(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
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