Abbas Premjee has been a part of the music industry for years. Like Aamir Zaki, he too maintains a low profile but the man, who has actually studied classical western guitar at University abroad, enjoys an immense amount of credibility within the industry. Having worked with names like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Rohail Hyatt and Ali Azmat, Abbas has finally surfaced with his first solo album, Elements that has been in the making for the last four years.
A lot has changed since Abbas began this record. Some incredible records have come out, pop stars have risen to skyrocketing fame (Atif Aslam, who else?) while others have vanished (Hadiqa Kiyani) and some have come back with more vigour than ever (Strings).
Ironically enough, despite all these happenings, the industry has never been more haywire, at least in terms of the future. With no India in the horizon (after the Mumbai blasts), the future looks bleak. But all this, strange as it may sound, makes for an interesting time to release an album. The competition is fierce but the work coming out is perhaps the best one has heard in years. And Abbas has now joined those ranks with Elements.
Ready to rise
From the first hear, it is obvious that Elements is of the fearless variety. Abbas Premjee tells us everything he knows - not by flashing guitar tricks but by putting on display his knowledge of old school raags, which led to these compositions. Most melodies have evolved from Indian raags and perhaps that is really the reason why they are so strong.
The lead single from Elements, 'Jhoom Deewane' which is currently running on airwaves, is a compelling beginning. With fabulous guitars and groovy drums paired with thumping duff and darbuka, the song maintains a very Middle Eastern vibe. Vocalist Manzoor Jhalla's notes soar to incredible heights and descend with equal ease. It's one hell of an introduction.
The Middle Eastern ethos with clap-like sounds and haunting atmosphere ala weeping guitars and crashing drums continues in 'Entrainment'. But this really is a song that showcases Rauf Sami as a singer. The son of Ustaad Naseeruddin Sami may not have reached the level of his father just yet but he is surely going in the right direction. As Rauf sings, "Sade dil de dharpan/Sajana tu hai", the impassioned vocals linger on long after the song stops playing.
Rauf Sami weaves his magic again on 'Seven Heavens' with Abbas leading the musical front with an almost flirtatious guitar, which is such an intriguing combination.
On the melancholic 'Mahiya', Irfan Haider is mournful, connecting with the mood of the song. And it has to be said that the rhythm of this tune is quite hypnotic. And the short title track 'Elements' lurches forward smoothly and it creates a mood that is almost like staring at a storm. It is just that powerful with Irfan Haider's explosive alaaps.
Turn Inwards' is less inviting after the sheer force of 'Elements'. It sounds a little redundant. The feeling of redundancy, though, gets quickly replaced with 'Atonement'. Rauf Sami is haunting, really truly and is such a capable singer. And giving him support is Abbas finger picking the guitar in such a subtle and consistent fashion that is jaw dropping.
A swift turn in mood comes with 'Sajan Bana' - an adaptation of folk melodies from rural Punjab - with its merry-played guitars. It is rich in both textures and emotions.
The lyrics can be inscrutable at times but this works here. With each hear, there is a conflicting and unpredictable response. And that is always challenging and exciting.
'Seek Peace' is gentle, understated and soothing, with alaaps from the classically trained Manzoor and a voiceover from Aliya Chinoy just giving it more dimensions.
With these exceptionally powerful and moody tunes, the three instrumentals need a little time out. On their own, each song makes for pleasurable listening. Be it the soft 'Contemplation', the apocalyptic 'Heaven and Earth' or the resigned 'The Inner Sanctrum'. All three are curious musical pieces but they seem to get lost amidst the more powerful singles.
Even though, in terms of public image, Abbas himself is just beginning, he doesn't shy away from introducing new names like singers Aliya Chinoy, father and son Manzoor Jhalla and Irfan Haider, and Rauf Sami (who is the son of Ustaad Naseeruddin Sami). The showmanship of these vocalists is grand. These are exceptional voices and they are all new to listeners. This is a beginning, not just for Abbas, but for all of them.
Elements also maintains solid credentials. Besides Abbas and his troop of singers, Gumby is brought in on drums (on tracks 'Jhoom Deewane', Sajan Bana', Mahiya' and 'Seven Heavens') while Khalid Khan plays bass on singles 'Mahiya' and 'Seven Heavens'. Faisal Rafi, who co-produced Rahat Fateh Ali Khan's Charkha with Rohail Hyatt and was also the recording engineer on Strings's last offering, Koi Aanay Wala Hai, also provides expertise in the recording department.
The big question: does an album with classical guitar which crosses genres like jazz, classical rock, Indian raags and Punjabi folk melodies with a bunch of classically trained singers work? Yes.
This is intriguing music. It isn't plain and neither is it simple. It is sharp and melodic, but also musically driven. The arrangement and instrumentation is exquisite and tasteful. Abbas doesn't use this album to show off his guitar skills and keeps the vocals to add edge to songs. He doesn't use them as just mere fillers.
Abbas is not gunning to become the next big star in music and as such he doesn't fall into any clichés and traps that are consistent in most albums. A range of moods, smashing verve and musical ideas pretty much makes up the album.
And if the last few years have proven anything, it is the fact that listeners are always open to unpredictability. The success of Zeb and Haniya, Mekaal Hasan Band, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Overload and Fuzon (original) and Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan's Tabeer are the signs of the times.
That said, it should also be remembered that this music will not be digestible to all. There is no teenage drama happening here nor is this an album filled with youth anthems. And maybe that isn't a bad thing after all.
But Elements needs a major marketing force behind it to make it. And the simplest way to achieve that is with consistent shows - if Aunty Disco Project can manage shows on their own, so can Abbas. As it is, this album is certainly not catering to the masses as yet. It needs to build itself up and in the process, the man behind it.
Abbas is not a known face; he needs to appear on our telly screens more often. Ali Azmat can get away with not doing too many interviews - his star is too huge to ignore with or without interviews - but Abbas is still a stranger to the audience. They need to know him to invest in him.