The Best Lyric Writer in Town

Sabir Zafar (with Junoon and Najam Shiraz) is not the best lyric writer, not anymore: these days he prefers quantity over quality and consequently his standards seem to have dramatically fallen - "Sheena," "Chal Kuriye," were all incredibly poor pieces of work and should never have made it onto a record. Shoaib Mansoor (Vital Signs, Junaid Jamshed) nowadays writes much too sporadically to merit the title. However, when he writes, the simplicity and directness of his lyrics ("Aitebar") is remarkable. Zehra Nigah and Anwar Maqsood, with respect, are much too over-rated and in retrospect, once one looks beyond the fabulous production and melodies on the Strings album, one sees the compositions to be lyrically quite lightweight - the video of "Anjanae" gave the song much more substance than the lyrics actually contained. There are also others out in the market who write well: Jawad Ahmad at times (the plaintive "Bin Tere"), Ustad Tafu on the "Lahore Lahore Ay," Aqil Roobi and Ali Noor on "Manwa Re," Sajjad Ali on "Paniyon Mein," even Fakhr-e-Alam ("Direct Connection" when he employs a light touch), many who don't (Haroon, Fakhir at times, Yasir Akhtar, Ali Haider, the utterly horrid Shahzada Faisal/Altamash and others of the puppy-love ilk) but in this scribe's humble opinion, no one comes close to Abrar-ul-Haq in terms of lyric writing ability and excellent, lyrically evocative and entertaining songs on record. Abrar's lyrics are refreshingly unique, keenly observed and the sheer cheek and wit demonstrated therein make him one of a kind and unmatched among purveyors of desi music locally or internationally.

Pyaar Shyaar, Love Shove, Shaadi Wadi

The stamping ground for Abrar's lyrics is often love-related but not the trite topic of love. Or at least he does not treat the subject in a trite manner. He talks of more immediate matters, deals with the more obscure problems and ponders the dilemmas related with amore but that too with a left-field spin. His characters are perhaps the first to consider matrimony, to aspire to it, to struggle with it and later on to suffer from it. He takes love a step further into the dreaded M region. Sometimes his protagonist runs away from matrimony ("Nach Lain De") and at other times his characters run after it ("Billo," "Preeto," "Assan Jaana Mall-o-Mall"). And sometimes his protagonist is so confused (aren't we all?) that he does both in the space of a single song:

Consider "Beh Ja Cycle Tai": Waal Waal Main Bach Geya / Raati Khwab Ich Mera Wya Si / Yaaro Taanu Ki Dassan / Meri Woti Kaali Siya Si / Loki Akhan Bhangra Paa Lay / Dil Na Mannay Yaar Da / Ik Balab Ich Kaala Rang Si / Daadia Lashkan Maar Da / Majbooran Bhangra Paaya / Dupehri Deeva Baal Kay

And then in the very same song the Cycle boy a change of heart: Kalleyan Reh Reh Thak Gaye Aan / Sarbaalay Ban Ban Akk Gaye Aan / Koi Tent Kanataan Sharbat Shurbat / Deygaan Shegan Kharkaao / O Ranna Waaleyan Day Pakan Parothay / Tay Chareyan Di / Ag Na Balay

Among his other songs, "Billo" famously had the singer yearning to get married. "Preeto" and "Assan Jaana Mall-o-Mall" have been in the similar vein, dealing with unrequited love and proposals for marriage. However, it is when he has departed from this tried and tested formula of his that Abrar has been most entertaining.

"Yaar Dai Viya Utai Nach Lain Dai" was the criminally under-appreciated on the Cycle album and was a step away from formula. It was a song where the poor married, hen-pecked protagonist wants to dance for his friend who he thinks (whether correctly or not is left open to question) has found love (where he himself it appears has failed.) It displays possibly what the Billo boy would sing after Billo has hitched up with him, had kids and bloated to substantial proportions and has now assailed him with domestic strife:

Hoye / Nachlay Mundeya Fir Kudi Nay / Saari Umer Nachona Ee / Kadi Tu Apni Maan Nu Tay Beewi Nu Kadi Manaona Ee / Nu'h Sass Nay Mil Kar Teray Ghar/ Atom Bomb Chalaona Ee / Teray Seenay Nu Dohaa'n Nay / Chaavi Hill Banaona Ee

