One of the funny and fun things about music is the unexpected connections that pop up sometimes, between the most improbable pieces.
I have been listening to a record of qawwali by Yusuf Azad Qawwal recently and enjoying his popular take on this imposing and grand tradition of holy music. Indian cinema has long employed a light-hearted form of qawwali in films for decades, often to introduce a bit of humor or levity into a particular scene. Records of filmi qawwali are available from time to time, but is more a novelty than a serious genre. For true followers of qawwali it is a travesty.
Yusuf Azad Qawwal’s music seems to lie in a particular valley that is neither seriously religious nor completely frivolous. And that unusual location is the first unexpected connection that popped up. Azad’s music is delivered with an attitude similar to that of a rock ‘n roller: unorthodox, uncompromising and sometimes downright bizarre. He is clearly having fun on every track but equally sings from his heart, whether it is about his love of the Prophet, the war of the sexes, the mortality of man or the (rail) road to heaven.
Which leads to weird and slightly hilarious connection number two. His qawwali Jannat ki Rail Hai (The Railway to Heaven) has to be unique in the annals of the genre. Its subject matter and the concept is entirely foreign to South Asian musical idiom. The idea of heaven as a destination and the railway as a means of transportation to that destination is not something familiar to any form of South Asian music. It is, on the other hand an image/theme that is built into the DNA of American bluegrass, gospel and country music. The number of songs that refer to trains to heaven are almost too many to count. Just off the top of my head, Life’s Railway to Heaven (Patsy Cline), People Get Ready (Curtis Mayfield), Gospel Train (Sister Rosetta Tharpe) come to mind. So the question is: where the hell did Yusuf Azad get the idea of a train to heaven? If you listen to some of lyrics on Jannat ki Rail Hai they speak of the sorts of passengers and ‘sinners’ who are allowed to ride this train. Almost exactly like the above-referred and dozens of other country/bluegrass songs. Is Azad a secret bluegrass fan?
That idea may seem laughable. But then listen to Aadmi Musafir Hai (Man is a Traveller) which immediately brings to mind songs like Poor Wayfaring Stranger. The lyrics remind the listener (obviously Hindu listeners are especially targeted) that ‘he comes with nothing and will leave with nothing’ and then goes on to gruesomely draw a picture of a dead man yelling out from the burning cremation pyre! For those who know the Bible or the hell-fire ballads of the Louvin Brothers, such imagery is commonplace. Did Yusuf Azad spend time in Kentucky or the dark hollows of West Virginia one wonders?
Weird! Bizarre! Fantastic! Wonderful thought.
The centerpiece of this record and what initially drew me in, is the opening track, a muqabila or contest with Rashida Khatoon a female qawwal! Called, Hadtal Karenge Dilwale (Lovers are Going to Strike) this is a 12 minute battle of the sexes. First the men vent their frustration that the women folk are spending way too much on ‘lipstick, makeup and powder’ to which the women respond, ‘if you strike you’re not getting any love from us.’ The men retaliate again but eventually both sides agree they need each other and they need to compromise and the strike is called off!
Absolute fun. When I first heard it and every time I do now, I think of my dear friend Stanley down in Kerala who sounds exactly like Yusuf Azad when he sings in English! Another unexpected and welcome connection!
01 Hadtal Karenge Dilwale
02 Admi Musafir Hai
03 Hai Lab Par Pyare Nabi Ka Naam
04 Jannat Ki Rel Hai
05 Hajio Salam Lete Jana