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The Sound of Wonder!

The older Pakistani films that I’ve watched have struck me as being at once both primitive and forward-looking. (And I must add that the Pakistani films I’ve watched might not be representative of the country’s cinematic output as a whole.) Though technically crude, these films use the type of stuttering editing rhythms and fragmented visuals that wouldn’t come into vogue in the West for years –- and then only to be criticized for displaying the influence of MTV. As the first volume of The Sound of Wonder demonstrates, Pakistani film music from that same period likewise had one foot in the future — often with the other foot inhabiting territory no less strange to the unaccustomed ear.

It collects an assortment of Urdu and Punjabi language film tracks from the Vaults of EMI Pakistan, the majority of which were recorded and engineered by EMI house engineer Iqbal Asif at the company’s studio in Lahore between 1973 and 1980. Pakistani film songs are similar compositionally to their Bollywood counterparts, though the comparatively lesser amount of money that Lollywood –- named for the hub of mainstream filmmaking activity in Lahore — had to play with insures that they have something of a rawer quality. Arrangements are sparse, with less of an emphasis on the lush orchestrations often found in Hindi film scores, allowing not only the typical percolating hand percussion, but also some of the quirky individual instrumentation to come to the forefront.

A relative reduction in production gloss also gives some of these tracks, despite their raucousness, a kind of intimate, “after midnight” quality; You can almost see the musicians huddling around their microphones, trying to hash out the arrangements before their hour is up. Such circumstances were apparently conducive to experimentation and improvisation — likely of the seat-of-the-pants variety — as evidenced by some of the instrumental combinations that crop up. For instance, it’s not uncommon on The Sound of Wonder to hear atonal analog synth explorations worthy of Roxy Music era Brian Eno. Though what’s even more unusual are the musical juxtapositions that they contribute to, such as when those synths interweave with wheezing harmoniums and wailing psychedelic guitars against a backdrop of pulsating tabla rhythms.

Of course, all of these tracks serve as the backings for songs — and, as in Bollywood, the singing of those songs was entrusted to only a very small stable of artists, the names of whom would grace the credits of a staggering number of movies. Thus, of the 15 tracks on The Sound of Wonder, all but a few are sung by one of two women. The first of those is Nahid Akhtar, who frequently worked in collaboration with composer M. Ashraf. The second is Noor Jehan, probably the most prolifically employed of Pakistani playback singers during her day, who lent her voice to literally thousands of tunes in hundreds of movies (she was, for instance, the singer of choice for Anjuman to lip-synch to in the dozens of Punjabi action movies she starred in alongside Sultan Rahi).

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Given Finders Keepers’ beat-digger friendly orientation, the comp leans heavily toward the up-tempo in its selections, which gives us a chance to listen to these two singers at their most full throated and unrestrained. In fact, the tracks here tend to be most memorable when they are at their most frenzied, as with Uf Yeh Beevian’s “Mera Mehbob Hai” with its combination of skittering flamenco guitars and spastic beat-box snare, or “No Main Chini Na Japani”, from the Sultan Rahi film Des Pardes, whose vocals at one point descend into what sounds like a shouting match between dueling Punjabi versions of Louis Armstrong. Elsewhere, “Life Hai Kuch Dinon Ki” can only be described as a low-fi South Asian take on Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, and “Kad Ley Way” finds an improbable middle ground between Spaghetti Western themes and the Tornados’ “Telstar”. All told, there’s enough here to guaranty the casual musical tourist finding at least one thing that sounds absolutely nothing like anything he or she has heard before.

With releases like the previously reviewed Vampires of Dartmoore and their recent compilation of music from Jean Rollin’s horror films, Finders Keepers is rapidly becoming the one stop shop for soundtracking the Teleport City lifestyle. And with The Sound of Wonder, the label has put together another satisfying package, complete with a booklet featuring detailed notes and original 7” sleeve reproductions for each song, as well as liner notes from Andy Votel that are, once again, free associative to the point of being almost incomprehensible. As noted above, the emphasis on propulsive beats makes this far from a novelty purchase and worthy of repeated listens — not to mention the ideal method of enlivening your next party populated by fleshy, hip-swiveling femme fatales and luxuriantly mustached lotharios.