Thursday, March 1, 2012

Talking Baluchistan Blues: Faiz Mohammad Baloch (Fresh Link)

The Baluch people live in the dry desert areas that stretch across eastern Iran, western Pakistan and southern Afghanistan.  Baluchistan is Pakistan’s largest but least populated province and home to some very rich folk traditions.  The people speak Pashto, Baluchi and Brahui, a Dravidian language whose nearest relations are the languages of south India, 1500 miles away.

In the years I lived in Pakistan, Baluchistan, with the exception of its capital, Quetta, was off limits to foreigners.  Along the southern Makran coast Americans were building airfields and listening stations.  Along the borders with Iran smugglers and bandit tribes made a living out of kidnapping.  Millions of Afghan refugees were settled in the border areas around Chaman. All in all the authorities didn’t want outsiders poking around. 

The tribes of Baluchistan have also had a prickly relationship with the central government. A number of armed uprisings have had to be brutally repressed by the Pakistani military over the years. For the last several years the ‘secret’ war has heated up.  It isn’t heard about much outside of Pakistan, or indeed, even in the mainstream Pakistani press.  But it is a violent bleeding wound in the country. Under the desert sands are vast oceans of natural gas and other substances that the Pakistani economy and state needs to keep itself together.  The war looks to continue for sometime.

I came across an article recently about Baluchi bloggers who are the most reliable source of news on the ‘troubles’. But they are being killed off and hounded out of the country. One has recently sought asylum in the US and fears for the safety of his colleagues back home.

I did get out into the deserts once in my Pakistani years. I had to go to a remote oasis town about half way between Quetta, the provincial capital, and the Iranian border.  The police had captured a bunch of Iraqi and Iranian asylum seekers and wanted the UN, for whom I worked at the time, to get them out of the country as quickly as possible. The men were thirsty and frightened out of their wits. They fell upon me, begging me to get them to America or Europe or even Islamabad.  Until we could arrange their travel papers to Islamabad they were being held in an ugly old colonial era jail where beatings and torture were commonplace.

As they say, some countries are no place for old (or young) men.
Faiz Mohammad Baloch

But as I mentioned, the folk culture of Baluchistan is rich and tonight I introduce you to Faiz Mohammad Baloch, the Woody Guthrie of the desert.  Born in Iranian Baluchistan in 1900, he migrated to Indian Baluchistan as a young boy.  Karachi’s bazaars and workshops drew his father to Lyari where Faiz, like hundreds of thousands other Baluchis settled. For some years he was a small trader and a laborer, carrying loads on his back to feed his family.

In the evenings he sang folk and religious songs and performed at neighborhood weddings often for hours at a time.  He accompanied himself on an damburag and jigged about as he got into the groove.   With the birth of Pakistan he began singing on the national radio out of Karachi and developed a loyal following in the cities slums and poor neighborhoods. 

Over the years he gained a national, and indeed, pan-national audience and secured for himself an eminent position in Baluch cultural life. He passed away in 1980.

This music is gritty and dusty.  I only wish I understood Baluchi. The spirit of the music is strong and his style very colloquial. I referred to him as the Woody Guthrie of the desert, but the high lonesome keen of Bill Monroe and the raw emotion of southern work songs are echoed in Baloch’s voice too. Amidst the strumming he talks his lyrics and wails. And then he hits the groove and you can just see him dancing with his eyes closed tightly. He must be singing of love!

Here’s to the brave people of Baluchistan.

            Track Listing
        01 Main Dil Ara Geer
02 Kaput Ko Ko Kono Baya
03 Bait Qasid Ka Gad Kashan
04 Ta Cheet Namo Kay Groh Brah
05 Bagani Kapoo Dar Sabzen
06 Taufeeq Zeb Dant
07 Namay Kariman Yaat Bait
08 Mana Arzin Goon Shah
09 O Byrati Mani Bailo Milan
10 Bagani Kaput Seelani

Listen here.

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