Road Stories: The Wedding Fair

old womn 74

Country fairs such as this one are common throughout Pakistan. Unlike the American travelling show which moves from town to town and is its own reason for being, most melas (fairs) in Pakistan revolve around the mazar (tomb) of a local pir (saint).   Mazars are areas of perpetual activity throughout the year as the local inhabitants come to offer prayers, seek guidance from the pir’s descendants (spiritual and familial) or simply seek the shade of a grove of trees nearby.


An attractive aspect of mazar culture is that secular activities are not just allowed but welcomed. This is never more so than on the occasion of the annual ‘urs’. Literally meaning marriage the urs signifies, in the Sufi tradition, the union of the pir’s soul with his divine bride. The urs is a time of intense and prolonged joymaking, eating, dancing, smoking, drinking, fainting, laughing, singing, ogling and of course, praying.


The urs of Syed Abdul Latif Qadri ‘Bari Imam’, a 17th century miracle worker and scholar is a 5 day extravaganza on the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Around the green domed mazar itself malangs (wandering holy men) recognised by their green robes, kohl lined eyes and abundant bling smoke hashish and guide pilgrims in the niceties of ritual. The strains of qawwali emerge from a tent enveloped in a cloud of dust as hundreds of feet stomp and dance through the settlement. Cooking fires smoke and blaze all about the mazar and mosque enclosure as distribution of food to the hungry is an essential part of urs.



Hazrat Abdul Latif Qadri “Bari Imam’


A network of alleys spreads out across the bumpy ground to form a buzzing temporary bazaar cramped with fried food and milky sweets of a thousand varieties, glasses of fresh mango and pomegranate juice, watermelon rinds and brittle clay pots, fortune tellers, henna designers, block print makers, and hawkers of topis and colourful nalas.


Here are tents and millions of loudspeakers each blasting a different tune. Dancing girls from Lahore perform on a hidden stage, while lewd skits entertain the overflow crowds outside. Burly mountain men from Murree and the Frontier take aim with toy air rifles at rows of small yellow and pink balloons. A makeshift photo studio is crammed full of young men who pay Rs 20 a piece to have their own image spliced on to a postcard of an Indian film star. Freak shows promise a prize of Rs 10,000 to anyone able to prove the snakelady is not real. Ferris wheels cut silently through the spring air moving nervous villagers up and down and up and down.


The biggest attraction of all is Maut ka Kuan (Well of Death). A large rickety balti-cum-velodrome shakes and creaks as first a motorcycle, then a small car climbs the interior wall and races around and around perpendicular to the earth. Hijras (transgenders) work the crowds by gyrating, whistling and chasing the rupee notes that float down from the crowds lining the top of the wooden bowl, like so many autumn leaves.


The festivities ring on all night and into the early hours for nearly a week. In the end the pomegranates have all been juiced and dancing girls have returned to Hira Mandi. The Well of Death is taken apart. The huge cardboard cut outs of pretty actresses lie face down in the dust waiting to be packed up and taken to the next urs.


Bob Dylan’s Dark Night of the Soul


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.


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


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.)
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)
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)


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!



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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Masala King: Sundar Popo

Remembering the great Sundar Popo and the lively sounds of Caribbean Chutney music! Thanks Sal !



Hey everyone, it has been a long between drinks as they say down here in Australia. Other projects (such as writing one book and editing another, ramping up a business) have taken over my waking hours. Sharing music has paid the price.

But a good friend who does a bit of work for the Red Cross in the Caribbean recently returned from the region with a couple of CDs, including this one which we share today. The very best of the King of Chutney music, Sundar Popo.

The CD is excellent with all the big hits and loads of fun. Drinking, pleasurizin’ and groovin’…the great three elements of West Indies Asian sound…chutney…are all here in abundance.

Here is a link to an article I wrote for a couple years ago about the man and his music!

Enjoy at full volume. And with a bottle of rum!

The Ultimate Sundar PoPo

Track Listing:


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Farhad and Me


Twenty nine years ago as a junior UN official I worked with the UNHigh Commissioner for Refugees (HCR) in Islamabad. I led a small team that selected and processed Iranian and Iraqi refugees for resettlement in the West, the very first step of what would turn into a 28 year career in international aid.

1988 was an eventful year in the Middle East.  Iraqi airplanes dropped chemical bombs on their own citizens in the Kurdish city of Halabja.  Not long after the Iranians hoisted the white flag in their merciless  8 year war with Iraq. With Sadaam triumphant,  Ayatollah Khomeini seemed to lose his will to live and died the following year.