Sub Character Ki Baat Hai

Perhaps the most unique aspect of Abrar's craft is that his songs are channeled through and inhabited with characters: He deals with the love-related travails of street-romeos ("Billo," "Hello Hello"), a scary Jutt who is in lurve ("Jutt"), the English-shy Punjabi-lover ("Sanu Teray Nal"), the dumped/dumper ("Ni Main Hansian Wich"), the cycle-rider who aspires to be a corrupt millionaire so as to treat his girl to shopping ("Beh Ja Cycle Tai") and many a memorable other characters of ilk of the geek, the weak, the shy and the awkward guy. The lafontar characters he cooks up are believable, funny and ones the listener can easily identify with. In fact he is perhaps the only current songwriter who writes about characters, a folk tradition that seemed to have been lost in Pakistani song since the demise of Alam Lohar and the decline of folk singers. Vital Signs, Strings, Junoon, et al., not one of the other current writers has ever really talked of characters or through them as say a Springsteen, Westerberg, Lovett or a Dylan would in English songs.

The protagonists of an Abrar song are often memorable, fallible, frustrated, harried and downright funny. In "Billo" it is ironic that the protagonist is perhaps even more interesting for all his travails than the Billo he seeks. Ditto of the fan of Preeto: his guffaws make him more endearing than the stuck-up Preeto is ever likely to be.

However, possibly the most endearing Abrar character is the Jutt in the eponymous song. He has an intimidating side to him (Hoye Jatt Khadakan Waala Aaya / Panj Sat Yaar Wi Naal Le Aaya / Poori Paa Kay Much'han Wadd Kay / Thanedaar Pajhaaya / Aapay Karay Thanedaari / Ballay Wai Ballay) and there is an endearing side to him as well (Baraf Day Golay Khaanda / Ik Kuri Nu Chad Kay / Baaqi Sab Ton Ay Sharmaanda). When Poor Jutt ends up in jail though and one helps but not feel bad for him.

To his lyric-writing credit, Abrar has even dabbled in negative protagonists as with "Jagga," the bad boy. Jagga like Jatt is remarkably engaging: though he has little that is endearing about him (not all characters one meets in life are endearing), he is no less memorable because of it.

Not only are the protagonists in an Abrar song memorable, the antagonists and other characters the protagonist deals with are equally unforgettable. "Billo" and "Preeto" have both passed into modern day awareness as Abrar's lyrics have sketched them out as well as any painter could have. Billo is the unattainable girlie one cannot get at. Preeto, the not-game girl who teases but will not assent. Yet what is even more hilarious is that these Billo's and Preeto's, as in real life, come packaged with relatives too, who, often, as in real life, are of the irritating kind:

In "Gaddi Mai Aap Chalawan Ga," there is the poor boy who fesses up enough guts to go up to a girl and talk to her (Oye Pehli Waari Jeevan Day Wich / Enni Himmat Kitti / Main Ek Korameen Di Chamchi Pee Kay / Gal Kuri Naal Kitti) only to find out his own Chacha has already done him in (Oye Kayn Lagi Menun Chacha Tera Dass Gaye / Tera Baaray / Ay Gallan Karda Ay Jhootian / Ennay Koi Nahio Charna Thaaray / Paani Maar Denday Nay /Seena Saar Denday Nay).

In "Nach Lain De," the relatives of the girl are equally well-sketched and backhandedly rendered: Hoye Kudi Da Chacha / Chor Jaap Da / Munday Da Chacha / Thaanedaar / Veer Kudi Day Phenaan Vergay / Mooray Bey Kay Karan Singaar

Hun Serious Ho Jao

While wit and humor in a lyric is often Abrar's province, that is not to say that he is a one-trick pony. When Abrar puts away the wit and the fun, his lyrics (which are often in Urdu when he becomes serious) are direct much like Shoaib Mansoor, but unlike the latter sometimes are also a bit too heavy on the melodrama. "December" is a song on point with its straight from the heart lines. The weepie "Hansiyan Wich Yaar" is similarly melodramatic but also awesome: Ni Main Haasian wich / Yaar Ganvaaya / Tay Hokeyan Chay Labdi Phiraan. Irritatingly though, much like Jawad in his "Uchiyan Majajan Wali," it is always the woman who is weeping after the man. Perhaps its about time a man be shown weeping too (Real men weep, or do they?).

