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

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]

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

Jogi Man: Ram Narata

 

Ram Narata Jogi

It would be hard to find more basic music than this.  A man with a voice of limited range and no smoothness playing a one-stringed homemade instrument accompanied by a friend or two on hand drums.

Ram Narata is (possibly, was) a jogi. A wandering spiritual seeker, probably mystical in his understanding but Hindu in his vocabulary, he was more than 90 when he made this recording.

The songs he sings cover the bases from tragic love stories (Sassi Pannu and Sohni Mahiwal) to earthy spirit melodies.

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Track Listing:

01 Changa

02 Tara Rani

03 Kaula

04 Ishq Nu Chhed Na Bethi

05 Puttar Ka Vardan

06 Duniya De Mele

07 Sassi Puno – Jogi

08 Sohni Mahiwal – Jogi

 

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The Spirit Can Never be Killed

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Amjad Farid Sabri Qawwal Marhoom

The story is told that one day, Akbar the Great heard some wandering minstrels singing about the glorious wali who lay slumbering in the desert town of Ajmer. He enquired of the malangs about this great soul who moved them to sing so beautifully. They replied in verse:

Hazaron badshah aaye
Hazaron sultanat badli
Na badli na badlegi huqumat mere khwaja ki
Mere khwaja badshah hai

[Thousands of emperors have come
Thousands of kingdoms have fallen
The kingdom of my lord has never and will never change
My lord is the emperor]

The devotion of the minstrels so impressed the Emperor he let their frankness pass without comment. Some years later he made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Khwaja Hazrat Moinuddin Chisti, founder of the most influential Islamic mystical order in South Asia, and in effect, gave the House of Timur’s blessing to the Sufis of Ajmer.

Khwaja was well loved by his followers not just for his teachings but also for his methods of teaching. These included the practice of sama, which involved the playing of instruments and singing (solo as well as chorus) to aid spiritual contemplation and produce trance states in the faithful. From this practice, and through the creative brilliance of a disciple of one of Khwaja’s successors, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, this practice became gradually known among devotees as qual and ultimately, qawwali. The disciple who is credited with creating this new and distinctly subcontinental religious music is Amir Khusro, one of India’s great artistic geniuses.

When Khwaja Moinuddin passed away in 1265, the Chistia silsila (Chisti order) produced two branches. One, centered in Delhi, was led by Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. The second, founded by Ali Ahmed Alauddin ‘Sabir’, is known as the silsila Chistia Sabriya. Both branches gained disciples all across northern India and both nurtured and promoted the practice of sama through qawwali.

These days, qawwali is loved across the world. It is performed not just by Pakistani and Indian qawwali parties, but also embraced by jazz musicians, Spanish flamenco guitarists, American mystics and the ultra-chilled lounge music set. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is usually regarded as bringing qawwali to the West but in fact, it was two adherents of the Chistia Sabriya silsila who blazed that trail more than a decade earlier.

The Punjabi qawwali tradition draws inspiration for its lyrics from the saints and shrines of Punjab and other parts of what is now Pakistan. This style of qawwali is regarded as a more vigourous and emotional form than the traditional, sophisticated style from further east in India.

It was part of the Sabri brothers’ brilliance that they were able to sing and perform in both styles. They quickly realised there was a new Urdu-speaking audience in the cities that also had expendable incomes. Their first record, Mera Koi Nahi Hai Terey Siwa (“I have no one but you”) was released in 1958, when Maqbool was still a teenager, to great acclaim, partly because it was accessible to this new audience. [full article]