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Albums Reviews

Rabbi Shergill

Avengi Ja Nahin
Yash Raj Films
(Four stars)

Lalitha Suhasini Jul 11, 2008
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Everybody who didn’t know or care who Baba Bulle Shah woke upto both the 18th century Sufi poet and the turbanned troubadour Rabbi Shergill four years ago. But in his second album Avengi Ja Nahin, the big hits come out of his own space, not Sufi. Rabbi continues to look inwards or at his immediate environment for his songwriting. So if his debut had a light-hearted ‘Gill Te Guitar’ for his buddies Balla, Aru and Sangha, there’s ‘Karachi Valie,’ in this album where he pines for an ex-flame from Pakistan. ‘Karachi Valie’ which sounds uncannily like a U2 number, flange guitars and all, is a concert fire starter with scope for a fiery drum section. Its mass appeal came into force last month at the album’s launch concert for a middle-aged/bordering on geriatric, stuffy, seated audience who managed to get their hands up for the track. And that’s no easy feat.

Although the real scorchers are the slower numbers, five of which have been produced by Italian studio genius and ex prog rock band PFM’s violinist Mauro Pagani, who Rabbi discovered on his little European holiday last year. And even if you didn’t know that bit of geek info, the first thing that strikes you is that the sound is sleeker, the arrangements tighter and the strings more passionate.

The album opens with ‘Challa,’ a Punjabi folk song with strikingly simple chords on the acoustic. The accordion is a nice, dreamy touch and in spite of Rabbi’s flawless diction, the instrumentation takes away from folk sound really. But hey, few urban Indians would be humming along a farmer’s song about a ring, but for this version.

Rabbi has an active love life or imagination and he makes sure you know it. Women (including two ex-es and a new girlfriend perhaps) are central to Rabbi’s songwriting in the first part of the album. ‘Maen Bolia’ is a drunk telling his ex that she still loves him. It’s not a moony, gloomy lament but for happy sardars, who’ve never heard of Devdas and sit around a bar downing their patialas like they’ve never heard of hangovers either.

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Although the title track with its corny translation (‘Will You Come Or Not?’) and a cornier video is a washout simply because the melody falls apart. Rabbi’s building you upto a grand title track which turns out to be an average B-side. The chord changes might be complex fret benders but ‘Avengi Ja Nahin’ is nowhere close to the aching love song that Rabbi is capable of. In comparison even ‘Challa’ or ‘Ballo’ would have made for a great title track. ‘Ballo’ is a smooth acoustic driven ride and you’re sold as soon as the plucking takes off and the clap beats begin. The singer once mentioned that ‘Ballo’ was written for his most favourite person on the planet – the youngest of his four sisters – but there have been several edits since. Maybe he’s already written another one for his sister but ‘Ballo’ made it as an anthem for United Nations Population Fund (India) against female infanticide.

Rabbi has less serious ambitions in ‘Tu Avin Bandra’ where he’s calling out to a friend to visit Bandra, where he once kept a utilitarian home. His second home in fact. Home will always be Delhi, but Rabbi has spent enough time in Mumbai to get familiar with the sights and sounds of Bandra – Carter Road, Bandstand, autos – have earned their verses in the track which is perfect for an intimate, unplugged gig.

This is where the easy road ends and Rabbi steps out of his loverboy skin. He gives you an incisive account of Sikh history beginning with the Mughal invasion of the country to the British rule in ‘Pagrhi Sambhal Jatta.’ Taking its title from the powerful Sikh refrain that was coined by the revolutionary Lala Lajpat Rai and turned into a farmer’s outcry during the freedom struggle; this is Rabbi’s salute to Sikh martyrs. The strings heighten the song’s drama but it’s going to be difficult to replicate this on stage unless he has a really mean string section.

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‘Bilqis’ like some of the songs in the album was ready at about the same time that Rabbimania was in swing three years ago. Named after the Godhra rape victim, ‘Bilqis’  Rabbi sings about a nation on the verge of an apocalypse. The slap-in-the-face lyrics that ask you where you’ve buried your sense of patriotism and the ‘Jana Gana Mana’ riff kick the balls off any Indipop number you’ve heard in recent times. There’s Ranjit Barot on the drums who keeps his sound on a tight leash and Karl Peters on bass. But this was no jingoistic fervour that prompted Rabbi to bring on the desis on this track. “It just happened that way,” he told us wryly. Only he should have edited out the bullet shot effect after the verse on Satyendra Dubey – damn tacky. We’ve heard an acoustic version at a coffeeshop gig, which is more explosive even though it’s stripped of all instruments except the guitar. ‘Bilqis’ would have definitely made a great title track.

And as much as Indians singing in English can be a turn off, especially if it’s a ballad that’s going nowhere, Rabbi manages to pull off ‘Return to Unity’ that was also born on his European jaunt. But that’s just the vocals. He says that he wrote the song to convey his sense of alienation when he vacationed in Europe and was tired of being looked at as a threat only because he wore a turban and a beard. But the lyrics tell another story and are not particularly inspiring: “Tonight you’re a queen/I’m just a bum, No chance of audience/Until I play my drums.”

But don’t let one dud or choice of a title track shake your conviction in the man. Rabbi is the original Indie hero. And this is an impressive, original effort in a regional language that deserves attention.

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