Moreover, the last two albums have seen Abrar seriousing up. The humor seems to have peaked with the Cycle album and now there is a discernible pull-back in Abrar's songs. The one-liners are lesser in number and now seem be in the process of being replaced with heart-baring honesty and personal reflection. "Sukh Diyan Neendaran" and "Badam Rangeeyae" are good examples of this. Abrar's hectic schedule and own reported crises now has him singing for "Sukh Diyan Neendran" which has a very yearning capacity to it. Morever, when sings of the joys of parents in "Badam Rangiye": Maan Pyo Dai Sukh Tainon / Yaad Aoon Gaie, the lines become ever more poignant in the context of his own loss of parents. A confessional mode of songwriting? This perhaps shows the way forward for Abrar as he matures.

The Joy of Language and the Punjabi Touch

Abrar's work not only exudes joy and wit, it is superior for it shows his immense grasp of language (particularly Punjabi) and the various dialects in use. In that, his songs are sophisticated beyond any currently in the pop idiom. His wordplay (Chawain dai shehri / Ya phir [Pandora/Pindora] touch from "Nach Punjaban") is often intelligent. Moreover, his joy in the use of the Punjabi language is discernible as he revels in hardcore vocabulary (most of "Jagga") and phrases (my current favourite being Kadd Leyo Jeda Tussa'n / Kadnay Way Sapp Ay ("Mall-o-Mall"). Just as his wordplay is excellent, Abrar's use of exclamations is novel too, much like Michael Jackson's Heehee's, Ows and Wooo's or James Brown's grunts. "Preeto" offers up the giggles and guffaws as hooks. "Boliyan" was similarly remarkable on the Cycle album.

Moreover, a unique aspect of his lyrics seems to be the matter of fact way he takes out words from normal parlance and uses them in his songs. Consider this insult to a beloved: U.N.O. Di Member Waddi / Saanu Tadiyan Laavay ("Majajani"). Ghalib it certainly is not, but then again it is neither as unimaginative as "Mujhai Pyaar Tum Sai Nahin Hai" of Dr. Aur Billa.

In his attempts at experimenting with words and images, sometimes Abrar's efforts at modernity, do not come off. The following has a fair bit of awkwardness to it: Main Keya / Pyar Di Floppy Saddi / Ho Jaye Na Copy / Esay Dar Ton Way Menun / Kol Kol Rehn Day and Akhian Chay Download / Haasay Teray Karlaan / Main Naal Saanu Dil Wali / Gal Kehn Day.

Still, to his credit, Abrar has even taken to celebrating the joys of Punjabi in his song "Sanu Teray Naal." "Sanu Teray Nal" with an Urdu-English-Punjabi mix (much copied since then by Haroon, Fakhr-e-Alam and all and sundry): Bol Wadeshi Boli Apni / Boli Phulni Nahin Chahidi / Nahin Chahidi, Nahin Chahidi / Naahin Chahidi. In fact, this is precisely what he uses to sell himself to his girl: Apnay Des Di Ticket Kata / Tenun Sacha Pyar Dawaanwa Ga / Sheikspear Phul Jayengi / Tenun Waaris Shah Samjhawaanga.

Clearly, Abrar clearly is a Punjabi writer through and through. Yet having said that, the whole hullabaloo over the "Nach Punjaban" and Abrar acquiescing to change it to "Nach Majajan" was all the more distressing. It was rather sad the way Abrar caved and did not even fight it out.

Nevertheless, the lyrics speak for themselves. Try to figure an Abrar song through and through and one is struck how much is loaded into the lines and just as the meanings of the Punjabi lines become evident, the joy is remarkable. The line Kaddiya Jaloos Ghariban / Tai Shehr wich chotali lag gaee from "Billo" had me stumped for the longest time, trying to figure out what a chotali is. When I found out, I did not stop laughing for a while.

One of a kind?

Contrary to popular belief Abrar is not completely original (Zameer Jafri, Alam Lohar and several others have lyrically done what he does, before him), but he is refreshingly fresh and there is no other artist like him on the scene. In fact at times Abrar seems to take whole pages out of the late Alam Lohar oeuvre: the latter handled the topic of matrimony with the masterful album "Jiss Din Mera Vya Howai Ga" which memorably featured the title track and the hilarious "Main Vya Kartai Pachtaya." Abrar's own "Assan Jaana Mall-o-Mall" and "Nach Lain De" respectively resemble each of former songs.

How much is too earnest? What about Politics sholatics?

