Music, Today I Learned

Sakhi Maro/Tu Mera Dil

I listen to a lot of music. This is known.

A byproduct of that is that for long periods of time, certain artistes take on more, or very little, prominence in my playlists, a function of recent release schedules, my soundscape mood (there are times when nu-retro reigns supreme on my headphones, for example, or ambient anime piano), and pure serendipity.

The third factor, that of serendipity is what leads to goosebumps, when a song that I haven’t heard in a long while suddenly emerges front and center. Today was one such day, when a tune from Susheela Raman’s Love Trap, an album that defined 2004-05 for me, materialized in my head, and of course, I had to play the album from beginning to end. I was going about my morning with a smile and a skip, as song after song came on, releasing dopamine hits and unlocking half-buried aural memories. Suddenly, it was ‘Sakhi Maro’ on the speakers. If you know the song, you know it melts you like butter on a warm slice of bread. But today, out of all the times I have heard ‘Sakhi Maro’, I realized that the opening bars of the song reminded me of something else. Another song.

But what did it remind me of? I paused the song for a bit and thought about what exactly brought about that stray memory? It was definitely not Susheela’s voice or the tune itself. When I played it again from the beginning, it hit me. The gentle, melodic strumming that is the bedrock of the track reminded me of a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan track from one of his collaborations with Michael Brook. There being two of those albums – Musst Musst and Night Song. A bit of quiet contemplation brought me to the exact track. It was the opening track to Night Song, called ‘My Heart, My Life’, with the exact same strumming that was part-guitar, part-harp.

Now I had always thought most sounds on the Brook albums were the Infinite Guitar, the musician’s own modification of the electric guitar. As it turned out, the sound on both the songs was a West African instrument called the Kora. It has 21 strings and has features of a lute and a harp. And once you hear a kora and realize how versatile it is, it’s hard to ever miss it. Tom Diakite plays the instrument on ‘Sakhi Maro’, Kaouding Cissoko from Senegal plays it on ‘My Heart, My Life’. On both the tracks, these guys steal the bulk of the thunder.

Here’s a minute long video that shows how the same instrument produces different kinds of sounds, demoed by musician Toumane Diabate.

And here’s an hour-long concert that’s a cello-kora duet featuring Ballake Sissoko and cellist Vincent Segal.

On an aside, the MTV Unplugged version of ‘Sakhi Maro’ has Sam Mills playing the guitar on the track, which added to my confusion. The track also features renowned percussionist and singer Kutle Khan on vocals and the khartal, making it arguably better than Susheela’s original interpretation.

I cannot but be awed by the things that I still do not know, and by the secrets these familiar friends from decades ago still manage to unravel.

(Also, this is the second time in a year that I have gone back to Susheela Raman on the blog. That must count for something!)


Covering Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

This made me so so happy. Jeff Buckley, when singing and mispronouncing nearly every word in the song, stands for every music lover enamored by an artiste singing in an alien language. On one hand, it’s almost frightening how close he gets to the feel of a Nusrat song – the impassioned wails, the improvisations, the fact that he is singing the part of Rahmat Ali, the high-pitched backing singer that you hear on every one of Nusrat’s live shows. On the other, it’s hard not to be swayed by the the earnest appeal to the crowd to “do it like they do it in Pakistan”, urging them to clap in time with the song.

Sadly, there are not many Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Sure, almost every high-pitched singer on every talent show in India tries to sing Nusrat songs, but they are mostly insipid rehashes, sans personality or individuality. Bally Sagoo, the British DJ who, at some point, was remixing every Indian song in existence, got North Carolina-based singer Gunjan to sing ‘Kinna Sona’, on the Bend It Like Beckham OST. I find Gunjan’s voice too tinny for my taste, and the version itself does not break any new ground  – just a straightforward beat added to the basic structure of the song.

Remixes abound, of course. In addition to the familiar names – Michael Brook, Peter Gabriel, Massive Attack, there’s Italian electronica composer Gaudi, who came up with an entire album dedicated to Nusrat remixes, called Dub Qawwali. That one’s quite an earful, featuring a guest appearance by MK Gandhi even.

Two AR Rahman songs pay tribute to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. ‘Varaagha Nadikarai’ from Sangamam is inspired by the Punjabi folk song ‘Lal Meri Pat’, which is technically not a Nusrat song per se, but Rahman based it on his version of it. Then there’s ‘Tere Bina’ from Guru – a lovely song that was due to be sung by Murtaza and Qadir Khan, but was rerecorded in Rahman’s voice at director Mani Ratnam’s insistence. (the brothers can still be heard in the opening strains of the track) I love the song, but hate the visuals – the cheesy dance routines do not fit the semi-spiritual vibe.

I was never a huge Atif Aslam fan – despite some of the songs from his band Jal being ear-wormy enough. Until I heard his Coke Studio songs – two of which stand out. ‘Wasta Pyaar Da’, a mash-up of Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ with a traditional Punjabi song, and ‘Jal Pari’. The second song’s from Aslam’s own solo album. At 4:39 of the performance, he segues into Nusrat’s ‘Tu Mera Dil’. The transition is done without drawing too much attention towards itself, a smart little homage that makes this Nusrat fan feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

One of the most interesting things you will hear is the Brooklyn Qawwali Party, a tribute band formed by percussionist Brooke Martinez specifically to cover Nusrat Fateh Ali songs. This 9-minute version of Musst Musst, complete with claps, a wind section, a double bass, an electric guitar – and even a harmonium – is sublime, especially when the guys sing the main chorus of the song.

And then there’s Pakistani-American band Kominas’ completely irreverent take on ‘Pooja Karoonga’. I’ll reserve all comment.