Chakdey.com’s Ramneek gets his teeth into living legend A. S. Kang’s latest album. Check out our in-depth review below![divide]
After suffering a stroke about 10 years ago, A.S. Kang’s career seemed to be over. The first UK based Punjabi artist to crack the global market, Kang had an enviable 30 year career, which saw him release anthems in four consecutive decades. It is often mentioned that Kang is the only Punjabi artist to have hits in four different decades, but a deeper look into the discographies of Gurdas Maan, Surinder Shinda, Kuldeep Manak and Mohd. Sadiq would suggest otherwise. However, there is no single artist – other than A.S. Kang – that could claim ownership of dance floors for four consecutive decades. Not only has A.S. Kang delivered immortal tracks, which continue to live on at wedding receptions, but his tunes have also defined decades: “Gidhian Di Raniye Ne Gidhe Wich Aa” is easily the song of the 70s; “Main Ashiq Tera” and “Lambran Di Nau Nachdi” are staples of the 80s; “Desi Boliyan” and “Valeti Boliyan” epitomize the folk renaissance of the 90s and “Aish Karo” embodied the 2000s. Sure, Kang has the ability to transcend generations with his anthems, but let’s not forget about the classic albums, including Gidhian Di Raniye Ne Gidhe Wich Aa, Main Aashiq Tera, Akh Sajnan Nal Larh Gayi and Kang Fu.
Gidhian Di Raniye Ne Gidhe Wich Aa is arguably the greatest Punjabi album of all time. If it’s not the greatest, it definitely has the most depth. Playing like the Punjabi version of The Dark Side of the Moon or Pet Sounds, the record is essentially a concept album about the progression of life. Beginning with the embrace of youth (“Gidhian Di Raniye Ne Gidhe Wich Aa”), Kang proceeds to deal with love and heartbreak (“Kurhi Melio Murhi,” “Tere Naina ‘Ch Sharab” and “Malki Di Beti Heer Di”) before dwelling on fading youth (“Umar Gwa Lai Toon”). The album goes into even darker territory with “Jindgi Mukdi Jandi,” a terrifying song about impending mortality written by Kang himself. In fact, “Jindgi Mukdi Jandi” is the most disturbing experience awaiting novice Punjabi music fans because we can all conquer the pitfalls of love and immigration, themes that saturate Punjabi music, but none us will ever conquer death. The track is even more horrifying than Asa Singh Mastana’s rendition of Shiv Kumar Batalvi’s “Jadon Meri Arthi” because Kang sings about our inevitable deterioration while Batalvi’s poem is restricted to the proceedings after consciousness has already ceased. After “Jindgi Mukdi Jandi,” Kang discusses legacy on “Hunde Mapeyan Noon Puttar Pyare” and concludes his masterpiece with a final critique on modern society (“Sunio Main Such Sunavan”). Featuring elegantly structured compositions from Kesar Singh Narula, Gidhian Di Raniye Ne Gidhe Wich Aa signalled the arrival of UK Bhangra, resulting in A.S. Kang’s title as the Godfather of UK Bhangra. Now Kang’s album wasn’t the revolutionary sonic achievement of Alaap’s Dance with Alaap, but it proved that a UK based artist could hang with the folk heavyweights of Punjab, a fact further cemented with A.S. Kang’s “Ni Alarh Mutiare” on the essential HMV Night compilations.
After Gidhian Di Raniye Ne Gidhe Wich Aa, Kang continued to deliver quality music, with production provided by Charanjit Ahuja. Main Aashiq Tera, another essential album, featured a stellar set of songs, including the iconic title track and “Lambran Di Nau Nachdi.” Another notable cut off the album was “Pindan Haan Sharaab,” an unapologetic embrace of the alcoholic lifestyle. The complete antithesis of Gurdas Maan’s “Vadeya Sharabia Ve,” A.S Kang fed life into Jandu Littranwala’s lyrics, which were equally shameless and poignant. Kang continued his streak of success throughout the 80s with solo efforts and contributions to the duet market, including the Parmjit Pammi assisted Akh Sajnan Nal Larh Gayi, which featured “Aatamhatya” where Kang sang about the sanctity of life.
