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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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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Qawwali Collection: Shan-e-Rasool

Qawwali-light has a lot in common with American gospel music.

Harmonium

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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…

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The Voice of the Golden Age: Noor Jehan

Fresh musings on 1971, war, generals, films and the stellar voice of Noor Jehan.

Harmonium

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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…

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The Glories of the Rubab

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The region known in ancient times as Khorasan bequeathed a rich and diverse cultural heritage to human civilisation. Like all long-lived cultures, Khorasan’s geography expanded and constricted like a huge lung breathing art, beauty and elevated thought, spread across much of what today we call Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. So huge was its presence and vast its territory that Babur, the first Mughal, proclaimed, “The people of Hindustan call every country beyond their own Khorasan”.

Among the roll call of illustrious Khorasanis is an “A List” of poets, mystics, theologians and scientists: Rumi, Rudaki, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Omar Khayyam, al Biruni, Abu Hanifa and al Ghazali being just the more renowned. The contributions of these great souls to the understanding of astronomy, physics, literature, medicine, Islamic philosophy and mathematics, in many cases, formed the “standard texts” until relatively recent times.

Sometime around the 7th century CE, Persian texts including the writings of Sufis began to mention a musical instrument they called rubab. Its inventor and exact place of birth is not recorded, but given its undeniably Khorasani origin, I like to imagine the rubab was played for the first time in northern Afghanistan around Balkh. Others claim it was invented in Ghazni. Whatever the truth, the rubab is now the beloved national instrument of Afghanistan. [Full article appearing in Scroll.in]