For Kashmiris, recollection of the past is often quantified in terms of specific events, for better or worse, hence, particular dates hold a lot of significance. One such date is August 5, 2019, when the Indian state abrogated the Article 370 without the consensus of the people of Kashmir. In its aftermath, Kashmir was put under a complete shutdown and a communications blackout that lasted for more than a year. If that weren’t enough, the overlong siege was followed by an extended lockdown due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus in the year 2020. Under such severe circumstances, one overlapping the other, how do Kashmiris hold it all together? That is unknown for now, but, notably, the year will also be remembered for the tremendous amount of quality music that came out, particularly in the contemporary and popular genre. At once, we witnessed the rise of new acts, such as the rap duo SOS (Straight Outta Srinagar) and the eclectic band Ramooz (Aalav). There was a surge in the output of music as well; with established acts such as Alif releasing their latest single Hosh Ha, Ali Safuddin with Home Recordings Vol. 1, a collection of previously released songs and his new single Dazaan. In addition to that, many lesser-known acts also released new material. What better time than now to relive and celebrate the musicianship of these incredible people. Taking into consideration the quality and the impact of the music, we at Kashmir Music Live present to you a list of ten best songs from Kashmir, in the year of 2020, that deserve to be remembered and played for years to come.
10. Quarantine Blues – Numan Baba, Furqan Baba
The Cambridge dictionary listed “quarantine” as one of the top searched words once the whole world was propelled into a lockdown. Brothers Numan and Furqan take the practice of quarantine and its apparent association with blues and the outcome is a ten-minute meditation on the same, in the form of Quarantine Blues, the second track from their album Raetkoal.
The song begins with Numan harmonizing over sparse guitars and drums, that lead into a very laid-back mood and experience. With lines such as Mere shehar ki ye galiyan sunsaan hain / Shor-o-gul nahin hai fizaa ye sunsaan hai, the song reiterates the same visuals of empty streets, deserted roads, and a blurred sense of memory, with slight tweaks here and there. Even then, it never feels like rumination because the lyrics are backed with poignant instrumentation. The writing on the song is very stream-of-consciousness and the instrumentation is very improvisational as well. Around the seven-minute mark, the song reaches a crescendo; dreamy soundscapes and a guitar solo that extends into an outro that features an orchestral organ composition, reminiscent of the 60s and 70s that belonged to The Doors. Even at its loudest, the song is easy on the ears.
The runtime on the song exceeds ten-minutes, which is laudable, in an age of consumerism, where musicians are cornered into creating a tune that doesn’t overstay its welcome. But here is a track that refuses to play by the rules and still succeeds in creating an atmosphere of its own.
09. Kahar (Freestyle) - Ahmer
It can be argued that, musically, Ahmer had better releases in 2020, with singles such as Tanaza, where we see the rapper trading bars with Tufail of SOS fame; or Zor, his afrobeat inspired single that features Delhi Sultanate. But, from the impressive streak of these singles, it is Kahar (Freestyle) that deserves the most recognition.
Produced by Prxphecy, the only known beat maker and producer from the valley, the song is filled with a lot of braggadocio and witty punchlines; Ahmer also raps about his place in Kashmir’s hip hop scene as a forefather. In the beginning of the song itself, the rapper proclaims that Iss saal Koshur hip hop on top and that is exactly what followed for the rest of the year and continues in 2021. SOS released their singles Psycho and Czawul, SXR released his debut album Shalakh, and Qafilah released a single titled Faraar. Ahmer played an important role in all these releases, be it for mixing and mastering or production, or be it him being the most prominent rap voice to come out of Kashmir.
For the first time, with the release of Kahar, there is a sense of community among the rappers of Kashmir, that in itself makes it a very important release. It is a statement that these artists are here to stay and to be the instruments of change. As we move forward with more rap music to come out of the valley, Kahar will be remembered as a major turning point; a point where rap voices started being heard and a point which marked a revival of rap music in Kashmir, with Ahmer “The Revivalist” Javed leading the flock.
08. Only You – Ravomie
Only You started as an idea when Ubaid a.k.a. Ravomie recorded bass and then built an instrumental around it. The producer found a vocal sample on Splice, which was added to the mix to complete the song. It is an infectious fusion of contemporary pop and house music, which also makes it extremely unique in the context of Kashmir.