As the 90s came about, the soundscape of UK Bhangra had drastically changed and A.S. Kang was well past his prime in a genre that has always prided itself on youth. But as the sound of UK Bhangra became diluted by western beats, the folk of Punjab saw a renaissance in the UK market with albums like Bomb the Tumbi and the collaborations between Jazzy B and Sukshinder Shinda. A.S. Kang contributed to the folk renaissance with Flash Back, featuring the outstanding opening boliyan, and the highly popular Sukshinder Shinda produced Jawani (Youth) before joining forces with Ravi Bal for Kang Fu, one of the essential albums of the 90s, featuring “Valeti Boliyan,” “Mele Vich Jatt” and the patriotic “Udham Singh Di Waar.” Although Kang was past his prime, he once again rose to the top tier of Punjabi vocalists, resulting in a rare second prime. While his contemporaries from the 80s were relying on redoing their past hits countless times for new producers, Kang worked with Sukshinder Shinda, Ravi Bal and Atul Sharma in creating new anthems.
After a highly successful decade, the new millennium dawned and A.S. Kang delivered one of his most beloved tunes, “Aish Karo.” Penned by the brilliant Dev Raj Jassal and produced by Sukshinder Shinda, the song further cemented A.S. Kang as the evergreen face of UK Bhangra. As the years piled on, Kang continued to deliver respectable albums, suggesting immortality, but time finally caught up with the legend, as he was unfortunately inflicted with a stroke. Although the book seemed to have closed on A.S. Kang’s storied career, he had nothing left to prove. He had worked with the likes of Kuljit Bhamra, Kesar Singh Narula, Charanjit Ahuja, Sukshinder Shinda, Ravi Bal and Atul Sharma. He had delivered two of the finest Punjabi albums ever recorded and was the voice behind some of the most popular songs of all time. If there was ever a book devoted to the essential artists of Punjabi music, it would be blasphemous not to include A.S. Kang’s name. In fact, A.S. Kang is a strong contender for the greatest Punjabi artist of all time, a title usually bestowed upon Gurdas Maan, Kuldeep Manak or Surinder Kaur. With such a legendary career behind him, it seemed to be over for A.S. Kang as he rehabilitated himself.
Thankfully, Kang did make a recovery but rather than hanging up the boots and riding off into the sunset for a well deserved retirement, he decided to hit the studio once again with Sukshinder Shinda for The Maestro, a career retrospective featuring reworked versions of some of A.S. Kang’s most notable tunes. Although there was inevitable skepticism, resulting from the abundance of shoddy remakes that saturate the Punjabi music scene and the fact that a stroke can transform a human into a shell of what he used to be, The Maestro is actually a remarkable comeback album, featuring Sukshinder Shinda’s best productions since Maharajas and flawless vocal performances from the rejuvenated A.S. Kang.
Opening up with the now customary K. Deep and Jagmohan Kaur sample, “Maestro Boliyan” sees Kang make another contribution to his lengthy boliyan saga. Borrowing elements from “Desi Boliyan” from Jawani (Youth), the album opener is a welcome addition to the Kang story, featuring an excellent bit where an aged wife attempts to convince her husband to abandon their married children so they can enjoy the last of their years together. The track has moments of the trademark humor Kang adopted in the 90s, but it pales in comparison to the holy trinity of his countless boliyan: “Flashback Boliyan,” “Desi Boliyan” and “Valeti Boliyan.” After “Maestro Boliyan,” Kang revisits the past with “Lambran Di Nau Nachdi” where Shinda has the decency to keep the legendary mandolin riff intact, but there isn’t much added to the original, making for an unnecessary remake. Although the track seems like a bad omen for things to come, Shinda breathes new life into “Main Aashiq Tera,” layering the beloved track with the harmonium and speeding up the chorus for a stylish effect. It’s a classy remake, followed by “Jina Main Tenu Pyaar;” a plush, traditional production that would be perfect for a Rahat Fateh Ali Khan vocal is carried with class by A.S. Kang, who, as an untrained vocalist, doesn’t seem to have the range to start dropping ragas, but his straightforward approach to the minimalistic track is effective, proving that his exquisite vocals can carry a stripped-down, tabla driven production. “Choti Jehi Zindagi” continues the Kang tradition of singing about the appreciation of life, as earlier heard on “Aatamhatya” and “Aish Karo.” It also carries a traditional production similar to the preceding “Jina Main Tenu Pyaar,” but is far inferior.
