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.


duke said...

glad to find a nusrat maniac.. countless nights spent here by me going to sleep with "tum ek gorakh dhanda" and "akhiyaan udeek diya" playing on loop.. my two personal favs..

khwaja speaks said...

thanks for this amazingly diverse and beautiful list, tokyo bhai.
though i have no way of tracking, i know i've spent an inordinate time of my youtube surfing hours listening to the following:
"gulli de wichoun kaun langiya" (
"o disdi kulli yaar di"
"aj sikh mitran di vaderi aye" (
"kehna ghallat ghallat," (
"jana jogi dey naal," (
"teray ishq nachaya," (

and of course:
"behad ramzan,"
"mera yeh charkha naulakaha"
"biba sada dil mor day"
keep the qawallis coming.

Shahir said...

Khwaja sahab, thanks for sharing this man. These are amazing. Yeah like I said it's hard to fit everything in, especially when restricting myself to iTunes counts. No way of tracking YouTube plays I don't think. I think it was you who introduced me to Fateh Ali Khan's O Disdi Kulli. Wish there were more recordings of him and Mubarak Ali.

duke, those are great tracks. Especially Gorakh Dhanda, amazing lyrics.

Umer Afzal said...

Shahir, I have a good collection. Would like to share. Let me know how. said...

Visit to grab all the touched & untouched aspects of NFAK ........
Umer Afzal ... you can contact us for sharing all the treasures you have..

Shivam Saxena said...

awesome post! khooni akhiyan is definitely a favorite. Upload some of your harmonium solos :)

sohaib said...

Awesome I was scrolling the list down...I was wandering where is "Dil lagi"...& finally I got it on 1st...
The first time I read something about other guys sitting at front...I'll be eager to hear more about them..

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.