|Atta Ullah Khan Niazi 'Essakhelvi'|
On the northern outskirts of Rawalpindi and bleeding into the newer residential zones of Islambad lies an area called Pirwadahi. It is a gritty industrial section dominated by small workshops specialising in metal work, auto repair and the wholesale trade of plumbing supplies. Pirwadahi is also the home of an enormous long distance bus terminus. Huge, garishly decorated Bedford buses from all across Punjab, NWFP and the Northern Areas grind their gears, belch their exhaust and exercise their whistling air horns as they move in and out of Pirwadahi 24/7.
If you visited, as I did many times in the 80’s and 90’s, the music you would hear booming out over the mechanical racket was nine times out of ten that of Atta Ullah Khan Niazi. From every bus, Suzuki and taxi, from every garam hamam (hot bath), barbershop and tea stall, indeed from the very smoky sky itself the spirited, passionate voice of Essakhelvi (the one from Essa Khel) kept everything moving and warm.
Atta Ullah Khan is another giant of the Cassette Wars. Just as Jagjit and Chitra Singh and Pankaj Udhas stormed the staid, conservative bastions of the Music Industry in India, Essakhelvi grabbed the Pakistani Industry by the throat and throttled it. He bypassed the critics and ignored the national TV and Radio system which dispensed airplay and recordings with the stinginess of a Marwari moneylender, and sang directly to the public.
The early 80s saw lower middle class workers returning from the Gulf relatively cashed up. In their luggage they brought the cassette player, which in the blink of an eye, was installed in every vehicle and home. DIY recording studios churned out all manner of music in all of Pakistan’s many regional languages and at the forefront was the tall dark and handsome man from Mianwali, in western Punjab. Singing in Seraiki, the dialect of Punjabi that dominates western and southern Punjab, his searing impassioned songs caught on like wildfire. The first tape I had of his was a locally produced one. The cover was a photocopy of a photocopy of a blurred picture with grossly misaligned artwork. But the music was raw and real. There was nothing nakli (fake) about him whatsoever.
Since cassettes existed for some time in a parallel universe inhabited only by the working joes of Pakistan, Atta Ullah Khan reigned supreme and unchallenged. His songs were not classicly derived, they were not ghazals but they weren’t exactly folk music. They were a bit too racy for that. And they were a far cry from the well financed film music. For the labouring men around Pirwadahi, Atta Ullah Khan was their version of Elvis Presley. His music was as liberating, relevant and as vital as rock 'n roll was to American kids three decades earlier.
When I discovered him in the mid-80s he was still scorned by the educated and sharif classes. But eventually Pakistan TV and Radio gave in and in exchange for him singing a few songs in Urdu and smoothing the rough edges of his raucous lively performances he was admitted into the Castle. These days he is considered one of the country’s greatest artists and embraced by music lovers on both sides of the Pakistan border. An elder statesman, now, he enjoys a blessed ‘cool’ status with the in crowd and has appeared regularly on the critically and artistically acclaimed Coke Studio Show.
The collection I share tonight is put together by friends who run a music shop in Rawalpindi. It includes several of his biggest hits (Qameez Teri Kaali, Ae Theva) and literally rocks out of the speakers. While his early tapes were plain raw soul music these songs are from the era of his greatest popularity. Finely constructed with keening females choruses, galloping drums and the sort of tight beats only the Punjabis can come up with the songs are full of references to Mianwali and Essa Khel (his home district and village) as well as the requisite unrequited love, unbearable and lonely nights and broken hearts. But what is so good is his voice, which sways and rides the waves like a kite in a brisk springtime wind.
This set runs like an Express bus from Mianwali. It lurches and hurtles through the night never quite letting up until at last it rolls softly and triumphantly into Pirwadahi with the lovely ballad Mahiya.
Once again, the taxi, bus and truck drivers have their fingers on the pulse!
01 Johk Ranjan Di Jana
02 Qamees Tedi Kali
03 Ae Theva
04 Rattan Lambiayn Raatan
05 Rasha Rasha Rasha
06 Pama Khade Shah
07 Pyar Naa Nasahi
08 Tu Nahain To Terian Yaddan