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Musical Memory: Folk Sounds

Updated: Jul 31, 2021

Ilona Yusuf

For her curatorial fortnight, associate editor Ilona Yusuf continues on her musical journey, this time drawing forth memories of Lok Virsa, an organisation dedicated to preserving the diverse offerings of Pakistan's folk history and tradition.

My first sonic experience of Hey Jamaalo: drum beats mimicking the camel’s pace, voices that seemed to have carried from far across the desert. The tap-tap-tap of stone or coin against clay pitcher, hand clapping, the chanted rhyme of a tappa: Menoon soda water ley deh vay, Roz baalma kehndi (bring me soda water, every day, my darling) The strident rhythm of the huge hand-held drum, dhol, offset by the chimta’s jingling. The carrying, haunting voices of sung legends: Heer’s fretful, mournful protest against her impending wedding acted in song, mein nahin jaana kheireyan day naal. I don’t want to go, don’t want to go, with the Kheiras. In most of these, the instruments, simple, often percussive, are designed to accompany the human voice. But there is instrumental music too: lilting melody underpinned by a constant piping drone, the alghoza’s double barrel, this flute that’s sometimes called jorhi: pair, or couple. The resounding, as if mountain echo, of the santoor. Raw, earthy, unfiltered sound—with its own layered complexity.

I have a vague memory from the early nineteen seventies. We are in Islamabad, a verdant, not-really-city then, made up of a few blocks called ‘sectors,’ marked by letters: E, F, G. My mother is meeting someone who talks about collecting artifacts from villages around the country, with a view to establishing a museum. There is already a small collection, of textiles, elaborately chased silver and carved wooden charpoy legs, some furniture. There are extensive future plans. I’m ten or eleven and bored, but I catch this much of the conversation.

My mother may have met Uxi Mufti, Lok Virsa’s founder and first director, because he had a connection with the Czech Republic—then Czechoslovakiahe had studied there in the nineteen sixties, and discovered the works of the major Sufi poets with Jan Marek; or because he had already begun documenting folk music from around the country. Her interests extended to both; she was East European, and she loved music.

In the ensuing years, cassettes released by the Institute of Folk Heritage, or Lok Virsa, became a staple of our music collection. Two years ago, in the months after my parents’ deaths, most of these as well as an extensive collection of eastern and western classical music were thrown away. The technology is obsolete, and children of today don’t know what a cassette was. But I kept four, struck as much by the graphics as the music, which I could no longer play. And because they were my initiation into Pakistani folk music.

Three of the covers—The Incomparables, Authentic Music of Snake Charmer, and Thumri by Ustad Salamat Ali Khan—are like wood-prints or lino-cuts, each colour printed separately, with a slight difference of shade in the overlaps. There is the distinctive logo of the ‘gugu ghora,’ the brightly coloured stuffed paper horse with a streamer mane and tail sold at melas, printed on the spine. Inside the covers are brief introductions to the musicians and their music. I imagine these covers would be from the mid-seventies; later designs were largely photography.

In a 2018 television interview with Shabnam Riaz, Dr. Mufti emphasizes the oral tradition in music and poetry as something close to the heart and soul; what we now lump under the umbrella of identity. But he says that when he began to collect folk music, city people knew mostly classical singers: Iqbal Bano, Farida Khanum, Mehdi Hassan, Ustad Ghulam Ali. Or there was film music, sung by Nur Jahan, Runa Laila, Alamgir… unless they had a rural background and access to folk music of the area they came from, or travelled in the provinces, people didn’t know the musicians of the interior. Combine this with a lack of interest in folk music or culture at the governmental level.

In 1971 Mufti managed to get a six-month UNESCO project researching Pakistani popular music, and with his colleague Samir Naguib, collected and recorded a repertoire of over two and a half thousand unknown musicians. These were people who performed at melas and urs, local festivals and commemoration days of Sufis and other saints.

Soon thereafter, Mufti approached Aslam Azhar, the Director of Pakistan Television, with a request to air a programme showcasing them. Met first by rejection, it was suggested that he make a pilot programme. Once again, the project was shelved. And then, as if by fluke, one of the imported television shows—perhaps The Lucy Show—didn’t arrive on time. Lok Tamasha was aired, viewers wrote in to ask for more, and folk music became popular. Khamiso Khan, Bilawal Belgum, Tufail Niazi, Shaukat Ali, Alam Lohar, Reshma, Mai Bhagi. Unknown singers, many of whom became household names.

By this time, the mid-seventies, Lok Virsa was a recognized government institution, and alongside its other activities it produced cassette recordings of these and countless other musicians—including classical. These were the building blocks of my folk music memory, my understanding of its rhythms, of the landscape behind the instruments and voices. They were also my window of discovery, bringing, for instance, Kashmiri santoor music. In the early years of my life in Islamabad, a new city with few cultural offerings, I looked forward to the seasonal Lok Virsa festivals which featured live performances by provincial musicians, something I hadn’t experienced growing up in Lahore, with its sophisticated culture of classical music.

Covers of Lak Virsa cassette covers from the author's collection

The oral tradition of handing down stories or poetry existed then as it does now. Budding singers still begin their careers at shrines and melas, of which the most famous are Bhit Shah and Sehwan Sharif in Sindh. Maids or male servants in village and city households still know and sing the famous love legends, the kafis of Bulleh Shah and Shah Abdul Latif, although much has happened politically in the intervening years, to corrupt their purity of emotion and outlook on life. In the decades between 1971 and now, folk, pop and devotional music have become a well-developed industry, discovering and fine honing new talent far faster than in past decades. Coke Studio, Nescafe Basement and Pepsi Battle of the Bands all draw on folk as much as classical and pop music for much of their inspiration, reworking the old melodies to include folk instruments as well as the modern western guitar and drum sets, or juxtaposing modernized interpretations by young musicians with traditional singers, often the offspring of those who became famous from the seventies. Two of my favourites are Paar Chanaa De, a symphonic rendition of the legend of Sohni Mahiwaal composed and sung by rock band Noori, with a solo section featuring the saagar veena, a new plucked string instrument derived from the classical vichitra veena; and Rasha Mama, a Pashto folk song performed alternately by traditional folk artist Zarsaanga and pop singer Gul Panraa.

In the decades since its founding, Lok Virsa flowered under other directors who added to its archives; its musical library has recently been digitized under the directorship of Dr. Fouzia Saeed.

Without it, much provincial culture and craft tradition might have gone un-documented.

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