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Shez Raja's
Tales From The Punjab

by Howard Lawes

 

 

 

Shez Raja

 

 

The kingdom of the Punjab in northern India was formed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh (known as 'The Lion of the Punjab') combining smaller, Sikh, Muslim and Hindu regions into a country large enough to withstand Afghan invasions and domination by the British East India Company. 

Although Ranjit Singh was a Sikh he established Lahore (birthplace of the Mughal emperor Shah Jehan) as his capital city and during his reign generated great wealth through trade to finance his all conquering Sikh Khalsa Army and repair previous war Punjab mapdamage such as rebuilding the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar.  Through skillful governance, Ranjit Singh was able to preserve a greater degree of harmony among his mainly rural and multicultural population than had existed previously, but on his death in 1839 the kingdom lost direction and after two Anglo-Sikh wars in 1845-6 and 1848-9 it was annexed by the British and governed by the British Raj from 1858 until independence in 1947. 

The Sikh Khalsa Army numbered over 100,000 soldiers, predominantly Sikh but also Moslems, Hindus and European advisors who had been instrumental in modernising the force. The spoils of war included the Koh-i-Noor diamond, much prized by Maharaja Ranjit Singh but ceded to the British and now part of the British crown jewels. Although the Sikh Khalsa Army was disbanded after defeat by the British, many of the soldiers were recruited into the British Indian Army and distinguished themselves in two world wars. 

Shortly after the second world war the British relinquished control of the Indian sub-continent but partitioned it into India with a predominantly Hindu and Sikh population, and East and West Pakistan where the population was predominantly Muslim.  The Punjab itself was partitioned along the same lines leading to appalling loss of life as communities struggled to re-establish themselves.

 

Kipling illustration

 

 

 

 

At the end of the 19th century Tales of the Punjab, written by Flora Steel and published in 1894 with illustrations by Rudyard Kipling's father, J. Lockwood Kipling,  provided English readers with an impression of Punjabi culture and folklore but there must surely be a question mark over how objective such a book, written by an upper-class, foreign woman could be. 

 

J Lockwood Kipling illustration from the tale Raja Rasalu: How He Killed The Giants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chandigarh Rock Gardens

 

 

 

Today the state of Punjab in Pakistan is industrialised and relatively prosperous. Its capital, Lahore, has also become a cultural centre and tourist destination with UNESCO World Heritage sites such as Lahore Fort and the Shalimar Gardens. Punjab state in India includes Amritsar but the capital city is Chandigarh, designed in part by Le Corbusier, and has been called the only successful perfect city in the world.

 

 

Chandigarh Rock Gardens

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bass guitarist Shez Raja was born to a Punjabi father and English mother and was raised in the Wirral, just across the Mersey from Liverpool and talking to him on the phone his accent is much more northwest England than northwest Indian subcontinent.  Shez first visited his father's homeland more than twenty years ago and returning last year he noticed a considerable change, but luckily many traditions of the Punjab have survived in both Pakistan and India, not least the musical traditions of the region.

Shez's album, Tales From The Punjab, was recorded in Lahore just before the Covid-19 lockdown descended and Shez made it back to London with hours to spare.  The album is produced by Shez Raja, it was recorded live at bandleader Mekaal Hasan’s Digital Infidelity Studios in Lahore, Pakistan where it was also engineered, mixed and mastered by Mekaal Hasan. Bhangra dancersApart from Shez Raja on bass guitar the album features Fiza Haider on vocals, Ahsan Pappu on bansuri (flute), Zohaib Hassan on sarangi (similar to a violin with three main strings but up to thirty-six sympathetic strings that vibrate in resonance with the tone of the main strings), Kashif Ali Dani on tabla and Qammar Abbas on cajon - the personnel representing a wide range both in age and musical heritage and a complete change from the normal Shez Raja band. The recording session was the culmination of a journey of discovery that Shez undertook to discover his musical and cultural roots.  

The hugely varied music of the Indian subcontinent may be divided into Hindustani (North Indian) and Karnatak (South Indian) and also as folk or classical, all having very long histories with folk music perpetuated mostly by oral tradition among communities while classical music has a more formal structure.  In the Punjab the most popular folk music was bhangra, often accompanied by dancing, particularly during family events such as weddings. 

