Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Rabbi Shergill Experience

Three years ago, Indian singer-songwriter Rabbi Shergill exploded on the Indian alternative pop scene with "Bulla Ki Jaana," a distinctively spiritual -- and yet extremely catchy -- hit single. The song was unusual because it took the words of the Sufi poet Bulleh Shah, and gave them a modern context. And Rabbi Shergill was himself unusual (even in India) to be a turbaned, unshorn Sikh, making a claim on popular music with a sound that has nothing in common, whatsoever, with Bhangra. From my point of view Rabbi has been a welcome presence on many levels -- most of all, I would say, because he seems to aspire to a kind of seriousness and thoughtfulness in the otherwise craptastic landscape of today's filmi music (think "Paisa Paisa" from "Apna Sapna Money Money"; or better yet, don't don't).

After a few years of silence (disregarding, for the moment, his contribution to the film Delhi Heights), Rabbi finally has a follow-up album, Avengi Ja Nahin (which would be "Ayegi Ya Nahin" if the song were in Hindi). The album is available at the Itunes store -- so if you're thinking of getting it, it should be easy enough to resist the temptation to download it illegally off the internets.

The video for the first single, "Avengi Ja Nahin", can be found on YouTube:

I'm personally not that excited about it. The good part is, Rabbi has moved away from his earlier image as a kind of Sufi/Sikh spiritualist, and is here singing about a much more earthly kind of longing (i.e., for a girl). But the bad part is, the song just isn't that exciting.

Fortunately, the rest of the album has some much more provocative material. I'm particularly impressed that Rabbi has taken on some political causes, including a very angry Hindi-language song about communalism, called "Bilquis":

Mera naam Bilqis Yakub Rasool (My name is Bilqis Yakub Rasool)
Mujhse hui bas ek hi bhool (I committed just one mistake)
Ki jab dhhundhhte thhe vo Ram ko (That I stood in their way)
To maen kharhi thhi rah mein (When they were looking for Ram)

Pehle ek ne puchha na mujhe kuchh pata thha (First, one asked me but I knew nothing)
Dujey ko bhi mera yehi javab thha (Then another but my answer was the same)
Fir itno ne puchha ki mera ab saval hai ki (Then so many that now I have a question)

Jinhe naaz hai hind par vo kahan the (Where are those who are proud of India)
Jinhe naaz hai vo kahan hain (Where are those who are proud)

For those who hadn't heard of Bilquis Yakub Rasool, here is a description of what happened to her during the massacre in Gujarat in 2002:

Bilqis Yakoob Rasool, herself a victim of gang-rape who lost 14 family members reported: "They started molesting the girls and tore off their clothes. Our naked girls were raped in front of the crowd. They killed Shamin's baby who was two days old. They killed my maternal uncle and my father's sister and her husband too. After raping the women they killed all of them... They killed my baby too. They threw her in the air and she hit a rock. After raping me, one of the men kept a foot on my neck and hit me."

A litany of institutional failures added to the suffering of women like Bilqis Yakoob Rasool and prevented justice being done against their assailants. During the attacks, police stood by or even joined in the violence. When victims tried to file complaints, police often did not record them properly and failed to carry out investigations. In Bilqis Yakoob Rasool's case, police closed the investigation, stating they could not find out who the rapists and murderers were despite the fact that she had named them earlier. Doctors often did not complete medical records accurately. (link)

Also named in the song are Satyendra Dubey, a highway inspector who was killed after he tried to fight corruption, and Shanmughan Manjunath, killed in much the same way.

With songs like this, I see Rabbi as doing for Indian music what singers like Bruce Springsteen and Woody Guthrie have done in the U.S. -- documenting injustice, and telling the story of a society as they see it. It's vital, and necessary.

The album isn't all protest music, however. There is a surprisingly catchy and touching Punjabi song about a failed romance (is it autobiographical? I don't know) with a Pakistani woman, called "Karachi Valie":

Je aunda maen kadey hor (Had I come another time)
Ki mulaqat hundi (Would we have still met)
Je hunda maen changa chor (Had I been a good thief)
Ki jumme-raat hundi (Would tonight have been a ball)

Je aunda jhoothh maenu kehna (If I knew how to lie)
Tan vi ki parda eh si rehna (Would this cover have still remained)
Hijaban vali (O veiled one)

Karachi Valie (O Karachi girl)

And one other song I couldn't help but mention is Rabbi's rendition of a Punjabi folk song, "Pagrhi Sambhal Jatta," which names a long slew of Sikh martyrs, most of whose names I don't recognize (you can see the complete lyrics, in Punjabi and English translation, at the Avengi Ja Nahin website; click on "Music" and then on "Download Lyrics"). In an interview, Rabbi says he wrote his version of this song after an experience in London. I'm not quite sure what to make of the song yet, since I associate these types of "shahidi" songs with much more militant postures than Rabbi Shergill generally makes. (Note: there is also of course 1965 Mohammed Rafi version of "Pagri Sambhal Jatta," which you can listen to here; it's totally different).

