Ustad Tafoo called me to his studio in the busy, narrow lanes of Allama Iqbal Town near Moon Market in Lahore.
Steep staircases led to the recording studio on the second floor of a dim marble-tiled building, a newer construction among the old eateries — chargha anyone? — and small stores, tuck shops and tyre shops in the crowded neighbourhood. I’m somewhat surprised that a man his age can climb up and down these stairs with agility.
He remarks “Mujhe maaloom tha aap seerrheyon ke baare main kuch kahein gi [I knew you were going to say something about the stairs].”
Altaf ‘Tafoo’ Hussain Khan’s studio, like the locale outside, is cramped. I am seated first in the recording studio where the mixing and recording takes place and served fresh orange juice in a pitcher. “Especially got the kid to get it for you,” says my host.
The studio can easily be a seedy place, it is filled only with men, who go around Tafoo in reverence, saying salaam or taking leave etc from the ustad.
Tafoo speaks very frankly and I get a little wary that he might be the sort of man with whom conversation might turn lewd any minute. He is, after all, the music director behind some of Punjabi film music’s most vulgar songs. Dark-complexioned, stocky in build, sweater stretched over his pot belly and muffler around his neck, he has wisps of jet black hair combed over to one side.
He has to go to the loo before we begin the conversation. He returns zipping his fly up and pulling his sweater down in front of me. I’m again left wondering if I should have brought my male fixer with me and not been so independent-minded as to wander into Moon Market and shady buildings alone.
The man is as casual around female company as he is frank. Showing me around the studio, he opens the door to another small room where the musicians stay the night if they have to work late. It is just unmade bedsheets spread out untidily on the carpet and some pillows.
For the interview, he leads me to a ‘bedroom’. There’s nothing but a big bed there. And a door that opens out into a small balcony.
Tafoo Khan is a phenomenon, both as a tabla player and as a composer of numerous hit Pakistani film songs. But he is also slowly fading into obscurity, though he might not want to admit it.
Icon caught up with him in his studio in Lahore to talk to him about his life and times with the legendary Madam Noor Jehan.
Tafoo goes around one side and plops down on the bed, reclining against the headboard, stretching his stocky legs, clad in jeans, out in front of him, crossing them at the ankles. He asks me to sit comfortably also, “upar ho kar, tek laga lein [sit up, put your back against the headboard].”
If it gets out of hand, I’ll just cut the interview short, I think to myself.
I take the opposite corner at the foot of the bed and sit with my feet on the floor, twisting around slightly to face him.
But, really, nothing awkward takes place after that. Neither in conversation with him nor in his behaviour. The man narrates his stories to me candidly, but always peppered with the reminders that the information he has, nobody else can offer me.
A man who seems to be very comfortable giving interviews, even if he’s half-lying in bed in front of a woman who, in retrospect, didn’t give much thought to dressing appropriately for a visit to Allama Iqbal Town. Or maybe a man really looking forward to the occasion of being interviewed.
He’s a mix of strains of classical tradition overtaken by ’70s Punjabi folk and pop frenzy and that is the era he really seems to fit in. When plastic was cool and ubiquitous. And audio cassettes were all the rage, Punjabi songs blaring from trucks and qawwali and pop played on car decks. Tafoo could tie a colourful scarf around his neck retro ’60s style and pull off the look even now.
And celluloid is what affixed Tafoo’s career as a music director of Pakistani films and fame, rather than being a distinguished tabla maestro who composes music, allegedly only to carry on the tradition of classical music. “My phuppi-zaad bhai [paternal cousin] was a musician, Master Inayat Hussain. Ibtida he inhon ne ki [He is the one who began everything],” he tells me.
He was destined for great things. After a career spanning nearly 50 years, perhaps it wasn’t just self-delusion for him to repeat a prophecy made about him in his early childhood. Tafoo tells me his artistry was recognised by a powerhouse of film and music industry when he was still just a child. And in the future his career was to be closely associated with the benefactress who held him in her lap when he was a child of about eight years.
A song rehearsal for 'Kahan Tak Suno Ge, Kahan Tak Sunaoon' was taking place at the studio which Tafoo’s father was getting ready to leave for. “Dekhein, aap ke liye [See, for you], I’ve gone as far back as film Anarkali here,” he quips. That was 1953.
