Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Incomparable

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.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Love Will Show the Way

I hadn’t listened to Demis Roussos for more than two decades when suddenly he appeared on my musical radar, with his warm warbling voice and endless sappy crooning about summer sea breezes, lovely maidens, and his friend the wind. Roussos’ whole aesthetic is unbelievably, unapologetically kitschy, his love songs being the equivalent of those posters of cute kittens and dewy roses that also hail from the atrocious 1970s. This photo is to me especially emblematic of the excruciating awkwardness of that time, and I cannot for the life of me understand how this was ever considered hip and happenin’ (are those tights he’s wearing? And is that a flowered sweater set?!) His music videos are equally awkward and therefore delightful to watch; sometimes the originally slim Demis is sporting what look to be space boots, later he dons those 70s caftans that only accentuate his girth and status as the father of love. At all times he has disheveled hair and that pained furrow of the brow as he belts out his feelings over lost and regained love.

Artemios Roussos was born in Alexandria on 15 June, 1946 and lived there until his family left for Greece during the Suez crisis. He and two other musicians—Loukas and Vangelis—formed the band Aphrodite’s Child, which was a success in Europe for three years before it disbanded. Roussos then struck out on his own and became a star during the 1970s, the decade during which he composed his signature and best-loved songs. Roussos, his unruly hair now much thinner, grizzled, and slicked back in a neat ponytail, continues to spin these 1970s classics, as in this concert appearance in Brazil last year.

My very favourite of his repertoire is the infectious, catchy “Far Away”, which as fans will remember begins, “There's a lucky man who’ll take you far away/far away, so very very far away/….love will show the way.” The ditty sadly doesn’t have an online presence (except as a motif in
this Hisham Abbas knock-off by some Moroccan pop star, but it still captures Demis’ velvet voice and the dreamy tune).

Kitsch and all, the songs of this loveable, rotund Greek crooner are hard-wired into my musical memory; they used to waft airily through our house for what seemed like hours and hours. Listening to them now feels as though the intervening 25 years have vanished, and I’m back to imbibing his invocations of a soft-focus, make-believe, languorous world of gentle Mediterranean sea breezes undulating through perennial summers.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Farid Most Sublime

As with Asmahan, it’s nearly impossible to select just one out of Farid’s plentiful repertoire, but in the end I settled on “Ya Albi Ya Magrouh” (O my wounded heart). This song is so old and obscure that I have not found it anywhere on the web. It’s a perfect little gem, a tightly composed classic that shows off both Farid’s musical composition and vocal talents. I much prefer the early studio recording to the more common live performance, where the constant audience noise and interruptions, coupled with Farid’s own haggard voice late in life mask the beauty of this lullaby-like tune. After ferreting around at various cassette shops, I was thrilled to finally find the taped studio recording buried in a drawer of a tiny place on Shawarbi. The atrocious and unbearably kitschy pink cover concocted by the execrable Randaphon is small price to pay for this find. Eventually and inexplicably, however, the cover has grown on me.

“Ya Albi Ya Magrouh” is Farid at his most dolorous and expressive, his voice perfectly evincing that rich, velvety, ever-so-slightly nasal quality for which he’s so rightly appreciated. There’s just the right amount of plaintive melancholy here, thanks in part to Ma’moun al-Shinnawy’s calibrated lyrics, and Farid’s incomparable gift of striking just the right chords. As he sings the line about the doors of heaven opening to receive the supplicant’s lament, you feel his voice soaring upward even as it retains its calm timbre. But it’s the extraordinary melisma toward the end of the song that always takes my breath away. I love this song so much I listen to it at all times of the day and night, but for some reason its magic is most potent at the juncture when late afternoon yields to the incipient threads of sunset.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


There's nothing quite like the sound of Fairouz's warm and playful ode to the Alexandria beachfront. "Shatt Iskindiriyya" beckons the listless and uninspired, sparking ingenuity, buoyed spirits, renewed focus. There's nothing like the expansiveness that comes with strolling the Corniche, staring at the medley of colours at Anfoushy, the stillness of the water at Midan al-Manshiyya, the crazy waves at Stanley and San Stefano, the remoteness of Mandara, the antique streets of l'Ibrahimiyya, the stench of Bakus, the propriety of Mostafa Kamel.

Alexandria is mint tea in an ahwa on a windswept winter's evening, the magic colours of Abu Qir, the crowds in Zanqet el-Settat, the oasis that is the Mahmoud Said museum in Gianaclis. Alexandria is the incomparable shorbet 'ads at Mohammad Ahmed, fresh-squeezed orange juice from the antique juicer at Tony, and over-sweet cappuccino at the run-down but still charming Elite. Alexandria is watching the sunset from the balcony of Dar al-Ma'aref on Saad Zaghloul street. Alexandria is beauty, Alexandria is life.

For the patient keeper of the Arboreal Annals.

*Painting is Mahmoud Said’s “Storm on the Corniche” (1941).