Our offices in Islamabad experienced a huge influx of asylum seekers throughout that year.  Kurds from Halabja, Iranian political detainees who had been unexpectedly released from prison, a smattering of Somalis, as well as some late-arriving Afghans who no longer felt safe in Kabul now that the Russians had pulled up stumps.

Among the Iranians were a large number of Bahais, the religious minority that has had a history of persecution ever since their Prophet Baha’ullah announced his Divinity in the mid 19th century.  Now that the nation’s attention was no longer focused on war, the Ayatollahs and their henchmen revved up a new round of anti-Bahaiism which forced thousands to flee Iran, many of whom came to Pakistan.

From the UN’s point of view the Bahai caseload was self servicing.  The community’s networks were global, including a tiny but well established population in Pakistan. Once their fellows were registered by our office the community supported them materially and spiritually until my team found them resettlement spots in Canada, Australia or the US.

And finding resettlement spots for Bahais was not difficult. Because most were well educated and many had professional and business backgrounds, resettlement countries considered them the perfect refugee. Australia in particular, was partial towards the community admitting no refugees except Bahais from Pakistan.   Long before I ever set foot in Australia myself, I knew there were substantial settlements of Bahais in Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne.

In July 1988 I took a business trip with some colleagues to visit the Bahai Center in Lahore. It was the usual ‘visiting dignitary’ function with welcome speeches, tours of the premises, chatsabout conditions in Iran with recently arrived refugees topped off by a big spread of Persian rice, meat and salad.   Mr. Kamran Karimian, an affable smartly dressed Bahai businessman was our host. Just before we tucked into lunch he called one of the refugees forward to take a group photo.   We smiled, shook hands with the photographer and duly loaded our plates high with food.

In late 2015 I wound up my aid career and moved back to our small apartment in Melbourne.  Last week a team of painters arrived early Monday morning asking our indulgence to clutter up the stairwells and halls for a few days.  One morning as I tiptoed around their buckets of paint and rollers I noticed that two of them were speaking Farsi.

“You’re from Iran,” I said to the older of the two.


“I recognised your language. I worked in Tajikstan  and Afghanistan many years ago  so I know a few words.”

The man smiled politely but didn’t say much else.

“I was in Tehran airport once,” I continued. “On a stop over between India and Europe.  Way back in the 1970s.”

“The good days,” he said immediately.

That was the end of the conversation. He didn’t seem overly talkative and in fact, I sensed his heart was sad. The refugee’s lot.  Over the next days we exchanged nods as I came and went but didn’t say anything to each other.

This morning I greeted him with one of my handful of Farsi phrases. ‘Khub hast?”

“Not bad,” he muttered.

He didn’t bother to look up as he mixed a new pail of paint.

I turned around and looked at him. “When did you come to Australia?”


“Did you fly, via Turkey or…”

“No, we came through the desert.”

“To Pakistan?”


“I probably processed your case,” I said. “Did you go through UNHCR?”


“Then I’m sure I did!”

“What’s your name?”

“Nathan Rabe.”

“Did you come to the Bahai Center in Lahore?  With some others from the UN, Mr Crosse and a lady, Rosella?”

“Yes, I did. He was our case officer and she was my colleague, from Italy.”

“I took your picture that day.”

By this time the man’s young assistant had stopped painting. He let go a stage whisper, “Small world!”


Over the years I have often wondered what became of the thousands of people we resettled in the West.  In some cases there is no doubt that a new life in Europe or North America is the perfect answer to the individual’s problem.  But in many others, resettlement is plain hard work.  Welfare states may consider themselves generous but most refugees are embraced by the thinnest of social bonds. Coming from societies where families are expansive, inclusive and protective, adjusting to life as an individual ‘client’ or consumer with expectations of rapid self-sufficiency and economic viability is extremely challenging.  On top of that comes a new language to learn,  new foods to eat and a cost of living that is simply unimaginable.

Once in a while I heard stories of some of the refugees I knew. Most did make it and most would say, we are ready to struggle in our new country as long as our children have a brighter future.

“How was it for you?” I asked Farhad, my long lost photographer friend.

“Hard. When we arrived in Melbourne the economy was bad and there were no jobs.  I took a job as a painter, thinking it would be temporary.”

“What did you do back in Iran?”

“I was an assistant cinematographer.”

The time had come for another group photo. This time I asked his assistant to do the honours.









A new blog! Lolly Pops


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!