Sanson Ki Maala Pe Simrun Main – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
سانس لینے میں ہار – ‘necklace of breath’
Sanson ki maala pe simrun main pi ka naam
Apne mann ki main janun aur pi ke mann ki Ram
With every breath I take, I chant the name of my beloved; I know what’s in my heart, and God knows what’s in the heart of my beloved
Blackstock Road, Finsbury Park
In 1983 I lived in Finsbury Park with my girlfriend Mumtaz. We’d met in 1976 in Carr Saunders Hall on Fitzroy Street, part of the LSE student accommodation portfolio. We’d been an item since then. The Finsbury Park flat was a bedsit really, under the roof of a three-story building with two sloping ceilings. I was 26 and just starting out on a professional acting career. Mumtaz had completed her law exams and was embarking on a career as a solicitor in the criminal law. Downstairs was Laurie Jones, an old Communist who looked like both Burl Ives AND Vladimir Ilych Lenin, a Tottenham fan with Season tickets to both Spurs and Arsenal. A very interesting man. A legend in fact. On the ground floor was a blues run by a friendly Jamaican man called Shirley.
Mumtaz was born in Aden, now Yemen, to Indian parents, and her father was a doctor who had left India at partition in 1949. The family left Aden in 1966 when it became independent and being muslims decided to settle in Karachi in Pakistan. Having gone to school high in the Himalayas in Murree, Kashmir, Mumtaz had come to London to do a degree in international history and politics, then decided to become a lawyer, which meant years of legal exams. Her elder sister Nasreen was a barrister, younger brothers Mahmood and Mehboob would start an accountancy firm together. When we ate in, which we usually did, Taj would usually cook something from her cuisine – Roghan Josh, Chicken Curry, Keema Peas, Aloo Gobi, Basmati Rice, Dal, Raita, flat bread (often pitta bread) – and over the years she taught me how to buy the ingredients and cook this food. The spices were never mixed – we bought black pepper balls, cloves, sticks of cinnamon bark – dry spices, and these would be cooked before the oil was introduced. They flavoured the oil. Or ghee – clarified butter. Then the onions, then the meat or veg, and then the other spices – all with their Indian names – I’ll do a brief translation…
Garam Marsala – the combination of pepper, cloves and cinnamon
Haldi – Turmeric – which gives everything that yellow colour
Jeera – Cumin – in seed form or as powder
Dhaniya – Coriander powder, or fresh coriander often used as garnish. Also called cilantro in the US and shadow-benee in St Lucia (!)
Chilli – in powder form, or chopped fresh. It’s the white seeds which burn the tongue
Ginger – also in powder form or chopped fresh as is
Garlic – powdered or chopped fresh.
Every dish we made always had all of the above in, with salt and often mustard seeds too. To be eaten with yoghurt (Raita) sometimes with lightly roasted cumin seeds if we could be bothered, never with cucumber like they do in the restaurants, and pitta bread, which was wetted with water and grilled very slightly so it was warm but still fluffy. The morning after a meal, Taj would fry two eggs and serve the left-overs as breakfast. Delicious.
Over the years I learned a little Urdu, and at one point made an effort to start reading it. That was a challenge I never met. But Taj would speak to me in Urdu, and things would sink in.
“Mai ghar jana Chahiye” = I want to go home.
“Bukle ghi hai ?” = are you hungry ?
Mumtaz was a practising muslim – she prayed every day, perhaps not five times a day, and she covered her head when she prayed usually. We never did go to the mosque together, and I never did meet her parents, who lived in Karachi in any case. Taj was a relaxed muslim – clearly since she was living with an Englishman in sin, and drinking fine wines, smoking cigarettes. We got on very well in my memory. When we went out it was to plays or films or gigs – The Specials, Talking Heads, Nina Simone, Al Green, Todd Rundgren, Roxy Music. King Sunny Ade (see My Pop Life #115). Then one night Mumtaz took me to a Pakistani gig.
