Khan were arguably the most lauded sibling singing duo in Hindustani classical music during their lifetimes.  Perhaps Nazakhat Ali and Salamat Ali Khan could lay claim to that particular title but both Amanat Ali’s and Fateh Ali’s work beyond pure classical forms to more popular ‘light classical’ ghazalsearned them a huge popular audience that certainly was larger than the doyens of the Sham Chaurasi gharana.

And that versatility was the angle the marketers embraced when they released this collection, Raag se Ghazal Tak (From Ragas to Ghazals).

What is there to say about this fantastic treaure of Hindustani classical vocalising? They open with a moody rendition of Raga Aeman (aka Yaman) one of the foundational ragas in Indian classical music.  Amanat soars toward the skies as Fateh Ali establishes the composition strongly on terra firma. They exchange passages, playing off the other, using the one to launch higher or dive deeper before coming back come together to sing in unison.

They then offer a thumri set in the same raga, Aaja Aaja Na Ja Pardes (Come, Please Don’t Leave Me). Appropriate to the thumri, a genre of singing that emphasises intimacy, sensuality, physical love and deep emotion, the brothers sing this classic with real feeling and drama. Amanat opens with a several lines that compare love to the burning coal and the intense heat of ashes, begging his beloved to come close and not leave.  Fateh takes the next verse and in a teasing way–listen to the playful tone of his ‘aaja, aaja na ja’–begs the lover to stay by his side.

Amanat Ali then sings alone, Meri Dastan-e-hasrat, Saifuddin Saif’s famous ghazal, also in raga Aeman. Many artists have covered this ghazal but this interpretation, which opens with a short spoken recitation, is truly memorable.  Much has been made about the spiritual similarities between jazz and Hindustani classical music, especially the critical role of improvisation, and the intuitive sensitivity of each performer in the ensemble to each other and to the audience. This track is a great example of this. Amanat Ali’s singing is as open and instinctive as any jazz vocalist’s, stringing each of the words like pearls to make a beautiful garland.

The next three songs–a short raga, thumri and ghazal–are built around raga Malkauns a soothing, late night raga generally associated with ‘he who wears snakes like a garland’- Lord Shiva.

The thumri chosen for this raga is a nice complement to the earlier one.  There the singer begs the lover not to leave and go far away.  Here in Kab Aaoge Tum Aaoge (When Will You Return?) the lover longs for the speedy return of the beloved who has gone. The number was a considerable hit and fondly remembered among music connoisseurs now nearly a half century after Amanat’s passing in 1974.

The recital ends with a final ghazal, Kaise Guzar Gai Hai Jawani by Altaf Haidari. There are those who claim that Mehdi Hassan was the greatest male singer of ghazals but if that is the case there can hardly be any argument that Amanat Ali saab was never far behind. His voice’s timbre bore the colour of decades of classical training and practice. It was supple, keening, brittle but piercing all together.  In this lament for the passing of one’s youth Amanat’s voice is full of weariness and sadness. It’s a masterful way to end this fantastic little album.

Highly recommended.

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Track Listing:

01 – Raag Aeman

02 – Aaja Aaja Na Ja Pardes

03 – Meri Dastan-E-Hasrat

04 – Raag Maalkoos

05 – Kab Aaoge Tum Aaoge

06 – Kaise Guzar Gai Hai Jawani

Amanat Fateh

Desert Silk: Reshma

Reshma

Reshma

The Thar desert is a sprawling ocean of sand and shifting dunes that covers about 200,000 sq kilometers of the South Asian subcontinent’s northwest.  One of the most contentious international borders runs through the Thar dividing Pakistan from India.  The people who have for centuries lived in this region are nomads, camel and sheep herders, who scholars agree formed the original group of people we now identify as gypsies.

The desert kingdoms of Rajasthan have been proudly martial and for the most part fiercely Hindu. But amongst the nomads and settled communities scattered across the Thar,  Islam has played a huge role in shaping the culture and ethos of the region.  Ajmer one of South Asia’s preminent Sufi pilgrimage sites draws millions of visitors each year and is but a few kilometers from Pushkar an equally auspicious Hindu site.   And while census takers, politicians and journalists try to stick rigid labels onto entire communities, the reality is that religious identity and practice in the Thar is  quite fluid and messy.  Take for example the Cheetah Mehrat community in Rajasthan, or the Hussaini Brahmins from the Punjab, not so far to the north. Pakistan’s largest Hindu population lives in Tharparkar District in Sindh, which encompasses vast tracts of the Thar.