Growing up, Ravomie was inspired by house music and hard kick drums. He says, “the idea was to combine all these elements (of dance and house music) and create something that’d sound entirely different.” The vocal sample is pitched high and low at different time stamps in the song, and while the producer claims that it was “just to fill out the spectrum”, the shift in pitch adds another layer of depth to the song, almost like an idiosyncratic humanness. It makes the lines I want you and only you / I got nothing left to lose sound like a desire for intimacy and connection and a heartache at the same time. With the house-inspired beat drop, the song reaches its apex; from the infectious energy to its highly danceable quality, the drop is a contender for the best moment in the song. Only You is the pop anthem of the year, an incredible piece of music that refuses to be confined to a particular sound that may garner the attention of more listeners and fetch more views.
07. Jhelum – Faheem Abdullah
After Baalyaro, a song by Rather Hashim, the filmmakers crew Mad in Kashmir made a strong comeback with Jhelum, sung by Faheem Abdullah. It gained instant momentum at the time of its release for the cinematic depiction of loss, through the tragedy of a mother and her son’s search for a closure. Shot by Sheikh Gufraan and Junaid Bin Rashid, the short film builds on the song’s melancholic mood and played a central role in pulling people toward the song. Jhelum became the most talked about song of the year and currently boasts half a million views on YouTube.
Faheem composed the song in collaboration with Rauhan Malik, who gained prominence by covering international acts such as Guns N’ Roses and Ed Sheeran. In addition to the production, Rauhan also contributes background vocals to the song. Although, Faheem’s performance is heartfelt and sincere, often, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between his and Rauhan’s voice, which isn’t surprising, given both of them composed it together. The song starts with a mesh of guitar lines and Sarood, which is played by Rohan Prasanna. The neat arrangement of the instrumentation exudes the feelings of melancholia and catharsis, which is seconded by the poetic lyrics of the song. The refrain of jhelum roya, jhelum roya, jhelum roya, Kashmir ke liye jhelum roya is the most memorable lyric from the song and it evokes a sense of remembrance and memory, both essential to survival in a place as volatile as Kashmir. As a disappointment however, Jhelum comes to an abrupt end; it almost feels like a person leaving in the middle of an engaging conversation. It could’ve used an extended outro, preferably Sarood, with a New Age touch, leaving the listener with soundscapes of ambience. However, even then the song has a high replay value and keeps things interesting throughout the duration.
The motif of rivers to depict the beauty and tragedy of Kashmir has been in use for a long time and Jhelum excels on both fronts. Jhelum had a monumental impact on the music scene and did not rely on recreating older songs and poems for it. It is as original as it is enjoyable. All of that make it one of the more important releases of the year.
06. Psycho – SOS (feat. SXR and Imaad)
A study conducted at the New York University claimed that people who preferred Hip Hop as a genre might have psychopathic tendencies. While the research made it clear that psychopaths aren’t always a threat to the world, it does, however, alter the perception of the people about what rap music is; an expression. However, SOS (Straight Outta Srinagar) seem unbothered if they’re perceived as psychopaths. They claim to “come from a place where there is no mental stability,” so the title of Psycho is only appropriate.
Produced by Prxphecy, the song is a posse-cut that features verses from SXR, Tufail, Aatankki and Imaad that are filled with aggression, wit, humor and a lot of brags backed by an in-your-face fast-paced and loud beat. SXR, known for his tongue-in-cheek lyricism starts off with a highly entertaining verse. The line Game saen thriller zan georgepool is hilarious and worth a chuckle. He goes on to call SOS the Koshur Wu-Tang but the more appropriate could be Run the Jewels, with their hard-hitting beats, a rebellious spirit and a conscious edge. After the hook, Aatankki and Tufail deliver their verses back-to-back. While the former’s verse is filled with quotables such as Maine jalti dekhi barfeeli pahariyan hain / Rishtay khauf se dehshat se apni yaariyan hain, the latter’s verse is much more technically impressive; dense rhymes, complex wordplay and multiple flow switches. In the last leg of the song, Prxphecy switches up the beat, which features an impressive verse by Imaad, referencing Hopsin’s Illmind series of songs and a comparison of Srinagar with Compton, both places riddled with violence and volatile atmosphere. It’s a banger on its own.
