Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


(Left to right): Vocalist Javed Bashir, guitarist Mekaal Hasan and flautist Mohammad Ahsan Papu


Artistes: Mekaal Hasan Band

Venue and date: Blue Frog, Mumbai; January 8, 2013

Genre: Sufi-jazz-rock fusion

Rating: *****

ON the night of Tuesday, January 8, Mumbai’s Blue Frog was packed to capacity when the Mekaal Hasan Band arrived on stage. Around 10.20 pm, vocalist Javed Bashir began the opening lines of the Shah Hussain-penned song ‘Sajan’ to a huge applause. Flautist Mohammad Ahsan Papu followed up with a soothing stretch, and guitarist-bandleader Mekaal Hasan, bassist Amir Azhar and drummer Fahad Khan played marvellously. The night had just begun.

Formed in Lahore in 2001, the Mekaal Hasan Band or MHB is easily one of the best groups fusing east and west. Its music is an intricate blend of classical and Sufiana vocals with jazz, rock, funk and eastern folk elements. And though Pakistani bands like Junoon, Strings and Fuzon have probably played more in India, MHB has its own cult following, created largely through its two albums ‘Sampooran’ and ‘Saptak’.

The best thing about MHB is that one never finds a weak spot in their renditions. As a live act, they’re just stunning and flawless. As a singer, Javed is simply outstanding, whether he’s rendering the words of Sufi kaafis or modern love songs, or presenting taans, sargams and harkats. His voice has that raw and natural charm, and he travels between the low, middle and high registers with such effortlessness that you believe there’s some kind of a computer in his throat.

Add to that the quality of the band and the beauty of the compositions. Mekaal, who studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, is an absolute virtuoso with the guitar. Rock riffs, jazz improvisations and folk melodies flow through those strings magically. Papu is a delight with the flute, and can play lengthy solos with immense control and emotion. Bassist Amir and drummer Fahad are perfect on the rhythm section, providing just the right texture. In short, here’s a five-member band with five lead musicians.

The set lasted a little over two hours. ‘Sajan’ was followed by the uptempo ‘Raanjha’ and ‘Jhok Ranjhan’, another adaptation of a Shah Hussain kaafi. Then came the masterpiece ‘Sanwal’, written by contemporary Pakistani poet Farhat Abbas Shah. The words “O kabhi aa mil sanwal yaar wey… Mere roo roo cheekh pukar wey” resonated in the venue.

Up next was the gem ‘Waris Shah’, written by the great Punjabi writer and poet Amrita Pritam to express her anguish against the violence that took place following Partition. ‘Bandeya’, written by modern poet Ahmed Anis, boasted of spitfire riffs from Mekaal. Sufi poet Bulleh Shah’s ‘Chal Bulleya’ had the wonderful lines “Chal Bulleya chal uthay chaliye, jithey saare anay, na koi saadi jaat pacchane, na koi sannu manne,” besides some charming flute and guitar passages.

The band then moved into ‘Andholan’, brilliantly set to raga Kirwani, with some smart guitar and bass, a great drumming background, and the lines “Tore bina mohay chain na aave, yaad mein tori jiya ghabraave, gin gin taare main ratiyan guzaroon, birha sataave, mora man tadpaave.” Javed was brilliant on ‘Mahi’, one of the most beautiful and moving love songs written by the band.

Next in line was ‘Sampooran’, which had amazing flute and guitar passages, before Javed suddenly went into the popular raga Yaman composition ‘Eri aali piya bina’. This song was beautifully adapted for live performance, considering that the studio version makes good use of vocal over-dubs. The last of their own compositions was ‘Ya Ali’, in which a vigorous sargam intro and an energetic bass-and-drum line were followed by the lines Ya ali mushkil kusha, mushkil kusha ki jiye,” before a spectacular guitar solo.

Though the band didn’t play some of their other popular numbers like ‘Raba’, ‘Darbari’, ‘Albaella’ and ‘Huns Dhun’, it got into popular qawwali mood towards the end. The finale was an excellent adaptation of the famous ‘Damadam mast qalandar’, with Javed excelling in the nuances. It was one of the most innovative versions of the song one has heard.

