Melodies in the mountains

Mustafa Kamal & Farman Ali

Shabab with a member of his musical band

Shabab with a member of his musical band

Life on the snow-packed, landlocked mountaintops during the harsh winters has never been a smooth sail for its inhabitants. When all agrarian activity comes to a standstill, music becomes both a binding force and a source of entertainment. As hearths go cold, music and melodies provide much-needed warmth.

And it is this very culture that has given birth to prominent Khowar singer, Mansoor Ali Shabab. One of the most versatile singers of the language, Shabab began singing in grade six. “At the time,” the singer recalls, “I used to sing in ishtok (small gatherings) in Khowar tradition.” Later when he went to college in Chitral town, he began to take music seriously.

The singer has been as productive as he has been versatile. According to Shabab, he has “produced 170 cassettes of songs and ghazals in the Khowar language.” Give that there are usually eight to 10 songs in each cassette, Shabab has recorded an astounding 1,300-1,700 songs — a task which is not possible without dedication, money and time.


Chitrali ghazal maestro looks for support to preserve dying Khowar music


Khowar — a language whose origins are traced back to the Indo-Aryan Dardic family — is the lingua franca in Chitral and is spoken by more than a million people in Chitral and the Ghizer district of Gilgit-Baltistan. The language has given birth to many outstanding poets and singers who have defied social, political and cultural subjugations.

One place to find budding poets and artists are the winter musical shows, a tradition in Chitral. “Chitral town had remained the capital of Mehtars [former rulers], who were always supportive of the cause of music and art,” recalls Shabab, himself a poet-turned-singer.

“The descendants of those who grew up in the courts of local rulers and are passionate about music continue to encourage young artists and organise musical gatherings in their homes to facilitate younger artists,” says Shabab. “It is this ambience which gives us better platforms to carry forward the old Khowar musical tradition.”

Now about 40, Shabab has been singing for the past 20 years. He has performed for the Chitrali and Gilgiti audiences in all big cities of Pakistan. He has also performed in Dubai and Tajikistan.

Mansoor Ali Shabab

Even after spending two decades in the performing arts, the one thing that Shabab will always be known for is introducing and immortalising ghazal-singing in Khowar. With this singer, the Khowar language saw a phenomenal shift from folk to ghazals. It is a matter of pride for a poet when Shabab chooses to sing his poetry.

“We introduced ghazal-singing in Khowar during the ‘90s,” he reminisces. “In those days, the Anjuman-i-Taraqi-i-Khowar [Association for the Development of Khowar Language] used to publish literary magazines, which were divided into prose and ghazals. We would check those magazines, compose ghazals and sing them. Within no time, people were attracted and we started receiving their poetic creations.”

It is important to note that the majority of Khowar ghazals were composed by Shabab and his musical band — the Noble Group of Chitral. The work of this group in promoting the Khowar language and poetry has also been lauded by Dr Magnus Marsden, a Cambridge University anthropologist, in his book Living Islam.

“Composing a tune is a difficult task, it takes months to create a tune or compose a song,” Shabab points out. “In the rural areas, even if we compose a good tune, it becomes difficult to record songs in the absence of a proper studio. Sometimes, it takes two to three months to compose a song. You have to go to the mountains or the river or the stream and sit in isolation to create well-composed music.”

In Khowar poetry, in the olden days, the poets used to sing the songs they had written but Shabab has ‘modernised’ this concept. “I have developed a new approach: a singer specialises in singing, the poet in writing whereas other team members will play instruments,” he notes.

Expressing his views about about the co-existence of religion and music, Shabab says: “In Chitral, there is literally no tension in this regard. Our religious leaders (ulema) have never opposed music, rather they have encouraged it. Many notables among the clergy themselves write poetry such as Maulana Irfan and Maulana Nigah.”


Shabab believes that Khowar poetry encompasses all genres. The Khowar poetry has discussed various religious, Sufi, political and social issues. Marsiya nigari has always been an integral part of the Khowar poetry, according to Shabab, who mentions Nano Baigal (written by a mother for her son who was killed by the local ruler for defeating the ruler in a polo match) and Nan-Doshi (a lament written by a mother for her younger daughter who was married off in place of the elder daughter who had died a night before the wedding day) to be the first marsiyas in Khowar poetry.


A lab technician by training, Shabab believes that Khowar poetry encompasses all genres. It discusses various religious, Sufi, political and social issues. Marsiya nigari has always been an integral part of the Khowar poetry, according to Shabab, who mentions Nano Baigal (written by a mother for her son who was killed by the local ruler for defeating the ruler in a polo match) and Nan-Doshi (a lament written by a mother for her younger daughter who was married off in place of the elder daughter who had died a night before the wedding day) to be the first marsiyas in Khowar poetry.

However, Shabab is not satisfied with the role of the state and NGOs. He says they have not done anything to preserve folk songs, or to encourage and assist emerging artists.

The government, NGOs and media have never recognised the services of Shabab, who has served Khowar literature for almost 20 years. As for the media, Shabab says: “[It] promotes only those artists who have acquaintances within the media houses. For a local folk singer from a distant land, it becomes impossible to be introduced to the media.” He urges the government and NGOs to document and promote folk songs and folklores in regional languages.

Talking about his inspirations, Shabab says Mirza Ali Jan, Amir Gul and Baba Fateh inspired him to sing. They were great artists who preserved the Khowar music and passed it down to the next generations. Among the ghazal poets, Shabab considers Afzal Ullah Afzal, Maulana Irfan, Jamshed Hussain Arif, Sadat Hasan Makhfi, Musarat Biag Musarat, Ameen ur Rehman Chughtai, Fazl Rehman Shahid, Moiz ud Din Behram, Zakir Zakhmi and Ghulam Rasool Beqarar as brilliant poets. When asked whose ghazals had Shabab sung most, he said that he has sung Afzal Ullah Afzal’s lyrics more than any other poet’s.

Talking about the peculiarity of Afzal’s poetry, Shabab says Afzal is famous for being the “Saghar Siddiqui’ of Khowar poetry, as like Saghar, his poetry mainly discusses sharab, saqi, maikhana and waiz. Among young poets, Shabab praises Faizan Ali Faizan, Azhar Ali Azhar, Muhammad Nawaz Rafi and Akhter Azam Akhter. Shabab says currently ghazal is the most popular genre of music in Khowar language and that there are an estimated 3,000 ghazal writers in Chitral.

A self-trained singer, Shabab condemns the dearth of facilities in the mountain regions for the development of art and music. He stresses the need to establish a musical academy in Chitral where young students could be trained in indigenous musicology. He also feels concerned about the lack of production of musical instruments such as the sitar and duff. His greatest fear is that these musical instruments will become extinct in the future.

Shabab also regrets losing the 170 cassettes he had produced. “We never knew about USBs and cloud storage systems for music, we could barely think that the cassette industry will not survive, but gradually, with the arrival of modern means, local music-centre owners were forced to close their shops, as it was economically not viable.”

Music is not a full-time profession for local folk singers, as they have to struggle for their livelihood. Shabab continues to look for support to establish an academy for preservation of Khowar music.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 19th, 2017

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