Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hiroshima: Khamosh Chaltay Jao

I'm off to Hiroshima tomorrow for the weekend. I'm reminded of this poem by Junichi Mizuno, translated into Urdu by Yutaka Asada.

I will try and pay heed.

Hiroshima after the bombing. Source: Wikipedia

Also while doing some research for the trip I came across a crazy (in a completely heart-wrenching way) story about a man named Tsutomu Yamaguchi:
In August 1945, Yamaguchi was sent to Hiroshima on a business trip. With the job done, his co-workers left, but Yamaguchi realized that he had forgotten his personal seal for signing official documents, so he headed back into town to pick it up. That's when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Badly burned, deaf, and partially blind, he spent a night in the ruins of the city, and then found a railway station on the western edge of the city that was back in operation. He managed to catch a train home to Nagasaki, where — as Yamaguchi explained to his disbelieving boss what had happened in Hiroshima — the second atomic bomb was dropped.

In 2009, the Japanese government certified the still-living Tsutomu Yamaguchi as the first known person to have been at ground zero of both atomic blasts. A year later, Yamaguchi passed away from stomach cancer at the age of 93.
Just to get some perspective on what it means to have a bad travel story. Next time your plane's delayed or you lose your luggage or something, try and remember the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Book Excerpt: The Tipping Point

I have been on a bit of a Malcolm Gladwell kick lately. This passage in The Tipping Point about the origins of Sesame Street characters I found interesting:
Sesame Street's creators were the power of television commercials. The sixties were the golden age of Madison Avenue, and at the time it seemed to make perfect sense that if a 60 second television spot could sell breakfast cereal to a four year old, then it could also sell that child the alphabet. Part of the appeal of Jim Henson and the Muppets to the show's creators, in fact, was that in the 1960s Henson had been running a highly successful advertising shop. Many of the most famous Muppets were created for ad campaigns: Big Bird is really a variation of a seven foot dragon created by Henson for La Choy commercials; Cookie Monster was a pitchman for Frito Lay; Grover was used in promotional films for IBM.

Naturally right after reading this I YouTubed 'Jim Henson Muppets commercials'. Here's the precursor to Big Bird, the La Choy dragon, who actually doesn't look or sound anything like Big Bird.

This next one is a funny little spot called Cookie Monster-IBM Training Video.

And this is what sounds exactly like Kermit the Frog plugging Wilkins Coffee.

There's a lot more of them, some that never made it on air, but all fascinating to watch. These commercials definitely show the muppets in a darker light than the versions finally seen on Sesame Street, which makes sense since the target audience was obviously different. But pretty interesting that educating children through the medium of television was thought of as analogous to advertising or selling products to people.

Gladwell's a great writer. I'm at the point where it's hard to remember whether I read something in Blink or in The Tipping Point or in one of his New Yorker articles. Everything's kind of muddled together, which I suppose is natural given the overlap in ideas and the fact that I'm reading things back-to-back. But so far really enjoying everything I've read.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

My 15 Most-Listened-To Nusrat Qawwalis

What it says on the tin. On the occasion of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's 15th death anniversary today, thought I'd post some music of his that I like. The list is from my iTunes most played. This is a somewhat personal list so I'm sure there will be plenty of other people's favorites that I'll miss out on. That plus the fact that given the amount of music he recorded even a top 100 wouldn't cover everything.

I began to listen to Nusrat in earnest around 5 years ago after happening upon my brother's rather large collection of his music. Since then his qawwalis have been a non-stop soundtrack to my life, initially helping me through some tough times, and over the years getting to the point where now it's really the only music I listen to on a regular basis. Inspired by incessant listening I bought a harmonium in 2008 so I could try and play along (having long abandoned the notion of singing along). Which made me appreciate even more both the complexity of his music as well as the complete mastery over the art that he and members of his qawwali party exhibited.

Anyway, let's get right to it.

15. Man Atkeia Beparwah De Naal

Part of my obsession with Nusrat carried over to trying to figure out whose poetry was being sung and to see if I could get my hands on the lyrics. Countless hours were pored over sites such as the Academy of the Punjab in North America, which provides complete works of a select few Punjabi poets. Thankfully, one of them happened to be Shah Hussein, two of whose kafis make up this wonderful qawwali. The first is the same as the title, Man Atkeia Beparwah De Naal, while the second is Sajan Bin Raatan Hoyyan Waddian. Since I'm not a native Punjabi speaker I found the explanations below the verses to be extremely helpful.

One thing I like about this qawwali is Rahat Fateh Ali backing Nusrat up. Early on I only liked Rahat in small doses but he sounds really good here.

