Riyaaz – Q & A – II

Patwari: Can we turn to your new album, Ishq? There are five pieces in there, can you talk about how this album came about, taking us through the pieces?

Sonny: Sure. This album is ghazal-specific. Lyrically, it is more romantically involved than our first album, which was strictly religious. So, with this album we wanted to go into a space where the lyrics could be taken either spiritually or in a worldly-romantic sort of way, or both. Ishq-e-haqqiqi and Ishq-e-majazi are always there in Sufiana kalam. So, it was with this idea that I started thinking about other poets who have not been rendered in this way. The idea is that if we render poetry that has this doubling of the two ishqs in a qawwali (a devotional music genre), the listeners will be forced to think of them in this light. So, I started with old poets like Saher Ludhianvi, and then looked at Ahmed Faraz, Faiz, Ghalib, Mir Taqi Mir, Bahadurshah Zafar. Then we looked at contemporary poets that are alive, like Munawar Rana, and then a poet named Tahir Faraz whose poetry I love, and Dr. Nawaz Deobandi. So, I searched this wide range of poetry to see what we can incorporate into our sound. We also looked at Anwar Masood who is a comedic Punjabi poet. We wanted to see how far we could push ourselves within the qawwali genre. That was what our thinking was for this album. Now, let me take you through the individual pieces in the album.

The first is Tujhe Dekhein by Bahadur Shah Zafar, rendered in Raag Darbari Kannada. Darbari Kannada is a very romantic raag. I felt like the poetry itself exuded romance and fit the raag really well. It is common in qawwali to juxtapose authors and that I thought was very important. So in all of the qawwalis in this album, we have incorporated various authors and poets to enhance or add a difference aspect to these poems.

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Riyaaz – Q & A – I

[Editor’s noteI (Patwari) interviewed Sonny from Riyaaz Qawwali group on Skype in May 2015. The following transcript was edited by me, and revised by Sonny.]

Locating the Sacred – Riyaaz Qawwali from David Schwittek on Vimeo.

Patwari: Can you tell us a bit about the beginning of your journey into qawwali performance?

Sonny: I met Dr. Akbar Hyder when I was a student at the University of Texas. Discussions with him about qawwali were instrumental in my turning towards qawwali, and, woh kehte hai na ke lagan lag jati hai, so it became sort of an obsession of mine. In a way it opened for me different realms of thinking. Then, stars aligned in such a way that we ended up doing a couple of very interesting performances that were attended by some academic luminaries and big-name sponsors of the Austin Pakistani community. The appreciation and encouragement they showed, for us, sort of started our journey as a group.

But, I’ve been interested in qawwali for a long time. It’s my misfortune to have discovered qawwali late, in 1998. I distinctly remember discovering qawwali in August of that year because it was like rediscovering my love for music. By the end of the month I was listening to a lot of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and realizing that he had passed away only a year ago. So it was my misfortune to have never seen him perform live. He was an important influence in my initiation into qawwali. What Khan sahib did for qawwali is of immense importance, bringing a lot of people, non-South-Asians and South Asians, into the world of qawwali. For me, it was a great introduction to the qawwali tradition and I was then able to explore the vast landscape of qawwali and the works of qawwals such as Sher Ali, Mehr Ali, or Waddali brothers, Aziz Mian, Sabri Brothers, Abida Parveen.

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Reppin Your Hood: Zabān, Pehchān, and Pakistani Rap

[Following up on his earlier essay that traces the development of contemporary rap productions in Pakistan, Khwaja Hamzah Saif profiles two Pakistani rappers, a Sindhi and a Punjabi, rhyming to preserve language and reinvigorate ethnic traditions. This essay was first published on Ajam Media Collective.]

Shahzad Meer (right), who goes by Rapper Meer Janweri, with fellow Thatta artist Wahab Rocx
Shahzad Meer (right), who goes by Rapper Meer Janweri, with fellow Thatta artist Wahab Rocx

Shahzad Meer, or Rapper Meer Janweri, grew up in Thatta, a city in south-eastern Sindh famous for its ancient necropolis,. Once a Sindhi cultural capital, it is now among the smaller cities of a Pakistan bifurcated into the mega-metropolises of Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad and Peshawar, and everything else. Meer’s parents are from Dadu, a comparably sized Sindhi city about 300 kilometers north of Thatta. Shahzad’s Sindhi is accented with the twangs of Dadu and the crispness of Thattai Sindhi. “Northern Sindhi,” he describes it.
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Raags to Riches: Globalism and Vernacular in Contemporary Pakistani Rap

[Following is a guest post by Hamzah Saif. A version of this essay was published by Ajam Media Collective.]

