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Kashmiri rapper Ahmer’s Azli galvanises historical memory

If Azli probes the trauma of conflict, it also shares faith in a better future with Lebanon's Oghneya, reissued recently

On ‘Azli’, Ahmer goes beyond a simple accounting of crimes.
On ‘Azli’, Ahmer goes beyond a simple accounting of crimes.

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One of the more interesting side effects of the ongoing vinyl revolution is the rise of reissue labels dedicated to uncovering and sharing obscure gems from the global South. Like crate-digging musical archaeologists, the people who run these labels scour the world’s record shops and flea markets for forgotten artefacts of 20th century pop culture: Turkish funk, Bengali disco-jazz, North African psych-rock. It’s a tedious, uncertain process, not just documenting the record’s history but also tracking down the original rights-holders (or their descendants) and hunting for usable original master recordings. But when done right, the end result is a lovingly crafted reissue that not only gives the music new life but also offers us a window into a past often obscured by global history’s Euro-centric gaze.

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The recent Habibi Funk Records reissue of Oghneya, the 1978 album by Lebanese trio Ferkat Al Ard, is a perfect example. Inscribed in the record’s jazz, Arabic folk and Brazilian bossa nova stylings is a complex history of globalisation, migration, cultural exchange and internecine conflict. Written in the early years of the devastating Lebanese civil war, it’s a time capsule of Beirut’s cosmopolitan golden age, when it was the Arab world’s shining city on a hill.

The bossa nova influence comes from Beirut’s long trans-national relationship with Brazil. In the late 19th century, as European empires opened up the world for trade, a glut of cheap Chinese goods cratered Lebanon’s economy. This, along with conflict in the region, prompted a mass exodus of economic migrants. Through a quirk of history, up to a third of them ended up in Brazil, forming a strong diasporic community. So, in the 1960s and early 1970s—the peak of its golden age—Beirut was a regular stop for Brazilian bands.

These performances, as well as interactions with some of the visiting musicians, had a profound influence on the young Lebanese musician Issam Hajali. But civil war was on the horizon and Hajali, a committed leftist, had to escape to France and Cyprus. He wrote Oghneya—recorded with bandmates Toufic Farroukh and Elie Saba, with arrangements by pioneering Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbani—on his return to Beirut in 1977, a last snapshot of a thriving cultural melting pot.

The band’s syncopated samba rhythms, bouzouki folk melodies and cinematic synths offer a musical reminder of an earlier, messier, more vibrant vision of global culture—one where cultural specificities and idiosyncrasies were shared and celebrated, not sanded over by the weight of consumer capitalism. Released amidst a polarising conflict that exposed deep rifts within Lebanon’s multi-ethnic society, the record’s cosmopolitanism is itself an act of resistance.

Of course, Hajali doesn’t leave it at that. The verses he sings—in a reedy voice that alternates between melancholy and joy—are based on poems by Palestinian poets Mahmoud Darwish, Samih Al-Qasim and Tawfiq Ziad. The Palestinians were belligerents in the civil war—in alliance with the leftists and pan-Arabist factions—so this was a statement of allegiance and solidarity. But in a curious twist of time and hindsight, it now signifies a melancholic nostalgia: for solidarities and possible futures that never manifested, revolutions that stalled on the home stretch.

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Closer home, this week saw the release of another record steeped in historical melancholy. Written largely in Srinagar, in the years following the effective abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution and the ensuing security crackdown, Azli is the sophomore album by Kashmiri rapper Ahmer Javed, who goes by his first name. The record’s over-driven bass and ominously keening synths create a morose soundscape for Ahmer’s verses, which blend personal testimony and blood-soaked history in their exploration of the mental trauma of decades of conflict and “othering”.

The crimes and grievances he invokes are well-documented—if largely ignored by most Indians—but on Azli, Ahmer goes beyond a simple accounting. His focus is on the invisible psychic wounds of perennial conflict: the certainty and unpredictability of loss, the constantly abrading open wounds of “missing” sons and fathers, the gaslighting of “official” narratives that deny lived reality. An almost impenetrable storm of despair hangs over the album, before the climax transmutes it into a grim, gritty determination to resist despite the odds, to rage against the dying of the light.

If there are any sparks of joy or light, it’s in the persistent invocations of Kashmiri art and music—Madhosh Balhami’s poetry, Faheem Abdullah’s elegiac folk song, MC Kash’s defiant return from semi-retirement for a verse on Kun. These are potent reminders that there is so much more to Kashmir than the conflict, that art and culture there still strive for better futures.

The joyful cosmopolitanism of Oghneya may have little in common with the dark cataclysms of Azli but both share that faith (a bit frayed in the latter case) in a better future, rooted in a glorious, idealistic past. And both serve as testament to the power of music as historical memory, cultural snapshots that capture specificities and realities that often don’t make it to the “official” narratives, wilfully cut out or just left by the wayside in service of a smoother narrative. But even the most powerful and devoted censor cannot wipe out the historical truths buried in the syncopation of a rhythm, or catch all the alliterative allusions of a Koshur rap verse. In the ongoing wars over memory and history, these records offer hope that the subaltern and the suppressed can still have their voices heard, their testimonies seen. As an added bonus, they are also really good.

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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