Happy 94th Birthday to My Dad

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Son and Father (March 2018)

One of those afternoons that stretches eternally between boredom and dinner. I’m lying on the couch in Allahabad listening to music.  On the small Phillips stereo behind me, The Beatles are urging a German composer to give way.  I’ve made sure the volume is set appropriately: loud enough for me to enjoy but not too loud to disturb Dad, who between lectures, is always to be found in his small office tapping away at some urgent piece of correspondence.

 

The front door bangs open and dad rushes in in a huff. My heart stops. Like a well-trained soldier I leap off the couch toward the stereo. My hand is already reaching for the volume knob.  ‘I can’t hear it,” Dad says, moving in my direction.  Before I am able to formulate a response he gives the knob a squeeze and…cranks it.

 

You know my temperature’s risin’
And the jukebox’s blowin’ a fuse
My hearts beatin’ rhythm
And my soul keeps a singing the blues
Roll over Beethoven
And tell Tchaikovsky the news

 

At the end of the verse George Harrison lets rip with one of those essential Beatle screams. I watch Dad do a middle aged twist, just avoiding the brass coffee table that sits on the Mirzapur carpet. My first thought is: Geez! Turn that stuff down!

 

My second thought is: Wow Dad. I love you.

 

A bit of context.  Dad and Mom were, for nearly 40 years, conservative protestant missionaries in India. Dancing to rock ‘ n roll was not something they encouraged. Music was celebrated as one of God’s many gifts but the family record collection was limited. Classical music and religious records mainly. But as my older brothers grew into teenagers, a few more racy platters found (strictly controlled) rotation time: The Chad Mitchell Trio, The New Christy Minstrels and eventually Dylan. ‘Upbeat’ numbers could be frowned upon but, in general, as long as there was no overt bodily movement especially of the hips and shoulders then it was tolerated as a part of ‘bringing up young people these days’.

 

So, to see Dad, this serious theologian of Midwest Methodist stock, trying to do the twist, and that too, with a spark in his eye, was stupefying.

 

Today Rudy Rabe, my father, is 94 years old. If you got him in an honest moment he would likely confess there is not much to celebrate, what with his eyes and ears and knees not showing up for work anymore. He would reject any but the most basic ‘fuss’ being made of him. Like so many of his contemporaries he has learned to avoid the limelight.

 

I know he’s not living long like this and though he may not think himself worthy, I need to put a few words together about one of his greatest gifts to me and my brothers and sister.  A love of music.

 

For years I’ve collected music in all media types from 45s to bit torrents. In recent times I have found myself gaining a bit of regional renown as a music journalist. I could not live without music. From South African accordion stompers to Noor Jehan and from Funk. Inc. to George Jones, music has been a constant, comforting companion. And it all began with that small record collection in India, and my dad.

 

A Rudy Rabe Playlist: 12 Essential Musical Moments

 

The very first traces of musical memory go back to Gadag, a small district town in northern Karnataka where we lived for the first several years in India.

 

  1. I Love Parisby English minor league trumpeter Eddie Calvert is a lounge-jazz classic. The soaring, pure, effortless way he blew the horn went straight to my heart and fired my imagination. Paris, I guessed was in the West, where what Mom and Dad called ‘home’, was. The cooing and harmonising ladies, the subtle organ, the plucked strings and Eddie’s horn still make my knees weak.  Eddie looked the part too with his pencil moustache and slick hair. But he was a bit of jerk. After his career fizzled out in the mid-sixties he moved to racist Rhodesia where he continued to perform in White Only clubs. One of his most popular renditions was Amazing Race, a pro-apartheid reworking of Amazing Grace.

 

  1. One night the circus came to Gadag. Decked out in our pyjamas the family trammelled in the dark to the dimly lit tents. As Dad pushed me on his bike my brother Mike began singing Drink Drink Drinkby Mario Lanza.  I’m amazed we were allowed to play this song given its rousing endorsement of beer, a beverage, despite his German heritage, my father has, as far as I know, never even tasted.

