Sometime in early 2009, I heard Mohammad Rafi’s voice for the first time and was forever entranced by the magical soundscape of the Hindi film. The distinctive timbre of Rafi’s voice and its extraordinary versatility makes listening to him a never-ending discovery. His range is immense, from buoyant lilts to haunting laments to pretty duets. I listen to him for hours, without boredom or over-familiarity. To the casual ear, Rafi’s voice blends into the generic sound of Hindi film music. But devotees like me can tell the difference between a Rafi warble and that of the equally melodious Mukesh, Kishore, and Talat Mahmood.
I’ve always listened to songs in languages I don’t speak, perhaps because I read so much that I’m subconsciously seeking an auditory escape. That I understand only fragmentary words in Rafi’s songs has only heightened their emotional impact. When I do come across translated lyrics, they have a deflating effect, puncturing the transporting experience of listening to the pure music. This is odd, since I thought understanding the words would add to rather than diminish the aesthetic experience, especially if the words are in the highly refined tradition of Hindi-Urdu poetry. Then again, appreciating the music and relishing the poetry may be two different pleasures, and I cleave to the former.
Here then are my top ten favorite Rafi songs, the ones I come back to over and over, the ones I re-play three or four times in each listening session because they’re just too beautiful to be played once. These don’t begin to exhaust my Rafi repertoire; there are easily twenty more of his songs that I love and listen to all the time, but I like the discipline of having to identify “just” ten. The first time I heard Yeh Duniya Yeh Mehfil I stopped what I was doing and felt transported to another world. Besides the haunting sadness of the song, I was taken by the way Rafi's voice saunters with the tabla, as if it's a voice in its own right. The perfection of their duet is immediately evident if you listen to contemporary singer Sonu Nigam's rendition of the song, which is quite masterful but incomparable to the original. In the same class of sublime otherworldly songs is O Duniya Ke Rakhwale, especially the live performance with composer Naushad. Here too the tabla closely tracks Rafi's voice, and their dialogue is beautiful.
I have three more favorite Rafi sad songs. Raha Gardishon Mein Hardam, where the propelling force is the interplay of Rafi's emotion-drenched voice with the string instruments. Hum Tumse Juda Hoke sounds like just another sad solo, until you hear Sonu Nigam's rendition and realize the artistic restraint and command exercised by Rafi Saab. Jab Bhi Yeh Dil Udhas Hota Hai is another triste favorite, where Sharda's ethereal voice weaves around Rafi's like a ribbon until they fully merge in a satisfying ending.
This segues into the duets, one of the most delightful parts of Rafi's repertoire. Teri Bindiya Re is an evergreen classic, with Rafi's and Lata Mangeshkar's voices at their most sweet and melodic as they commune with the elegant Sitar. Teri Duniya Se Door is the quintessential lyrical duet, the kind that you hum along to as it wafts out gently like an afternoon breeze.
Two utterly charming, playful courtship songs are just as fun to watch picturized as they are to listen to. Kuch Kehta Hai Yeh Sawan is a lovely accompaniment to Dharmendra and Asha Parekh's frolicking in the village fields. Ude Jab Jab Zulfen Teri is a real work of art--mirthful, coy, and masterfully acted out by the lovable Dilp Kumar and graceful Vyjayanthimala.
Like almost every other Rafi fan on the planet, I adore Aaj Mausam Bada, the joyful song that lifts the spirit and clears the mind, like the miracle of spring.