PAKISTAN: Raqs-e-Bismil - Abida Parveen
Updated: Jan 21
A beautiful introduction to the world of kafi, Parveen guides her listeners on a spiritual journey of devotion
Despite not being Around The World in 200 Albums’ in-house resident Sufi music expert, I do not feel overwhelmed by the task of writing a flattering review of Abida Parveen’s hit album that she released at the start of the new millennium. This is because her record is in some senses stunning, and thus she gives me lots of room to sing her praises. However, before I do this it is important to illustrate the difference in style that exists in Parveen’s music to that of "Shahenshah-e-Qawwali" (the King of Kings of qawwali) AKA Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who we have previously reviewed on the site.
“due to the spiritual content of the words being sung, the simplicity of the music or the transfixing nature of her voice... it allows me to feel a connection with whatever higher power I may have.”
The uninitiated might view Parveen as being a qawwali singer. Whilst this mislabelling is understandable due to the obvious crossover between qawwali and her kafi singing, there are some important distinctions between the two. In fact, although Parveen, who incorporates many qawwali techniques in her music, is well-regarded in her native Pakistan, she does not qualify as a qawwal partially due to her gender. In many circles women traditionally were prohibited from singing in the presence of men and although this tradition no longer is as commonly upheld qawwali is a male-dominated genre, with even Parveen failing to be viewed as a qawwal. However, part of the reason that she also might not be considered a qawwal is because of the subtle differences that exist on a musical level. Although lyrically the content is just as devotional, Parveen’s impassioned vocals are accompanied by more classical music. The instrumentation is stripped-back, often only including one dholak, one tabla, and one harmonium. This is vastly different to the heavy percussion, clapping and group repetition that exists in much of Nusrat's back-catalogue. What’s more, kafi is a genre that is typically sung in the Punjabi and Sindhi languages as opposed to Urdu and Farsi.
These subtle contrasts between the two styles can perhaps be easier understood as seeing kafi music as the middle section of a Venn diagram between two circles representing qawwali and ghazal. Whilst ghazals are typically to be understood as a form of poetry that addresses themes of heartbreak and loss, ghazal is also a genre which is much less intense than kafi. Yet the intensity that Parveen brings to her music is fundamentally accomplished through her somewhat haunting and hypnotic voice. One of my favourite albums that I have listened to in these recent months is a Buddhist meditation album from Bhutan. However, I would argue that despite my love for that album, which perhaps has a primary purpose of creating an environment that is conducive for meditation, Parveen achieves this with greater success than her Bhutanese counterpart. There is something uniquely meditative about the music on Raqs-E-Bismil. Whether that is mostly due to the spiritual content of the words being sung, the simplicity of the music or the transfixing nature of her voice is unclear, but either way, it allows me to feel a connection with whatever higher power I may have.
Despite lasting nearly an hour in length, the album passes by quickly if you allow Parveen to guide you through the trance-like state she may put you in. Picking a best song is hard as they are all of such a high-standard. The two with the most eerie quality to them are Roshan Jamaal-e-Yaar and the most famous track on the album Yaar ko Humne which is a rendition of the legendary Bulleh Shah's poetry. Rather interestingly, Parveen sourced a variety of different poets to interpret on this record which is not the typical way she has gone about things, usually she selects the work of one poet and dedicating the album to him. I found the placement of Jalwa Ba Qadra, which comes from the poetry of Jigar Moradbadi, to be a touch of genius. Though I have little idea of the content of the lyrics, the music fits perfectly as a closer to the album. Music is clearly a spiritual endeavour for Parveen. Two decades after the release of this album in a year full of challenges for those globally, and those in South Asia as India saw more sectarian violence, perhaps her music is more appropriate than ever as it allows us to perhaps connect to the bigger picture and to faith and spirituality that can help us through challenging times.