After three albums, I've concluded that Rabbi Shergill is the best pop singer in India at the moment. He is the complete package: singer, songwriter and musician extraordinaire who weaves catchy melodies with solid songwriting to make top-notch music. On top, he's articulate, urbane and quite funny.*
Frankly, Rabbi's debut album was slightly underwhelming for me personally. Bulla Ki Jana was very good as was Tere Bin, but the rest of the album seemed good without being great. The fact that I don't understand Punjabi may be part of the problem. The videos for Bulla and Tere Bin with English subtitling helped a lot with understanding the songs and I enjoyed Ajj Nachna and Gill 'te Guitar.
The soundtrack to Delhii Heights was better. I haven't seen the film, but all the songs on the album were quite good. Dilli, the raw folksy energy of Aaja Nachie, the irony built into Kabhi Aana Na and even the initially grating Ey Gori all grew on me.
Avengi Ja Nahin tops both these though. The album is a cracker with Rabbi making a marked departure in themes - focusing even more on personal travails, unrequited love and more earthly problems, moving focus away from the Sufi invocations of Bulla and the meta/physical yearnings of Tere Bin. Also discernible was a change in tone. While Rabbi is quite varied in and of itself, somehow AJN seems more upbeat. Songs like Karachi Valiye, Maen Boliyan and Avengi Ja Nahin all point to a style that's sad but not morose.
There's something about certain albums or artists. You feel that they're 'speaking' to you - not just through their songwriting, but through their style of music and musical choices. I felt that very strongly with AJN, in a way that I've not felt with an Indian pop album in a while - which explains the gushing praise.
The songs are varied - be it yearning for a love lost in arena-rock ballad Karachi Valiye, talking about playing hard-to-get in the ditties Maen Boliyan and Avengi Ja Nahin or about female infanticide in the pensive Ballo. There's an English track Return to Unity which was the weakest lyrically but is remarkable for its sheer energy. The quieter songs, including a paean to Bandra, Tu Avin Bandra and Ballo are quite well done too. Especially Bandra, where he sings:
Je tun labhda eyn koi ik apna If you’re looking for some
Tuttia-futtia hoia supna Ragged ol’ dream
Sutt ‘ta jihnu tu kadey That you’d long discarded
Lagda hai ik chor-bazaar ithey There’s a flea market here
Har sham samundar de kandey ‘te Every evening by the seashore
Farhin koi auto ‘te kahin Get into an auto and say
“Bhay! Carter Road” jan “Bandstand” “Brother! Carter Road” or “Bandstand”
Sab labh ju ethey You’ll find it all here
Pehlan das dan vira Let me warn you though
Ethon de bha ne tikhe The prices here are a bit steep
He also sings in Hindi on Bilqis - Jinhe Naaz Hai, an incendiary track about contemporary India's conscience. It's a track in the best tradition of Dylan and Springsteen, audaciously channeling the Indian national anthem in its guitar chords. All in all, rocking in the true sense of the word.
An incident to end this fawning fan tribute. I was traveling with family in India on vacation. The AJN CD was playing in my brother's car, and Bilqis was playing. I was riding shotgun with him. Halfway through the first antara (the one about Satyendra Dubey) we went silent and the silence lasted till the end of the song as we are hit by the sheer force of his words. A couple of seconds after the song ends, my brother says "He's really good." And I'm thinking, "Hell yeah!".
* I saw him on MTV India while on vacation a few months back. He did a censored Punjabi version of Jimi Hendrix's Hey Joe that cracked me up completely.
**The official album site for Avengi Ja Nahin - http://ajn.co.in has lyrics and translations for each song and some streaming audio. The CD is a worthwhile buy for the inlay - again with lyrics and translations, plus information about each song, where it was recorded etc.