Songs, strings & struggle

It’s a quiet Sunday afternoon. Two young artists are trying out a song at their Bemina residence. Guitar notes ring out in the room. A sweet melody breaks out: Cze ha yaar shubi Mubarak. The song builds to a crescendo. And the duo jams out the full song.
The first thing that catches your ear is the voice of flutist, singer and composer, Bilal. It has a deep sweet-sounding quality—one that will make you love it right away.
Irfan, a multi-instrumentalist, thumps his foot on the guitar pedal—cushioning his partner’s voice with some outstanding guitar riffs. The rhythm he creates is refreshingly unique. It is flavoured with the wistfulness of traditional Kashmiri folk music, but with a dash of freshness.
“It’s not our song,” says Bilal, the 31-year-old singer from Noor Bagh, Srinagar. Irfan, also in his thirties adds, “These are the words of Soche Kral, an 18th century Kashmiri mystical poet. We improvised it, giving it a bit of a modern twist.”
The duo can play many musical instruments from guitar, matka, tumbakhnari, rabab, lute, mandolin, keyboard, to other string and air instruments.
Irfan and Bilal have covered a wide spectrum of Kashmiri folk songs from melancholic to mystical to romantic. They have struck a balanced harmony between the old and new.
The distinctive fusion the duo has created has won them a wide fan base. Many see them as leading the new-age musical trend being tried out by various groups in Kashmir.
Recent foreign tours have given a new boost to the duo’s music. Its fan base has grown and so has Bilal’s and Irfan’s confidence.
The duo recently performed in Australia and New Zealand. Before that Irfan and Bilal took their music to the US where they put out performances in several cities. A tour of the Gulf states is in the pipeline this summer.
Back home after their downunder tour, the two have been bombarded with requests from people, particularly youth, to train them in the nuances of music.
“We have been overwhelmed with young boys and girls asking us to teach them Rabab, Sarang and such types of instruments. This response from Kashmiri youth, who are otherwise inclined to western music, is heartening,” says Bilal. He adds they are trying to accommodate everyone, but face a bit of a problem. “We lost most of our equipment and other things in the September 2014 floods.”
Irfan and Bilal learned music while they were away from Kashmir. The duo has remarkably absorbed its elements and learned its critical nuances. From Kashmiri lullabies to Sufiyana kalam, the duo has been lending diverse and progressive orchestrations to the works of Kashmiri poets. Bilal finds deep and earthy truism in the verses of Kashmir’s traditional poets. He gives me an example. “Take for instance these lines of Soche Kral who was a potter,” says Bilal.

“Paancz wohur maiel maje trovnass czaat-e-haal
Okhnam dopnam alif te bei
Amé oar kehna chumm parunyae
Akhir garé chumm gaczhunyae”
(At the age of five, my parents got me into a school
The teacher there taught me alif and bei
After alif and bei, I need not to learn any further
Finally I have to leave for my eternal home –the other world.)

“These are the words of a potter,” says Bilal. “It takes a lot of effort to understand, compose and sing such poetry.” Bilal finds all Kashmiri Sufi poets inspiring. “Look at Wahab Khar, or his mentor Ahmad Sahib Macham. Their poetry is ageless. We don’t need to look anywhere, we have everything here.”
The group has been building quite a buzz after videos of duo’s US tour last year appeared online. The duo had concerts in New York, Buffalo, Washington DC, Dallas, California and Maryland.
In the US, the two were joined by Habib Wardik, an Afghan-American Rabab player, Chicago based percussionist George Lawler and Kashmiri singer Mehmeet Syed. The group’s performances have been critically acclaimed and their videos widely shared on social networking sites. “The response from the Kashmiri expat community, even from some non-Kashmiri Americans, was just overwhelming,” says Irfan. “At one point they stood dancing and at another they were crying.”
At one of the concerts the duo sang Walo ha nigaro. The duo had composed this song for Muhammad Afzal Guru and rendered it at the Ehsas-e-Kashmir concert in Srinagar in 2013. “When we sang it the atmosphere instantly turned melancholic, the audience became emotional and some started crying. The audience kept asking us for more. It was very moving,” recalls Irfan.
“The US tour was a milestone,” adds Bilal. This tour was organised by Funkar International, an INGO founded and run by Asmat Ashai who is settled in US and has dedicated herself to preserving and promoting arts and language of the Valley.

