I’ve been listening to Abida Parveen sing Kabir.
Admittedly, Kabir’s not easy. Not easy to understand, not easy to translate, not easy to sing. Easy to recite, though. The mystic sant may have taken many liberties with grammar, but he knew his sounds: Kabir’s cadences are so smooth. Say this aloud:
Maya mari na man mara, mar mar gaye sareer
Asha trishna na mari, keh gaye das Kabir
Kabir’s dohas are particularly difficult to set to music. For one, each is a disparate piece, with its own theme. Like the ghazal. However, unlike the ghazal, in which each sher at least follows the same meter and rhyme, Kabir’s dohas are somewhat uneven in length and rhyme differently.
It has been done, though. T Series has a long line of Kabir’s work, and you might stumble upon any one travelling in long distance buses in North India; the drivers hugely favour Kabir for early morning listening. I have one of those too, Kabir Amritvani. The producers choose one tune only and set scores and scores of dohe in the same pattern. Repetitive, and a bit jarring, but the enunciation is clear, and soon you find yourself listening to Kabir with minimal interpretation, almost unadulterated, so to speak.
Not so with Abida. The album is surprisingly disappointing, because she neither does justice to Kabir’s verses by allowing their inherent rhythm to show, nor does she treat her material as a vehicle for a purely musical exercise. She takes the middle road and disappoints with both. This was only a first listen, and a first impression. If it grows on me, I’ll just have to come back and let you know.
Abida has sung many greats: Khusrau, Bulleh Shah, Hazrat Shah Hussain, Sachal Sarmast… there is no faulting the literature. I persistently feel dissatisfied with her melody, though. It’s not a priority with many Sufi singers – feeling is rated higher, and most important is how you can carry your listeners into higher and higher realms. That is as it should be, but it needn’t be at the cost of sweetness. The greatest of them were sublime musicians as well as sufis. There was no either/or.
This is also why I’m uncomfortable with people calling Abida the true successor to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. First, she’s not a qawwal, she sings sufi music – there’s a difference. Second, Abida’s style of rendition needs a rather active participation from the listener. Nusrat was like this fragrance that wafted. Even casual listeners would be seduced, drawn by the tendrils and reeled in. Abida needs a commitment from you to begin with.
PS. What a great job they do with album sleeve notes these days. Complete with profiles of everyone involved, notes on history and context, and they include every word sung. Precious, too, because with sufi music, the verses they’re printing are usually difficult to find in English. Educative, and worth nearly half the price of the album.