14. Kivain Mukhre Toon Nazran Hatawan

Other than the fact that it's awesome, I don't know much about this qawwali. I think the poet is Anwar Jogi, given the takhallus in the last verse. It's off the album Nit Khair Mangan - Vol 17, released by Oriental Star Agencies in the UK. (As an aside, what I wouldn't give to have access to their Nusrat collection, both audio and video. YouTube will have to do for now.) This qawwali - like many others - gives me the sensation of being on a long bus ride, where the path from A to B isn't direct, instead involves a fair few scenic detours. And these are taken seemingly on a whim, with no prior planning.

This also features in my opinion the best party lineup ever assembled by Nusrat. More on this later.

13. Mein To Piya Se Naina / Chaap Tilak Sab Cheen

This one is a bit unique in that it's a medley of two qawwalis, both featuring the kalaam of Amir Khusro. It's not uncommon for Nusrat to blend two qawwalis together but usually one is contained within the other. For example, the hugely successful and popular Akhiyan Udeek Diyan was initially a sub-qawwali (or a scenic detour if you will using the analogy above) within Ni Main Jana Jogi De Naal. But here the two parts are distinct. There is a bridge that connects one to the other but once Chaap Tilak starts Nusrat doesn't go back to Mein To Piya Se Naina.

When I first heard this piece I was mesmerized by the opening verses. Especially:

Khusro darya prem ka, jo ulti va ki dhaar
Jo ubhra so doob gaya, jo dooba so paar
(Khusro, the river of love flows in reverse
He who floats will drown, he who drowns will cross)

Here is a much older version of the same qawwali, featuring quite audible audience interaction. I'm not positive but this could very well be the legendary Nusrat performance from the 1975 Amir Khusro festival, held to commemorate the 13th century genius' 700th anniversary.

12. Aankh Uthi Mohabbat Ne Angrai Lee

The early 80s were a good time to be a Khan from Pakistan in England. Jahangir Khan had begun his dominance of the British Open squash tournament in 1982, and he'd go on to win it a record 10 consecutive times. That same year Imran Khan went mano-a-mano with Ian Botham in a 3-Test series starting in Birmingham, and while he may have ended up on the losing side, with his superlative performance with both bat and ball (21 wickets at 19; 212 runs at 53) he firmly announced himself as the all-rounder of the decade. And in the same city of Birmingham in 1980, Nusrat held his first British concert, which so captivated the audience that the organizers Oriental Star Agencies had him come back year after year.

Coincidence? You decide.

Anyway, the above video is from a live concert in Wolverhampton, not far from Birmingham, in 1983. This qawwali follows a classic Nusrat template. Initially there's about a 3-minute instrumental intro or a sazina, where the main melody is laid down (the harmonium intro here is possibly my favorite). Followed by an alaap and opening verses, which is sort of like a tuning session for the main vocalists, and where they introduce the raag or scale the qawwali is in. And then slowly the party, led by Nusrat, launches into the main body of the song. This is an Urdu ghazal penned by Fana Bulandshahri, although the first few verses during the alaap are by Saghar Siddiqui. Both these poets feature heavily in Nusrat's ghazal pieces. 40 minutes of unadulterated joy, this one.

11. Tu Rahnawarde Shauq Hai Manzil Na Kar Qubool

Another live concert in Birmingham, this time from 1985. The full video is here but I'm particularly fond of the qawwali above. This is kalaam-e-Iqbal and as Nusrat says in the beginning, it's a very traditional piece done in the style of Nusrat's father Ustad Fateh Ali Khan and uncle Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan. Long before Junoon - in fact during Iqbal's own lifetime - it was these maestros who began performing qawwalis using Iqbal's poetry and helped popularize his message. Their skill and artistry lay in combining the poet's smaller verses and ghazals together with bigger pieces, and forming a coherent and consistent theme.

Watch out for when in the middle of this qawwali Nusrat demonstrates how the notes of Raag Pahari would sound if sung by a western artist.

Other great Iqbal pieces by Nusrat are Javed Nama, Kabhi Ai Haqeeqat, and of course the classic Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa.

10. Munadjatt de Djelalleddin Rumi (Poeme Persan)

The actual title of this poem is Na Man Behooda Girde Koocha-o-Baazaar Mi Gardam. The title in French above comes from the album this is from, a 5 CD live concert set from Paris. A great collection and a pretty good representative sample of Nusrat's repertoire, including hamd, naat, marsiya, ghazal, manaqib, Iqbal, Bulleh Shah, and of course Rumi. This is a beautiful rendition, and I really like the melody. Sounds a lot like another Farsi qawwali, Nami Danam.

