Umbayee’s Malayalam ghazals are distilled from an unflinching passion for music. The singer recounts his life’s experiences

Noted poet-lyricist Hasrat Jaipuri had seen him standing at his gate, every morning, for two days. On the third day he asked the tall, dark stranger to come in. The poet was stunned when this man told him that he wanted some of his poems. A long musical session later they parted as friends. And the man returned with 54 of the poet’s works.

The man, who charmed the poet with his daring and uninhibited singing, was Umbayee (P. A. Ibrahim) and those poems gave the ghazal singer a head start in his musical career.

But everything in Umbayee’s life did not come for a song. He had a tough childhood. “My father was vehemently against my love for music. He wanted me to study and I was not interested. This conflict often turned bitter. I used to play the tabla, listened to music and played for programmes on the sly. From then on it has been a long struggle. But I did not let go of my passion. Every setback turned me steely,” recounts Umbayee who has popularised Malayalam ghazals.

Musical vortex

Mattancherry, Umbayee’s hometown, is a melting pot of music. And Umbayee was drawn into its vortex. “There was music all around. You only had to find it. Like most of my generation there was Mehboob Bhai as inspiration who was a natural, enigmatic singer. I used to play the tabla for him and also sang occasionally. Most of the legendary Hindustani musicians visited Mattancherry those days. They usually stayed at Abdul Khader Vakil’s house. I used to be there doing odd jobs, listening to their discussions and music. That was the beginning.”

One performance proved to be a turning point. He got a chance to listen to Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Allah Rakha ‘live’ at Mattancherry. “I decided then to stop playing the tabla. I realised that what I was doing was childish. There was so much to learn.”

By then Umbayee had failed his school finals which put a full stop to his studies. “This meant direct confrontation with my father. It made me more defiant. Music sessions turned into booze parties that often ended up in fights. I was being sucked into the slush. And I hit the bottle hard.”

Realising that his son was going off track, Umbayee’s father packed him off to Bombay where his uncle was a seaman. “My uncle used his clout and sneaked me in as a trainee electrician. And I was there at Nova Island (in Mumbai), not knowing the difference between AC and DC.”

The nine months at the training centre did not improve Umbayee’s ‘gyaan’ on the subject. But he impressed the group with his singing. “Holi, Diwali, or any occasion, I was there singing all those popular Hindi songs I had heard and memorised from ‘Binaca Geetmala’ on All India Radio. I failed in the exams. And when I had to leave I was given a grand send-off by the rest - early recognition for my singing.”

That was also his first tryst with Bombay, the city that changed his life. “Money was fast running out. I survived mostly on tea, beedi and charas. It was here that I met my guru, Ustad Mujawar Ali Khan. I don’t know what made him accept me as his disciple. That was the moment which changed my life. My guru was a sort of wandering minstrel, here today gone to tomorrow to some dargah .”

For nearly seven interrupted years Umbayee studied music from Mujawar Ali Khan. “In between, I used to come home. Smuggling watches, perfumes and such stuff in return for US dollars financed these trips. One day I found that my guru had left the city. He never came back and to date I don’t know what happened to him.”

Early years

For years Umbayee sang in a hotel, worked as laundry manager in another. But all these experiences, he feels, did him good.

Along with his solo performances Umbayee released his first album. Aadab had nine of Hasrat Jaipuri’s Urdu ‘shers.’ “S. S. Bedi, the then Customs Commissioner, was the inspiration and Jose Thomas of Choice Group provided the money. It did not do well then though there are takers today. I went around selling the album. But that album gave me a foothold.”

The idea of Malayalam ghazals was born after a successful programme in New Delhi. “Many MPs were part of the audience that evening. I was asked to sing a couple of Malayalam songs by the MP’s from Kerala, which I did. After the event K. V. Thomas and M. A. Baby, suggested that I think of composing Malayalam poems in the ghazal style. That set me working on this.”

None of the established poets were willing to give their poems to an unknown singer. “I must have asked almost every known poet. They refused, they had their reasons and I won’t blame them,” says the singer. “That was when a waiter at the hotel where I worked told me about Venu V. Desom. We met and that was how my first Malayalam album, Pranamam came about,” he adds.

There was no looking back for Umbayee. Poets like O N V Kurup, Yusufali Kecheri, Sachidanandan have lent their poems, his albums have hit the mark, and his mehfils are a huge draw everywhere.