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Album review: Ghazalaw “Ghazalaw”

February 1, 2016

‘Ghazalaw’ is a fascinating project which more than succeeds in its aim of connecting two apparently divergent and ancient cultures, using the ebb and flow between voices, instruments and sounds to great effect in a hypnotic and immersive listening experience.

Click here to read the whole review at Folk Radio UK

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Cover of Ghazalaw albumCelebrating the fusion of two different cultures, the Ghazalaw project came about as a collaboration between Tauseef Akhtar, a renowned ghazal singer/musician from Mumbai, and Gwyneth Glyn, one of Wales’ leading singer/songwriters from Cricieth. The two musicians were introduced through their mutual friend Donal Wheelan of Hafod Mastering and, following a successful first meeting, they came together in 2012 to record this album for Cerys Matthews’ Marvels Of The Universe label. Ghazalaw draws together two traditions common to both – love poetry and traditional music – and it’s those similarities which make the blending of the two so unexpectedly seamless. Defined as “a poetic expression of both the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain”, the ghazal is an ancient form of poetry which nevertheless shares some of its functions with the medieval Welsh hen benillion (“old verses”) which mixed proverbs, satire and commentary and were traditionally sung or recited to harp accompaniment at social gatherings.

The album opens with ‘Tum Nazar Se (Cyfri’r Sêr)’, its lyrical reflection on a love gone bad and thoughts of what might have been reflected in the wistful tone of the arrangement. Tauseef and Gwyneth alternate verses in Urdu and Welsh, as Georgia’s harp twinkles like the stars on a frosty night. Manas’ violin features prominently in this downbeat tale but Ashish’s tabla keeps everything on track.

The mood lifts dramatically for ‘Teri Aankhon Mein (Seren Syw)’; lyrically it’s a love song describing the intensity of the poet’s devotion and this is portrayed well in the arrangement’s insistent, swaying rhythm. It’s punctuated intermittently with an attractive acoustic guitar motif but it’s the combined three-part harmonies of Tauseef, Gwyneth and Georgia which elevate this to one of the record’s highlights.

The lyrics of ‘Apni Ruswaayee (Sefyll Yn Stond)’ muse on the sense of helplessness that love can make people feel and its pathos is very well reflected in the arrangement. Possessed of an urgency in its tempo, the descending chord structure and verses alternating between Welsh and Urdu lead us eventually to a dramatic duel between the tabla and the violin in the closing section.

‘Hosh Apne (Y Botwm Du)’ draws parallels between the instability of the weather, the passing of the seasons and the unpredictability of love. Intersperesed with some nice acoustic guitar fills by Sanjoy and underpinned by harp and tabla, Gwyneth and Tauseef’s voices dance around each other before coming together at the last.

The ghazal at the heart of ‘Hud Se (Cainc Yr Aradwr)’ was written by Tauseef’s father and its theme, the softer moments of romance, is given an appropriately gentle arrangement with chiming acoustic guitars. Tauseef and Manas turn in exceptionally mellow performances, with Tauseef’s singing particularly impressive in the higher vocal registers.

Based on lyrics written by the Welsh poet Benjamin Thomas, ‘Moliannwn (Ishq Karo)’ – which translates as “Give praise” – concerns itself with the joys of the coming Spring, while Tauseef brings couplets from Ishq Karo – “Be in love” – which prescribes love as the antidote to ‘the smoke of hate’ and the transience of life. The music, too, is full of the joys of Spring: an upbeat, major key arrangement with skipping tabla and jaunty strings allows Gwyneth and Tauseef’s voices to shine.

One of the many paradoxes of romantic love comes under scrutiny in ‘Cosb Mor Dlos (Khoobsorat Koi Sazaa)’: on the one hand is the desire for that which we cannot have, on the other is the conundrum of owning that which we can never truly love. The result is, of course, that people will make huge sacrifices in the hope of finding the ideal love and this inner conflict plays out well through the song’s arrangement. Manas’ violin and Ashish’s tablas are particularly emotive, finding a calming foil in Georgia’s harp, while Tauseef and Gwyneth’s voices offer a heartfelt portrayal of the turbulent sentiments expressed.

‘Lusa Lân’ draws inspiration from, in the words of the sleeve notes, “one of the saddest, most haunting folk songs in the Welsh canon”. Its theme contains quite a sting in its tail as the protagonist, a lover remembering the happy times he spent with his beloved, then beseeches her to visit the grave to which he is bound. The arrangement is sparse, drawing strongly on Welsh traditional folk music, while Manas’ violin, swooping and soaring around the melody, does a splendid job of bridging the two cultures, bringing out nuances of the lyric in a most unusual and effective way.

Sadness of a more bittersweet kind – hiraeth, that particularly Welsh sense of yearning, of homesickness, almost – permeates the very fibres of ‘Guzur Jaayenge Jab Din (Hiraeth)’. Set against Tauseef’s contribution, in which the poet hopes that, even if the world should end, his love will be remembered, the arrangement flows gently, at peace with the world, while Sanjoy’s guitar fills add optimism and a sense of hope for an uncertain future.

The album draws to its end with ‘Jugnu Ke Sitara Tha (Hen Ferchetan)’, its most ambitious weaving together of the different cultural strands. Originating in Punjabi, the form of poetry known as Mahiya is renowned for contemplating love by means of naturalistic imagery in order to perceive beauty. It finds a contrast in a traditional Welsh song in which a spinster is mocked for her unmarried status but, undaunted, goes on to find love nevertheless. Musically, it combines elements of both heritages in a real equilibrium and brings the record to a fittingly upbeat conclusion.

Ghazalaw is a fascinating project which more than succeeds in its aim of connecting two apparently divergent and ancient cultures, using the ebb and flow between voices, instruments and sounds to great effect in a hypnotic and immersive listening experience. Through its focus on the pleasures and pains of love, it finds many similarities and is a timely reminder that humanity is global and we have much more in common that’s worth celebrating, than reasons for fighting against each other.

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Originally posted at Folk Radio UK (02 February 2016)

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