Revered as “one of the four most influential playback singers of all time”, Mohd Rafi used his vastly flexible voice to provide music cues for countless Indian film stars from the late ‘40s until his passing in 1980. While highly influential and practically iconic in his homeland, Rafi’s Western indie hipster and pop film fans are also unknowingly familiar with him; his classic works have played key roles in films like Ghost World and Monsoon Wedding (the latter track is included here in extended form). The surprisingly well-researched Rough Guide series continues its documentation of the ‘big four’ by collecting the recorded legacy of Mohd Rafi. The strength of his material makes the compilation ideal as both an introduction to new listeners, and as a rediscovery for the previously initiated. The collection reveals an unmistakable presence and undeniable talent that simply must be heard.
The Rough Guide to Bollywood Legends: Mohd Rafi completely illustrates the greatness of Rafisahib (an honorific that he used often) by presenting a diverse selection of material. “Chand Mera Dil” opens the compilation with a borderline stereotypical punch; its revisionist blaxploitative wah and punchy horn charts (wait for Rafi’s James Brown-like punctuation!) characterize the cartoonish reputation of Bollywood films. The song fortunately settles into a Sunday-afternoon Bolly-Axelrod arrangement, which Rafi practically kisses with his tender vocal take. “Taarif Karun Kya Uski” is another light-hearted piece, characteristic of both the artist and the genre, as it opens with a light Django-like guitar theme before going to a Hindu ho-down. Rafisahib obliges to the cheeriness of the composition and dances like a sprite over the clapping rhythm. “Yeh Ladka Hai Allah” rides a strolling guitar theme before kicking off a duet with female superstar playback singer, Asha Bhosle; (Ken Hunt, the compilation archivist and liner notes author, notes the song is a unique example of duet form wherein the second singer is held back from appearing until the very end of the song, so as to create musical suspense). In another pseudo-Western nod, “Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho” features Rafi floating over a ‘70s folk funk-type rocker. As these disparate sounds demonstrate, the music itself is a strong presence, showcasing the sophistication and complexity of Indian soundtrack music. Hunt also makes specific mention of Rafi’s terrific interpretive ability; he points out Rafisahib‘s ability to sing in a variety of ranges, “from regional folk and classical through literary forms and devotional to the tasteful end of pop”.
However, the emotive and emotional power of Rafisahib‘s voice comes to the fore on more serious fare. “Hum Kisise Kum Naheen”, which again features Ashaji (another honorific that Mohd Rafi always used), opens with an accordion theme, the box squeezing a scaled melody before entering a drone that leads into a heavy qawwali vamp (the song is in the filmi quawwali form, a mangling of the Moslem devotional form into a secular piece). Rafi sings a series of gorgeous sustained vocal lines that are hypnotic, while the rhythm slaps with such vigor that one can hardly be contained. Rafisahib turns in a positively muscular outing, a voice both forcefully rhythmic and slickly melodic. “Babul Ki Duayen Leti Ja” is a performance that rose to such mythic stature that it has become a doli song (the part of the wedding ceremony when the bridegroom gives the bride away), and rightly so considering the singer’s breathtaking approach. “Jo Baat Tujh Mein Hai” provides a relatively traditional Hindustani instrumentation of sarangi, sitar and tabla accompaniment for the master. “Dil Ka Bhanwar Kare Pukar” is uncharacteristic by filmi sangeet (film song) standards in its sparseness; written by Sachin Dev Burman, father of famed film composer R.D. Burman, S.D. had a distinct style with his minimalism. The song is nevertheless in good hands as Rafisahib practically caresses the rhythm, gliding over the melody like a bee visiting flowers. “Aaj Mausam Bada Be-Iman Hai”, originally featured in A. Bhimsingh’s 1973 film, Loafer, also provided a key piece of marigold sunshine in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding from 2001. Heard in its entirety here, the song is absolutely devastating as Rafi wanders through the wash of strings with more grace than Kelly.
In addition to duets with the lead female playback singer, Lata Mangeshkar, this compilation provides a supple package of Rafisahib‘s work. Ken Hunt’s in-depth liner notes detail the life and career of Mohd Rafi, as well as certain aspects of the Indian filmmaking industry. Ultimately, the package is geared towards an uninitiated Western audience. However, Rafi’s moving voice can and should be appreciated by anyone sympathetic to the romance of filmic life.