I cannot remember where she got the tickets, but there we were in the front row of the balcony inside Shoreditch Town Hall, before it was a hipster neighbourhood. It was the top of Brick Lane, essentially. The audience was almost entirely filled with sub-continentals, ie Indians and Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, perhaps some Sri Lankans. One or two white faces including mine. At risk of repeating myself, it was around this point that “world music” had started to leak into the country, via WOMAD (see My Pop Life #67),Stern’s Music Store in Whitfield St (see My Pop Life #38), the John Peel Show, and word of mouth. But this gig felt very much like an underground show, not one which the cognoscenti were attending. Unlike King Sunny Ade earlier that year, which despite being full of Nigerians, also had it’s complement of musical tourists.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan would have been 35 years old at this point, almost ten years older than me. A mountain of a man, with a beatific child-like face, he sat cross-legged on the carpeted stage and made himself comfortable, to huge applause from the audience. The tension and apprehension was palpable. Alongside him, a harmonium player. Also a tabla player, perhaps another drummer. I can’t be sure if there was a swarmandel or a tamboura – (a stringed instrument, not a sitar), but behind the front four chaps were four more seated fellows who were essentially the vibes – singing and clapping. I had very little idea of what to expect, but as Nusrat indicated that he was ready to start you could almost hear the intake of breath before the absolute silence in the hall.
The harmonium played a note or three. Nusrat raised a hand, concentrated, a bead of sweat already trickling down his face. The entire hall was focussed on this man, his hand expressing some inner spiritual moment. Then he opened his mouth and sang. Long tones, which were immediately picked up by the fellows behind him, harmonising, echoing. A melody was picked out and repeated. Now I wish I’d studied Urdu better, but these were Sufi religious songs, ghazals and bhajans and qawwalis praising the prophet Muhammed either literally or poetically. But I had no idea they were so powerful, so beautiful, so technically incredible.
Qawwal & Party
As the beat started to throb and the hand claps set the rhythm, the mood became celebratory, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan started to lose himself in the music, started to float upon the bed of song that was being created around him, started to improvise. Now the full glory of this man became apparent. He sang slow, he sang fast, he chattered like a woodpecker, he made up impossible melodies as they occurred to him, he slowed down to careening hymn-like swells, all the while the band would follow his every note, with him all the way, supporting, lifting, praising, at one. Quite sensational and unlike any concert I’d ever seen before.
The songs were over 20 minutes long and the audience were encouraged to clap along. The atmosphere was quite mesmeric and spiritual, without being religious at all. I could enjoy it in my own way as I’m sure devout muslims in the audience could as well. It was quite simply one of the most astonishing things I’d ever witnessed. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan got hot and undid layers, got wet and dabbed away the sweat, got thirsty and drank water. But I’d never heard anyone sing like that ever before. It was like James Brown and Aretha Franklin combined with Al Green and Otis Redding. Feverish, impassioned, live. He was quite literally lost and found in the music. His hand would trace the melody in the sky as he searched for new shapes to sing. Now and again the familiar chorus line would swing back into view and everyone would clap along, then a new space would appear for Nusrat to improvise and extemporise into. It was astounding. We were witnessing one of the greats in his pomp.
By the end of the show we were drained and exhausted but moved beyond our wildest craziest dreams and the man next to me turned with a smile “Did you like it?”. I was dazed and happy and said yes, I’d loved it. “Better than your opera !” the man said, pretty sure of himself, not joking, full of fervour and pride in his own culture, proud to have it represented to his foreign neighbour. He was right.
Mumtaz and I floated home. We knew we’d been treated to a rare soul.
The following year the LP Allah Hoo was released in the UK, then Qawwal & Party Volume One. I’ve bought a fair bit of his stuff over the years, but he’s made over 160 LPs on Oriental Star Agencies recordings alone (based in Birmingham UK), and I don’t have many of those to be honest. I have about 60 songs I guess and I can play Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan all day long and not get tired of it. It is made as spiritual music and perhaps that is the effect it has on me. It lifts me certainly.
This song : Sanson Ki Mala Pe, is an old bhajan from the early 14th century originally sung in praise of Hindu god Lord Krishna. It was first sung by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in 1979 as a Sufi praise song and was hugely popular. The title and repeated phrase translates as
On the garland of my breaths I have bejewelled my beloved’s name
but other translations use the phrase rosary of breath. The thing about Urdu, and Arabic, is that they are written in Arabic script, from right to left. When you write it out in English, there are always these discrepancies in the spelling of words like Mala – Maala etc. Not a good example – Mala = found and Maala = beads (the necklace or rosary). Anyway (!) Urdu is an extremely poetic language and resists easy translation of the more beautiful poems and ghazals. But I’ve never needed to know what Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is singing to be honest. The music sends me, as my Mum used to say. And I feel extremely lucky and honoured to have witnessed one of the greatest singers of my lifetime performing live on stage, not once but twice.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan died in August 1997 of kidney and liver failure. He was 49 years old.
the short version : an excerpt –
the full genius 25 minute experience :