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KARACHI: Ghazal and geet singer Habib Wali Mohammad, who died on Thursday aged 90 in Los Angeles, was best known for his film ghazal ‘Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo’ that catapulted him to widespread recognition. Making his appearance at a time when ghazal singing was getting popular all over again during the 1960s and 1970s, Habib Wali Mohammad’s singing style held a certain kind of appeal that was simpler and more accessible to the listeners.

Born in Rangoon, Burma in 1924, Habib Wali Mohammad embarked on a singing career during the 1950s when he was in his early 20s in Bombay. He participated in several local music competitions — winning the first prize in one such competition in 1941 — slowly establishing his reputation as a singer. He sang his first ghazal during the 1950s for Radio Ceylon, now Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. He recorded two ghazals ‘Lagta Nahin Hai Jee Mera Ujrray Dayaar Mein’ by Bahadur Shah Zafar and Mirza Ghalib’s ‘Yeh Na Thi Hamari Qismat’. Interestingly, the LP record did not have his real name. He recorded the LP under the stage name of Kamal Roy. These ghazals were composed by Saraswati Devi, said to be Indian film industry’s first female music composer.

According to music historian, Sultan Arshad, Habib Wali Mohammad recorded two more geets (‘Kit Gaye Mann Ki Naao Kay Maanjhi’, ‘Aag Lagi Mann Mein Moray Baalam’) under the stage name of Kamal Roy that were penned and composed by none other than O P Nayyar, the ace Hindi film music director who famously sidelined the reigning singing superstar of the time Lata Mangeshkar in favour of Asha Bhosle.

His first film recording was for the film Bindiya in 1955 for which he crooned two songs: ‘Teray Zulm Ki Tujh Se Faryaad Hai’, a solo number, and ‘Aaja Tujhe Ek Baar Mein Seene Se Laga Loun’, a duet with Asha Bhosle. These were the only two film numbers that he rendered in Bombay.

Hailing from an industrialist background — his family surname was Tabani, a Memon business family — he moved to Pakistan along with his family during the late 1950s and utilised his business education which he studied in the United States to set up Shalimar Silk Mills. Music was never his profession but a leisurely pursuit.

In 1970, he sang two ghazals for the film Baazi, ‘Aashiyaan Jal Gaya’ and ‘Raatein Theen Chaandni’ establishing his reputation in his new homeland. There was a resurgence of interest in the genre of ghazals throughout the 1970s. Mehdi Hasan, Amanat Ali Khan, Farida Khanum and Iqbal Bano were leaving their footprints in the vibrant ghazal landscape at the time.

It is during this time period that Habib Wali Mohammad’s star appeared and reached its zenith. In 1973 he recorded ‘Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo’ for the film Badal aur Bijli that cemented his reputation. This was a Sohail Rana composition and penned by Fayyaz Hashmi. People on the other side of the border mistakenly believe that it was originally sung by Farida Khanum when it was Habib Wali Mohammad who is the original singer of the ghazal. According to Sultan Arshad, the fact that Habib Wali Mohammad was not classically trained lending his vocal style simplicity appealing to a larger audience.

His other best known non-film songs are the national ones such as ‘Aye Nigaar-e-Watan Tu Salaamat Rahe’ penned by Jamiluddin Aali and composed by Sohail Rana and ‘Roshan-o-Rakshaan, Nayyar-o-Tabaan’ that became very popular in the 1980s. His other popular geets and ghazals include ‘Gajra Bana Kay Liya Malaniya’, ‘Gori Karat Singhaar’, Qamar Jalalvi’s ghazal ‘Kab Mera Nasheman Ehl-e-Chaman’ and Bahadur Shah Zafar’s ‘Na Kisi Ki Aankh Ka Noor Houn’.

By the 1990s musical trends had changed and so had people’s tastes. His musical career became dormant and he moved to the United States where he spent his last years performing in concerts and private functions attended by audiences who lived on nostalgia of the golden age of ghazal of the 1970s.

Anwar Iqbal adds from Washington: Rizwan, son of Habib Wali Mohammad, said: “He lives in his songs that are still played, particularly on occasions like the Independence Day. Several generations grew up listening to his songs.”

Habib Wali Mohammed spent his last two months at Kindred Hospital, Brea, California, where he was admitted with complications related to old age.

His funeral will be held either late Thursday or on Friday in Los Angeles where he had been living with his family.

As a child, Habib Wali Mohammad admired Qawwali. He received formal training from Ustaad Latafat Ali Khan.

Habib Wali Mohammed leaves behind three sons Anwar, Rizwan and Nadeem and a daughter, Ruskhsana.

His brother Ashraf W. Tabani was governor of Sindh in late 1980s.

Published in Dawn, September 5th, 2014