From all the various Indian media sites that have done pieces on the new album, I could only find one honest review of the new Rabbi Shergill album, at Rediff. (I do think Samit Bhattacharya is a bit too unforgiving at times. Not every song on this album is highly memorable, but there are several that I find riveting...)

I'd also like to point readers to the Rabbi Shergill fan blog, Rabbism, which seems to be following the new album's release closely.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am non-indian reader of your blog. Rabbi is it a punjabi name or is similiar to jewish rabbi?

5:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And the line "jinhe hind par naaz hain woh kahan hain" is - I think -an allusion to the hit song "Jinhe Hind par naaz hain woh kahan hain" from Guru Dutt's famous film "Pyaasa" that tells the story about a sensitive poet's growing alienation from post-independence Indian society with its hypocrisy and crass materialism and its exploitation of the vulnerable and weak.


7:39 PM  
Blogger Manasi said...

I too have been hearing Rabbi's new album with great interest solely because of his lyrics. From the moment i heard them i couldn't get them out of my head. I could not find anyother non-bollywood mainstream indian composer who has even ventured in the direction as Rabbi has. Way to go Rabbi...

6:13 PM  
Blogger clash said...

As a South Indian, i had great difficulty in understanding the lyrics and harldy did i make an effort to download the lyrics as i felt the ablum just didnt exhibit the same kind of musical prowess that his ealrier album had.

It will be unfair on my part, if i say i dont have any favorite tracks in the album - Ballo , Karachi and the Bilkis songs did create a vibe in me. Now, that i am told, it is the same old poor Bilkis from gujarat, it is indeed a good reason to endorse the album!

12:56 AM  
Blogger Mampi said...

The Pagri sambhal jatta song more or less documents (sikh) history. You forgot to talk about 'Challa' - a bit unconventional from the regular versions we get to hear, but a really good one nevertheless.

9:32 AM  
Anonymous harry said...

I am a BIG BIG Rabbi fan after listening to his latest album!

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ਰੱਬੀ ਦੀ ਪਹਿਲੀ ਐਲਬਮ ਜੇ ਗੀਤ ਸਨ ਤਾਂ ਇਹ ਦੂਜੀ ਐਲਬਮ ਕਾਵਿ ਹੈ ਤੇ ਉਹ ਵੀ ਬੇਹੱਦ ਸੰਜੀਦਾ। ਜ਼ਾਹਰ ਹੈ ਸਾਰੇ ਸੁਣਨ ਵਾਲੇ ਇੱਕੋ ਪੋਟਲੀ ਵਿੱਚੋਂ ਨਹੀਂ ਹੋ ਸਕਦੇ ਤੇ ਕੁਝ ਨਾ ਕੁਝ ਊਣਤਾਈਆਂ ਜ਼ਰੂਰ ਕੱਢਣਗੇ। ਰੱਬੀ ਦੀ ਇਸ ਗੁਫਤਗ਼ੂ ਵਿੱਚ ਇਸੇ ਕਰਕੇ ਉਹ ਲੋਕ ਨਹੀਂ ਸ਼ਾਮਲ ਹੋ ਸਕਦੇ ਜੋ ਸਿਰਫ ਨੱਚਣਾ ਹੀ ਜਾਣਦੇ ਹਨ।
ਗੁਰਤੇਜ ਸਿੰਘ
ਵੈਲਿੰਗਟਨ ਨਿਊਜ਼ੀਲੈਂਡ

4:02 PM  
Anonymous Rajpal said...

I have been listening to the album for the past few days and cant get some songs out of my head. Challa, Karachi Wali, Ballo and even the tile song Avengi Ja Nahin are really memorable/catchy. Jatta and Bilqis are really good but I did not like Bandra at all. All in all - an excellent follow up album to 'Bulla Ki Jaana'.

9:00 PM  
Anonymous Ridhima Mathur said...

Avengi Ja Nahin has broke into #1 in Radio City Indi Pop charts.

Way to go Rabbi

12:36 AM  
Blogger life of pi said...

thanks for posting the lyrics and the translation. beautiful song. absolutely love his songs.

9:32 AM  
Blogger How do we know said...

m buying this album. Decision made. Thank you for this post.

3:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Too good Rabbi...Go Ahead

1:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Amardeep,
I liked your article except that you wrote nothing but indifference. I couldn't understand whether you enjoyed his album or not. I felt the tune Bilqis awesome. There was straight and clear message. He certainly showed courage and the deep human emotions which must have touched many. It must have reminded lots of us that we are all humans to begin with.

4:52 PM  
Blogger deepinder said...

I saw Rabbi in one of the global conference here in Canada he expressed his views about environment and social disorder very good emotional comments but sitting on dias he was not able to understand the topic was related to Human Rights He started speaking opposite the crowd on different topic altogether here in toronto.Exposed himself as immature overreactive madeup activist of limited causes what he tries to speak in his songs.Not a very intelligent move when you are listening to Human Right issues you start talking about those topics where you have no apporoach just to draw attaention.
Just a observation a Delhi boy can hardly understand Punjab.He should not insult Punjabiyab by mixing Punjabi words.

9:54 AM  

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