While Psycho isn’t ‘conscious’, a connotation always associated with rap music due to a lack of understanding of the genre in Kashmir, it keeps up with the tradition of treating rap as a competitive sport. Everyone came to spit the best verse, while that is debatable; the greatness of the song isn’t. Lastly, in the video, both Ahmer and MC Kash appear in a cameo, making it a moment when Koshur hip hop came full circle. Incredible stuff.
05. Allah Goor – Raiez Khan
In 2020, Raiez Khan released three singles, one of the highlights being Mout, a piano-driven ballad about the angel of Death, or death itself; it endeavored upon a sound that is reminiscent of James Blake’s work, immensely dark and depressive. Despite that, the best spot out of three goes to Allah Goor, an ambient piece mixed with the folk essence of Hakeemo. It is undeniably Raiez’s fully realized music output till date. His sad nasal voice and the dark textures of Ambient are a match made in heaven.
Recorded over four years ago, the lyrics of the song are written by the renowned Kashmiri Sufi poet and practitioner Waza Mahmood. The lyrics of the song are mythical, historical, mournful and poignant; but more importantly they’re concerned. The words carry the essence of a mother cradling her baby, constantly patting it and repeating the phrase of Allah Goor. There is a Turkish bit at the beginning and end of the song, which is every bit as powerful as the rest. It doesn’t demand understanding. It just falls into the atmosphere of the song as another sorted synth sound. While Allah Goor is a search for sleep, it often veers into an eerie darkness, making it hard for the listener to not fall apart. It is a wakeup call and a lullaby at the same time; a cry for comfort and the consolation as well.
Despite being an incredible expression of pain and melancholy, the song hasn’t amassed more than five-thousand views on YouTube. We as listeners need to see beyond what is apparent and search for art such as this. The beautiful sound of Allah Goor shouldn’t have to suffer at the hands of our ignorance.
04. Dazaan – Ali Safuddin (feat. Ahmer and SOS)
After Ali signed with Delhi’s Azadi Records, he released Home Recordings Vol. 1, an album worth of previously released material. Soon after that, he released his debut single under Azadi titled Dazaan, featuring Ahmer and SOS. The song is produced by Ali himself and takes influence from the Middle Eastern Progressive sound, combining elements of Folk, Rock and Hip Hop. The song opens with an electronic guitar riff meshed with the Dabruka, while Ali paints a picture of Kashmiris as silent spectators in a show that only concerns them.
The Ahmer verse that follows is up there with some of his best ever. It’s filled with conscious commentary on the hypocrisy of the religious gatekeepers, empowerment of the Kashmiri woman, and also the power of music with the lines Woh kehte mausiqui se milta kuch nahi / main bola mausiqui se duniya hil gayi. Ahmer’s effortless delivery and poetic diction are on full display here. After Ahmer’s verse, there is a gorgeous acoustic guitar bit, which works as a transition into Tufail’s and Aatankki’s verses respectively. Tufail’s Karl Marx / class marks slick wordplay is preceded by the overtly clever lines Ab ye maange mujhse mere kaagzaat / domicile nahi usse matlab mera marks card. SOS’s chemistry is at full display when Tufail’s verse effortlessly transitions into Aatankki’s verse. He references Martin Luther King’s A Testament of Hope and Leo Major; providing evidence that these artists aren’t only talented, they’re well-informed and well-read as well. Tumse laakh guna behtar apne haqq ko pehchaane is the most impactful line in the song.
There is a solo on the track with heavily distorted progressive guitar lines, idiosyncratic drum patterns and reverb; it is loud, abrasive and noisy – almost like a musical metaphor for how everything in Kashmir is ‘burning’. In the outro, however, the distorted guitars are replaced by mellow acoustic guitar, signifying the need to rest. It’s also evident with the cathartic vocals at the end of the song. Dazaan is a conscious masterpiece, while also being accessible. It’s a showcase of artists who willfully go the distance to make a statement, both artistic and socio-political.