An interesting thing about the word "behooda" as used here. In Urdu this word is synonymous with "vulgar" or "obscene". Indeed, largely used to refer to either language, movies, clothes, etc. In its original Farsi form, however, the word simply means "aimless". (The opening line translates as "I'm not wandering aimlessly through the streets and bazaars.") Perhaps a truer Urdu translation of "behooda" then would be "faltu" or "bekaar".

9. Yaara Dak Le Khooni Akhiyan Nu

Just when you start to think you've heard everything by Nusrat come along 15 albums of new material. I first heard this qawwali a year ago, randomly browsing videos on Nusrat's Facebook fanpage. Can't believe such a gem escaped me for so long. I couldn't get the melody out of my head for days. At the time I had just moved to Japan, and didn't have among other things my harmonium with me. I remember just itching to play this tune, but had to contend with listening to it on repeat.

This qawwali also has what I'd call Nusrat's Greatest Lineup™, something I mentioned briefly earlier. I'm not sure about exact dates but I guess sometime from the late 70s to mid 80s, this is what the front five of the qawwali party looked like:

There's Nusrat of course. Next to him is his younger brother and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan's father Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan. Harmonium player extraordinaire and a voice that was heaven-sent. Unparalleled in his ability to match note for note the complex, improvised patterns being woven by the vocalists, himself included. To say nothing of his harmonium solos. Had he not been Nusrat's brother he would surely have been leading his own qawwali party.

Next to Farrukh is Mujahid Mubarak Ali Khan, son of Nusrat's uncle Mubarak Ali Khan. He had the deepest voice among these five, and specialized in classical, sargam interludes. A good example can be found around the 19-minute mark in Aankh Uthi (#12) above. Nowadays, Mujahid's sons Rizwan and Muazzam are carrying the family tradition forward. Along with Rahat of course who has his own thing going, though one wonders why these guys don't team up like their fathers did.

On second harmonium and vocals is Atta Fareed, easily recognizable in these videos because of his left-handed harmonium playing. Another wonderful voice, and a great complement to Nusrat. Usually the backup vocalists repeat lines after Nusrat but in Atta Fareed's case he would frequently get to solo. He sometimes also alternated with Rehmat Ali (in #11 for example), who in fact later on was almost a permanent fixture in the party.

And finally always on stage left is Maqsood Hussain. He has one of the most metallic voices I've ever heard, it goes through you like a shot of electricity. Frequently he's the one that steps in right before Nusrat leads the chrous either back on to the main melody or away from it, acting as an anchor of sorts for the party. Later on his place would be taken by Rahat Fateh Ali, though the role wouldn't exactly be the same.

This is just one of several ways in which Nusrat differed from other qawwals. While a qawwal party usually has just one or two main singers and from among the rest of the chorus it is hard to tell one from the other, this group at its peak had five unique voices blending together. You can't go wrong with any qawwali that has these five in the game. The chemistry and interplay they have together, and just the sheer skill on display, is very hard to match.

Then there was the tabla player Dildar Hussain who along with Farrukh Fateh Ali was with Nusrat from start to finish. Terrific rhythm player who knew exactly when to speed things up or slow them down.

The thing that saddens me is that not much is known about these guys, especially the last three of the front five. I came across a biography of Nusrat, written in 1992, and while it has some information about the party, there's nothing about these key members. Nobody knows what happened to them, when they got replaced or why. Which is unfortunate, because I believe these are our national treasures and we've let them fade away into obscurity.

The rest of Nusrat's party

8. Behad Ramzan Dasda Mera Dholan Mahi

Another Fab Five tour de force, this one doesn't bother with intros or alaaps; it's pedal to the metal from start to finish. This is kalaam Baba Bulleh Shah, and tracking down the lyrics was a fun project. I didn't get everything but some of the pieces are Behad Ramzan Dasda, Lantarani Das Ke Jani, and Ki Karda Ni Ki Karda. Trying to understand the lyrics was a different thing though, almost like taking a class in Punjabi and Sufism together. For instance the concept of the alif arriving wearing "meem da ghungat" or being hidden in the meem - a metaphor for the oneness of Allah and his Prophet, which is pretty central to this piece - was new to me. An instructional qawwali if you will.

7. Hai Kahan Ka Irada Tumhara Sanam

Back to Urdu ghazals, this is again one by Fana Bulandshahri. This is fun to listen to, because you can tell the crowd is having fun and, comfortable in that knowledge, the artists are having fun as well. Probably the qawwali that forced me to pick up the harmonium, as this was the first tune I started practicing on a friend's keyboard. Fab Five again.

