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.

 

saza-e-jazbat-main

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

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.

noor-jehan-front

noor-jehan-back

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

West of Bollywood: Film Songs of Pakistan

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Everyone knows Noor Jehan, arguably the finest female popular voice to emerge from the subcontinent in the last century. But many of the singers on this excellent collection remain unknown beyond the borders of Pakistan. This is sad because the likes of Salim Raza, S.B. John and Naseem Begum, each with distinctive sounds deserve much wider appreciation.

 

The film industry of Pakistan, centered around Lahore and Karachi, but also Dhaka until 1971, has rightly or wrongly been ignored by the outside world. Even within Pakistan there are few these days that express as deep an affection for the films, actors and singers of Lollywood as they do for India’s glimmering gallery.

 

You won’t be able to tell if the movies that these songs were part of were any good until you watch them. I’ve seen a couple and they are not bad. The real lo-fi standards of film making were still a decade and a half or more in the future when these films were released. But listen to these songs and tell me if you think they are any less beautiful than what was coming out of Bombay at the same time.

 

Zindabad!

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pak film back

Track Listing:

01 Jalte Hain Armaan [Anarkali] (Noor Jehan)

02 Too Jo Nahin Hai [Savera] (SB John)

03 Aaye Mausam Rangile [Saat Lakh] (Zubeida Khanum)

04 Shah-e-Madina [Noor-e-Islam] (Salim Raza)

05 Too Lakh Chale Ri [Gumnaam] (Iqbal Bano)

06 Nighahen Mila Kar [Mehboob] (Noor Jehan)

07 Chandni Raaten [Dopatta] (Noor Jehan)

08 Tum Zindagi Ko [Dopatta] (Noor Jehan)

09 Yaaro Mujhe Muaaf [Saat Lakh] (Salim Raza)

10 Raj Dularay [Naukar] (Kausar Parveen)

11 Mudat Hui Hai Yaar [Ghalib] (Noor Jehan)

12 Ae Mard-e-Mujahid [Changez Khan] (Inayat Bhatti)

13 Ham Bhool Gaye Har [Saheli] (Naseem Begum)

14 Ulfat ki Nai Manzil Ko [Qatil] (Iqbal Bano)

Lollywood

Down Memory (and Technology) Lane: Runa Laila

1970s poster child Runa Laila

1970s poster child
Runa Laila

Between the late 1960s and early 1980s, Runa Laila was one of the most popular voices in Pakistan. A Bengali by birth like so many other great Pakistani film and pop stars, she is claimed by both countries and loved in many more. Runa sang film songs often as the female half of a duo with the iconic Ahmed Rushdi, but also sang ghazals and even folk music.

As this tape demonstrates, a playback singer, though much maligned in some people’s minds, has to be very talented. Runa is able to voice the playful naughtiness of a dancing girl, the broken heart of ‘every girl’ and the raw rural brilliance of the village cowherdess. And do so convincingly.

I picked up this tape only a few weeks ago, believe it or not. I was in Karachi and in the hotel book-shop there were several cassettes. I bought most of them and for the most part they are in good working order. A bit less pleasant is that many of them are ‘jhankar’ tapes. This is a musical genre that came into vogue in the late-80s and really dominated the tape industry in the early 90s.

Thoroughly modern and gorgeous.

Thoroughly modern and gorgeous.

Jhankar is an Urdu term meaning ‘clang, ping, twang’. With the advent of access to electronic keyboards and mixing boards many small studios began remixing film songs, ghazals, qawwali and virtually any sort of music (bar classical) they could get their hands on and overlay it with electronic beats. In my opinion it was unnecessary tinkering and clearly a marketing strategy to make money off of dusty back catalogues. On the other hand, if you ever have taken a 12 hour bus trip across the plains of Pakistan you quickly appreciate the music. In the case of jhankar it was the only sort of music you could hear about the rattle and clatter of a poorly made bus on a bumpy road.

I commend this tape to you, despite its being jhankarized, because Runa is always good to listen to and for the most part the IT boffin that added the pings and clangs to this was pretty restrained. The stand out tracks are #1, #3 and #8 but for a trip down memory lane (both culturally and technologically) all the tracks are worth owning.

Shabaash.

Runa Laila Vol 45. Part 1 (Special Jhankar)

Track Listing:

01 Dil Dharkey Main Tum Se

02 Mian Ji ke Bannon Se

03 Dinwa Dinwa Main Ginoon

04 Naina Taras ke Rah Gai

05 Na Jane Kis Liye Hum Par

06 Takalluf Ber Taraf Hum To

07 Sathi Sath Nibhana Rey

08 Meri Marzi Main Gaaoongi

09 Aap Farmain Kya Khareedain

10 Champa Chambeli Yeh Kaliyan

11 Aap Dil ki Anjuman Main

12 Mera Babu Chall Chabila

Runa Baby

Sounds of Golden Lahore

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When I first visited Pakistan-a quick foray into Lahore from Amritsar-in 1980 I was suitably impressed with all the imported cars on the streets. Compared with India, where the Ambassador’s shape had not changed in 30 years and anything imported would set you back several 100’s of % duty, this was an advanced country.