At the last minute, his father found out that the tabla player was missing for rehearsal. So he asked Tafoo to come along. Madam Noor Jehan, the singer and leading heroine of the film industry at the time was settling down for the rehearsal when she asked Tafoo’s father “Didn’t Shada Sahib come today?” He replied with something to the effect that the said musician couldn’t show up but here is my son. “She sat me in her lap and started the song...”
“That day, Noor Jehan ji had said two things to me, at that age, which the whole world found out later. You see, a musician is like a faqir; funkar ki dua, baddua donon lag jati hai [an artist’s blessing or curse both take effect]. She said to my father: ‘As far as I can tell, when this boy comes of age at 15 or 16 years, he will become unmatchable in his field.’ And with her association, I started my career.”
By 1969, Noor Jehan was an indomitable name in the film industry. And Tafoo was a musician who had become a director for film songs. He continued until 1985 in these capacities.
Scores of super-hit songs from that era have Tafoo’s name to them. 'Sunn Way Baloriya Akhh Waliya' in Madam’s voice shot him to fame in 1970 and there were other unforgettable hits such as 'Munda Shehr Lahore Da'.
It was not just numbers sung by Madam Noor Jehan that caught on, however, he also worked with stars like Naheed Akhtar and Naseebo Lal, both of whom he claims as his discoveries. (Of the latter, he says: “Wo bazaron main maang ke gaati hoti thi. Main ne uss ko kahan se utha ker kahan tak rakh diya! [She used to sing on the streets, look where I plucked her from and what I made her!]”
And when Naheed Akhtar was in demand he said he gave her a lot of work. If you gave Naheed the mic, he said, she would sound very straightforward (“seedha seedha gaati thi”) but that same voice would just fill up the screen. Madam’s voice would also dominate on screen. But over time, Naheed rose in demand and Madam Noor Jehan’s star waned. In fact, Naheed was the sole shining star in film music and Noor Jehan slowly became housebound.
“About a year passed like this,” says Tafoo. “Then once Madam called me up from her home. ‘Tafoo, tu mera beta unn logon ke saath mil gya hai? [Tafoo, my son, have you joined those people?]’ I told her I’m coming to visit her. I took a producer along with me.”
When he met her, she glared at him mockingly, suppressing a smile, grabbed a broom and ran after him with it. “Maan betey ka pyar tha hum donon ka. [We shared the love of a mother and son.”] She was charging 2,000 rupees per song at that time. “My rate as a musician was 75 rupees. I cut a deal with her for her to sing for me for 1,500 rupees for a song and she said, ‘Okay Tafoo, as you say’.”
Tafoo claims he promoted Madam again and Naheed’s work was cut down to half. Many new male voices had joined the music industry. A. Nayyar was doing a lot of work and Mehdi Hassan was popular. For duets in film songs, Mehnaz or Naheed were usually called upon. But Tafoo says, “I had Madam ji sing a duet with Mehdi Hassan and, by the will of God, I helped her return to the scene again.”
The 1979 film Wehshi Gujjar was a turning point for Noor Jehan with her song 'Teri Hik Te Aalna Pawan Gi'. Its Punjabi soundtrack became hugely popular.
According to Tafoo, Noor Jehan as a singer was incomparable and he passionately decrees that there was never such a beautiful face born either. But he does have a fondness also for Lata Mangeshkar.
“When Lata ji sings it is like God’s miracle has been sent down to Earth in her very voice. Kya awaz hai! [What a voice!]” he says of the Indian legend. He tells me he would listen to her Raina Beeti Jaye before going to sleep every night.
“When she [Lata] started doing Yash Chopra film songs, her voice had started quavering (“larza aa gaya tha”) and I thought to myself someone like her should stop singing so that her previous work remains pure and intact in our memories.” Madam’s voice, “jo ke seene ki awaz thi [a voice from the chest]” did not quaver until the very end, he points out.
Madam had lost her health towards the end of her life and she would go to Karachi from Lahore very often for treatment. Tafoo visited her house in Karachi three months prior to her last day. “When I arrived in Karachi to see her she said in Punjabi, ‘I am blessed that Tafoo has come to see me.’ I was the only one from the film industry who went to pay her a call when she was ailing, nobody else.”
After my interview I dropped Tafoo off at his house in Allama Iqbal Town in my ride, something he straightforwardly demanded. As I watched the stout tabla player walk away, straight-backed and with purposeful stride, I thought here was Pakistan’s film music’s history that would soon be lost in a quintessentially Lahore residential lane of overcrowded modern facades sandwiched together.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, August 6th, 2017