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Echo of the countryside | Art & Culture

It was in the mid-1980s that Mushtaq Soofi and I decided to hold music concerts featuring artistes representing the authentic folk tradition. It was supposed to be a whole series. It was ambitiously planned. However, after a few events, the idea had to be abandoned due to various difficulties, primarily revolving around the issue of raising funds to pay to the artistes.

Some of the events were arranged at the Alhamra. We were looking for authentic folk music and the name of Allah Ditta Loonaywala was proposed along with Reshman and Pathanay Khan. One had not really heard of Allah Ditta Loonaywala back then, but as one went looking for his music, plenty of it was available in the cassettes format which then was the main source of accessing music. He was, we were told and soon realised, hugely popular in the Jhang, Shorkot and Sargodha region with huge armies of fans.

He was invited, and he sang in the presence of his older and better known peers with the confidence only a young person can have. He was very well received.

Those were strange times in the sense that Attaullah Essakhelvi had suddenly became the most popular folk singer of the generation as there was less authenticity and more contemporaneity about his singing. The lyrics were, so to say, updated, and included situations that had come to express the peri-urban area of the Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Those who analysed more and enjoyed less went about finding the reasons for this quasi-folk emergence in the post-Zulfikar Ai Bhutto era.

During the Bhutto years, as everything awami became fashionable, lok music too was looked at anew. It then came out of the shadow of being uncouth, raw and unfinished. It was now seen as the expression of the under-privileged, who actually mattered. The tables were turned on high culture. Folk culture was, for the first time, seen as the authentic voice of the people and hence the country. Since then, this line of argument has stayed its course.

Allah Ditta Loonaywala was born in a village near Chiniot in the Punjab in 1957. Seeing Allah Ditta’s talent and passion for singing, his school teacher Mr Nizami referred him to Mian Issa, a famous classical music teacher in Okara. Since Mian Issa was advanced in years, he handed him over to his son, Mian Talib Hussain, who then gave proper tutelage to Allah Ditta. He learnt the basic traits of classical music, a quality visible in his folk singing as he blossomed.

Among vocalists who sing folk songs the ang is the most important aspect or the distinguishing feature of their music. Since folk music is not that formalised and does not attempt to achieve the standardisation that is the hallmark of a classical vocalist or an instrumentalist, its distinct flavour is the most important aspect that sets it apart from others.

It is usually the area that one hails from that determines the ang of one’s singing. Since he was born around the old centres of Jhang and Shorkot, the region has a distinct ‘colouration’ both in the pronunciation of words and the way the sur is intoned. The lyrics that he sang were in the same poetic tradition and the pronunciation of Punjabi. It seemed far more authentic than the songs of some other vocalists who have fused their music with contemporary instrumentation and lyrics that speak of current reality rather than something that is steeped in tradition.

The opening of radio stations outside Lahore, Peshawar and Karachi, and later the regional channels under Pakistan Television Corporation made it possible for these artistes to get air time.

Actually, the media capitalised on their popularity. Lok Virsa in Islamabad, too, got active and these artistes were, so to say, lifted from the back benches to be placed in the front rows.

The technological revolution made recording and marketing easier and cheap and many a recording company with no big prefixes or suffixes to accompany their labels recorded and marketed these cassettes. The process of easy recording and duplication of these cassettes, in other words blatant piracy, also broadened the listenership in the Punjab.

Allah Ditta’s first album, that contained songs like Shaaman Pae Gaiaan, Ticketaan Do Lei Lei and Main Cham Cham Nachdi Phiraan, became a super-hit, the moment it was released. Later, songs like Allah Daiway Menu Aidian Taufiqan Wangaan Dhole Nu Mul Lei Lei, Dholay Tei Saadi Yaarian, Do Do Thaan Tei Pyar Vi Changay Honday Nahin, Lei Chal Vae Sahnu Naal Vei Punnala, Sohnay Rang Di Dachi, Teray Hijr Vich Rowaan Kurlawaan, Sajan Pardesia, Jei Tun Likhian Naseeban Vich Judaiyan and Dholay Da Gila Kyun Kariay consolidated his musical stature.

The beginning of a song was laced with dohras before the rhythm accompaniment, very syrupy, dripping with sentiments to set the mood. Till the very end, Allah Ditta Loonaywala’s voice retained its extraordinary range and seemed to blossom in the upper register. In the tenor, he rendered the most difficult taans easily.

Allah Ditta Loenaywala also sang religiously-inspired text. His narration and singing of Waqea Karbala was much sought after.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

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