A Working Class Hero is Something to Be: Attaullah Khan Niazi ‘Issakhelvi’

Working Class Hero

Working Class Hero

I have written about Attaullah Khan Niazi ‘Issakhelvi’ in an earlier post. Since blasting out of the rural district of Mianwali (ancestral home of cricket king Imran Khan) in the 1970s and 80s, Attaullah Khan has lit up the Pakistani music scene like few before him.  His audience is distinctly South Asian, whether on the sub-continent, or in the diaspora.  More specifically, the Punjabi and Seraiki speaking communities adore this man’s music, which comes directly from the heart and plays on the holy trinity of themes of South Asian mohabbat  (love): intimate, lost and longed for.


Sher Shah Suri

Sher Shah Suri

The Niazis are a tribe of the larger ethnic group known as the Pathans.  Originally from the  Eastern regions of what is now Afghanistan over the centuries the Niazis, migrated eastward into what are now known as NWFP and Punjab provinces of Pakistan.  The history of the Niazis, is an interesting one. Related to the Afghan nobles, Sher Shah Suri and the house of the Lodhis, they trace their geneaology  to the grand patriarch of all Pathans, Qais Abdur Rashid, who in turn claimed direct descent from the Biblical Israelite King Saul.


Indeed, many Pathans, and many Niazis too, persist in a rather odd (considering contemporary global political realities) claim that they are one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

While historically dubious, elaborate histories have been constructed in an attempt to provide evidence of what assumes is regarded as a special and meritorious ancient identity.


Attaullah Khan Niazi

Attaullah Khan Niazi

Whether Attaullah Khan believes this legend or not, I don’t know. And who cares? I just thought it was interesting to mention by way of illustration of the unexpected twists and turns of history.  Essakhelvi himself was born (1951) with a love of music, though coming from a tough, martial tribe, ‘singer’ was not a career one spent much time talking about in public.  Indeed, the secret of his music lessons and practice eventually came to the knowledge of his family and he was disowned.  On his own, Attaullah had enough presence of mind though, to complete a basic education and graduate from high school.


When he was 21 he got a chance to sing on Radio Pakistan (Bahawalpur Center) and a popular TV variety show Neelam Ghar.  Though his family still refused to embrace him, he persisted, and in the late 70’s/early 80s was performing for homesick Punjabis in the UK.  Back in Pakistan his fame washed over the country, thanks to a new and affordable technology, the cassette tape.  His live shows, one of which I attended on a cold winter evening in Islamabad, were always very lively.  Khan’s approach to singing is straightforward: sing your bloody heart out and wear your emotions on your sleeve.  He eggs his audience on with sly turns of phrase and exaggerated moans and sighs and quickly heads to the very top of his vocal range where he remains for most of the song.  In combination, these ornaments have the effect of driving his audience, (mostly lower and middle class working men) towards ecstasy.


Having said all that, he does have a very nice voice and knows how to use it.  While he is best loved for his upbeat, jaunty numbers, when he turns his attention to a ghazal or a folky interpretation, his voice is just as expressive and moving.  


His FB page claims “He has recorded more than 40,000 songs in 7 different languages.”   For your listening pleasure I’ve selected just 13 of those songs and three languages to share with you today.  The selection covers some early folk songs (Balo Batiyaan Way Mahi) from Pakistan TV where he (and so many others) got his first mass exposure, through a couple of the big hits  (Ni Uthan Wale Tur,Aankh Mein Naqsh-e-Jannat), to a recent appearance on the famous and fabulous Coke Studio Show (Pyaar Naal). 


The title of the selection refers to the opening number Isa Khel Door te Nahin (Isa Khel is Not Far Away).  There was a period of about 20 years, before King MP3, when every long haul truck, every interstate bus, every local taxi, every wagon (mini-bus) that plied the roads of Pakistan had, not just one, but several tapes of Attaullah Khan Niazi, or simply, Issakhelvi, in the glove box. 


Get ready for it!


Track Listing:

01 Isa Khel Door te Nahin

02 Nain Marjaane

03 Ni Uthan Wale Tur

04 Khol Surahi Pyare Saqi

05 Aankh Mein Naqsh-e-Jannat

06 Chimta Taan Wajda

07 Yeh Bahar ke Zamana

08 Dard to Rukhne ka Ab Naam Nahi Leta

09 Taud ke Dil Pachtana Kaisa

10 Pyaar Naal

11 Balo Batiyaan Way Mahi

12 Bismillah Karan

13 Tumhare Shehr ka Mausam





Pride of the Pathans: Kheyal Mohammad

Kheyal Mohammad

Kheyal Mohammad


The Pashtun people, commonly referred to as Pathans, of South Asia are a tough lot.  Like the scrabbly mountains and remote deserts they call home along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, they are portrayed in popular culture as rugged, ignorant, warrior-like (perhaps even blood thirsty) fundamentalist, child-like and uncouth.   If the wide world knows much about Pathans they probably have a vague idea that the Taliban are mostly Pashtun tribesmen.


