Friday, August 19, 2005

The Finest Indian Non-Film Album
Why Lucky Ali’s Sunoh is a contemporary classic

Pop is essentially a western genre of music. It achieved global popularity because its spirit and tools of expression caught on with the youth all around the world. In the west (notably North America and Britain) as the music scene matured, pop (rock, soul, folk, country included) graduated to something beyond just music for the youth. Unfortunately, almost everywhere else it has not really evolved. Shallow trends and mindless fads have given pop a bad name amongst serious listeners of music. Indipop has typified this decadence.

The best sub-continental album for a long time was Nazia Hassan’s Disco Deewane (1981). Based in London, its composer-arranger Biddu never quite achieved the same balance of catchy melody and artful production for an album’s worth again. But then, nobody else in India or Pakistan did either.

Till early-1996. An album called Sunoh suddenly had many pricking up their ears. The album was by someone whose first name was Lucky; whose father was a legendary Hindi Film comedian; whose first music video was shot in Egypt. All this made one expect a gimmicky, forgettable product and certainly not subtlety which, in fact, was the hallmark of the album.

Lucky Ali was 37 when he released Sunoh – his first album. Despite being a star son, life had not really been smooth, he’d tried several professions without much success, experienced despair and generally paid his dues. Apparently, he had lived with some of the songs on this album for many years with the hope that one day the time would be right, when he would be able to record them the way he wanted to, without any compromises to any record company. His partnership with Michael McLeary – record producer and co-performer, turned out to be a crucial one. In their basic form, the songs were personal expressions of Ali and his friend Aslam - the lyric-writer. Sung in Urdu, the songs seemed steeped in sub-continental ethos. McLeary’s sensitive and thoughtful arrangements, however, gave them a unique sound – straddling genres and cultures. This was subtle, tasteful pop – not something Indian pop had ever been known for. By using snatches of Arabic instruments in some tracks, the accent on cross-cultural appeal was even more pronounced. Western and sub-continental sensibilities met immaculately, without straining to be noticed. Without seeming pre-determined or contrived.

The tunes were lovely. Lucky Ali’s singing, too, was a first for indipop. No flourishes, no “attitude”, no bluster. There was a strange, lived-in, sadness in his less-than-perfect voice that gave a delightful bittersweet quality to the more upbeat tracks. The songs had character and maturity, as Ali sung his age, and also demonstrated the fact that sadness and sentimentality can be mutually exclusive – something most Hindi film composers have never quite been able to comprehend.

Interestingly, the album was a big success and made Lucky Ali a veritable star. This was largely due to the flagship song – “O Sanam”. Yet, there wasn’t a single filler on the album. The restrained jauntiness of the title track, the wonder in “Pyaar Ka Musafir”, the pathos in “Milegi Milegi Manzil”, the mischievousness in “Yeh Zameen Hai, Yeh Aasmaan Hai”, the sheer, unadulterated, yet laid-back joy in “Kya Mausam Hai” were all part of the same soundscape. “Aap Par Arz Hai” and “Jab Hum Chhote The” were wonderfully inventive – the first a ghazal, arranged in a western way; the latter proceeding in jazz-like rhythms. “Tum Hi Se” was also a first in Indian pop – a heartfelt, yet catchy, acknowledgement of a higher power.

Lucky Ali has often said that a theme of traveling and restlessness runs through his music. This personal expression is perhaps most palpable in this album than anything else that he’s ever done. Even today, after 4 years, the songs in Sunoh sound fresh and inventive – truly the stuff classics are made of.

Everything Lucky Ali did thereafter showcased his quality, be it his next album Sifar or the one-offs he contributed to various ventures (like Bhopal Express). But Sunoh will always remain his most important album. After all, Indipop came of age because of it.

August 2000


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