A few years ago, Canadian promoter Iqbal Mahal introduced the relatively unknown Satinder Sartaaj on his Saturday television program, Visions of Punjab. Referring to the doctorate recipient as the antithesis of nameless singers clinging to Miss Pooja for fame, Mahal used his connections, which stem from being the first person to host a Punjabi radio program in Canada, to properly market Sartaaj. After a few weeks, Satinder Sartaaj was a ubiquitous name on every single Punjabi program on Canada’s Vision Network and the Sufi specialist was playing sold out crowds in Toronto, Calgary and Edmonton. Eventually, Sartaaj took his talent to other countries and became a global superstar.
In a way, Sartaaj’s career is reminiscent of Gurdas Maan’s early years. Think about it: it’s the early 80s and duets about deors, bhabhis and jeths are reigning supreme and then, all of a sudden, Gurdas Maan unleashes “Dil Da Mamla” on the masses. Subsequently, the Punjabi audience was treated to some classic albums, including Dil Da Mamla, Masti and Dil Sahif Hona Chahida, featuring production from Jaswant Bhanwra and later Charanjit Ahuja. Sure, Kuldeep Manak and Surinder Shinda were doing brilliant work in the domain of kaliyan and those succinct duets from the jodis of Gurcharan Pohli/Promila Pammi, K. Deep/Jagmohan Kaur and Kartar Ramla/Sukhwant Kaur are now classic, but Gurdas Maan was an artistic anomaly. Instead of dwelling on the doomed romances of Punjab or the lecherous affairs within the extended family, Maan pondered what the future holds for humanity. It was this revolutionary approach to songwriting that led to Gurdas Maan’s current deity-like status.
Fast forward 30 years later: we have some brilliant producers like Ravi Bal, Tru-Skool and Tigerstyle and phenomenal singers like Gurbhej Brar, Saini Surinder and Jaswinder Daghamia, but we also have ghost production and an ill-conceived return to duet mania, which features no iconic jodis but does, however, unfortunately feature an immeasurable amount of shoddy male singers fattening Miss Pooja’s pockets for a shot at glory. Although Miss Pooja is a trained vocalist, it would be moronic to say the same about the vast majority of her duet partners. These amateurish singers flooded the market with cringe-worthy material. And this is when Satinder Sartaaj came into the picture. Similar to Gurdas Maan, Sartaaj is also a lyricist and a deeply contemplative soul, who focuses on complex themes rather than the trivial subject matter that contemporary Punjabi duets tend to embrace. Catering to the intelligent audiences who were sick and tired of bland duets, Sartaaj launched a Sufi revival and a return to lyricism, which saw major success through countless live performances and the albums, Sartaaj and Cheerey Wala Sartaaj. Sartaaj’s third album Afsaaney Sartaaj De sees the artist climb even greater commercial heights as he releases the product through the Bollywood juggernaut, Eros Entertainment.
Although Satinder Sartaaj is currently a global superstar and adored by legions of followers, one fact remains: he has yet to deliver a classic album. As good as he is lyrically and vocally, Sartaaj’s albums can become quite repetitive and they also lack the inventive musicianship that made Gurdas Maan’s collaborations with Charanjit Ahuja legendary. And Afsaaney Sartaaj De is no exception, although it is a lyrical masterstroke.
The harmonium, an instrument pervasive throughout Sartaaj’s concerts but noticeably absent on the bulk of Afsaaney Sartaaj De, opens the record up on “Soohe Khat,” one of the best songs of Sartaaj’s career. Namedropping Bulleh Shah within seconds, Sartaaj delivers a tune that is lyrically meaningful, but also has the potential to penetrate the masses with a highly percussive backdrop. Sartaaj has attempted the Bhangra sound before with the semi-decent “Yamaha” but “Soohe Khat” gets it mostly right. The only complaints against the track are that the percussion could have been crisper and the playing should have been more inspired, as it does become quite bland.
After the upbeat opener, the record unfortunately makes an abrupt transition with the eight minute “Khidari.” Sequencing is an important factor in creating a successful record and placing the mundane “Khidari” as the second track is an erroneous decision. Although Sartaaj is dropping lyrical jewels, the simple production is repetitive and torturous to sit through. Now, it’s not required of Jatinder Shah, the producer of this album, to experiment wildly with Satinder Sartaaj. Nobody is asking for remixes akin to Massive Attack’s work with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s vocals, but it is quite unreasonable to provide a listener with perfunctory production that simply relies on the lyrics to deliver. Gurdas Maan said a lot on his nine minute epic “Dil Sahif Hona Chahida,” but Charanjit Ahuja never allowed Maan to outshine him because the music was equally brilliant, featuring a limitless range of versatility. As spoken word poetry, “Khidari” almost works but Sartaaj doesn’t have the ethereal quality of a Leonard Cohen to keep you entertained through eight minutes of sonic nothingness.
