Reinventing the classics

Published November 30, 2014
As important as treasuring something and holding it dear is celebrating it, sharing it and passing it on: Meesha Shafi.
As important as treasuring something and holding it dear is celebrating it, sharing it and passing it on: Meesha Shafi.

My journey as a vocalist has only just begun and I do not believe success or even global fame is the ultimate light at the end of the tunnel. Since 2010, when Rohail Hyatt plucked me out of a niche rock band in which I was the lead vocalist and launched me as a solo artist, there has been no looking back.

In January that year, Arif Lohar and I performed Alif Allah and any expectations we had, in our wildest dreams or imagination, were surpassed. It broke barriers, it broke records and most importantly, it put Pakistani folk music in the global spotlight.

Also read: Coke Studio Episode 3 review: Filmy strings

Arif Bhai later shared with me stories of his struggle, from enjoying epic stardom in the ’80s and ’90s to sitting at home all but forgotten. This was not just his story but the story of many artists who had tasted success in the glory days only to end up disillusioned and disheartened as our music industry deteriorated.

Arif Lohar’s comeback is the stuff dreams are made of, as is the comeback of regional/folk music.

Retouching the untouchable

What Rohail did was reinvent the treasures that were collecting cobwebs. He made our indigenous, musical heritage cool — cool for the expats, cool for the college kids, cool for the elderly and children alike.

He even managed to make people around the world, who do not understand a single word of Punjabi, curious about Pakistani music.

The song became the most viewed Pakistani song ever! It gave the Pakistani diaspora a reason to feel they were part of the worldwide musical scene. It was the perfect combination of our roots and the modern image of Pakistan that so many yearn to project.

Arif Bhai and I have shared many international stages since then, performing our collaborative efforts live and enjoying the overwhelming response that has spanned continents. But the devotional song itself is not new; it has been around for countless years. It is a folk classic and many have sung it before us.

Explore: Coke Studio and 'The Reluctant Fundamentalist' changed my life: Meesha Shafi

So what clicked this time? Was it the mix of a dhoti-clad, chimta-wielding Punjabi rock star with a Pakistani girl donning a pair of jeans and red lippy? Is it really that simple? Was it the visual contradiction which created the surprise element? Was it the stellar production and state of the art sound engineering?

It is of course, all of the above, but there are other elements that are harder to identify: the role music plays in touching souls, in reaching out to the hopeless and the faithless, and in this case, touching those who yearn to connect with their roots and feel proud. Not just on the basis of what once was, but what still is and can be.

As important as treasuring something and holding it dear is celebrating it, sharing it and passing it on, writes Meesha Shafi

But we remain a people afraid of change. If someone shoves it under our nose and it obviously works, we enjoy it, embrace it and celebrate it. But more often than not, it is met with resistance. There have been several other reinventions, by myself as well as a host of other artists. Mine included Chori Chori and Dasht-i-Tanhai produced by Rohail Hyatt, and then recently when Strings stepped in to wear the CS producer’s shoes, with our rendition of Sunn Ve Balori.

'Oh the audacity!'

What has the world come to? Reshma! Iqbal Bano! Madam Noor Jehan! This girl has some nerve!

Are you classically trained? Have you devoted your life to riyaaz? Do you know all the raags?

Do you really think you can match these legends? They are untouchable.

These are just some of the sentiments I get as feedback for daring to attempt the classics.

It is safe to say that reinvention of the classics, rendered originally by the vast royalty of singers we have called our own, is something most are very sensitive about. At the time of singing Dasht-i-Tanhai, I would often wonder why I had put this pressure on myself? I felt so passionate about Faiz Sahib’s poetry, his struggle, the message, the melody … everything. It is a masterpiece. I have always been deeply drawn to it and I wasn’t going to let the opportunity go.

As important as treasuring something and holding it dear, is celebrating it, sharing it and passing it on. Music is the one true universal language and so many of our classics are not heard enough, or ever introduced to the younger generations.

Take a look: Spotlight: Mum’s the word!

Not many of my contemporaries, let alone those younger than us, had heard of Sultan Bahu before Alif Allah on Coke Studio, before Rohail decided to re-produce it into a swinging Sufi track, so irresistible in its audio visual contradiction (read ‘appeal’).

Or recently, when Strings decided to take Tafu Khan Sahib’s blessing to turn Sunn Ve Balori into a rock anthem complete with a guitar solo and a string section. It’s a great way to reintroduce the masses to the greats.

To shift perspective, view something beautiful from a different angle, and the success these reinventions have enjoyed is testament to the fact that people were waiting for this blend. Not just a particular audience, but a wide spectrum of listenership has responded extremely well to these new-age efforts.

These reproductions are a blend of old and new; a celebration of our rich, musical archives along with a place on the global music map of today. And they have found a fan base which is a great blend of various social strata, age groups and ethnicities.

We all know the local music industry was all but dwindling were it not for the resuscitation Coke Studio performed. And what a great thing it has been, not just for the new, like myself, but for many of the old, forgotten, living legends that we still have. Love it. Every minute of it. I know I do. And enjoy it while it lasts!

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 30th, 2014


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