 

That night he told us that he didn’t approve of Lanza’s lifestyle which included allowing his kids to run riot and use crayons on the wall.  I’ve no doubt that Dad’s favourite track from The Student Prince was this: I’ll Walk With God. To sing God’s praise was the most important purpose of music and Dad never missed the opportunity, even if the song was surrounded by other less edifying content.

 

  1. It was 1963. I was 7 and this was my first visit to the States. My sister Beckie and I spent the summer criss-crossing America as Dad and Mom raised money for their work in India. Passing the long days in the back of a Rambler station wagon driving from one rural church to the next, local AM radio was our only entertainment. For the first time, I was hearing secular music on a regular basis.  One song stood out. Ring of Firewas everywhere.  There were those trumpets again. And the vivid imagery and fast pace. I would watch Dad discreetly turn the volume up when the horns burst out of the speaker. Sometimes he’d sing the chorus aloud. Even Mom would hum along. Many years later when I understood what the song was about I wondered what it was they were thinking when they sang along.

 

  1. Those long drives between Nebraska and Iowa, through the Dakotas and Montana and from New Jersey to Minneapolis were where my lifelong love of the Man in Black began.Several years later Dad returned from one of his overseas trips with a Johnny Cash Greatest Hits cassette. He loved to hear us listening to it and of course, especially loved Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord). I played that tape over and over. Maybe a hundred times. And I credit it with giving me my early appreciation not just for American roots music but rock ‘n roll, too. How much more exciting could you get than, I Walk the Line and Folsom Prison Blues?

 

I don’t know how much Dad really knew about Johnny Cash. Though he was a committed believer all his life he was also a first class ‘sinner man’. When he recorded Ring of Fire and Were You There he was addicted to pills and starting an affair with his future wife June, one of the beautiful Carter sisters. Knowing Dad was an avid reader of Time magazine and newspapers, he surely knew some of Cash’s troubles.  And yet, I never heard him say a bad word about him like he did about Mario Lanza. I like to think Dad was able to understand that life is a struggle. Just because you believe in Jesus doesn’t mean you never screw up. And of course, I know that Dad was able to appreciate a man’s art as being distinct from his life. That he was a fan of Johnny’s is evidence of that.

 

  1. Though he loved Johnny Cash I don’t think Dad really ‘got’ country music. The few country records in the collection were sort of faux country of the sort you heard at Las Vegas shows. One was a Frankie Laine record of cowboy songs my favourite of which was Cool Water. The other was Tumbling Tumbleweedsby Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. He hated that record. ‘Don’t listen to that junk,’ he’d say, but it was too late. I had been bitten by the country music bug. Once after I played it he hid the record. I never saw it again.

 

  1. Dad returned from meetings in America in 1971 bearing gifts: a purple shirt with white stitching on the (very) elongated collar for me. And for us kids in general a couple of tapes. One was by the hottest pop star, Cat Stevens. The other was a collection of rock n roll songs played by Christians! Lordy me! After Johnny Cash, Cat Stevens was my favorite singer. His earnest lyrics about the passages of life were the perfect platform for Dad and me to have our occasional ‘deep and meaningfuls’.  Over the years we had several conversations with On the Road to Find Outas the template for exploring life away from home, spiritual longing and growing up.  But his favourite, which he quoted for years was the cautionary tale, Wild World.

 

  1. Though dad was a strong believer in the teachings of Jesus, India was a country and culture he held in deep respect. He was a student of its religions, a lover of its foods and captivated by its beauty. We hiked in the Himalayas together and from time to time he’d accompany me to a Rajesh Khanna picture. And of course, he enjoyed Indian music. His busy schedule precluded his truly digging deep into the raga system but that didn’t stop him from bringing home some amazing records. Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, a native of Gadag, was his favourite classical singer and for years the only Indian musician I could name. A record he played a lot was Pannalal Ghosh’s Raga Yaman with which I fell in love with the bansuri(bamboo flute). Eventually the collection included Ravi Shankar, V.G. Jog and Bismillah Khan records which I must admit, I never understood but four decades on understand were the first portals to my appreciation of Indian classical music.