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Avian Sorrows

It’s difficult to isolate just one Asmahan (Amal l'Atrache) tune, but one of my eternal favourites is this sombre tale with the haunting, ominous drums foreshadowing the sad end. “Dakhalt Marra fi Geneina” (I once entered a garden) is Asmahan at her most understated and powerful, sorrowful and resigned. Every time I listen to it I remember Sharia ‘Adli during that cold and invigorating morning, when the sun peeked from behind the grey clouds to illuminate the intricate details of Wust al-Balad’s tired fa├žades.

The singer walks into a garden to soothe her sad soul by inhaling the smell of flowers and listening to birdsong. There she spots a nightingale and his newborn, resting on the branches in silence. The father tenderly spreads his wing to protect his offspring, singing to her the tune of sanctuary: “O my angel, ask for all that you wish.” The triste singer feels momentarily happy at this scene of filial love.

But it is not to be. The beloved newborn flies off, leaving the father with a burden of suffering, waiting and counting the stars as the moon is his witness. The narrator leaves the garden in pity; the sad state of the father bird is enough to move the immoveable. For his beautiful beloved has betrayed the covenant of love.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Afternoon Ghosts

Out of all of Abdel Wahab’s prodigious output, this 1929 gem is my favourite, especially perfect during quiet afternoons staring out the window or sipping tea. It’s wafted through our house since childhood, one of my earliest memories of music appreciation. Part of Abdel Wahab’s forgotten early oeuvre before his modernist turn, Lama Enta Nawi T'ghib 'ala Tool treads the same ground as traditional Arabic songs of loss and heartbreak (and endlessly whining about that loss and heartbreak). The beloved departs without notice, leaving sadness, long hours full of loneliness, and rueful reflection in his wake. Somehow, however, Abdel Wahab renders this potential fest of unbearably maudlin sentiments into a light, airy, pleasing tune, helped along by an earnest male chorus. The lyrics combine forthright Egyptian ammiya (why didn’t you say so before leaving for so long?) with poetic images of the heartbroken companion left behind, seeing apparitions of his beloved: “I rise to embrace you but find only my illusions.” Like a lazy afternoon rag, Abdel Wahab’s voice induces a reflective mood, where fleeting apparitions mingle with the solid and mundane.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005


There are few relics of childhood more endearing to me than “Dhahaba al-Lailu,” the whimsical little ditty recounting poor Su-Su’s misadventures, my all-time favourite children’s song. This version is a lovely rendition in Muhammad Fawzi’s melodious voice, complete with the original instrumental overture and the call-and-response with the children’s chorus.

Adults of a certain age will remember that the upstart Susu leaves school (sab madrastu), throws away his notebook (rama kurastu), and spends his time pulling the cat’s tail. Of course, he gets his hand scratched by the cat, and Muhammad Fawzi underlines the moral in case we’ve missed it: that’s what happens to someone who doesn’t heed every word that Mama utters. But alas, Susu’s mischief doesn’t end there. Fifi is upset with Susu so he tries to make up with her and gives her a kiss on the cheek, but she swears she won't kiss him back. Instead, she dips her fingers in ink and smears his face. Susu gets angry, hits her, and spills the ink all over her dress. Baba intervenes to end the mayhem and hits them both. The ditty ends on a more comforting note of children growing up and pursuing gainful employment in the professions.

I can’t really take “Dhahaba al-Lailu” seriously as a tool of social control, how could I with such a poetic opening: “Night is gone, dawn emerges, the bird chirps (saou saou!), and the cat meows (naou! naou!)” It’s one of the many works of art that graced my childhood, along with the fanciful tales of the Green Library (al-Maktaba al-Khadra). I notice only now the Platonic mission of the series. As its publishers write on the back cover, “These are stories treasured by every boy and girl…they enrich youngsters, uplift their souls, and guide them to the path of beauty and the good.”

For Karim Ramy Karam, a bold adventurer unhampered by parental social controls, as he treads his first steps on the path of beauty and the good.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005


In this new space, I share some of the music I love and can't live without, music that becalms and stimulates my waking hours, music that haunts my sleep. I couldn't do this without the amazing preservation and curatorial efforts of Samer Sawari; his turath project is a precious gift.

Each week or so, I'll feature a song I love. So let me begin at the beginning, with the patron saint of this and my
other home: the phenomenal Shaykh Imam Eissa. Shaykh Imam died ten years ago this past June 7, but I paid him no proper tribute then. It's well past time for that tribute now. The Imam-Nigm duo are among the handful of my major sources of inspiration, the ones who never fail me. I can't imagine life without their sublime art, their irreverence, their addiction to truth-telling, and their sheer beauty. My understanding of Egyptian history bears their indelible imprint.

The song is
"Ya Masr, 'oomi w'sheddi al-hayl," the spirit is irrepressible resistance, the 'ud is dolorous, Imam's voice is transporting, and there's dew on the roses. Aman, aman Bayram Effendi!

This maiden post is for the musical Zeryab and the inspiring Mohammed.