For a man of his stature, Rohail Hyatt is a remarkably easy person to talk to — you wouldn’t expect him to be so based on the reputation he has built as the man who year after year produces the most appreciated brand of music these days. If music icons could be matched across hemispheres, and Ali Azmat was one of the Gallagher brothers, then Rohail Hyatt would be likened to Dr Dre; just replace all gangsta rap with the ‘genre’ of music that Rohail creates.
Of course, this is a light-hearted comparison for a person who is deeply passionate about his music. In this exclusive to Images on Sunday, Rohail discussed all things Coke Studio and music, revealing how each season of the show feels like a child to him. I asked him to pick a favourite but like a parent, it is impossible for him to do so despite my prodding. The same went for picking a favourite song (although he did mention there was a song this season in Episode 2 which brought a tear to his eye). Instead, he talked at length about each show’s personality reflecting in the motifs for each season, and to anyone who would have dropped in on the conversation, it would have seemed as if he were on a different plane of reality.
“The first season reflected a square, the second a circle, the third concentric spheres emanating outwards, the fourth a spiral and now the fifth is a square inside a circle.”
Somewhere in there he had mentioned a triangle, but forgive me for becoming lost in my own imagery (talking to Rohail is like imagining music as shapes, an altogether different way of perceiving sound; as if you were tripping out of this reality into a different elemental plane). Fortunately, as he is with most of his creations, Rohail has a particular intent with the symbols, but he wants everyone who looks and listens to interpret them in their own way.
This is a rather democratic approach for a man who is known as the master and commander of the Studio — backstage, they told me he is the only one who can smoke on the set. Yet, when I talked to him, he reiterated how he guides everyone, but isn’t the only one who should be given credit for the show, saying, “CS is a production that involves a lot of people, not just me.”
Still, on set, there is really just one man conducting the orchestra and Rohail Hyatt stands tall in the control booth, often jumping into the middle of the set, swaying his head and waving his arms like a cross between Yanni and a malang encouraging the drums, keyboards, bass, at times all of them, to come in and own a piece of the music.
How tough was it, having to let go of Gumby?
“It was a huge loss. I try to create an atmosphere where we feel like a family and it felt like letting go of someone close. Of course I respect his decision and wish to follow his dreams, and I understand he wouldn’t have had time. But it was huge, for the longest time there wasn’t a drummer who could fill his shoes. But then I met Farhad who wanted to be on the show and I am glad to say not only have I found a drummer but also a friend.”
And how was it playing with people like Atif Aslam, Meesha Shafi and Bilal Khan again, who have become stars in their own right?
“It’s different, they were newer when they first came in and I have watched them grow as artistes, become more confident and now they have ideas and things they want to experiment with, they have their own ways of performing. It’s great; we all have a good time.”
During our conversation, Rohail told me about how the music he listens to is different from CS. And when I asked Rohail about Season 5 and whether it was going to continue its journey in Sufi music, I learned that it wasn’t just about bridging Sufism and music (like how Junoon had been doing). CS is really an experiment in the fusion of what is western and eastern in music with a lot of experimentation thrown in. It’s why songs here are as varied as Saari Raat which is almost completely western, Yaar Dadhi which is more eastern or Charkha Naulakha which is a mix of the two. “Music was a religion here for the longest time, and we have so much material it’s unbelievable. We have only just discovered the tip of the iceberg with Coke Studio; it could go on for a very long time.”
But what’s the next milestone, would it continue for five more years, 10 or 20? Would Rohail continue to be involved with it throughout its duration? If Rohail has any desire for CS to be forever indebted to him, he doesn’t make it apparent, saying that he would love to continue producing it, but that the music could always continue without him. Once again, seemingly dictatorial, but always democratic.
But really, imagine Manchester United without Sir Alex Ferguson... can you imagine Coke Studio without Rohail Hyatt?
But that’s a thought for another day. Hopefully CS will continue making even better music; if Episode 1 of Season 5 was any indication, it is in fine form. Charkha Naulakha, Tum Kaho, even Bohemia’s Paisay Da Nasha can be heard blaring through car stereos and sound systems everywhere. Despite all the negativity around the ‘creativity’ in Pakistani music, Rohail Hyatt has given Pakistani music something to be proud of.