 

  1. Over the years music has lost out to other interests like college sports! But every once in a while I’ll send him songs I think he might like and that mean something to me. He always listens and gets back to me with a brief thumbs up or down, never overly enthusiastic about anything. Except for one. Almost Persuadedthe gorgeous Louvin Brothers hymn which brings together old time religion and impeccable country harmonies was one he’s mentioned several times as being ‘a blessing’. Like all those Cat Stevens songs, Almost Persuaded, were dad younger, could have been the perfect reason to embark upon another deep and meaningful.

 

 

There have been lots of other songs, records and artists I could mention. Rudolph Serkin and The Moonlight Sonata; Beethoven’s Ninth; Handel’s Messiah; the Tijuana Brass, Jesus Christ Superstar, Larry Norman and the Chad Mitchell Trio. And an obscure Christian folk rock group called Love Song.

 

I’m sad he can’t enjoy music the way he once did. But I’m so grateful for the way not only his own taste in music opened doors and  piqued my curiosity but also how in an environment where non-religious music of all types was distrusted and ignored, Dad, in a very subtle but classy way gave me (and my sister and brothers) one of best gifts ever.

 

Happy Birthday Dad. Thanks for all the music!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bob Dylan’s Dark Night of the Soul

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Mention Bob Dylan and the spiritual path and most people think of his most controversial career move–turning into a fire breathing evangelical Christian. For many fans the trio of albums he released between 1979-1981 represent the embarrassing nadir of a genius gone temporarily mad.

 

Personally, I like a lot of the music on Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot of Love. But I see the records as religious artefacts more than spiritual tomes. At their worst, Dylan comes across as preachy and shrill, his message, blunt and antiseptic. Ironically, Dylan’s ‘Christian period’ accounts for some of his least spiritual music.

 

As with Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen there is a lode of spirituality that runs deep through most of Dylan’s art. His early protest songs are not dissimilar to Old Testament rants against the ungodly. Virtually the whole of Blood of the Tracks (1975), with songs like Idiot Wind, Simple Twist of Fate and Shelter from the Storm, is a compendium of the many faces of Love.   Isis (Desire, 1976), Highlands (Time Out of Mind, 1997) and any number of other tracks across his entire career are lyrical distillations of man’s search for meaning. One of my great favourites, to which I’ve been listening a lot recently, is Señor (Tales of Yankee Power).

 

Señor is the high point not just of Street Legal (1978) but, for my money, one of the loftiest pinnacles of his entire career. The song is a tale all right, full of vivid images, pithy observations and some of the greatest lines Dylan ever wrote.

 

All of Dylan’s great songs are subject to multiple readings and heated debates about their ‘meaning’. I make no claim that my interpretation is definitive. It is not. In fact, I don’t think any work of art has a single ‘meaning’. There are as many meanings as listeners and what follows is my current interpretation of the song.

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Given what we now know of Dylan’s spiritual journey in the late 70s—his Rolling Thunder Revue band included several committed Christians; his next album was Slow Train Coming, the first of his three overtly Christian albums–the song seems to be a description of religious conversion. But though this may seem plausible in retrospect, Dylan wraps the moral of his story up in obtuse (but evocative) imagery and words, beginning with the very title of the song itself: Tales of Yankee Power.

 

There are those (including me, for some years) who try to pick out a story of American ‘bullyboyism’ and military intervention in Central America here. After all, that’s what the song is called! But herein lies the song’s first spiritual truth: don’t get caught up in labels.

 

This is a song about power, just not political power. And who is this Señor? In Spanish the word means Sir or Master or Lord. A figure of authority. The patron. Let’s say for present purposes, Señor is that shadowy quiet Source that dwells within every person’s soul.

 

Señor, señor
Can you tell me where we’re headin’?
Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?

 

Dylan opens with a confused question. ‘Is this just regular life or am I hurtling straight for the end of the world?’   Both outcomes are plausible, at this stage. A drive through a familiar part of town, or Doomsday.

 

Seems like I been down this way before
Is there any truth in that, señor?