Sukshinder Shinda energizes the album with his take on “Sara Tu Panjab,” originally produced by Atul Sharma for 1997’s The Untouchable. Minimizing the intricacies of Sharma’s production and omitting the melodic intro of the original, Shinda strictly aims the song at the modern dance floor by increasing the impact of the track’s percussion. After tackling “Sara Tu Panjab,” Shinda travels far back in time to bring “Toon Nakar Man Mattian” back to life. A respectable attempt at modernizing the classic, the remake should be noted for showcasing A.S. Kang’s vocal projections, which remain immaculate. After some welcome and passable remakes, Shinda does the unthinkable by creating a version of “Hunde Mapeyan Noon Puttar Pyare” that is even better than the 1978 original. Stripping the original of its dated organ usage, Shinda adds a beautiful guitar intro before dropping the instantly recognizable melody, which sounds crisper than ever and features one of the finest vocal performances on the album. The original was already one of the best examples of the puttar motif in Punjabi music, but the newly redone version truly challenges Golden Star’s “Puthar Mitre Meway” and Heera’s “Sada Putt Rehan Vasde” as the ultimate puttar track. Although equality is admirable, if you understand the concept of sahara, dolis and your surname continuing to live past your years, you’ll understand that sexism and misogyny are not behind all of these songs.
After improving “Hunde Mapeyan Noon Puttar Pyare,” Shinda decides Eternity’s “Vohti Oh Lehni” is up next for a makeover, and decides to omit the samples of “Aaj Mere Yaar Ki Shadi Hai” and “Meri Bahenian.” Similar to the updated version of “Sara Tu Panjab,” Shinda maximizes the percussion, making for a more accessible track on the modern dance floor. The humorous “Vohti Oh Lehni” is followed by the haunting “Umar Gwa Lai Toon,” originally released in 1978. This track now probably resonates and digs deep into the souls of those who were youthful in the late 70s. A profound statement about wasting your life away, the song doesn’t have the same effect as it initially did because the original version was packaged as a one-two punch with “Jindgi Mukdi Jandi” on Gidhian Di Raniye Ne Gidhe Wich Aa. However, Shinda does justice to one of Kang’s most meaningful compositions. Following the melancholic “Umar Gwa Lai Toon” is yet another remake of “Gidhian Di Raniye Ne Gidhe Wich Aa.” Easily one of the most famous Punjabi songs of all time, the track has been redone so many times that redoing it again was unnecessary. However, an album of A.S. Kang remakes would be incomplete without a reworked version of his flagship track.
It would have been nice to hear Shinda resurrect more songs like “Pindan Haan Sharaab,” “Ik Husan Jawani Dooje Maape,” “Jhanjar Di Chhankar Ne,” “Gidde Wich Nachdi Di” and the list goes on, but that would definitely have been a tiresome experience for the producer and vocalist. As it currently stands, The Maestro serves as a statement that Sukshinder Shinda is still at the top of his game and A.S. Kang might have suffered a health scare, but he’s back to reign supreme and isn’t about to let the young twentysomething prospects outshine him. What could have been an embarrassing record, which dwelled on past glory and featured lazy remakes, is actually an excellent introduction to A.S. Kang for those unfamiliar with him, and should later serve as the blueprint for how to make an album of remakes. The Maestro is A.S. Kang’s best record since 1996’s Kang Fu and will be a strong contender for the album of the year.
We give the album a respectable 4 out of 5
The Maestro is out now on Moviebox.