Of course, this is but one aspect of their identity.  Pashto-speaking tribes are also brave (having driven superpower after superpower out of their lands for centuries), freedom loving, culture and tradition-proud, great story tellers (the main bazaar in Peshawar their great and ancient capital is the famous Qissa Khawani [Story Tellers] bazaar) and sportsmen. For decades the world championship of squash belonged only to one Pathan family, the Khans (Roshan, Torsam, Rehmat, and the invincible Jahangir) of Neway Kelay, Peshawar.


And then of course, there is Imran Khan, cricketer extraordinaire, playboy, philanthropist and politician. A Pathan from Mianwali district, in Punjab.  And before we relegate Pathans to a class of backward looking extremists remember, Malalai Yousafzai, the bravest school kid in the world, is also not only a Pathan but her parents, who have insisted upon their daughter being educated, are also Pathans.


Pashtun music is heavily influence by Afghan and Iranian musical forms as well as those of India.  The Pashtun folk tradition has a variety of poetic styles a few of which are described below:


Tappa is the oldest and most popular genre of the Pashto poetry. The tappa is a composition of two unequal meters, in which the first line is shorter than the succeeding one, yet it reflects all human feelings and aspirations elegantly. Be it laborers, peasants, or women all sentiments find expression in the tappa. It is also common among the Pashtuns that a boy of school would sing it, the elders in their hujrahs, the women in their home and Godar alike. It is the only song sung in the time of grief and on the occasion of marriage. In music it is sung with the traditional Pashto musical instruments rubab and mangai. Tappa has up to 16 different models of harmony and is being sung with full orchestra. In hujrah it’s sung with rubab and sitar.

Charbeta is another popular genre, which consists of an epic poem with special rhythms. There are four kinds of charbetta’s. Normally, it’s a poem of four lines but might also have six or eight lines. All aspects of life are discussed in it. That includes the heroic deeds and heroism by legendary figures and sometime expresses the romantic feelings. The tempo is usually very fast and is sung by two or more singers as part of a chorus in which ones singer reads the first line while the others follow the remaining. The singing or recitation of a charbetta is called tang takore. Traditionally charbetta is started just after the finishing of a tappa.

Neemakai has many different forms and normally women compose it. It is usually very short (1 to 3 lines). The first lines are repeated in the middle of the song and tappa is usually added according to the subject and circumstances. Most of these songs in Pashtoon culture have been expressed in different areas about daily life and love.

Loba is very popular among the masses and are added within tappas occasionally. This is a form of folk music in which a story is told. It requires 2 or more persons who reply to each other in a poetic form. The two sides are usually the lover and the beloved (the man and woman).

Shaan is sung on happy occasions such as marriages and or the birth of a child, and are sung in private congregations and social gatherings.

Badala is a professional form of folk music and consists of an epic poem or a ballad. Instruments used include the rubab, harmonium, mungey or tabla. In badala, tribal traditions are the main theme as well as heroism, tragedies and romance. Badala consists of variations, because each couplet is varied in rhythms from other. It is sung traditionally at night.

Rubayi is a Pashto form of a ghazal. The Rubayis of Rehman Baba are popular among the masses and is sung before the starting of badala. As with the ghazals, the rubayi have been heavily influenced by Arabic, Persian and Turkish poetry. (Wikipedia)


Kheyal Mohammad is an immensely popular Pakistani Pashtun singer from Peshawar.  For the first part of his career he specialised as an accompanist, playing tabla and harmonium on Radio Pakistan.  In the late 60’s in a prescient career shift he took to recording ghazals at a time when they were rarely heard on the radio. By the early 80’s the ghazal was seemingly ubiquitous and Kheyal Mohammad’s voice was the most popular among Pastho speaking Pakistanis.  In the early 70’s he began a popular run in the Pashto (Pollywood, anybody?) film industry and has ever since been recognised as one of the most talented Pashto artists of the last forty years.

Kheyal Mohammad renders songs in a traditional manner, choosing pieces that combine mysticism, romance and philosophy, usually with an undertone of melancholy. His voice has impressive range, but is always fully under control. Radio, television and movie producers have paid tribute to his professionalism and ability to produce flawless performances with minimal rehearsal. Zahoor Khan Zaiby, a Pakhtoon composer of Balochi and Sindhi tunes, says “Lala is an expert at harnessing the mood of the moment and the poetry through his voice. The songs from his films are considered Pashto anthems.” (Wikipedia)


He has been awarded the highest civil awards of his country and a living legend in Pakistan. This is a collection from the fabulous Music Pakistan series, from the archives of Radio Pakistan.  Wonderful music, just the stuff to set the record straight about the Pathans!

Kheyal Mohammad

Kheyal Mohammad_0001


Track Listing:

01 Wa Kheyali Jana Na

02 Gham de Leyone

03 Jananna Sataminh

04 Sata pe Judai

05 Yau de Dala Launon

06 Zane Zarrau Jamokay

07 Sabro Malalay

08 Nare May Walayna Aworay

09 Pass Peh godarolaray

10 Ya Qurban Bailtoon Da

11 Har Yu gul Ponray

12 Da Mangy Ghara ae Shanah

13 Bi Bi Sharinay

14 Bya Kaday Haregi