Wazir Afzal after the late Saleem Iqbal was the one who knew Punjab’s folk music like the back of his hand. He was deeply rooted in people’s culture and was intimately familiar with the diverse music landscapes from Patiala to Jhang and from Jammu to Bahawalpur. Earthly sound of people’s music turned transcendental when touched by him. Simplicity and emotion delicacy of nuance marked his music which never failed to enthrall and uplift the people. He was never fond of unnecessary complexity and superfluous trappings. To stress his point in order to hint at his view of music, he would talk of a mystically inclined musician, a Sarangi player.

The Sarangi player was always in a state of trance. He would go out in the streets whenever he ran short of provisions and play music. When the listener[s] would say ‘wah’ as a mark of appreciation, he would stop playing. When asked why did he do that, his reply would be; there was no need to play further when his music elicited such an appreciative response.

What Wazir Afzal implied was that in music the need was just to hit the right note; nothing more. He considered the display of virtuosity and skillfulness a sign of ostentatiousness which arose from someone’s desire to impress rather than their urge to express.

By the way, Wazir Afzal wasn’t one man as the name apparently suggests. Wazir and Afzal, the music making duo, were friends who started their carrier as music directors. Afzal died decades ago but late Wazir sahib carried the name Wazir Afzal in memory of his friend. He was a boy when his family was forced to migrate from the princely state of Patiala to Lahore in the blooded West Punjab. He had fond memories of his birthplace which in those days happened to be one of the great centres of performing arts. He moved to Karachi in his early years. He had joyful stories of his stint in Karachi to tell.

Though a man of few words, he would regale his friends with a funny anecdote of how he handled the musical instruments. He was ordered by someone from Radio Karachi where he was an employee to clean the instruments.

Lo and behold, he took the instruments to the beach, which was close to the makeshift building of Karachi Radio, and washed them with sea water. You can imagine what the official response would have been. He would tell with a relish in his husky voice that it was over there in Karachi that he had the good luck to see and hear some of the greats rehearsing and practicing their music in a decrepit building where he lived in a sort of a cubicle. One such musician was great Sarangi player Nathu Khan sahib.

He made his debut as a Sarod player in Karachi but soon moved to Lahore and started playing another instrument; mandolin. He was recognised as an upcoming musician who showed great promise. When associated with film, he worked with one of the leading composers of film music Khawaja Khursheed Anwar as an assistant. It looked strange that despite his reverence for Khawaja sahib he wasn’t influenced in any significant way by his way of making music. It showed a mark of a genuine musician that Wazir sahib created music and tunes for films which bore the distinct stamp of his creativity. Unlike his Guru he was more into folk-music that evolved over centuries.

Film songs in Punjabi and Urdu composed by him became highly popular as they were as melodious as easy to croon. But his simplicity could be deceptive. He would fondly talk of Naushad Sahib’s letter of appreciation he received after the maestro heard his tune Ja ajj ton mein teri sung by Noor Jahan. The tune has had such mesmerising undulations of sound. It offered something quite reachable and yet tantalisingly out of reach.

He had loads of stories of film singers and actors. Despite being very discreet, he would love to narrate how Noor Jahan once called him to her residence and cajoled him into agreeing not to compose music for a certain expat lady who she thought could be her competitor in the scale of popularity. He was offered handsome money by way of compensation but being an honourable man he declined the offer. List of Wazir sahib’s film hits is long. But his film related activities were just one aspect of his creative life. He was among the chosen few who very successfully created and arranged music for diverse formats. He worked for Pakistan Television, Pakistan Radio and recording studios in Lahore. His tunes, for example, rendered by vivacious singer Naheed Akhter for Pakistan Television catapulted her to the heights of fame and popularity. Sadly, she has been quiet for quite long. One of his compositions sung by Hadiqa Kiani made her celebrity likewise.

Wazir sahib’s repertoire was huge and varied. Last years of his life were notable for their creative output when he got associated with Sachal Studios, Lahore, a non-commercial cultural entity. It produced high quality serious acoustic music in the age of digital cacophony when in the words of music producer Izzat Majeed “business of music became the music of business”.

He treated the young and senior vocalists equally, without demur. He was by temperament not a finicky and fussy musician. He worked all his life with a demure smile as if it was nothing big. At Sachal he created memorable compositions in a large number apart from supervising and arranging an outstanding album of folk songs which represented sounds from all the regions of East and West Punjab backed by fifty [MS1] piece orchestra. Such a rich and enriching recording was never done before.

Wazir sahib was a man of culture with poise. He worked all his life but was never in a hurry. He created sophisticated tunes for vocalists but never added to their discomfort by being a demanding music director. “Why to overburden a singer”, he used to say. He worked in the day and would hold his drink in the evening like a gentleman whether alone or in a company. He loved sound of life and added to its audio landscape. Rest in eternal peace, maestro. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 13th, 2021

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