By Hamzah Saif

Rap’s transition from the poetry of marginalized African American communities to the mega-hits circulating in mainstream America today draws fierce debate. Consumerism and commodification are frequently found guilty of eviscerating a once-radical movement with the market’s golden handcuffs, swapping its class politics for “mere spectacle.”

In contrast, Western popular and academic assessments of rap’s journey beyond American borders, particularly in the “Muslim world,” are markedly inattentive to this commercialism. Instead, this rap evokes a virtually unanimous nostalgia. There, 1986 Los Angeles is found alive in 2013 Lebanon, and New York’s Public Enemy and L.A.’s N.W.A are discovered rhyming through Beirut’s Rayess Bek and Tehran’s Yas. So prevalent is this penchant for locating the dissent lost in American rap in “over there” rap that the Washington D.C.-based think-tank, Middle East Institute, finds Iran’s Ayatollahs battling a reanimated Tupac, and Wall Street Journal has rappers soundtracking revolt from Egypt to Iran.

The anachronism of finding 1980’s Ice Cube in contemporary Islamabad can be plausible only if one abundantly ignores the realities of contemporary rap. In a landscape where middle class white purchasers have dictated the contours of the genre’s production since at least 1992, it is particularly absurd to impose upon non-American “Muslim” rappers the romantic notion that their rap is protest.

Imagining a resurrection of resistance in “over there” rap shortchanges the breadth of the non-American musical movements. Instead, they are much more productively seen as artists in the peripheral markets of globalized rap. Such a lens appropriately situates the rappers, and accords their work the creativity and artistry it deserves.

Far from culturally-appropriate replicas of bygone American rappers, Middle East and South Asia rappers are creators of an entirely new art, vastly expanding the frontiers of the genre. “It may not have started in our communities, but just like cricket”, says Islamabadi rapper Xpolymer Dar (Muhammad Dar), “we have made rap our own.”

Indeed, in Dar’s country of Pakistan, where rap is a growing underground music genre, the ‘80s American rhymes for race and class justice are judged to have little resonance with Pakistani realities. Instead, it is the stylings of hyper-commercialized contemporary artists such as Eminem and 50 Cent that find ears, and have provided the launching pad for contemporary Pakistani rappers.

Eminem, 50 Cent and Bohemia: Language, Vernacular and Rap

Prior to this most recent spike in the popularity of rap among Pakistani musicians, the genre’s heyday would likely be located in the early 1990s, when acts such as Fakhar-e-Alam enjoyed a broad audience. Alam’s hit track Bhangra Pao held the number-one spot for 28 straight weeks in local charts and was among the first Pakistani songs to be featured on MTV Asia. Indian and South Asian diasporic rappers such as Apache Indian and Baba Sehgal too found their tracks bumping across Pakistan in the 1990s.

Pakistan’s contemporary rappers, however, rarely trace their roots to that rap tradition. In fact, many take reminding to even recall the productions of the 90’s decade. Today’s movement, instead, is overwhelmingly a product of the globalization of commodified American rap. And if there is one American artist around whose productions penetrated Pakistani music stores, and whose face came to represent rap in Pakistan, it is Eminem.

From Peshawar, near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Party Wrecker (Mustafa Khan) of the Pukhtoon rap group, Fortitude, describes its introduction to rap, “I used to go to Shumail and Shahkar’s house and we used to sit and listen to Eminem.” From distant Karachi, Qzer (Qasim Naqvi) similarly describes, “I was eleven years old when I listened to Lose Yourself by Eminem, and realized the connection between my poetry and rap.”

Ali from the Lahore-based crew DirtJaw offers perhaps the most vivid example. A poet for some years, Ali was introduced to rap through the movie 8 Mile, featuring Eminem, and loosely based on the artist’s life. Having no idea who Eminem was, Ali nevertheless discovered the strength of poetry over beats, and began to transform his verses into rhymes.

During this time, a period beginning shortly after Eminem’s release of the Marshall Mathers LP in mid-2000 to 2005, rap remained a marginal artistic force in Pakistan. Rappers were dismissed as Eminem ki aolad (Eminem’s children), and yo-bache (yo-kids), the latter a construction on a caricature of American slang that accused Pakistani rappers of aping Western culture.

This all changed in February 2006, when goliath label Universal Music dropped the first commercially backed album of the Bay Area rapper, Bohemia.


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