Question: How do I get from Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to All American renaissance man Paul Robeson via the Reverend George Reginald Wells (alias my dad) in less than six degrees of separation? And end up at home in the Hebrides?
Answer: Follow the musical trail…
Step One. Here’s the Qawwali master in a spell-binding performance in the video clip below of “Ye jo halkaa halkaa suroor hai”. (Follow this link for Romanised Urdu lyrics and English translation of the basic text.) The clip takes you through a transcendental Sufi meditation on “light intoxication” in the presence of the divine. Recorded live in Birmingham in 1983 – the year I started working there – it’s a full seventy minute rendition. (I wasn’t at this performance, but did get to see him performing some years later.) If you’re in the mood, stay with it right the way through. Alternatively, after several introductory “scene-setting” verses, just check the introduction of the main theme at 5.15. The central lyric and melody are gradually expounded over the next couple of minutes, before the musical ante is raised again from 7.20. Having now clocked the tune, feel free to move on “from the sublime” straight to Step Two. But be careful. It’s quite a jump.
یہ جو ہلکا ہلکا سرور ہے
Step Two. Now check this song “Chale jaise havaien” from the Hindi film “Main hoon na”. Recognise that tune from somewhere? Yes, it’s a classic example of the Bollywood capacity to “borrow” musical patterns that work, and “recycle” them to mass popular acclaim. Note also the location of the film, shot at St Paul’s School, Darjeeling.
चले जैसे हवाईएँ
Step Three. Wind back the years to the Second World War. Same location. Very different ambience. This is pre-Independence India, and St Paul’s, originally an Anglo-Indian school, is in its colonial heyday – run on traditional English Public School lines, complete with the then young (but to be long-lived) school “padre” fresh out from Blighty, George Reginald Wells. Despite (or maybe because of?) his intensive choral training at King’s College, Cambridge, Dad confessed to having a poor ear for Indian musicality, so quite what he would have made of the Ustad I’m not sure, but I fear he would perhaps have been “less than impressed” by this Bollywood jollity in a setting he always looked back on with deep and serious affection, bordering on reverence. Which cues a return from lighthearted if skilfully executed fun and exuberance to something rather more spiritual.
Once in Royal David’s City
Step Four. Dad was actually the only one of four Wells brothers who didn’t get to do the opening treble solo at the annual festival of carols, but he did become a very fine bass-baritone himself, and he appreciated the talents of others too when he recognised them, which took him to Sheffield Town Hall, even before his Darjeeling days, to see and hear Paul Robeson in concert, another experience he liked to recall in later years. “Deep River” was one of his favourites, but this clip, wherever it was recorded, is worth listening to right through, as it gives an impression not only of Robeson’s singing talent, but also of his wider humanitarian drive and motivations. Often described as decades ahead of his time, was he also an early exponent of what we now call “World Music”?
Deep River (and then some)
Step Five. Here in Benbecula, I’m left wondering if Robeson’s rendition of the “Eriskay Love Lilt” (from 4.58) was Dad’s first introduction to Gaelic music, an initial Hebridean connection before meeting and marrying Uist crofter’s daughter Anna Sheonaidh ‘ic Ghilleasbaig – “Ban Uibhisteach ann an India”?
And the rest, of course, is history…
Have I woven an unusually complex web? Well no, I don’t think so, though I’m pleased to have inlaid a couple of sparkling gems in the pattern, despite my “humble” crofting stock. If we’re all a maximum of just six steps away from everyone else, metaphorically if not literally, then we’re all capable of intricate variations on this kind of theme. It’s a great game. Just pick a couple of big names from the worlds of music, sport, politics etc, and trace a linking path through a family connection. We can all be touched by distinction or genius. Everyone should try it!