They say certain music can transport you across time and space and return you to places and events with the precise exactitude of a smart bomb. Such, for me, is the music of Tina Sani.
Miranshah is the local headquarter of one of Pakistan’s tribal agencies famous in recent years for being the scene of significant armed assaults by the Pakistani military against an array of so-called terrorists. When I spent a month there (nearly 30 years ago), it was a sleepy village on the Afghan border, in a landscape that seemed to have fallen out of the moon.
Local men strode through the one-alley bazaar with double bandoliers strapped to their massive chests. Hashish, which hung like rotten meat from big hooks, was sold by the kilo. Smugglers and mujhaideen were one and the same in these parts.
I was part of a United Nations team, providing some special assistance to Afghans who had chosen to return home after the withdrawal of the Russians. Given the local surroundings, we were "confined to barracks" for the entire month, which meant we spent 20 hours of each day in the large compound of the District Administrator that sat on one edge of the bazaar.
Hours passed slowly. Scrabble, reading and listening to a few cassettes I had brought with me were my only distractions. One of those tapes was a recent purchase: a collection of folk songs by Tina Sani. I listened to it almost non stop and not because it was just one of a small handful. Rather I was bewitched by her voice that has remained one of my favourites over the decades. And whenever I hear her sing, I am immediately back in Miranshah, 1990.
Khari Neem ke neeche
Tina’s version of this desert blues made popular first by the Ma Rainey of the Tharparkar desert, Mai Bhaggi, is the perfect way to begin. Understated and as fleeting as a slight wind, Sani’s slow burn approach creates a dreamy atmosphere so different from the original. In fact, you get the impression the singer is languidly rousing for an afternoon nap. She seems to exert only the least amount of energy, her voice rises and picks up speed only here and there – jhir mirr jhir mirr mi wala barasay – yet is able to command an entire world to spin underneath a tree.
Aap ki yaad aati rahi raat bhar
Faiz’s ghazal in memory of fellow poet and Marxist Makhdoom Mohiuddin (who had written a famous ghazal in the same metre, rhyme and opening line). Like so many of her peers, especially Nayyara Noor, Sani has made a name for herself as an interpreter of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry. Sani is well known for being serious about riyaaz (practice) and for consciously developing the capability of her voice. She has remarked that while most Pakistani singers pay close attention to the ghazal, the lyric and the overall impact of the song, few really understand the dynamics and physical needs of the human voice itself. She has made it a point of her art to get the most out of her voice and to develop both its strength and versatility. This lovely piece is a stellar example of her success. So unlike her folk and light classical songs, this performance shines with control and exudes deep emotion.
Akhan cham cham wassiyan
The first song Tina recorded, this Punjabi folk melody is a perennial favourite of her fans. Sani was born in Dhaka and went to the American International School in Kabul before landing back in Karachi in 1978. She took a job with an advertising agency and got a chance to sing a jingle, something she did without any intention of becoming a professional artist. “Our home was full of classical music but my father was not into singing and folk music,” she told an interviewer some years ago.
Young Tina’s voice caught the imagination of the music community and the public, which has always loved the fullness and effortlessness of her singing. On top of that, her flawless facility with the Punjabi language is recognised by producers and peers alike.
Never one to shy away from the great poets, Sani’s attempt to bring Allama Iqbal’s grand remonstrance against the Almighty for his supposed abandonment of his faithful umma, is a stunner. Innovative and fresh, Sani’s version mixes spoken word with singing and alternates between traditional sounds and very contemporary arrangements. And, by so doing, reintroduces this classic of Urdu literature to a new, MTV-focussed generation of music fans. The approach reveals so much about this wonderful South Asian artist: her inquisitive soul, her class, her vision, her commitment to not just her art but higher ideals. And above all her devotion to her audience and her striking ability to produce great music in any variety of styles.
Thank you, Tina Sani, for all your music.