 

The singer tries to reassure himself there is nothing to fear. ‘I’ve seen this movie before.’ But the doubt keeps nagging. ‘Can you just confirm that, for me Senor? I’m going to be ok, right. Just like all the other times.’

 

Whether we like it or not. Whether we know where we’re heading or not, we are on our way. Señor is riding out ahead and we’re feeling a bit irritable.

 

Señor, señor
Do you know where she is hidin’?
How long are we gonna be ridin’?
How long must I keep my eyes glued to the door?
Will there be any comfort there, señor?

 

Throughout my life my dreams have included a mysterious and powerful woman. When I was a teenager she was lithe, and when I was an adult she was motherly. Sometimes she was gentle, other times she screamed at me. Once, as an old hag, she revealed the entire Universe in an instant. But in all her guises I could never touch her. She was just out of reach. And I wake longing to see her again.

 

The song’s second verse is a perfect summation of that experience. In Dylan’s case perhaps this verse refers to his Muse. The 1980s were just around the corner. And for most of that decade he struggled to find the flow of words and images that seemed to come so effortlessly in the 60s and 70s. The 80s—revisionist thinking notwithstanding—are considered to be the weakest period of Dylan’s career. And here in 1978 he’s digging deep: do you know where she is hidin’? He’s on the brink of a crisis.

 

There’s a wicked wind still blowin’ on that upper deck
There’s an iron cross still hanging down from around her neck
There’s a marchin’ band still playin’ in that vacant lot
Where she held me in her arms one time and said, “Forget me not”

 

The third verse’s imagery is cinematic and surreal. You can feel the wild wind howling against your body and see the hypnotic swing of that heavy iron cross. You can hear the creaking of the wooden decks of a ship tossed on the high seas. And then there’s a marching band playing for nobody. This is like a scene from a Bergman film in which She greets him with a delicate kiss which in actuality turns out to be a kiss-off, instead. What irony in those three words, ‘Forget me not’. Dylan hasn’t forgotten her, but she has done the dirty on him and is nowhere to be found.

 

 

Señor, señor
I can see that painted wagon
Smell the tail of the dragon
Can’t stand the suspense anymore
Can you tell me who to contact here, señor?

 

The tension is building. Our troubled narrator is scared and freaking out. He senses the monster around a gypsy’s wagon. He can smell danger. It’s lurking, but where exactly? The suspense is killing him. His panic is palatable. Cold sweats have broken out. Can you tell me who to contact here?

 

Well, the last thing I remember before I stripped and kneeled
Was that trainload of fools bogged down in a magnetic field
A gypsy with a broken flag and a flashing ring
He said, “Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing”

 

The singer is brought to his knees (in desperate supplication?) and then he blacks out. But just before he does he gets the bad news he’s dreaded for so long. That dragon-loving gypsy who has snared hundreds of foolish souls like his, cackles, Son, this ain’t a dream no more, it’s the real thing.

 

Señor, señor
You know their hearts are as hard as leather
Well, give me a minute, let me get it together
Just gotta pick myself up off the floor
I’m ready when you are, señor

 

Confusion, betrayal and revelation are followed by resignation. The nightmare scenario turns out to be true. There is no point in resistance or even prayer. All the remains is to pull yourself up off the floor and proclaim, ‘I’m ready’. For whatever comes. ‘I submit, my Lord.’

 

Señor, señor
Let’s overturn these tables
Disconnect these cables
This place don’t make sense to me no more
Can you tell me what we’re waiting for, señor?

 

And once the decision has been made, once the point of no return is passed, a certain eagerness washes over the soul. Like Christ overturning the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple, it’s time to rip the cables from their sockets, turn off the lights and step into the unknown Next. That familiar place—Lincoln Country Road–where everything made sense is no more. ‘What are we waiting around for?’

 

Much has been made of Dylan’s influences—everyone from Rimbaud and Woody Guthrie to Jesus and Blind Willie McTell—and in Señor I hear echoes of John Donne’s beautiful but brutal holy sonnet, Batter my heart, three-person’d God (1633).

 

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new

 

Both poems share a sense of violence, foreboding and overpowering spiritual lust. Of wanting to be brought completely to one’s knees and to absolute surrender to Señor.