We got off the train at Lahore’s central station which was surrounded with lots of muddy tracks and tongas. But all around the parking lot were signs for Pepsi Cola (not Thums UP!), Sony cassette players (as opposed to Bush or Videocon) and just a little bit down the road purring like a pride of hungry lions a line of sleek Toyota and Mitsubishi buses (not battered Tatas).

To a young, poorly traveled young man, this was convincing stuff. Pakistan may be the enemy but they were way ahead of us when it came to lifestyle.

Tonight’s record is a collection of cinema music from the Lahore studios (which I didn’t see) from the same golden era. Pakistan was teetering on the brink of what in retrospect has been a steady slide into some sort of ambiguous State in 1980. But at the time the goods life seemed assured.

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Nahid Akhtar

Tafo Brothers

Tafo Brothers

Commonly, ignorantly but understandably lumped in with its wealthy not-too-distant cousin, Bollywood, Lollywood was inspired by, but often overshadowed by its posh and well-traveled relative. Following the simplistic Bombay + Hollywood = Bollywood name game (that would in later years spawn Nollywood in Nigeria), Lollywood’s Lahore based film industry was a profitable and vibrant one that found great success in the modest boundaries of its own country but was seldom savoured outside Pakistan. However, the hugely important musical business spawned a bi-product that was viewed as a potential earner for international entertainment industry, EMI, which allowed talented musicians to create ambitious music with world class mediums at there disposal, which throughout the 60s and 70s ranged from fuzz-guitars, space-echo machines and American and European synthesizers, but, due to the composers indigenous roots, rarely a drum-kit. Here you’ll find fuzzy, scuzzy, twang-happy, spaced-out and funked up urdu-grooves complete with harmonium melodies and driven by some of the most random factor, freakish, finger-numbing, percussion that the South East Asian mainstream has ever had to offer. Above all, Lollywood soundtracks sound RAW! Re-imagine some of the most action packed Bollywood productions (which Lollywooders actively did) then fire the make-up department, take away the special effects budget and then improvise. The lack of gloss on a dusty Pakistani mini-LP makes for truly experimental Eastern Pop music.

M. Ashraf

M. Ashraf

So, it’s time to meet the culprits. The names on the back of the records that’ll keep you gambling on Ghazals and taking punts on Pakistani pulp-balladry. As an introduction, in place of R.D. Burman and Asha Bhole, we have Mr. M. Ashraf and his long-term female collaborator, Nahid Akhtar. This duo would provide Pakistan with it’s Gainsbourg / Birkin or it’s Morricone / Dell’Orso for over 20 years, recording squillions of cut-and-paste sonic collages and moog-fuelled desperate love / hate / chase / chill / kill / songs mixing onomatopoeic Urdu lyrics with unexpected bursts of user friendly English language (which often elongates the running time passed the 5 minute mark) and throwing in the odd motif from a Barry White or Donna Summer hit. We also have legends like Noor Jehan, a national treasure and household name in Pakistan whose discography of film songs have deprived the vaults of EMI Pakistan of floor space for half a century. (Liner Notes)

So here we go! The down right righteous sounds of Lahore in the golden age!

If you’re a fan of Bollywood music then this is essential listening.

The Sound Of Wonder!

Track Listing:

01 Dama Dam Mas Qalandar [M. Ashraf/Ahmed Rushdi]

02 Good News For You [M.Ashraf/Nahid Akhtar]

03 Karye Pyar [Tafo Brothers/Nahid Akhtar]

04 Yeh Raat Jane Keya Keya [Kamal Ahmed/Noor Jehan]

05 Dilbar Dilbara [M.Ashraf/Nahid Akhtar]

06 I Am Very Sorry [Kamal Ahmed/Noor Jehan]

07 Main Hoon Play Boy [M.Ashraf/A. Nayyar]

08 Kad Ley Way [Tafo Brothers/Nahid Akhtar]

09 Na Main Chini Japani [Tafo Brothers/Nahid Akhtar]

10 Society Girl [Nazir Ali/Nahid Akhtar]

11 Ho Jeth Ji Aaj Main [M.Ashraf/Nahid Akhtar]

12 Mera Mehoob Hai [M.Ashraf/Nahid Akhtar]

13 Meri Marzi Main Gaoon Gi [Nisar Bazmi/Runa Laila]

14 Life Hai Kuch Dinon Ki [M.Ashraf/Nahid Akhtar]

15 Pyar Ka Koee Shola [M.Ashraf/Nahid Akhtar]

W!