The early years
Music seems to run through the personal lives of Irfan and Bilal. It was music that brought them together seventeen years ago. The duo met at a music competition when they were in school. “We were 14. We performed together and our love for music brought us close. After then we became friends. Today we are inseparable,” says Irfan.
Security conditions in Kashmir were so bad at that time that Irfan and Bilal couldn’t do much to advance their career. So they tried Plan B. “We decided to run away from our home to Mumbai,” confides Bilal. They thought getting to Mumbai was their ticket to fame. But the harsh reality of the big city was in store for them.
“When we reached there, we had no idea who to contact,” says Irfan. Luckily a carpenter from Mumbai who had worked at Irfan’s house in Srinagar had given Irfan his Mumbai number. “We called him and he came to pick us up at the train station. He gave us food and shelter,” recalls Irfan.

When we sang Walo ha Nigaro the atmosphere instantly turned melancholic, the audience became emotional and some started crying. It was very moving

But, despite the help, finding a foothold in the tinsel town turned out to be an impossible job. Says Irfan, “Learning music or becoming artists in Mumbai was no cake walk. The competition was cut-throat. Everybody was coming to Mumbai to become something.”
Their dream to make it big ended in disappointment. There was also pressure from parents to return home.
“After returning we went back to school for the next 3 to 4 years. But we were restless because our hearts were with music,” says Irfan.
By now, the music bug had bitten both rather deep. So they decided to move away from home again, this time to Punjab. They stayed there for six years learning and practising their art under the Ustaads. “We learned a lot there, the nuances of singing, composition and above all learning to play musical instruments,” says Irfan.
After being exposed to the world of music, they moved back to Kashmir.

The struggle
“Back home, we had no idea what to do and how to fit back in. We had grown long hair and a different way of life. That lifestyle was immediately gone,” says Bilal.
The duo went from pillar to post to find work. “We couldn’t find any, because there was no market in Kashmir for music that we had learned in India,” says Irfan.
Then, came the lucky break. They landed at a music studio at the press enclave in Srinagar and it offered work to both of them. “They had almost all the musical equipment in their studio and took us right in. We honed our skills there and at the same time started to acquaint ourselves with the Kashmiri language and poetry. We also started teaching music and different instruments to others.”
It was at this studio the duo recorded their first Kashmiri song.
“It was Aye Mahe Sarva Kade. We were anxious about how it would be recieved. It was our first Kashmiri song and we performed it with guitar, a western instrument. We got mixed reactions for this rendition,” says Bilal.

Look at Wahab Khar, or his mentor Ahmad Sahib Macham. Their poetry is ageless. We don’t need to look anywhere, we have everything here

The first reaction came from the writer of the song, Kashmiri poet Prof Rehman Rahi. “He sent a message to the bureau chief of the studio asking us to correct the pronunciation of syllables in the first stanza of the song,” recalls Bilal.
In the process Bilal and Irfan learnt to not fiddle with the phonetics of the words particularly in Kashmiri poetry which is heavily laced with Persian and traditional Kashmiri adages and phrases. “Fiddling with it, knowingly or unknowingly, can kill the underlying meaning,” says Bilal.
The duo got some adverse reaction from fellow singers. “They accused us of ‘corrupting’ and ‘killing the soul’ of traditional Kashmiri folk music by using Western instruments in its rendition.”
But Irfan and Bilal knew what they were doing. They didn’t let the criticism stop them from improvisation.
And today with a couple of international tours in their kitty, the duo’s music and melody has not only won them fans but also won over their critics. But, the journey has just begun.

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