 

 

The critics were lukewarm to scathing of Street Legal. The musical pandits Christagau and Marcus labelled it ‘horrendous’ and ‘unlistenable’. But as Dylan reminded us way back when the times are always changing and today Street Legal is considered a diamond in the rough. Not as brilliant as his best but certainly superior to the original debunking it received.

 

Regardless of the critics, Dylan’s peers have always found Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) to be a powerful creation. There are a multitude of covers available on the internet from all sorts of angles. Here are three that are particularly good.

Let’s start with a live version from the man himself from 1978.

Willie Nelson and Tucson’s Calexico give an absolutely stunning, Tex-Mex interpretation in the Dylan bio-pic I’m Not There. Nelson’s elastic and worn vocal style is counterbalanced by a sweet Mexacali trumpet trio and his familiar pick/strumming guitar work.

Diva de Lai is a group that combined heavy rock with opera to give expression to their love of Bob Dylan! Karin Shifrin, classically trained opera star sends chills down your spine in this version which takes the songs inherent dramatic, spiritual tension to Himalayan heights!

There was probably no bigger fan of Dylan in the music world than Jerry Garcia (or Joan Baez or The Band or…)  He covered many of Bob’s songs throughout his career with Senor being one of favorites. This is a loving straight ahead telling of the story, nothing fancy but solid and full of Garcia’s characteristic guitar magic.

Making it the Way it Is: Van Morrison’s Mysticism

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Van ‘The Man’ Morrison

I don’t know about you but in my book when the music and self-help industries try to sell ‘uplifting’ music they get it all wrong.  You either get Christian rock and breathy chants or waterfalls and mellow Moog loops.  Pretty dire.

I happen to love music. I also like to be inspired to enjoy a better human existence.  And while an 8 hour track of gentle musical gurgle may be useful to get me back to sleep at 330am, when it comes to listening to music I need something with meat and gristle on its bones.

And there is no shortage of inspiration to be had all across the spectrum: rock, pop, folk, classical, even rap, for goodness sake. Music by terrific artists, singers and writers who refuse to water down the music just to get a message across.

Here is just one example from the great Irish mystic Van ‘the Man’ Morrison.

This has been one of my favorite albums since I first heard it way back nearly 40 years ago. Van has always been touched by the Celtic spirits and it would be hard to identify any of his records that is completely devoid of the spiritual touch.  But in the early 80s he released a number of albums that put the whole mystical/spiritual quest right up front. This is the first, and in my opinion, the best of them.

Common One, as the title suggests, points to the Universal Spirit that permeates everyone, everything as well as all time and space. It is the one thing we all share in common. In this respect the record is a hymnbook to that non-religious ‘godhead’.  Opening with the stunningly beautiful Haunts of Ancient Peace and closing with a dreamy When Heart is Open, Common One takes the listener on a journey of spiritual discovery and longing.   The album shimmers with the dappled light and shade of jazz and lush orchestration. The tempo is generally leisurely, much like a tramp across the highlands on a long summer’s day which is not to say it is monotonous. The music builds and collapses, slows then rushes frantically forward again throughout the album, often in the same song.   Summertime in England is a perfect example of changes in pace and intensity.

Each song is finely and specially constructed to deliver and elicit a particular emotional response. We hear Van whisper prayers of desperate loneliness  (Spirit) as well as lose himself in trances of mystical delirium (Summertime in England) chanting the names of long dead muses. But lest you think this is all pretty heavy and depressing he pops up with joy and delight too.

Such is the song Satisfied. 

