The stunning and soulful "Avengi Ja Nahin" is released on YRF Music
The most rousing musical story of 2005 was undoubtedly the come-from-nowhere success of Rabbi Shergill with his eponymously titled debut album. It’s been a three year long wait for Rabbi to return with his follow-up, but as the cliché goes, has the wait been worth it! Rabbi’s second album,Avengi Ja Nahin, is a superlative effort on every level. The album has been produced largely in Milan, Italy, by the Italian progressive rock maestro and producer Maurio Pagani, who has also arranged and conducted the strings. Rabbi adds a new feather to his already crowded cap by also producing or co-producing a couple of the songs.
Avengi Ja Nahin suffers from none of the weaknesses that are often common to sophomore efforts. As with the first album, the music and lyrics are written completely by Rabbi, though the language used ranges from Punjabi to Hindi and even English. This time he engages more directly with social issues even as he grapples with the downside of romantic love. But the directness and intensity never lapses into pedanticism and the music is a winner through and through.
The album opens with Chhalla, a deceptively simple and contemplative song built on a layer of double bass and cello topped up by Rabbi’s acoustic guitar and the occasional accordion. The song flows along smoothly creating visual images reminiscent of a boatman’s song as he rhythmically rows his boat down the river. As you listen to the song, you will find yourself asking whether it is a romantic song infused with spirituality or a spiritual song about romantic love. In a nifty production trick, Rabbi’s voice is occasionally double tracked with one voice singing and the other reciting the lyrics, adding a shot of power to the song.
Rabbi moves to electric rhythm and lead guitars on the next track, Karachi Valie, and the song itself is much more of a rock number than the first one. A tribute to the Karachi girl whose “sighs were so cold” and “hair was so course”, Rabbi belts out this number with passion even as emphatic rock drumming and the Hammond organ keep the pace driving and intense. For those familiar mainly with the slow and soulful pace of some of his songs, Karachi Valie will be a revelation.
The temperature - and the pace - cool down somewhat for the next track, Maen Bolia, but not the passion. Rabbi speaks of love unrequited – and promises that his love will make the unresponsive beloved suffer, so what if she does not know it yet. When Rabbi sings “Sirf tainu ajje pata nahi” (“Only you don’t know it yet”), he manages to infuse it with tenderness and just a little hint of exasperation, even as his lead guitar solo soars with the confidence that the girl will ultimately be his.
The title track Avengi Ja Nahin makes effective use of percussions and the traditional Greek musical instrument, the bouzouki. If Maen Bolia is about love not returned, Avengi Ja Nahin is about love uncertain and pregnant with possibilities that are not acted upon. Once again, Rabbi’s guitar playing is clean and crisp, even as his Punjabi lyrics are delightfully ambiguous. “Do you remember the moment,” he asks, “That day; the confession, that did not happen; When I drowned; When I swam a bit; Did you drown; Too?”
Ballo is an impeccably constructed song that benefits immensely from the minimal sprinkling of turntable and electronic sounds and the sustained use of handclaps and finger snaps. Rabbi sings it beautifully too, his soulful voice effortlessly navigating the peaks and troughs of the emotions his lyrics weave. It is a song of encouragement and love asking Ballo to be resilient and stand on her own feet. The listener too feels inspired when Rabbi sings the words “Vekh lai, jar lai, ihnu khirhe mathhey” (See it, feel it, chin up) with an uplift in his voice.
The next track, Tu Avin Bandra is a love song as well, but it is an ode not to any woman but to the Mumbai suburb of Bandra! It is the one song that typifies the label “urban contemporary” and has a haunting romantic feel to it. As you listen to it, you can feel yourself walking down the various areas mentioned in the song, and visualizing the vivid city images conjured up by a master lyricist and musician. The sounds of the electric violin, not heard before on the album so far, give this song a distinct feel from the rest of the songs. A better celebration of Bandra, and perhaps even Mumbai, has rarely been put down on a record before.
Pagri Sambhal Jatta is an exhortation by Rabbi to the present to remember the lessons of the past. But it also asks why these sacrifices and following the instructions of the Guru have still led to a state of disunity. A contemplative song in parts, a rousing one in others, it occasionally carries a whiff of legendary historically anchored songs like Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”.
Bilqis (Jinhe Naaz Hai) is the most direct of all the songs in the album. Sung in Hindi, it forcefully gives voice to Bilqis Rasool, victim of horrific majoritarian violence during the Gujarat riots; the idealistic Satyendra Dubey and Manjunath Shanmugham who paid with their lives for standing up to corruption; and social activist Navleen Kumar who was killed for fighting for the rights of the dispossessed. If the album kicked off with the gentle river rhythms of Chhalla, Bilqis, coming almost at the end of the album, drives along relentlessly almost to a marching beat. An anguished Rabbi, in the voice of his protagonists, repeatedly asks how can such things happen in our nation and where those who take pride in India are when these things do happen. A superbly understated touch ends the album when a couple of bars of the national anthem segue in at the very end of the song, emphasizing the irony of a nation that takes immense pride in it, but so often fails to live up to it.
The album ends with the English song Return to Unity which proves Rabbi’s multilingual talent. It features the talented Ranjit Barot on drums and Karl Peters on guitars and would not be out of place on the albums of any contemporary rock band from the west. At the end of a journey that sometimes touched on desperation and anguish, Rabbi reminds us that he is at heart an optimist. Return to Unity ends the album on a high but immediately makes you want to go back to the start and return to it all over again.
To sum it up, Avengi Ja Nahin, showcases an artiste at the peak of his powers, but in a state of constant maturing and evolution. For those who loved his first album, Rabbi’s second will be an unalloyed delight. For those who may be coming to his music for the first time, Avengi Ja Nahin will prove just exactly why Rabbi should be considered today to be one of the leading musicians of the country operating in any form whatsoever