The Real Goodwill Ambassadors (Niazi Brothers)

Dr Manzur Ejaz

The Daily News, January 19, 2002

After a slightly delayed jumpstart, Pakistan's ambassador, Mr Ashraf Jahangir Qazi, has been on a whirlwind tour to console and mobilise Pakistani Americans against discriminating INS registration law. Pakistani immigrant community is trying its best to change its image in the US through various means. Certainly, pair of musicians, Niazi brothers, Javed
and Babar, were the best envoys to convince the Americans that Pakistan is much more than just a jihad-producing factory. By their excellent performance they showed to the international audiences that Pakistan, and their native Punjab, is still the centre of great art, literature, culture and civilisation. Therefore, instead of spending millions on useless public relation firms, Pakistan needs to send more artistes like Niazi brothers.

The most prestigious US cultural institution, the Smithsonian, in its Freer Gallery, hosted Niazi brothers' music concert. The demand for the concert was so high that hundreds of music lovers could not get in because the show was fully pre-reserved a week earlier -- all tickets to the show were taken within a few days of announcement. As expected, bulk of the audience was Americans and Indians (East Punjabis in particular) while Pakistanis were few in number which
was not very encouraging to say the least.

Niazi brothers' concert was organised by the Academy of the Punjab in North America (APNA). In itself, APNA
is a unique non-religious, non-political organisation of Punjabis of all religious persuasions. Its membership is evenly divided between immigrants from both sides of Punjab and Punjabi Diasporas. It is extremely significant that, unlike many Indo-Pak cultural organisations, this cultural association has managed to survive for over a decade with no
significant internal friction. More importantly, the organisation is credited with a substantial work in transliteration of Gurmukhi-Shahmukhi (Punjabi written in slightly modified Persian script) books and making them available in both parts of the Punjab. APNA's last major project was publishing of Kalam Guru Nanak from Lahore. The organisation is in the process of transliterating Prof Sharif Kunjahi's excellent Punjabi translation of the Qur'aan and making it
available to Gurmukhi readers. Niazi brothers were the most befitting artistes APNA should have promoted in

Niazi Brothers presented a wide variety of Sufi and folk songs from Punjab. In the first half they sang great classical poetry of Sultan Bahu, Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain, Mian Muhammad Bakhsh and Khawaja Ghulam Farid with such a passion and devotion that kept the audience spellbound. Their own composition of Guru Gobind Singh's famous verse 'O sada hal murida da mittar piaray noon kahna' brought tears to every eye whether the text was understood or not. In the second half, they dwelled on great qissa (legends) tradition and famous folk songs. They also presented two poems
of legendary poet Shiv Kumar Batalvi.

Niazi brothers' performance was so enchanting that even the Washington Post's music critic, Mark Jenkins, had to take a note. In his detailed column, Mr Jenkins generously praised the singers in saying that "Javaid and Babar Niazi sang in rich, sweet tones but without the intricate interplay of classical Indian music..." He also admired the accompanying instrumental musicians, tabla player Haroon Alam and banjo player Mohammed Bashir.

Javaid and Babar Niazi are carrying the great tradition of their father, legendary folk singer Tufail Niazi. Javaid not only resembles his father in appearance but also tries to capture intricacies of music Tufail Niazi was known for. Babar compliments his brother beautifully and creates a pleasant impression with his own composition of folk songs. Both brothers make a formidable team of rising stars on the music horizon. They, like their father, can sing semi-classical compositions as well as folk tunes. Probably, they add extra dimensions to apparently one-layered folk songs through their unique style: Their singing of simple folk songs in classical embedded compositions gives deeper meanings to even
simple texts.

Niazi brothers are a class apart from many modern folk singers for whom the loud and fast rhythms are primary and the verses are secondary. Furthermore, unlike many new singers Niazi brothers are well trained in music and have a deeper comprehension of Punjabi poetry. They have the honour of performing in Bombay, Delhi and Chandi Garh in India besides US, Canada, UK, Germany, Middle East, China, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia. Both brothers were awarded gold medals in Spring Festival of Pyongyang in North Korea. They also represented Pakistan in a Sufi festival in Oslo, Norway.

However, despite their long list of achievements, they still lack the exposure Tufail Niazi had during his career as a leading exponent of naqals (form of village theatre), and singing in front of large crowds in rural and urban festivals all around Punjab. Tufail Niazi had a unique edge over other legendary folk singers due to his mastery over the compositions nested in classical tradition. Often he instilled new and different meanings into common verses. No wonder, Tufail Niazi had the honour of being the first person to appear on PTV on its inauguration day.

On a different note, Pakistani diplomats are trying very hard to convince the US authorities to show leniency in implementing the new immigration rules. Foreign Minister, Khursid Mehmood Kasuri is visiting Washington next week to persuade the US government to treat Pakistanis with honour and dignity. No one believes that he can succeed in having the discriminatory immigration law changed. As a matter of fact many opine that he and other top Pakistani
leaders are doing a disservice by creating an impression that the US can change its immigration rules with Islamabad's prodding. For now many affected individuals have adopted a wait and see policy and only six Pakistanis have been detained. However, it is only the beginning and no one knows the end.