The musical traditions of the Thar region are some of the richest in both countries. Most international music festivals are incomplete without a troupe of Rajasthani singers/dancers bringing down the house.  Out of the holy sites, be they identified as Hindu or Islamic, come deep streams of religious music (bhajans, qawwali, naat, raga).  Several castes–Langa, Sapera, Bhopa, Jogi and Manganiyar–keep the ancient stories and fables and hymns alive on both sides of the border.

In Pakistan, several hugely popular singers have come out these regions, including the undisputed king of ghazal Mehdi Hassan and such contemporary artists like Naseebo Lal whose work I recently posted.   Today I share the work of another great artist with Thar roots, Reshma.

Reshma (also sometimes spelled, Reshman) is one of Rushdie’s “midnight children”, born in the same year that British India was thrown head long into a violent, chaotic, physical partition the ramifications of which continue to be played out.  Her family left their home in Rajasthan and moved east to Karachi in the new country of Pakistan which in the years after Partition was transformed from a quiet Arabian Sea port town to a cauldron of unrest and ethnic conflict the ramifications of which also continue to be played out.

The story goes that  the young girl was discovered singing at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar 300 kms north west of Karachi. In 1968, television producer Saleem Gilani, was struck by the purity of her voice and arranged for her to be recorded for national radio . Overnight, Reshma, this untrained folk singer, whose father was a camel and horse trader, found a place in the hearts of Pakistanis and ultimately, Indians, as well.

Reshma and Naseebo Lal may share a similar geographic and family background but they are two very different singers from two different generations.  Reshma who never strayed far from her folk roots even when she lent her voice to both Lollywood and Bollywood movies, has a voice that is characterised by nuance and emotional warmth.  Her singing style emphasises pathos and the deep themes of separation, longing for home, waiting for the return to home of men gone far away and wandering. The themes of a nomadic life.  Where Naseebo Lal’s voice is built on the power of projection–appropriate to the venues and urban styles she dominates–Reshma’s singing is best appreciated in intimate settings.

Comparisons with other artists–as in the case of Naseebo Lal and Noor Jehan–are suggestive at best. And though Reshma’s voice is unique in the incredibly rich and diverse tribe of Pakistani singers I find a similar ‘feel’ in her singing as that of Mohammad Tufail Niazi.  Both sing with an innate, deeply felt and held connection to land, culture and tradition. There is nothing pretentious in their art. They could not be inauthentic if they tried.  As Reshma herself says, the music simply comes forth from within me.

I’ve been playing this record over and over the last few days.  Its a digital copy of a cassette put out in the early 1980s by EMI Pakistan called Meri Pasand (My Choice).  It includes many of her most popular songs, such as Bari Lambi Judai and Kithe Nain na Joren, and as far as I’m concerned needs to be an essential part of anyone who claims to love South Asian lokgeet (folk music) collection.  Especially delightful are the very short but revealing introductions she makes to many of the songs. These brief spoken parts reveal her simplicity and humility as well as total acceptance of her ‘God-gifted talent’.

A brilliant collection.  Don’t miss it.

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Track Listing:

01 Ankhiyan Nun Rehan De

02 Na Dil Dendi Bedardi

03 Bari Lambi Judai

04 Men Thal Wich

05 Tak Patri Waleya

06 Phool Banra

07 Kithe Nain Na Joren

08 Haye O’ Rabba

09 Meri Hamjoliyan

10 We Men Chori Chori

11 Aksar Shab-E-Tanhai

12 Yana Raba Aerya

Reshma

 

Winter Blues: Ali Akbar Khan

2men and mangoes

Monday morning blues here.  But last night I was lulled to sleep by a bewitching rendition of raga Hemant by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

Hemant, I discovered, means winter. Which coincidentally matches the climate in my soul–a bit dark, weak and chilly. According to the quixotic Vijaya Parrikarraga Hemant was “advanced by Baba Allaudin Khan who is quoted as  providing the following explanation for the name “’Hemant (winter) is embedded in Sarangdeva’s shloka on Bhinna Shadaj: “Having Brahma for its presiding deity, it is sung on the occasions of universal festivity in the first quarter of the day in winter [Hemant] to express terror (bhayanaka) and disgust (bibhatsa)’” (Shringy and Sharma, op. cit.)

