My Pop Life #136 : Sanson Ki Maala Pe Simrun Main – Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Sanson Ki Maala Pe Simrun Main   –   Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

سانس لینے میں ہار     –   ‘necklace of breath’

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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

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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 :

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My Pop Life #67 : Yun Na Thi – Asha Bhosle

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Yun Na Thi   –   Asha Bhosle

..Yuun na thi mujhse berukhi pehle
Tum toh aise na the kabhi pehle.. 

you were not so indifferent towards me earlier….

you have completely changed from how you were…

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Asha Bhosle sang her first Hindi film song at 10 years old, and had eloped with a man 15 years older than herself aged 16.   Three babies later she left her husband with his name and returned to the maternal home in Mumbai, still singing for a living.  Her older sister Lata Mangeshkar was also singing Bollywood film songs, but Asha was determined not to just be Lata’s younger sister and looked for ways to follow her own path.  This meant often singing the ‘fallen woman’ role in B-grade movies, but as the 1950s drew to a close she and her sister dominated the Hindi film industry having sung more ‘playback songs’ than anyone else.  Her speciality was often seen as western-style and more sensual songs.  Her success and popularity grew from there.  Ashaji is now the official most-recorded singer in world history, having sung over 13,000 songs.  Most of these were for Bollywood, but she has also sung ghazals (such as this song Yun Na Thi), Indian classical pieces, pop, folk songs and qawwalis among others.   She was the subject of Cornershop‘s single Brimful of Asha (on the 45) in 1997.  She continues to sing and tour today, at the age of 82.    Some of her greatest work has been the most recent, a duet LP with young Pakistani singer Adnan Sami in 1997, an LP of Indian classical music with sarod player Ustad Ali Akbar Kahn getting a Grammy nomination.  But she will always be loved for her Bolllywood songs, the mainstay of her career and the Indian music industry.

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Dil Cheez Kya Hai from Umrao Jaan

It is impossible to overstate the importance of film songs in the overall picture of Indian music, rather like pop music in the UK, millions listen to it, go to the films and buy it.   Among her ‘greatest hits’ which are too many to include on one LP would be Dil Cheez Kya Hai from Umrao Jaan (1981), Dum Maro Dum from Hare Krishna (1971), title track Chura Liye Hai Tumne (2003) and Aaiye Meharbaan from Howrah Bridge (1958).

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She sang in Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, English –  in fact 20 languages in all.   Perhaps the most remarkable facet of her long life and singing career has been her relationship with her sister Lata Mangeshkar, who is the 2nd-most recorded singer in history, and is herself still singing aged 85.

I didn’t hear any Indian music when I was growing up – apart from Within You Without You, Love You To (Revolver) or Peter Sellers taking the piss.   Ravi Shankar came to educate us all in the ways of Indian classical music, having made friends with George Harrison, and received a standing ovation for tuning up his sitar at his first English concert.  He smiled and thanked the audience for appreciating his craft and hoped they would enjoy the actual music.   Then we saw what he could do at the Concert For Bangla Desh.  But Ravi was the classical end of things – a sitar player.  Asha Bhosle was the filmi end of things – a singer.

Part of the problem for western ears are the instruments used : sitar, tabla, sarod, dilrubi, saranga, bansuri, tambura, shehnai, swarmandel, harmonium.  We used some of these instruments when we played The Sgt Pepper show, eg the swarmandel as played by George in Strawberry Fields Forever.

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Sarod                     Swarmandel  player                                Sarangi

The other part of the problem is the pitch – shruti – in hindi which translates as the smallest possible difference in pitch the human ear can distinguish between two tones.  Thus our 12-tone scale,  in Indian music becomes 23 tones – quarter tones to us westerners, often heard as “blue notes” ie notes sung in a blues between two other notes, either sliding up or down.  Pianists are unable to play blue notes – they can’t bend the note like a singer or guitarist or saxophone player, but they overcome this by playing the two notes alongside each other together, creating a dissonance which is rather pleasing.  Indian music to my cloth ears relies heavily on these subtleties of pitch which seem to appeal directly to the heart and the emotions.  When Lloyd-Webber employed AR Rahman he called it “cheating” but really, what does he know ?

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Within weeks of starting my law degree at LSE I had a steady girlfriend – Mumtaz, who was born in Aden (Yemen) to Pakistani parents, the family had then moved to Karachi in the 1960s.  Mumtaz was schooled in Murree, in the foothills of the Himalayas, near Kashmir.   She had come to London to study law, and having graduated the summer before was now studying for part 2 of the Law Exam.  Over the next nine years we would be, off and on, a couple.  Most of that time was spent in an attic flat in Finsbury Park as we both established footholds in our chosen careers.  Mumtaz’ parents never accepted me as a potential son-in-law because I am not a muslim, and although Taj’s older sister Naz had married an Englishman, it hadn’t lessened that pressure, and maybe made it worse.