03. The Lost Shikara – Qafilah and Junaid Ahmed
Instantaneously and in the moment—isn’t that how the most beautiful things are created? When Junaid suggested that he and Qafilah should create something together, the roots for The Lost Shikara were planted. For Qafilah, it came to be after a three-year hiatus from music and the song took almost nine months to complete due to lack of equipment. Shikara is almost like a concept record; while Junaid's questions revolve around the idea of being lost, Qafilah’s verses are more about the idea of being found. There is a constant back and forth between the thesis of being lost and the antithesis of the desire to be found.
A chaotic sound effect kicks things off but it ushers the listener into the beautiful ambience of the music – the orchestral instrumentation of Rabab, synths and guitar. It all exists in the heaviness of a depressing mood, further enunciated by the existential undertones of the lyrics and Junaid Ahmad’s evocative vocal performance, rich in emotion and expression. Halfway into the song, there is a transition in the instrumentation, with the inclusions of Nout and subtle bass; the Rabab also transposes into a more uplifting pattern. In many ways, it is just preparation for what is to come: the best rap verses to come out of Kashmir in the last year. Qafilah’s writing holds the same weight and poignancy as that of a prime MC Kash verse. It has the power to make you tear up, introspect and rage at the same time. There are no bars or punchlines here; it is just immaculate poetry, written by a poet who prefers it in the style of rap. Throughout the verses, the rapper searches for answers in his religion and faith and the idea of a perpetual fight; a preparation for the next war.
Qafilah not only excels as a great rapper, but as a great songwriter as well. It will be interesting to see him write for the likes of Parvaaz, Alif and Ali Safuddin. It is very rare that a lost Shikara is found, but this one here is one of those rare instances. It achieves what it sets out to do. Just like a treasure, The Lost Shikara should be treated and cherished.
02. Hosh Ha – Alif
Sufayed came out in 2017. In the span of these four years, Alif’s music has evolved a great deal. Gone is the satire of Rupiya and the playfulness of Log Kya Kahenge, and, what we are left with is Muneem’s philosophical and thoughtful lyricism and a sound only Alif can embody – which leads us to Hosh Ha, the band's latest 2020 single. Dedicated to Boba, Muneem’s grandmother, who made it to the other side, the song concerns itself with the philosophy of death: what it is to die, or what it isn’t. It is like a never-ending quest to understand the other side, while also being comfortable with the fact that there may be no such answers. It looms and lingers in the uncertainty of its existence, and with it our existence as well. Even by the band’s own progressive and experimental inclinations and standards, the production choices for the song are fairly idiosyncratic. Hosh Ha is in equal parts experimental and accessible, much like a Cristopher Nolan film. It is difficult, or at least useless to talk about the song’s sound and subject matter as two individual aspects; it is woven that well. It works in a kind of quintessential unison of sound and word; the instrumentation compliments the poetry and the poetry would mean less if not for the instrumentation.
Much of Hosh Ha has to do with the futility of the past and the future, and what lies between the two – the present. As Muneem himself put it, “The past that had been bestowed on me had nothing to do with it and about the future I don’t have any idea. All I had was the present.” That’s where the song excels, in the ‘now’—it speaks to us, collectively and individually, in many ways, with lines such as Zanan wol meshrawaan kouin se zanis / dopnam meshraav pannui cze paana. Hosh Ha breathes a life of its own, it is aware of what it wants to do and achieve. While it demands deep thought, and often one may find himself being lost in the meaning of the lines, the refrain of Hosh Ha is asking one to be present. Likewise, the incredibly rumbling bass and vocals may put one in a state of trance but the siren-like guitars and synth-sounds will bring you back to the current moment, like an alarm system. Muneem sounds a lot different than usual; the trademark inflections and stretches of his voice are gone, replaced by a beautiful falsetto that Alif should incorporate more of in their songs. At one instance, the vocals are so low in the mix, it almost sounds like a live recording that has been incorporated in studio version of the same; making it seem like the singing is taking place in real-time, which adds to depth to the concept of ‘now’ in the song.