6. Dam Mast Qalandar

The qawwali that made Nusrat a household name in Pakistan in the early 90s. This video isn't the version I have but it's close enough. A very energetic piece, and I love the game of repeat that's played between Nusrat, Rahat, and Dildar Hussain.

5. Mera Eh Charkha Naulakha Kuray

More Bulleh Shah, although this time I was unable to find any of the poetry either in poetry books or online. I did however come across a great article that talks about the social/historical context of the charkha (spinning wheel) and the art of weaving in the Punjab.

This qawwali is from the same concert as Aankh Uthi on #12 above. And it recently gained national attention as it was redone on Coke Studio.

4. Yeh Jo Halka Halka Suroor Hai

A classic. And a long, epic piece, about three or four different qawwalis rolled into one. In fact at 68 minutes this is the longest Nusrat recording I've come across. Rumor has it that at Rishi Kapoor's wedding in 1979 he performed this qawwali for two and a half hours straight. Sadly no recording exists. But this gives a good idea of what it might have been like. An intimate setting with people jostling up front for a seat; that is, when they weren't too busy dancing. Seriously, half the fun in watching these videos is how the crowd interacts with the singers. Poetry by a few different people, including Jigar Moradabadi, Abdul Hameed Adam, and Anwar Jogi.

3. Mera Piya Ghar Aaya

After the longest qawwali comes the shortest of this list. Another very famous piece, the first version of this that I heard was one of those early 90s remixes. Which at the time I thought was the coolest thing, though listening to it now it's hard to imagine that this is also sufi poetry. Although, as Nusrat himself said these songs were meant to attract a younger generation to qawwalis. In my case it was hook line and sinker. Slowly towards these 7-8 minute songs that are like the T20s of qawwali and then on to the more traditional versions.

2. Bujhi Hui Shama Ka Dhuan Hoon

I have a strange fascination with this qawwali. Partly just because of the setting. It sounds like Nusrat is performing in someone's house. And is under the weather. The recording quality is average, and other than Nusrat the singers all sound distant, far way from the mike. Then in the opening lines Farrukh Fateh Ali messes up the lyrics a little, and Nusrat sort of grunts his disapproval. We can also clearly hear Nusrat's prompter Alyas Hussain letting him know in advance what line's next, so that he doesn't mess up. So all in all it doesn't really sound like anyone is on top of their game.

But then it sort of grows on you. There is a certain sadness about this piece, surely aided and enhanced by the poetry. They open with Faiz's Raat Yun Dil Mein Teri (the only time I've heard Faiz's poetry in a qawwali), and then slowly work their way to Bujhi Hui Shama, a poem by Iqbal. About halfway through they're in full flow and you forget all about the bad sound. And are maybe reaching for the tissue box instead.

1. Tumhein Dillagi Bhool Jani Paray Gi

My most-listened-to qawwali, by some distance. It has such a tight sound. The beat from start to finish is fairly consistent. A beautiful composition and some excellent, excellent backup vocals. The chorus has never sounded better. Incidentally this is not a Fab Five song, but Rehmat Ali on 2nd harmonium really shines through, and his alaaps just melt your ears (for example, listen at the 4:15 mark). Great poetry as well - a ghazal by Purnam Allahabadi.

With a lot of these songs it's a bit of a self-perpetuating thing: the more I listen to my most-played songs, the higher up the list they go. But Dillagi will always remain special for me.

Total songs: 15 (Here's a playlist)
Play time: 6.5 hours
(Total time I've spent listening to these 15 songs, not counting YouTube: 230+ hours)

Special Mention: Biba Sada Dil Morr De (Live in Birmingham 1985)

I don't have an audio version of this song otherwise this would've been high up in the play count as well. This has to be one of the best live recordings Nusrat ever did. There are maybe 50 people in attendance, it's a very small mehfil. And yet they are performing as if playing at the Royal Albert Hall. Once again feeding off the energy of the crowd, especially the two Sikh gentlemen at the front. If I could time travel this concert is where I'd want to be.

Do you have a favorite Nusrat qawwali not mentioned above? Would love to hear about it. Please leave a comment.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Mobile Phone Payment System in Japan

I was reading an article today on The Economist about how the banking industry is headed for a shake-up, as more and more people access the internet from their phones. The passage below caught my attention (emphasis added):
The revolution will be most visible on the high street. Branches will become less important and there will be far fewer of them. Those that remain will look quite different. Instead of walking into one to deposit cheques or get statements, most people will do this on the fly from their mobile phones. Instead of opening wallets in shops and being confronted with a choice of whether to pay by cash or plastic card, they will wave a phone at the checkout. On it will be a virtual wallet provided by a firm such as Google, PayPal, Square or some company that hasn’t been thought of yet.
SIR, I present to you the mobile phone payment system in Japan. The 'future' has been here for quite some time. As you'll see in the YouTube video below (which itself is a couple of years old now), you can use your phone to pay for stuff exactly as described above, and just about anywhere: convenience stores, restaurants, vending machines, taxi cabs, buses and subways, you name it.

