“You had to have a ‘high’ voice to carry a good Qawwali, and that’s what I had above them.”
By Neil Marks
These days Balgobin Quawall sports a thick pair of lenses – well, he always has. But the one he now wears scream vintage ’60s; it’s almost his signature, he laughs.
He has been recognized by the glasses for decades, travelling from house to house, village to village.
He is now 77 years old, and recently had surgery for cataract, but he gets around his modest home at Howes Street, Charlestown, with so much ease he believes he is still the spritely young man he once used to be.
For almost six decades, Balgobin has entertained small and large audiences alike with a voice that ended up giving him his “name” in the first place.
“Quawall” is actually not his real name. His name is really Balgobin Latchman. But well known Guyanese broadcaster Ayube Hamid saw more in the Kingston lad than just a singer. He was a master at singing Qawwalis, the music honed by the Persians of today’s Afghanistan and Iran over the last seven centuries.
Hamid (now deceased) hosted singing competitions on the radio, and the young Balgobin Latchman had visited his studios many a time.
But at the time when he decided he wanted to make singing a career, there were already class acts on the market like Gobin Ram, Mohan Nandu, and Sudama, singing Hindi film songs that were a hit with the masses.
“There was no way I could compete with them,” he confesses.
But Balgobin Latchman had something that the others didn’t have.
“You had to have a ‘high’ voice to carry a good Qawwali, and that’s what I had above them,” he boasts.
Qawwalis are generally performed in a call-and-answer style with a lead singer and a chorus, and the playing of instruments like the harmonium and the accordion. The general composition of the lyrics and music is meant to put listeners in a trance-like state so they could recognize their relationship with God.
“Qaul” is an “utterance (of the prophet)” and a Qawwal is someone who often repeats (sings) a Qaul. Therefore, Qawwali is what a Qawwal sings.
However, Qawwalis are not always religious in nature, and some of the most beautiful Qawwalis are in fact odes to love.
It was broadcaster Hamid who recognized that Balgobin Latchman could carve his own niche and become a hit by just singing Qawwalis and so he gave him his last name, spelt ‘Quawall.”
That was decades ago when he, the now named Balgobin Quawall, recognized that he could make something of a career in music, and he had just the right background.
And wait till you hear that he doesn’t even to this day understand the language of Qawwalis!
As he describes it, Quawall, came from a “Musical family.” His maternal and paternal grandparents were from India, but he never knew them. They had passed away before he made his entry on Mother Earth.
He was born at 22 Fourth Street, Kingston, now Wight’s Lane (where the Prime Minister’s office is located) to parents Jaikarran and Ramrattie Balgobin.
He attended the Kingston Methodist School to the “sixth standard” and decided to get into music to make a living.
His father was a musician, and so Quawall figures his love for music developed from there. As a young boy, while still in school, he recalls going from “house to house” singing and playing musical instruments. “House to house” meant going to the homes of family and friends on religious holidays like Phagwah and Diwali and at houses of the dead.
In fact, it was at one of these ‘wake houses” that Quawall would find his groundings in a musical career that sees him still singing today, although not on the massive stages he at one time found himself.
At one of the “wake houses” his father was invited to play at, the young Quawall was noticed by Gobin Ram, who was by then already an accomplished musician, singing on the radio and travelling to various venues performing.
Ram invited Quawall to join him and a few others who were trying to form a musical group. Quawall agreed and set about a remarkable career with the group later known as the “Gemini Orchestra.”
But singing with the orchestra was not the only gigs Quawall participated in. He knew his voice was a force to be reckoned with and he decided to test that by participating in numerous competitions, including those on the radio, and also at hugely popular competitive events put on by the Maha Sabha.
He remembers memorable performances he had done at the East Indian Cricket Association Ground, now Everest Cricket Club, in the early days.
It goes without saying that Quawall won many of those competitions, and he is especially proud of having one competition when he covered the voice of legendary Indian playback singer Mohamed Rafi.
His Qawwali voice would also see him performing at numerous functions hosted by Muslims.
Qawwalis are mostly Islamic in nature and the majority are sung in Urdu and Punjabi, but get this, Balgobin Quawall did not then know Urdu or Punjabi, and he still doesn’t!
So how did he manage? Well, owing mostly to the fact that it was a fight for his musical life to sing Qawwalis, he had to at least be able to form the words of the songs he was listening to.
So, he would listen to a song, and pen the sound of the Urdu and Punjabi words he was hearing.
It was a painstaking effort, but even so, he couldn’t leave it to chance that he had the correct words, especially if he was due to perform in front of a Muslim audience.
He enlisted the help of trusted friends who knew the Urdu language, and they would correct him if he had any words wrong, which was often the case.
In time, Quawall came to understand that most of the songs were devotional songs and he rather enjoyed singing them. Indeed, playing and singing was not a mere job for him. It is what he loved and still loves doing.
“Once I start to play the harmonium, the devotion just comes to me; I just have to sing.”
And spare a thought also for the fact that Quawall was never taught to play the harmonium.
“Nobody taught me to play, I learnt on my own.”
As he continued to perfect singing Qawwalis, his marriage was arranged with Doris, a young girl from Mahaicony on the East Coast of Demerara.
Together, they have five children: Dhanraj, Jainarine, Ramesh, Vickram and Maharanie. Dhanraj has followed in the footsteps of his father and is now a singer in his own right, owning the reputation “Jumping Jack” owing to his onstage antics. Another son, Jainarine, also took up playing the dholak.
PLAYING FOR LEGENDS
Quawall played with the Gemini Orchestra for 11 years and then went on to lead his own ensemble, namely the Ramanand Orchestra, for several years.
Among the highlights of his career was being part of the orchestra for Lata Mangeshkar, the legendary Indian singer, who now owns the reputation as being one of the world’s most recorded artistes.
Mangeshkar’s visit to Guyana in 1980 was a flambouyant affair. Hindi cinema was in full swing, and the iconic movie Satyam Shivam Sundaram (Truth is Eternal and Beautiful) was immensely popular, and for sure if not only the song, crowds poured into the theatres to see provocative screen goddess Zeenat Aman perform the song wearing a revealing white sari.
Imagine Quawall’s joy then, when he was asked to join the orchestra to play for Lata Mangeshkar at just the time when she was ready to sing Satyam Shivan Sundaram.
“It was a moment in my life that I would never forget!”
But Lata Mangeshkar was not the only legend Quawall would perform for. He travelled across the country playing for legendary singer and lyricist Hari Om Sharan, renowned for his endless repertoire of religious songs
Quawall also played for renowned singer Hemant Kumar, and is proud to have taught Guyanese Hindu religious teacher Prakash Gossai, who developed legendary status here.
Over the years, Quawall has been duly recognized with awards for his outstanding contribution to the promotion of Indian music and culture in Guyana.
He has received the “Dharm Saywack” Award from the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha (1982), the Mahatma Gandhi Organisation (2000) and the Nirvana Humanitarian Foundation and its Guyana arm, the Saraswati Vidya Niketan. He was due to receive another award yesterday from the Indian Arrival Committee for his pioneering role in promoting Indian music.
Having lived in Kitty, Georgetown, for 37 years, Quawall was also recognised by the area’s Policing Group for outstanding community service.
These days, Balgobin Quawall still plays the harmonium, and he still sings despite having developed a stuttering problem.
“I don’t know how this stuttering thing happened, but it doesn’t stop me from singing.”
Indeed, his very disposition tells you he has no interest in giving up singing, even if he doesn’t pull the “high” Qawwali notes he once used to.
Did we mention that Balgobin Quawall has never in fact owned a single instrument?
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