Hosh Ha is Alif at their career prime and if it isn’t obvious by now, it is also the best song they’ve released till date. To put it in bolder words: Hosh Ha is nothing short of an artistic statement. Many artists would struggle to reach an artistic merit such as this, let alone maintain it and have the capability to outdo it. However, Alif is that artist. Hosh Ha is also validation as to why the band has persevered throughout the years and evolved into one of the best musical acts of the past decade. With all that being said, in Muneem’s words, “What you make of Hosh Ha is yours.”
01. Aalav – Ramooz
Led by the frontman Zeeshan Nabi, the eclectic Ramooz banded spontaneously in 2019, shortly after performing at the Kasheer Fest in Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi. The band moved into Kashmir to begin recording their debut album, only to move out again in the aftermath of the events of August 5, 2019. In Delhi, the band continued to work on the album while also completing their debut single, the poignant and artful Aalav, which was released on June 6, 2020. According to the data collected by the Association of Parents of Disappeared (APDP), since 1989, around eight to ten thousand civilians in Kashmir have been subjected to enforced disappearances, a heinous war crime, that has affected hundreds of families, who remain uncertain about the whereabouts of ‘the disappeared’. Aalav is written from the perspective of someone similar – someone who isn’t there and is trying “to locate the idea of a mother or motherland.” It explores the psyche of a person, who is locked up in an unknown cell with a strong desire to return home; to the chill of winters and the warmth of a Kangri. While the song lacks a song structure, which makes sense, in view of the eclectic mix of ideas from the band members’ respective backgrounds, Aalav’s progression can be best viewed from the standpoint of a narrative, weaved from the speaker’s thought process through the longings, the desperations, and finally the helplessness of it all.
The Longing: with the help of Santoor (Umer Majeed), Rabab (Shahid), Nout (Faisal) and layered synth sounds, the song creates an ambience of surreal soundscapes, while the speaker reminisces over the idea of home, bruised and beautiful, as Zeeshan sings, Aech maeczraevith gaash yeli aam / kyah kyah wuchum kyah wanai? With an endearing and hurtful sadness, the speaker ponders over the absence of a mother figure – Bas akh kaemi hai roozum / Chaeni kaemi hai roozum.
The Desperation: the speaker’s longing inevitably loses sense and turns into the wails of desperation with Zeeshan’s high notes of the word Mouji, which ascend to the point of breaking. One can feel the immense pain of not being close to his motherland; it is undoubtedly the core of the song, backed by a bass and drum solo, played by Ayan and Srinath respectively. The elusive refrain Baale thangyen naar logum / naar logum baale thangyen adds to the speaker’s absolutely profound and intense desperation. Is someone out there listening at all? Will someone ever respond to his Aalav?
The Helplessness: after the episode of intense desperation, the speaker is beyond the point of breaking; he is helpless. Zeeshan’s high notes effortlessly turn into mere whispers; almost inaudible, the speaker manages to whisper the word Mouji once more, within an atmosphere that is dark and ambient, created by twinkling synths and Santoor. The helplessness is evocative of a catharsis, almost as if a tragedy has befallen the listener. The idea that the speaker has just given in culminates feelings of utmost pity and grief.
The song ends with an indecipherable political speech, likely pointing to the plight of the disappeared and their families, which is lost in the politically motivated narratives of those who benefit from it. Do Kashmiris, or the disappeared, even qualify as human? In the music video, there are countless people covered in face masks, which symbolizes the lack and loss of identity and individuality. Kashmiris, including the disappeared have been reduced to mere numbers; be it civilian killings, illegal detentions, pellet injuries, or mass graves – large and larger numbers. The final still of the video is Zeeshan inching toward a tree, which is astonishingly similar to the artwork of the song, done by Khytul Abyad, in which a man is seen ‘calling’ out to a tree.
Aalav is a promise – a promise that Kashmir has a sound that belongs to Kashmir. It’s pointless to call it a fusion of any sort, because it isn’t. Rather, it is just the sound of contemporary Kashmiri music, as effective as it is original. From the sound to the very intrinsic arrangement of instruments; from the immaculate performances by the instrumentalists to Zeeshan’s evocative vocals; the best song to come out of Kashmir in a long while, Aalav, has it all.