 

Bhangra dancers

 

 

 

The theory and practice of classical music are perpetuated in gharnanas which may be thought of as centres of excellence that teach, mentor and support musicians. There are gharanas all over the Indian sub-continent and are often associated with singing but some specialise in instrumental performance including the Lahore and Amritsar gharanas whose alumni include the aforementioned tabla player Kahif Ali Dani and bansuri player Ahsan Pappu respectively.  Another tabla player associated with the Lahore gharana is Zakir Hussain, well known for his contribution to the indo-jazz genre through the Mahavishnu Orchestra and elsewhere.

North Indian music, like all music, has melody, rhythm and tempo but unlike much Western music there is considerable scope for improvisation and cycling through different elements.  Corresponding to the idea of melody, a raga is a pattern of notes selected from one of ten parent scales called 'thaats' but a pattern that varies as the melody rises or falls.  The word raga may be translated as 'colour' or 'mood' and this concept is fundamental to the sound of Indian music although of course all types of music can generate emotion within both players and listeners. Rhythm and tempo are known as 'tal' and are provided by the tabla, the first beat of a cycle is emphasised and called 'sam' which is useful as performances can be very long, and while they may start slowly, tempo, rhythm and melody can all change as the pace hots up.  Another essential part of this music is the 'drone' which provides a harmonic basis that other musicians in the band may relate to. 

 

An Introduction to Shez Raja's new album Tales From The Punjab.

 

 

 

 

Shez Raja Tales From The Punjab album

 

 

Tales From The Punjab has six tracks, three composed by Shez Raja and featured on previous albums and three entirely improvised using all the elements of North Indian classical music.  Track 1, Angel's Tears comes from the Mystic Radikal (2010) album while Mantra and Maharajah are arrangements of tunes from Gurutopia (2016).  Most of the musicians in the band had not played together before and had never met Shez Raja; there was also a language barrier, but music is a universal language and during the first track, as each member of the new band is introduced with a solo, you just know this is going to be a great album.

In comparing the two versions of Angel's Tears what is striking is how much Shez Raja has assimilated from his studies of Punjabi musical heritage and how he has adapted his bass guitar playing.  There is no tradition of bass in North Indian music so he had to bend the notes and use vibrato to make it sound more like an Indian instrument. 

 

 

 

 

Listen to Angel's Tears.

 

 

 

 

Adventures In The City of Wonders, referring to Lahore, begins slowly with a drone and Raja's guitar dipping in and out of the pool of sound, others join in before Raja lays down a wonderful groove together with tabla and cajon followed by great solos from Zohaib Hassan and Raja himself, sadly the exotic improvisations end all too soon.  Mantra starts off in a similar vein to the original but then Fiza Haider changes from vocalising the tune to Punjabi traditional singing before being joined by sarangi and bansuri and the whole performance just sounds authentic.  The original version of Maharaja had an excellent solo from violinist Pascal Roggen but a violin only has four strings while as mentioned above, the sarangi can have many more and this gives a wonderful complexity to the sound which Zohaib Hassan takes full advantage of, once again the piece is over far too quickly. 

 

Listen to Maharaja.

 

 

 

Maye Ni Main Kinu Akhan is an ancient Punjabi poem sung by Fiza Haider which together with a drone provides the basis for improvisations from bansuri and sarangi while the last track, Enlightenment, another improvised piece featuring Ahsan Papu and Shez Raja has a slightly melancholy feel to it and one that will resonate with the listener who will surely have wished that the album had gone on for as long as some of the legendary all-night raga performances. 

Shez Raja's previous album was called Journey To Shambhala, a mythical place of peace and harmony that can only be reached by the fortunate few and quoting Shez "the journey often holds as much wonder as the destination". It is fascinating to observe Shez Raja's journey through the world of indo-jazz, and now that he has travelled with authentic Punjabi musicians one wonders how things might develop. Shez mentioned that he has spent the Covid-19 lockdown profitably, spending time with his family, practicing a great deal, composing and preparing for further albums and it has been reported that another album in association with Meekal Hassan will be forthcoming. It is clear that Shez Raja has found the traditional ragas and talas and freely improvising with virtuoso Punjabi musicians in Lahore to be a magical experience; for the listener, the skill of the musicians and the sound of authentic instruments really elevates this album to a new highpoint in his career. 

Click here for details and samples of Tales From The Punjab.

 

Shez Raja

Shez Raja

 

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