These phones run on a system made by Sony called FeliCa, short for Felicity Card, which links up different service providers to your phone's account. These phones are called osaifu-keitai or wallet mobile, first introduced by NTT Docomo but now supported by most mobile phone operators in the country. And they're quite ubiquitous, especially in Tokyo.

So your phone basically acts like a charge card, and money gets deducted every time you wave it at a checkout counter. If you're running low and need to recharge, you can either do it through a linked bank account or via credit card, all directly from your phone. The system works remarkably well and compared to the rest of the world is way ahead of its time.

The challenge for Sony will be to figure out how to export this technology elsewhere. For a company that has lost money four straight years, who knows, this might be their ticket back to the show. Although, it seems in the US Google's already leading the way with Google Wallet, which at the moment is only available through Sprint but I'm sure other providers aren't far behind.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Mera Eh Charkha Naulakha Kuray

The above is from the opening episode of Coke Studio Season 5. Atif Aslam and Qayaas reworking a classic Nusrat qawwali, “Mera Eh Charkha Naulakha Kuray.”

It’s very tastefully done and in a manner that came as a pleasant surprise. The song reminds me quite a bit of Muk Gaye Ne by Junoon, especially in the way it starts, and that’s probably not a bad template to follow. The mood’s kept sufficiently dark throughout, the music allowing both Atif and Qayaas's lead vocalist Umair Jaswal plenty of space to be heard and work their magic. Not unlike a qawwali it builds up slowly, mixing verses from Fareed (is that a hint of Pathanay Khan I hear in Atif's voice by the way?) and Bulleh Shah, and reaching a crescendo towards the end.

I should admit here that I was initially quite horrified when I learned about this song via the behind the scenes preview videos they released last week. For a couple of reasons:

One, I find Atif annoying in general. I can't put my finger on exactly why, but I just do. The idea of him covering an artist that I love so dearly just didn’t sit well with me.

Second, I didn’t understand why Rohail Hyatt (the show’s producer) would want to mess with a qawwali, and a Nusrat qawwali no less. My apprehension here was around the general idea of fusion with qawwali. It doesn't always work. Qawwali music arrangements tend to be quite minimalist in nature. You have one or two harmoniums, a guy on percussions (tabla/dhol), and a few others clapping their hands. That for the most part is it. The main focus is on the vocals, and by extension the poetry or kalaam.

But then when you bring in fusion with western instrumentalization, such as what was done last season with Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad's Kangna, it dilutes the experience in my opinion. Now, don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed that track and was more than overjoyed that they gave them a whopping 16 minutes to run with. But it would’ve been even better had the house band been asked to sit one out for a change. Get rid of the bass and the drums and let me hear the harmonium instead of the electric piano.

However, I think this sort of goes to what one thinks the premise of the show is. In Rohail’s own words, 'it’s an experience of discovery' and one in which he strives to provide viewers a bridge to a history and tradition of music that has hitherto largely been ignored. A good way of doing this is by easing people into it, using modern instruments and young and upcoming artists – Qayaas in this case - which simultaneously gives them a chance to shine and gain exposure. It’s a good formula and has worked extremely well before and does so again.

Simply put, any bridge that leads you to Nusrat is a good one in my book. Hopefully this song takes people over to the original qawwali as well. Just in case you're too lazy to search for it yourself, though, here it is in all it's glory. It's long; just the introduction - from the time the music starts through to Nusrat leading the alaap and on to the title verse - lasts longer than the entirety of the Coke Studio version. Though I guarantee once you start listening the 35+ minutes will fly by.

This performance is part of a full three-hour concert, which through the wonders of YouTube is also available online.

(And if you're looking for more stuff like this, subscribe right away to user AVNISHIT's channel. This guy is to Nusrat what robelinda2 is to cricket. Hours upon hours of rare, live recordings. Serious fun.)

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Pakistan Day in Tokyo, 2012

This past weekend the Pakistani Embassy in Tokyo organized Pakistan Bazar 2012, a 2-day event to celebrate March 23. It was held at Yoyogi Park in Shibuya, right in central Tokyo. With a program lineup that included a Mr Handsome Pakistan contest, Cute Pakistani, Dancing King of Pakistan, as well as a qawwali performance and a show by Pakistani-Canadian band Swaras, this definitely wasn't an event to be missed.