Let’s go walkin’ up that mountainside
Look down in the valley down below
And we survey this wondrous scene
Wait a minute
Hold that dream.
Hold that dream.
Don’t want to change my name and write a book
Just like Catcher in the Rye
Settle down in a shady nook
Talkin’ to my baby now
I’m satisfied
With my world
Cause I made it
The way it is.
Satisfied (Satisfied.)
Inside.
Go to the mountain
Come back to the city
Where a whole lot of things
Don’t look very pretty
Spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst
But you got to change it
On the inside first
To be satisfied
To be satisfied
Sometimes I think I know where it’s at
Other times I’m completely in the dark
You know, baby, cause and effect
I got my karma from here right to New York
I’m satisfied
With my world
Cause I made it
The way it is
Satisfied (Satisfied)
Inside.
Sometimes I think I know how it is
Other times I’m completely in the dark
You know, baby, cause and effect
I’ve got my karma from here right to New York
I’m satisfied
Cause I made it
The way it is
I’m satisfied (satisfied)
Inside

 

This track is a glorious hymn of exaltation.  It opens with a syncopated organ two-step that builds steadily into a horn adorned R&B groove before reaching its ecstatic highpoint with a ripping flugelhorn solo by Mark Isham. Van himself, in addition to singing his heart out, sets Isham’s solo up with some competent sax work.

Resting in this luxurious setting is the song’s central lyric.

I’m satisfied
With my world
Cause I made it
The way it is

I’ve listened to this song hundreds of times over the years but just a few days ago the power of these lyrics hit me.  The world we inhabit, the world we experience is of our own making. Everything around us, whatever its form, is a reflection of ourselves. A reflection of ‘I’.  And our experience of that world also is completely our own making.  Whether we are satisfied or unhappy there is no one to fault but ourselves, “cause I made it/the way it is.”

Spiritual hunger and spiritual thirst
But you got to change it
On the inside first
To be satisfied
To be satisfied

He follows this up with another pearl.  Because there is nothing ‘out there’ that is not of our own making, any spiritual quest for peace, love and joy must originate from the inside.  It matters not how deep your hunger or thirst is. It matters not how many gurus or teachers we seek out. No matter what it is we want to change about ourselves, ‘you got it change it/ on the inside first’.

All in all a one-two punch of profundity and exhilarating music!

Lost Heiress: Mehnaz Begum

Mehnaz, my latest favorite South Asian female singer!

Harmonium

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Some of you may know that I am currently writing a book on Lollywood, the not-very-original sobriquet for the movie making industry of Pakistan based in Lahore.

As I continue to dig and uncover more information about this rather unknown industry and cultural enterprise I am discovering all sorts of new singers, composers and musicians.* Or re-discovering some that I knew a bit about previously but hadn’t necessarily associated with filmi music.

Mehnaz Begum is one such artist and it is a great privilege to share with you some of her wonderful singing in this post.

Mehnaz Begum was born (1950) into a family which had a very particular musical heritage. As the Mughal Empire began to weakened after the death of Aurangzeb Alamgir, who exhausted its authority with incessant expansionary wars in the Deccan, smaller principalities and ‘kingdoms’ across the subcontinent began to exert power in their regions. One…

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A new blog! Lolly Pops

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As part of my ongoing research into the Pakistani film industry I have launched yet another (!) blog. This one is called Lolly Pops and is focused solely on the music made within and for the movies.

I will post mainly music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s the Golden Age of what is now known as Lollywood.  I will discuss just one song per post.

The inaugural post can be found HERE.  Each post will also appear on Harmonium, my blog dedicated to South Asian musical culture.

I hope you enjoy it!

The Balladeer: Sharif Idu

Harmonium

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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…

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Grace and Flow: Mehdi Hassan

Mehdi Hassan, undoubtedly, Pakistan’s greatest ghazal singer of the modern age

Harmonium

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A little New Year’s gift for all the dear followers of Harmonium.

This album claims to capture Mehdi Hassan live in concert in New York. I find that to be a somewhat dubious statement as each track has a very ‘studio’ feel to it. Clean, sonically level and with none of the rough edges and spoken asides that accompany all live performances.

But I’m happy to be proven wrong.

Regardless of the veracity of the album’s title, the music is top quality. Mehdi’s tenor is suave and unforced. He delivers each ghazal with the panache of the supremely accomplished, hardly breaking a sweat. That doesn’t mean he is simply running through the material passion-baghair. Rather, he is at the top of his game. In the flow and full of grace.

And that seems to be a good attitude to possess as one year ends and another is soon…

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