Folk music seems to be an essential element of our individual and collective make-up. Once music composer Ustad Nazar Husain, an absolute perfectionist, was asked as to why our simple folk-songs were so charming. He thought for a bit and said: “Folk songs use few notes [Surr], mostly three or four and repeat them but in a way that it creates a magical circle which never ceases to enchant you. It’s extremely difficult for any music composer or tuner to compose something like a folk song”. And this came from a maestro whose melodies vocalists found highly complex and exacting. It’s not that folk music descends from the heaven ready-made. It has its anonymous makers who are never pushed about their intellectual property rights. For such music makers sharing is the delight. But highbrow classical musicians who follow “Shastras” or oral Shastras are usually found condescending towards folk music. Here as in other walks of social life, class consideration imperceptibly surfaces. Classical music has traditionally been patronised by kings and courts, and saints and temples while folk music has always been/is for the people. So culturally the hoity-toity inhabitants of the world of classical music tend to treat folk musicians as the hoi polloi forgetting that folk music offers musicians/vocalists greater creative freedom. Rendition of a folk song, for instance, is not dictated by any strictly fixed mode: it depends on the ability of the vocalist. A folk song can be sung as a simple song but it can also be presented as a semi-classical or classical piece. You must have heard Zahida Parveen, Tufail Niazi and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. These greats while singing folk music effortlessly move from apparently simple structures to complex classical ones. They blend it so well that it becomes hard to separate the folk from the classical. Do have a listen to famous folk song “Jindri lutti tain yar sajan” rendered by inimitable Bade Ghulam Ali Khan to understand how the boundaries between the folk and classical music become blurred at the hands of a maestro. He, in fact, says in one of his talks (preserved in the archive of Lahore Radio Station) that our classical music has evolved from the folk music of different regions and tribes.
But it’s also true that our folk music has been kept alive by our folk singers and musicians, known and anonymous. It’s a long list. Asa Singh Mastana, Surendre Kaur and Parkash Kaur, Alam Lohar, Inyat Husain Bhatti, Zahida Parveen, Tufail Niazi, Meena Lodhi, Fatima Bherey Ali and Ashiq Jat made a tremendous contribution to enrich the people’s music, to name a few. The tradition was carried forward by the next generation of vocalists.
In the wake of what’s called cassette revolution, Faisalabad/ erstwhile Lyallpur based Rehmat gramophone Vompany launched young folksingers who were denied entry into premises of state-controlled Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television. Ataullah Isa Khailvi being one of them broke the glass-ceiling and became a sensation all over the place from Karachi to Delhi within months in 1970s. Closely followed him Mansur Mangli, Allah Ditta Looneywala, and duo of Parwana Mastana. The first two singers were from the Jhang area, the land of Heer and Sahiban, the immortal heroines and the duo from the singing sands of Bahawalpur.
Loonaywala was quite young when he emerged on the scene. He was immediately noticed for his vocal range which was extraordinary. He could move from the lowest note to the highest like lightning. He could touch all the three octaves (Mandra’, ‘Madhya’ and ‘Taar’ Sabtak) with ease. His voice was obviously a natural gift but his style of rendering and music skills were hard earned. He genuflected before many a guru. He learnt music with passion and humility from the teachers he could have access to. He ravenously absorbed what learnt and strenuously practiced it. He got his early training in music from Mian Isa and his son Mian Tabilb in district Okara. His view of learning was rightly based on the assumption that knowledge of Ragas and classical “Talas /beats” helps a folksinger to expand his repertoire and enrich his singing. His grounding in classical music helped him grow as a vocalist. That’s why he could use “Taan/a kind of rapid and dramatic vocal technique” in his singing and at times employ classical ‘Tala’ such as ‘Teen Tal’ in some of his lilting songs. In order to be professional singer he also interacted with and learnt from iconic Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in his humble way. He shared at least one thing with the maestro; vocal range. Vocal range, let ‘s keep in mind, is an asset prized most by the people of the Punjab when it comes to singing regardless of whether it’s classical, light classical or folk.
Mansoor Malangi and Allah Ditta Loonaywala have been the great sons of the River Chenab which doesn’t cease to fascinate the Punjab with its murmuring. In our cultural and literary history, it’s known as a lovers’ river (Chanah Ashiqan). In the Waris Shah’s composition of Heer when the sailor named Luddan insolently refuses to take the penniless hero Ranjha across the river, he decides to plunge in and swim to the other bank. He is instantly warned by a bevy of women: “Hundreds of measuring rods cannot measure the depth of the Chenab / You will drown, dear, don’t jump into it”.
Great classical poet Hafiz Barkhurdar who along with his predecessor Pilu from Dhann region immortalised the young lovers Sahiba and Mirza starts his stanza while describing and depicting his heroine Sahiba thus: “Love flows in the River Chenab while in others what flows is water). Loonaywala brought us love songs. What could be a better gift than singing of love for a society that has few reasons and fewer occasions to be happy. Bhagat Kabir and Bulleh Shah believe in the existence of ‘Anhad / Anahat’ which is mystic sound or music of the cosmos that can be heard only by the rishis, yogis and sages. Praised be the singer whose voice reflects a bit of ‘Anhad’ which never dies. A genuine singer at his /her death merges into the silences of cosmic music. Loonaywala, you are gone but you are still inaudibly audible.
Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2021