The weather on the first day unfortunately wasn't too cooperative. It rained throughout the morning, starting as a slow drizzle but then picking up as it went along. As a result rather than sit in the open in front of the stage most people took shelter under the tents set up beside the various food stalls. Which was good for business but not good for the poor performers braving the cold and rain.

Among these was Swaras. The band was represented by their lead vocalist Asad Q, who came on stage with three other Japanese musicians. Given the conditions they did the best they could to get the crowd pumped up but lack of audience participation coupled with sound trouble meant they only played four songs. Set consisted of a cover of Dil Dil Pakistan, an original song Jo Tum Kaho, cover of Aik Alif, and a cover of Jazba-e-Junoon.

Asad Q of Swaras

How can he slap
This was followed by perhaps the most bizarre scenes I have ever witnessed in my life. The organizers had invited former professional wrestler Antonio Inoki to the event. Inoki-san brought with him a legion of dedicated fans and the number of people present tripled almost instantly as he arrived, all cheering him on to the stage. He spoke for a while - a little about his legendary fights with Akram and Jhara Pehalwan and his time in Pakistan in general. After that, the announcers asked if people wanted to come on stage and suddenly everyone started cheering loudly and had their hands raised in the air. My Japanese isn't quite good enough yet and I thought they were talking about a photo opportunity. But no, it was something else entirely. And well, I have a video of it, and it is just really and truly weird.

Yep, that's people lining up to get slapped by the wrestler Inoki. It's called a slap of respect and it apparently confers upon its recipient increased virility and strength and energy and power etc etc. Pakistanis, Japanese, men, women alike lined up. It was just bizarre to see people get slapped and then bow down in respect and shake hands with the guy. One of the dudes though (around the 0:50 mark) did seem a little taken aback, maybe at how hard he got slapped? Anyway at the time it was one of those lost in translation moments where I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I had to ask one of my Japanese friends later on. But yeah apparently it's a big and well-known thing. Here for example is Inoki setting some sort of a world slapping record in 2000.

Mr Handsome Pakistan
By this time it had stopped raining and the weather was a bit nicer. Perfect timing for the Mr Handsome Pakistan contest then. Around 20 guys including a handful of Japanese dressed in their finest shalwar qameez lined up on stage. I had also convinced a friend of mine visiting Tokyo these days to sign up, which promised to be interesting since this dude hasn't shaved in 6 months and came wearing jeans and really worn sneakers. And well the organizers almost didn't let him participate as there was a strict 'traditional dress only' policy, but then ultimately had a change of heart.

The contestants

The judges

After initial voting in the first round, which consisted of dancing/walking down the red carpet to Awaz's Ae Jawan, the 20 got whittled down to 10. These 10 then came and individually said a few words to try and woo the girls into voting for them. Here the people who could speak Japanese were clearly at an advantage. Although the emcee did his best to translate for the ones that couldn't, including my friend, who amazingly made it this far.

Anyway, then there were three...

 And finally, the winner: Nausharwan Mir, a Japanese citizen of Pakistani origin.

Mr Handsome Pakistan 2012

He turned into a bit of a celebrity almost as soon as he won, with people (i.e. mostly the girls who voted for him) waiting to get their pictures taken with him. As the winner he gets to keep the sash and wear it to official events at the Embassy (khe khe khe) until handing it over to the next winner in 2013.

Day 2: Badar Ali Khan Qawwal
The next day I had to miss the morning session and actually was really only interested in coming for the afternoon anyway as that was when the qawwali would be on. The qawwals were the Badar Ali Khan Qawwali Party, a family group consisting of five brothers. These guys also performed on the first day as one of the opening acts and were really good. But it was a pity that due to the early start and the rain not many were around to hear them.

Day 2 was a different story however. It was warm and sunny and a sizable Sunday afternoon crowd had gathered. Unlike the day before where they had to sit a bit further towards the back of the stage due to the rain, this time they set up right at the edge in order to get as close to the crowd as possible.

They started with a couple of Nusrat covers, warming up with Ali Da Malang and then Tumhein Dillagi Bhool Jani Paray Gi. This was followed by Meray Maula Varga Koi Na. Twenty five minutes in they had drawn even curious passers-by towards the stage with their energy, and it became quite apparent that they'd exceed their allotted 40 minutes. Wise move then by the organizers to merge the next event - Dancing King of Pakistan - with the qawwali as more and more people got up and danced.

Aaj Rang Hay was supposed to be their finale but in the middle of it requests started pouring in for them to continue, which led them back to Ali Da Malang and then Teray Mast Mast Do Nain, before finally ending with Rang again.

