Assan Janna Mall-O-Mall - Abrar (2002)

Abrar dabbles in a bit of everything and he is quite cerebral in terms of the music he makes. He's come a long way since "Billo De Ghar," and even that was one hell of a debut. It was a song that managed to slice it's way through all cross sections of society to popularity of the most extreme sort.

It was blaring out of trucks and Toyatas, kothas and kothis; in short, on the strength of this song Abrar's last album, "Main Gaddi Aap Chalawan Ga," caught the music market with an all encompassing fervour. He managed to flex the same grip on music listeners with last years biggest hit "Sanoo Teray Naal Pyaar Ho Gaya" which was hummed by Pakistan on a truly national level. It was very Stereo Nation, but I liked it as much if not more. So did my cook.

That's no mean feat and it takes a lot of talent coupled with an ability to feel the mass pulse of pop to pull it off. Of course, a well-directed video goes a long way. Make no mistake, Abrar is the undisputed king of Pakistani pop at the moment and the closest competition he has is from Jawad Ahmad. Yes, he may have started with bhangra, but he is not Daler Mehdi or Sukhbir. Thank God for that. His music is melodic and the words of his songs may be tongue in cheek, but they are never downright tacky, which is the case with Indian bhangra. "Billo De Ghar" is far far ahead of "Chhooee Mooee", if you know what I mean.

Abrar's new album is a triumph of bhangra pop, as it has to be to sell. His lively vocal chords are as competent as ever. If "Sanoo Tere Naal Pyar Hogaya" made him the biggest pop star in the country, "Assan Janna Mall-O-Mall" will make sure he holds on to that title. Predictable but rousing, this one has best seller written all over it. The "Nach Punjaban Nach" song that sparked off a controversy because it advised Punjabi women to dance kicks off the album as it extols the virtues of the "Punjabi Touch." Someone had to pick up on the morality of the song but thankfully, that hasn't stopped it from blaring away in Lahore, if not quite as much in Karachi. It isn't because of the morality issue that the song has not made many waves here. Most Karachiites would say that Abrar is giving Punjabi kudis some damn good advice.

At the end of the day, it is the Punjabi touch that Abrar is loved and he delivers it with a punch that seems to get harder and stronger with each album. But, the bottom line is that bhangra will never be as big here as it is in Lahore. One reason behind "Sanoo Teray Naal's" resounding success were the English lines that were woven into the song so masterfully. Plus, the tune was more reggae than bhangra, fading in and out of the two modes with effortless ease. There is nothing like it on this album, but after the initial bhangra bang, Abrar invades spiritual territory by dabbling in some sufi pop via the incredible "Rang Rang" which lives up to its name by incorporating a range of instruments that jam together till they reach a crescendo that is soothes the nerves instead of busting the brain. And there are other interesting songs. There is something really edgy about "Badaam Rangee" (that's the Jat song starring Nomi in the brilliant Ahsan Rahim and Amina Khan video, for the uninitiated) even though it's staple bhangra fare. It has an interesting riff that combines well with the boys hollering in the chorus.

Then there is "Jagga" which pulls at the heartstrings without ever dragging them down and is quite dancable to boot. Even the soppy "Dilbar" works well. Going down as smoothly as vanilla ice cream, it is a far cry from any other track on the album and points to one more avenue Abrar can explore. These tracks that work for me. Otherwise, Abrar's music is always pleasing but is more often than not too stereotypical to sink your teeth into.

But overall this album is bursting with melody and apart from the requisite bhangra tracks that assault you, the percussion is sensitive. And this is what strikes. Just check out "Sar Utha Kar," the last track. It's Abrar's brooding pathos laden diatribe against the injustices of the world. High on intensity, it gets a bit much at times with it's over eager earnestness. It would work marvellously well in a film called "Jaag Utha Insaan." And filmi is what Abrar was often accused of being, but with this album, he has come into his own. But Abrar has started to make music so well, that maybe he can afford to take a risk with his next one. He has the recipe for success on his finger tips and is innovative enough to experiment quite radically in the rigid genre of bhangra, so imagine what would happen if he really let loose.

And another piece of advice for him. The CD of "Assan Janna Mall-O-Mall" is packaged horribly. I'm sure DJ Music and Sadaf are trying to cut cost, but it just doesn't look presentable enough. Plus the only inormation in it is about "Sahara," Abrar's charity. There is a long spiel written by Abrar about poverty alleviation, health and the merits of education, and little else apart from the Coke, DJ Music and Sadaf logos. There is no mention of the technicians or musicians who made the album possible. Who produced it? Who engineered it? There are too many question marks, which should not be there. Abrar must give credit where credit is due. After all, the musicians of this country need his acknowledgement as much as the poor need his support.

But don't judge this CD by it's cover. Half of the songs are great to listen to, while the other half seriously kick ass. And if that's not reason enough, then just do it to put your finger on the pulse of the nation and be in sync with the pop mood of the moment.

Muniba Kamal
The News International, Pakistan