SPOTLIGHT: MUSIC TO THE EARS

May 12, 2019

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Sultan Arshad (second from left) and others at a performance organised by Amateurs’ Melodies -Photo by the writer
Sultan Arshad (second from left) and others at a performance organised by Amateurs’ Melodies -Photo by the writer

It was in April 1999 that a group of five like-minded individuals, living in close proximity to each other, came up with the rather innovative idea of forming an organisation to explore, encourage and promote musical talent among amateur singers. The result was Amateurs’ Melodies (AM) which consisted of people who could sing or had a deep interest in melodies from the golden era of film songs. They mostly hold music programmes once a month, entertaining members with songs especially selected from the films of yesteryears.

The founder members of AM include Akhtar Ali Khan, Sultan Arshad, Sarwar Ali Khan, Nazima Ilyas and Col (retd) Jalaluddin Ahmed. Akhtar Ali Khan remained under the training of maestro film composer and classical singer Feroze Nizami until he acquired the skills from his ustaad. He not only held monthly gatherings at his Gulshan-i-Iqbal residence but would also sing ghazals with his own compositions. Sultan Arshad (who had returned from Bombay — now Mumbai — just three years earlier), his daughter Kiran and Sarwar Ali Khan’s daughter Zara would also sing at these gatherings, accompanied by the harmonium and tabla.

Being a music enthusiast myself, I have yet to see a person of Sultan Arshad’s calibre, who can provide better entertainment and devote so much time to others in order for them to achieve perfection. During his stay in Bombay, from 1987 to 1996, he had developed a close rapport with several music composers, especially maestros O.P. Nayyar and Anil Biswas. This association with two legends in the field acted as a fillip for him, by inculcating in him the intricacies of making unforgettable melodies.

Another one of the central figures in the AM, Z.H. Faheem is a versatile artist. He has been playing the harmonium with performers since the very beginning, and is still doing so. Faheem sings Talat Mahmood’s songs very well and can play the violin with the expertise of a professional. While Khursheed Khan and then Ustad Wilayat Hussain played the tabla, Saleem Virani, who sadly passed away in March 2019, also remained associated with AM since its beginning for the arrangement of the sound system.

Amateurs’ Melodies, an initiative to bring live renditions of songs from the golden era of film to music aficionados, completed 20 years this past April. This is the story of the people who conceived and sustained it

A total of five programmes were held at the residence of Akhtar Ali Khan before the venue was shifted to DHA. There Khalid Anwar, a chartered accountant in the national flag carrier, offered to hold the monthly programmes at his house. Both he and his wife continued to play a vital role in the AM managing committee till his death in September 2018. These programmes became so popular that membership soon increased from 10 to around 100, as fans of songs from old Indian and Pakistani movies continued to grow. Currently AM has about 130 members.

Till 2011, the monthly programmes continued to be held at members’ residences who volunteered and had lawns to accommodate the members. Since 2011, programmes are held at the Creek Club and are conducted by Sultan Arshad with assistance from Shazleen Iqbal. Possessing in-depth knowledge of film songs, the latter lets the audience know about the special features of a song relating to its singer, composer or lyricist.

After Akhtar Ali Khan’s death in November 2002, Sultan Arshad has been organising the monthly programmes with great zeal and passion. He plans and executes every programme with great precision and hard work, and does not entertain mediocrity. With rehearsals held a day before the programme, it is compulsory for every singer, howsoever experienced and skillful s/he may be, to participate with the accompaniment of a full orchestra. Resultantly, the performances are thoroughly enjoyed by the audience who even travel to the events from other cities and, sometimes, countries.

The singers, who have contributed much towards AM’s success, can be divided in to two categories: regular and non-regular. Prominent among the regular female singers are Florence Thomas, Imrana Naeem and Mahrukh Khan, who not only give solo performances but also sing in chorus when required. Among the male singers there are some like Ameer Ali, Kamran Saggu, Aamir Agha and Payam-i-Khurram, who can be conveniently compared with best professionals in the field. Others who remain regular singers include Sohail Qadeer, Imtiaz Sheikh, Naeem Aziz, Bushra Suleman, Kiran Sultan and Ashfaq Hussain.

Fateh Abbas, who passed away in November 2016, could sing Mukesh so well that it would become difficult for the audience to distinguish his voice and singing style from the former. Most prominent among the non-regulars are the daughters of ace sitar player Ustaad Nafees Ahmed, who mesmerise the members with their spellbinding singing.

The accompanying orchestra, which mostly comprises six instrumentalists, plays the same interlude music as has been played with the original songs. Led by Z.H. Fahim on the harmonium, the others are Manzoor Ahmed (violin), Mohammad Mumtaz (tabla), Habib Hasan Ali (keyboard), Sajjad Ahmed (Spanish guitar) and Shahid Ali (octapad). Their expertise has reached a stage where they can play the music of hundreds of Indian and Pakistani film songs with utter perfection.

Many celebrities from the fields of film, drama and music have been regularly or otherwise attending AM’s programmes, and pay glowing tribute to it. Among others, these include Javed Jabbar, Anwar Maqsood, Bushra Ansari, Nayyara Noor, Sheharyar Zaidi, Shakil, Khalid Ahmed, Arshad Mehmood and Salman Alvi.

The popularity of AM has extended to all the leading clubs and cultural centres in the city. It has held several programmes on the invitation of the Karachi Arts Council, the Karachi Gymkhana, the Karachi Club, the Defence Club and many others. The famous broadcaster of Radio Ceylon, the legendary Ameen Sayani, visited Karachi in 2008, on the invitation of Hum TV. Amateurs’ Melodies organised a programme in his honour at the Karachi Arts Council. Sayani was quite fascinated by the quality of songs rendered and the accompanying orchestra — and who would know about the songs of yesteryears better than him, having popularised them through his weekly hit parade Geet Mala.

Amateurs’ Melodies also took the lead by paying tribute to Madam Noor Jehan soon after her death in December 2000, through a music programme held in the first week of January 2001, at the Karachi Gymkhana. In the same year, it arranged another programme in her honour at the PACC, on the occasion of her first death anniversary.

Remarkably, Amateurs’ Melodies completed 20 years of its existence in April 2019. For 20 years, this initiative has regularly brought the best renditions from the golden era of film songs to lovers of music. One hopes that the torch is carried forward for many more generations to come.

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 12th, 2019