All in all a fabulous show. The whole event was free to the public but this was something I would've gladly paid money for. I don't know if the intensity of the performance carries through on video but it was unlike any other show I've been to, where the crowd literally took over the stage, and the qawwals happily carried on. I remember thinking at the time that in that moment with the multitudes gathered in a park in central Tokyo so mesmerized by the music that there couldn't be a better advertisement than this for Pakistan.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Children of the tsunami

From the BBC, an extremely heartbreaking documentary. It's the story of last year's March 11 earthquake and tsunami - nearing it's 1st anniversary - as told through the eyes of children. It's beautifully done but at times was very hard to continue watching.

Narrated by Dominic West, better known as McNulty from The Wire. Thanks to Barry Lancet for sharing this.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Pakistan vs England: UDRS By The Numbers

Saeed Ajmal traps Eoin Morgan lbw. Source: ESPN Cricinfo

Here's a brief look at some of the numbers behind the referrals made under the Umpire Decision Review System (UDRS) in the recently concluded Test series between Pakistan and England.

First, here's a list of all referrals made, the players and umpires involved, and the result (click to enlarge):

There were a total of 45 referrals made in the series, 24 by Pakistan and 21 by England. There were 11 reviews in the 1st Test, 15 in the 2nd and 19 in the 3rd.

First things first, let's drop all pretensions and call the UDRS what it actually is: an LBW review system. Of the 45 reviews, all but 2 were LBW referrals. The other 2 were for caught behinds. This series by the way ties the record for the most LBW decisions in a series ever, with 43. The other two were the 1981 Ashes, and West Indies' tour to England in 2000. The difference being that those series were 6 and 5 matches long, respectively, while this one was 3 matches. The previous 3-match LBW record was 33, when Pakistan toured West Indies in 1992/93.

Back to the UDRS, 8 times in this series the result of the review was an overturning of the on-field call. Which means that the umpires made the correct call 37 out of 45 times, or a success rate of 82%. Don't really have a frame of reference, but this seems pretty good to me, especially considering that there were no real howlers as such. More on this later.

Simon Taufel, 5 time ICC Umpire of the Year award winner between 2004-08, fared the worst. 3 of his 9 reviews were overturned meaning he had a success rate of 67%. Bruce Oxenford, who stood in his first Test only in 2010, was the most successful. In total his decisions were reviewed 15 times with only 1 being overturned, which incidentally was the first review of the series when Ajmal got Pietersen LBW. So 14 in 15 correct gives him a success rate of 93%. Steve Davis got 14 in 17 (82%) and Billy Bowden 3 in 4 (75%).

There were 22 batting reviews and 23 bowling reviews. Another way of saying this is that 22 times the review was for when the on-field call was out and 23 times for when it was not out. Of the 22 batting reviews, only 2 were overturned to not out (9% success) while 6 of the 23 bowling reviews changed the decision from not out to out (26%). Clearly, bowling teams asking for reviews fared better. This also seems to confirm the belief of many that the UDRS means batsmen don't enjoy the benefit of the doubt as much as they used to.

All told, of the 110 total dismissals in the series, 26 were made after UDRS was involved, whether for out or not out calls. This amounts to roughly 1 in 4 decisions involving UDRS.

In terms of teams, Pakistan got 4 of their 24 reviews right (17%) while England got 4 of 21 right (19%). Pakistan had 14 bowling reviews - all LBWs - of which they got 3 right - and 10 batting reviews - again all LBWs - with a solitary success. England had 9 bowling reviews with 3 successes and also only called 1 batting review correctly in 12 tries.

Of Pakistan's 10 batting reviews, 4 were Misbah reviewing LBWs against himself and getting it wrong each time. Misbah in fact got out LBW in all 5 of his innings, the one time he didn't review was because it was called not out and England reviewed to have it overturned. Incidentally Misbah isn't the first (and I doubt will be the last) Pakistani captain to be liberal with reviews when involved himself. I recall at one point in last year's World Cup, Pakistan had 10 bowling reviews, 6 of which Afridi had called off his own bowling.

Of England's batting reviews, 5 came against Abdur Rehman and 4 against Saeed Ajmal, all LBWs and all turned down. Not surprising since between the two they took 43 of the 60 England wickets to fall. Ajmal in total featured as a bowler in 13 of the 45 reviews, the most out of either side.

Finally, something that is specific to the 3rd Test, because it would've taken me too much time to do it for all three.

First, I counted a total of 8 occasions where the umpire made a decision that the teams would've reviewed only that they had no more reviews left.