So, further motivation to post this raga now in the first part of this wintery day.  This is a vehicle to express our terror and disgust at the ugly injustices that can no longer be ignored–be they in Minneapolis (my old home) or India (my original home) or here in Australia (my current home). The murder and torture of our brothers and sisters simply because history has placed certain labels upon them.  And our insecurities, fears and unresolved need for love expresses itself in violence (physical and non physical) against those we percieve as threatening.

May Peace and Wisdom come to us all.

This wonderful double disc was recorded in a Christian church (Christ the King) by Muslim and Hindu musicians (Ali Akbar Khan and Swapan Chaudhry) by a Sri Lankan “Christian Baul” in the United States.  Now, if that doesn’t say something to you about the horror and senselessness of this ‘moment’ in which we live then I don’t know what will.

Peace.

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Track Listing:

01. Raga Alam Bhairav

02. Raga Hemant

03. Raga Megh Sarang

04. Raga Durga

Hemant

Celebration of Bangles: Naseebo Lal

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Naseebo Lal

I love this album! It’s been playing through my Plex Media Server all week and will be settling down in the favorites section for some time I’m sure.

Naseebo Lal is big thing among Punjabis in general and Pakistanis of that persuasion in particular. She has a voice like iron and a confidence in performing that seems to belie the painfully shy ‘real life’ person she portrays in interview /.  A born singer, Naseebo has had to find confidence at an extraordinary depth of her character to make it to the front ranks of popularity.  Without the advantages of a wealthy background, no connections in the industry and hailing from a remote district of western Punjab (Bhakkar) far from Lahore, Pakistan’s cultural hub, Naseebo’s path to success is not dissimiliar to that of countless women who’ve succeeded on little more than bloodyminded grit and raw talent.  One immediately thinks of Dolly Parton who set out from the poverty struck valleys of Tennessee to Nashville with a dream of conquering the world of country music.  Like Dolly, Naseebo seems well on the way to achieving her dream.

Fans and critics love hanging labels on new artists that referencenthe giants of the past.  How many, ‘new Bob Dylans’ have we been presented with over the last 50 years? In Naseebo’s case, she is regularly asked to respond to the notion that she is the ‘new Noor Jahan’.  It’s a fraught situation. A damned if you do and damed if you don’t type scenario. On the one hand any artist is honoured and humbled to be likened to an icon or personal idol.  On the other who wants to live forever in the shadow of anyone else, no matter how large and important their influence and popularity?

It is true that Naseebo’s voice has some of the same hallmarks as Madam’s: its power especially. But also that very wide open, yet plumb Punjabi way of emoting.  And Naseebo can slither and glide around the lyrics, causing one’s heart to skip a beat at the dexerity of it all, in a way that is not dissimilar to Noor Jehan.

Having said all that, Naseebo is very much her own stylist. Her tone I find to be smoother (not necessarily more polished) than Noor Jehan’s and of course, being still in her prime Naseebo has incredible control.

This album–probably issued in Pakistan as a cheap VCD or MP3 disc–is called Churiyan di Eid Hogi. Its songs cover a good range of subjects and styles from flirtatious love songs to reverent Sufi-esque hymns. I personally love the mid tempo numbers (especially Wasta El Rab Da Ton) but in many top-to-bottom listens have not found a single track that I want to skip.  The singing is compelling with the sonics filled out with the big Punjabi percussion, country flutes and some really tasteful orchestral string arrangements.  Sadly, I guess public taste demands it, but there is a bit of irritating machine-generated jhankar beats;  thankfully they are buried in the mix so can, with a bit of effort, be overlooked.

I’m so glad I found this album. Hope you enjoy it too.

 

Naseebo Lal

Track Listing:

01 Jaa ke Sajan Pardesiyan

02 Wasta El Rab Da Ton

03 Aai Ve Aai

04 Rah Tak Tak Akhiyan

05 Sajna Main Hari

06 Allah Ho Allah Ho

07 Yaari Assan Lai Te

08 Hanjowan Di Nadi Wich

09 Paindi Ae Barsaat

10 Tur Gaya Mahi

Naseebo Lal