As happens with most wonderful bands, a sizeable section of Mumbai’s musicians had come to see the band. In the audience, we spotted guitarists Mahesh Tinaikar, Ehsaan Noorani, Babu Choudhary and Ravi Iyer, drummer Ranjit Barot, singer Mahalakshmi Iyer and members of the band Agnee.

It was an absolutely memorable evening. Over the years, Mumbai hasn’t seen too many shows by MHB. They had performed at the Shanmukhananda Hall in 2005 and a couple of years later at the St Andrew’s Auditorium to launch their album ‘Sampooran’ in India. A show scheduled at Blue Frog two years ago was sadly cancelled.

After Mumbai, MHB is slated to do three shows in Delhi over the next week. We just hope they keep coming back, to give a live treat to Mumbai’s true music lovers. And, of course, one is eagerly looking forward to their next album.

RATING: * Terrible; ** Hmmm… okay; *** Decent: **** Super; ***** Simply out of the world


Comments on: "A memorable night with the Mekaal Hasan Band" (6)

  1. Thanks for a great write up. I heard MHB for the first time probably around 2005 or so. A friend had a footnote in an email, saying ‘hey, btw, check this Raga Rock band from Pakistan’. It was the link to Andholan on YouTube. Man, I was so hooked…. I have been hooked to their music ever since. Following their journey, following Javed Bashir, as he does many other gigs outside MHB. You said it right, its a 5-piece band with 5 soloists. Though, I am a huge fan of the drummer Gumby, who recorded with them on Sampooran, I trust you on your assessment about Fahad.

    I just wish they do more, and they tour more. I live in USA, and wish some day, will get to see them live here.

    Mekaal Hasan is one of the finest from the subcontinent, and terribly underrated. He is someone the entire south asia should be proud of. Yet, IMO, only hardcore musicians have heard of him. Of course, its the state of music in the subcontinent, that some brilliant musicians, unless they start singing or doing film music, go absolutely unnoticed. I hope avenues like MTV Unplugged, Dewarists do their bit to bring this brilliant music to more limelight.

    • Thanks for your mail Satyajit.
      I too have been a fan since late 2004 or so, first with Sampooran. Had seen them in Mumbai in Jan 2005 and how they have matured. Yes, Gumby is awesome too. Fahad has been with them too from the beginning, though he would not necessarily do shows, and more like being part of the management, and chip in at the smaller private shows. The bassist this time was relatively new… the last time they had someone who’s name I forget (had a Christian name). But Mekaal, Javed and Papu are like real awesome.
      According to me they are the best band from Pakistan, though they have unfortunately not got too many chances to play in India. Hope this tour changes all that
      Do keep in touch

  2. whoah this blog is fantastic i like reading your posts.
    Keep up the great work! You already know,
    many people are hunting around for this information, you can aid them greatly.

  3. Andholan is a great album. It started off slow for me and that was a good sign for me. This is not straight forward music and it takes time to grow. When it does, it does not fade away but lingers on for a long time. I have to say I missed Javed’s singing, I thought you can’t separate stellar singing from the greatness of MKB music and that’s why it took a little longer to get used to a new voice. I do admit that I have a nagging feeling that a female voice did not do full justice to their style. It would have been great to have the original voice of the band in Javed. IMO, a female voice is too pitchy for a dense and loaded music style like theirs. But this is not to take anything away from her contribution.

    I love a few Pakistani rock bands like MHB, Entity Paradigm, Call etc. I hate the term “fusion music” and mixing of genres but I think these bands have done an incredible job of mixing eclectic sub continent msuic with jazz and rock that is not only a musician’s delight but would also be pleasing to a casual listener. Also love straight ahead rockers like Noorie and Raeth. Too bad their output is so sparse and sporadic.

  4. Great review Naren. By chance came across this blog and promise to be a regular reader from now on in my quest for good music from across the pond.

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