In all 8 occasions, the umpires made a call that would have stood even if a review had been made. This says two things. One that the umpires were spot on even when they knew they had no support from the UDRS, i.e. there were no howlers. And two, the flip side of this is that as such neither team wasted a review. What I mean by this is that neither team put itself in a position where they were stupid and ran themselves out of reviews only to rue it later on by virtue of not being able to challenge a dubious call, because again, there were no howlers.

Indeed, the only bad decisions happened when teams had a review to use but chose not to, both in England's 1st innings. One was when Trott was sent off LBW to Gul to a ball shown to be missing the stumps and didn't review, and the other was when Rehman had Strauss plumb in front but not only was there no review there was barely an appeal made.

There were also 7 reviews that were marginal i.e. shown to be 'umpire's call' on replay. By definition, a review on an umpire's call is a failed review. But once again, confirming the UDRS' bias against batsmen (or its leveling of the playing field, depending on how you look at it) 5 of these marginal calls went against batsmen and only 2 against bowlers.

Anyway, there's a whole lot more to say. Some of the tactical changes brought about as a result of UDRS are covered in this piece by The Economist. There may be some room for tweaks to be made to the system. But all in all I feel this was a good series for the UDRS and umpires in general.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Some Brief Thoughts on the Blasphemy Law

January 4 marks the first death anniversary of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer. He was assassinated last year by one of his bodyguards for daring to speak out in favor of Aasia Bibi, a destitute Christian woman sentenced to death under Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

The aftermath of Taseer's assassination brought out some of the worst in the country. His murderer Mumtaz Qadri was feted by mobs showering him with rose petals; lawyers promised to defend him pro-bono; the judge presiding over the case was forced to flee the country after sentencing Qadri to death.

Pervez Hoodbhoy has written an excellent article recounting these events and also the circumstances that help create an environment where such behavior is not just deemed acceptable but in fact lauded. Of particular interest is the recordings of a few hundred sermons given in mosques across the country that are linked to in that article. These are also available as transcripts in Urdu and English, and serve as quite a representative sample of the filth that people are exposed to in the name of religion.

My own focus here is just to put down some thoughts about the blasphemy law that were formulated during discussions with people last year, some of whom actively supported the law.

While I would like for the blasphemy law to be repealed completely, realistically this seems impossible given the current climate. At the very least, though, certain changes that have been suggested by the same people responsible for coming up with the law should be made.

Things that should change about the blasphemy law (section 295-C):

1) Under the current law, there is no provision for if someone is falsely accused of blasphemy. Due to which, currently the law is often invoked to settle personal grudges, for example falsely accusing a non-Muslim of blasphemy. Or even turned into a business, by taking advantage of vulnerable groups. Making it a serious offense to make false accusations under this law should help deter such activity. One suggestion has been to make the minimum punishment for false accusation the same as that for blasphemy itself.

2) There needs to be proof of intent i.e. the person actually wants to blaspheme. And the burden of this proof should be on the person making the accusation. The current language is very ambiguous on this. To account for stupid cases where for example a doctor was charged with blasphemy because he threw his business card carrying his name (Mohammed) in the trash.

3) All blasphemy cases should be heard by the Federal Shariat Court. Lower sessions courts should not have the authority to preside over these cases. Moreover, the policeman in charge of registering the case should at least be a district level officer, not your average SHO (station house officer) as is the case at the moment. This is partly to make the adjudication in these cases more centralized but also because judges in lower courts are often targeted by mobs to the point that a fair trial is impossible.

All of the above are a combination of changes that have been proposed by the Council of Islamic Ideology, and Advocate Ismail Qureshi, the person in charge of introducing the law in question to the Pakistan Penal Code.

Another point I'd like to make is that the stated reason for introducing Section 295-C was to counter vigilante justice. The fear was that in the absence of any laws, private citizens would take matters into their own hands and kill those accused of blasphemy.

Needless to say, insofar as protecting the accused is concerned, the law hasn't worked. Nobody has ever been executed under this law i.e. on court order. However, since this law's introduction, countless people have been killed extra-judicially, in the very manner that this law was intended to prevent.

If the intention is indeed to curb vigilante justice then it's pretty obvious that having a blasphemy law in place makes no difference. Instead people who take the law into their own hands need to be made an example of. The reality is that a great number of people idolize guys like Mumtaz Qadri and don't think they've done anything wrong.

  1. Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code
  2. Council of Islamic Ideology Recommends Death Penalty for Misuse of 295-C, Daily Express, January 13, 2011 (In Urdu)
  3. IA Rehman, The Blasphemy Law, Dawn, November 25, 2010
  4. IA Rehman, The Blasphemy Law Revisited, Originally published in Dawn, July 29, 2010