If one were to search for fault in his lyric writing one can say that Abrar does sometime lapse into preachiness as with his "Sahara" song on the "Majajani" album. There is an element of being a man on a mission about Abrar and unfortunately that often entails the irritating all encompassing intensity that another loved hospital maker Imran Khan also once had and we had to tolerate. Two, Abrar's apolitical stance sometimes is irksome. This is where Sabir Zafar with Junoon is one up on him. This is particularly bothersome in light of the keen and politically aware wit that Abrar has often displayed live and in person. It sometimes seems that he purposely restrains it in lyrics. His acid tongue was most apparent when live during his Cycle album launch he sarcastically commented, after Mush had come in and taken over as King of Pakistan, that people should not be too raucous lest martial law be imposed in the Alhamra Auditorium too! Some of the wit, sarcasm has found its way into his lyrics still but these instances are rather rare. Consider the lines used for seduction by the protagonist in "Beh Ja Cycle Tai": Oye Naal Hasan Di Soch Wi Ley / Tenun Lammi Ser Karaavan Ga / Penti Chak Nu Phul Jaye Gi / Tenun Inglistaan Wekhaavan Ga / IMF Ton Karza Ley Kay / Saaray Mulk Firaavanga / World Bank Da Tarla Paa Kay / Shopping Wi Karvaanga Ga. The lines are priceless, brilliantly observed and have a fair amount of painful truth invested into them in an age where several of our leading couples misappropriate funds and head off to Goraland to rape Harrods et. al.

But then again Abrar has perhaps already made a political statement, a miscalculation with "Pak Fauj" on the Cycle album. The song had an execrable chorus and it came out just as General Mushie had kicked Nawazoo out of the power-seat. Admitedly the song had been recorded before the take-over so it was bad timing perhaps. Yet the track seemed to be kissing up to our current lord and masters and one faults Abrar for that. Having said that the lyrics to the verses that Abrar, himself an army brat with siblings and a father in the army, wrote were remarkably touching and seemed genuinely affectionate. So perhaps the song was not an attempt at toadying up. One can give him the benefit of doubt this once.

Allah Mian?

It is quite funny that after all the lafontarisms of most of his albums, Abrar makes it a point to add a "Hamd" in there too. Speak of Nau Sau Choohai and going to the mosque and all. However, his newest "Mall-o-Mall" offers up "Rang Rang," which is possibly the highlight of the said album and his best lyrics in Urdu. What may well sound like an A. R. Rehman outtake is raised to a superlative level by Abrar's earnest performance and most of all but the touching lyrics. What is most interesting about the song is its verses which narrate and describe the schism at the heart of a thankless man and how he wrestles with the man-Allah dynamic: the lyrics describe a man who mostly does not acknowledge all that he has to be thankful for to God and at times when he is aware that he ought to thank God, he, for one reason or another, does not. An overachiever who forgets God and yet God keeps giving him more and more. Consider:

Tunay Ata Kiya / Mainay Bhula Diya / Tunay Phir Say Diya / Na Shukar Kia / Na Shukar Kia / Tunay Aur Diya / Deta Hi Gaya / Deta Hi Gaya / Moon Mor Diyay / Daryaon Kay / Menay Hawa Main Udna / Seekh Liya / Menay Hawa Main Udna / Seekh Liya / Meri Agli Nazar Sitaaron Par / Phir Bhi Main Teray Sahaaron Par / Main Zaat Paat Mein / Oonch Neech Mein / Aur Firqon Mein / Bata Huwa / Jo Sachai Ko Dhundla Day / Dil Esi Gard Say Atta Huwa / Shikwa Nahin Jism Ki Matti Say / Par Rooh Bhi Ab Baytaab Nahin / Teray Hukam Pay Chalna Aik Taraf / Tera Naam Bhi Lena Yaad Nahin / Kam Say Kam / Mujhko Lota Day / Woh Rooh Aur Jism Ki / Jang Jang

And to top of it all off, he wrestles back Baba Bulley Shah from sufi pop band hell and quotes it back correctly.

Yaani Kai…

Overall, an Abrar lyric is, more often than not, a joy. Most are ready to dismiss him offhand as lightweight bhangra pop. To my mind, there is much more to him. Perhaps one has to be a Punjabi (or a lafontar) to really appreciate him. But I venture to suggest that is not the case. Joy is beyond ethnicity, so is loser lafontarism. He gives voice to all us losers and wanna-be losers (Can one be a loser if one is an Oxford graduate?). Soliloquoys aside, I so declare: Pay attention to the Billo-boy: there is much more to him than the novelty of Billo and now Preeto; he just might tickle your funny bone or touch your heart. And that, dear reader, is a really rare and very good thing.

Mohammad A. Qayyum
June, 2002
The News International, Pakistan