Mumtaz introduced me to north Indian cuisine, and I can still cook basmati rice, perfect every time, rogan jhosh and prawns courgette, partly thanks to Madhur Jaffrey it must be said.  Taj taught me how to cook pitta bread – lightly brush water over each side then lightly grill it until it starts to puff up then whip it out, cut in half, careful not to burn your fingers.   We ate regularly at the Diwan-e-Khas in Whitfield St, and the Diwan-e-Am in Drummond St.  I learned all the spices, some Urdu, some basic tenets of islam.  And we saw a few Indian movies, with singing.  Not so many, but enough to introduce me to the whole world of Bollywood:  Awaara, Pyaasa,  as well as the more serious Indian cinema of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Mehboob Khan’s epic 1957 film Mother India.   I found some Bollywood cassettes somewhere, bought them and played them, their incredible arrangements, timings and melodies started to work their way into my ears.  Indeed one of these tunes I CANNOT REMEMBER WHAT IT’S CALLED OR WHO SANG IT, (but it wasn’t Asha or Lata or Mohamed Rafi) became the basis for a song I wrote for Birds Of Tin, the band I was playing in at the time with Joe Korner – a song called Dangerous Garden.  More about Birds Of Tin on another day.  Mumtaz also introduced me to the Beach Boys LP Holland, the band Earth Wind & Fire (My Pop Life #21), Fulfillingness’ First Finale and The Isley Brothers.

It was hard leaving Mumtaz.  But it had to be done.  Taj didn’t agree, but we had no future together.   It just wasn’t right.   I ended up in Bob Carlton’s flat in Bow in a tower block, with all my books and none of my records.   I never saw my records again.  Taj’s revenge.  Well, records : they’re just things, right ?  as this blog will testify…..

In 1985 I was a disciple of WOMAD.  World Of Music Arts & Dance.   I bought their first LP Music and Rhythm (see My Pop Life #4) in 1982 and had spent the next three years listening to anything that wasn’t some skinny white kid playing guitar – Irish music, south african township music, calypso, greek songs, jazz, classical, gypsy music, arabic, burundi drumming, algerian rai, flamenco, salsa, samba, showtunes, mexican pop music, and hindi film music, what a beautiful world of music there was out there and I wanted to eat it all up, to explore, to mine those golden seams of rhythm and melody, to hear strange languages, strange beats, unusual instruments, see then how things joined up, how distant relations were joined, the cuba-congo axis, the irish/scottish/quadrille/african birth of jazz in New Orleans, the music of Brahms and Jobim, Eric Satie and Oum Kalthoum, the Bhundu Boys and Sergio Leone.

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So when WOMAD brought out a Talking Book LP called Asia 1 I immediately bought it full price and consumed it with joy.  Asha Bhosle sang Yun Na Thi as the last track on side B.  Well, you can’t follow that really.  Of course, how foolish it is to create an LP of ‘Music From Asia” – which included the desert musicians of Rajahstan, Kurdish music from Siwan Perwer (brilliant), Ofra Haza, tabla solos, Iranian goblet drummers and Temple musicians of Sri Lanka ??  Absurd to group them all together – but – it was a sampler made especially for people like me who were trawling the world for their music, who’d got fed up with the radio, whichever station it was, who wanted to explore with their ears.  It was, I have to say, a completely brilliant album, but the outstanding songs on it were from Şivan Perwer and Asha Bhosle.

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Ashaji had made Abshar-e-Ghazal – the source album for this track – as a break from Hindi film music.  She was a hugely respected and wealthy star in India, had restaurants in the Gulf and could do what she wanted.  She wanted to do some more classical and traditional music.  All the music on the LP was written by Hariharan and the lyrics are ghazals – an ancient pre-islamic form of poetry.  As near as I can get to an understanding of this form is the Sonnet – all of the rhymes must be a certain way.  A ghazal is a love poem, always about unrequited love, and often takes the Sufi form – a poem about love of God, the ultimate unrequited love.  A famous Persian ghazal poet Rumi, who died in 1273, is known a little in the west, although scarcely enough – but the ghazal goes back at least 500 years before him.

I’ve asked for translations of the words to this ghazal, when they come I’ll add them to this blog.   Perhaps the unrequited love is Mumtaz’ for me.

Yun na thi mujh se berukhi pehle

tum toh aise na the kabhi pehle

jismeain shaamil tunhaari marzi thi

humne chaahi wahi kushi pehle

jab talak woh na tha toh ai raahi

kitni aasaan thi zindagi pehle