“Aakhari Apeel” breathes life into the album, as Sartaaj sings some depressing lines but presents them in a jovial manner. The production complements the jocular vocals, resulting in a dichotomy between the lyrics and music/vocals but this technique has been used many times before and Sartaaj pulls it off with ease. Unfortunately, “Aakhari Apeel” is followed by “Jang Jaan Waley,” another tune featuring a stellar set of lyrics but drowned in uninspired production, featuring slothful percussion.
“Kudio Roya Na Karo” is another eight minute epic, but, unlike the above mentioned “Khidari,” this one’s a gem. Featuring a poignant set of vocals, the minimal production, which doesn’t feature any percussion until about two minutes into the track, accentuates Sartaaj’s delivery, resulting in one of Afsaaney’s Sartaaj De’s obvious highlights.
Utilizing the same melody on “Shri Guru Granth Sahib Ji” and “Balbeero Bhabhi,” Sartaaj goes into dharmik territory with “Khilara.” Although it might be difficult to sit through this melody without reminiscing about the vocal power of Jazzy B or Surinder Shinda, or the mind-blowing experimentation of The Pardesi Music Machine on their rendition of “Balbeero Bhabhi,“ it would be tasteless to criticize a religious tune.
As the album approaches its conclusion, Sartaaj shows you why he’s worth the hype. “Dard Gareeban Da” is a compassionate composition devoted to the plight of poverty. Satinder Sartaaj’s lyrics aren’t exactly lucid for a lot of Bhangra fans, as the artist doesn’t really cater to those with a minimal grasp of Punjabi, but “Dard Gareeban Da” is a transcendent tune that should be comprehensible for those that are minimally competent in conversational Punjabi, and it’s a track that needs to be experienced. After showing compassion for his fellow human beings, Sartaaj focuses on nature. “Drakhtan Nu” is actually an environmentally conscious Punjabi song. As Sartaaj worries about the natural environment, one really begins to fathom just how vital Sartaaj is to Punjabi music. Amidst all the songs about sharaab, caste glorification and seducing nubile women on the dance floor, there aren’t many songs about nature. And Sartaaj presents “Dhrakhtan Nu” as an intelligent and articulate argument that would make environmentalists like David Suzuki proud.
“Putt Saadey” finds Sartaaj soulfully singing about familial bonds. As Sartaaj has already poeticized about poverty and nature, if you haven’t broken down yet, “Putt Saadey” might just find you teary-eyed as you think about the love you have for your parents. After completing a hat-trick of touching songs, “Maula Ji” concludes the album and continues the unfortunate trend of repetitive and uninspired percussion. The track is better than the earlier missteps, but Sartaaj is at his best when he’s singing slow-burners like “Sai,” “Kudiyo Roya Na Karo,” and “Putt Saadey.”
It seems as if Satinder Sartaaj is attempting to follow Hans Raj Hans career trajectory. But Sartaaj simply doesn’t showcase the ability to effortlessly delve into multiple genres like Hans Raj Hans did. Some might find these comments to be blasphemous, but one has to wonder if Sartaaj really wants to restrict himself to the Sufi realm or whether he wants to venture into Bhangra territory with songs like “Yamaha” and the overly percussive and inadequately produced songs featured on Afsaaney Sartaaj De. If Sartaaj does want to establish himself in both worlds, Hans Raj Hans’ debut effort Jogian De Kanna Wich should be studied. Sartaaj is unparalleled when it comes to lyrical talent in contemporary Punjabi music and Jatinder Shah is an exceptionally talented producer, and both these artists have put out many worthwhile releases in the past, but Afsaaney Sartaaj De is a polarizing effort. The record has moments of brilliance, but it’s also bloated, improperly sequenced, poorly mixed and redundant. Sartaaj and Shah have a classic in them and for them to take their place next to Jeona Morh, Sahiba Da Tarla, and Gidha Beat in the annals of Punjabi music, they need to go back to the drawing board and produce a filler-free masterpiece.