“There was a concert between an Indian and a Pakistani band in Dubai last week,” I said to a friend in Australia. “Oh dear, I hope no one played Kashmir!” was his immediate response. They didn’t. Maybe they should have.
The event in question was the concert of a decade, at least where South Asia is concerned. Two of the biggest bands from each country came together to perform in one venue. Euphoria from India, which has been around for 16 years and Strings from Pakistan, which is celebrating its 25th year as a band. “What they couldn’t do at the Saarc conference, we’re going to achieve today,” said Faisal Kapadia to a hall full of fans from both sides of the border.
Euphoria first came to Pakistan in 2008 to perform at The Musik Awards. Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia hosted a special dinner for them at Bilal’s residence where the who’s who of Pakistan’s music industry was in attendance. They say in order to live a happy life all you need is good food, good company and great music. Needless to say that with so many musicians under one roof, the night was spent jamming away. Here, camaraderie was formed between the hosts and their guests that was visible when both bands met again last week to perform against each other in a competition of sorts in the Redbull Soundclash in Dubai.
Two of South Asia’s most popular bands battle it out in Dubai by belting out their most memorable tracks! Spoiler Alert: Our own Strings came out on top
The stage(s) were set — right opposite each other in a single hall. The audience would alternate between the bands whenever each band would perform with some diehard fans sticking to their band’s side, come what may. After their initial warm up, the bands had to compete in several rounds, and the audience would decide the winner according to how loudly they supported each performance.
There were two hosts for the evening, each representing their country. Sid Vohra hosted from the Indian side but Fakhre Alam from Pakistan stole the show with the manner in which he hosted the evening — like a ring announcer in sporting match that requires the opponents to go against each other head-to-head.
The resident DJ, Kung Fu Panda (yes, that really was his name) played a small part from the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s qawwali Mast Qalandar Mast that both of the bands were supposed to cover in their performances. It was evident by the response that everyone in the audience was more than familiar with the song.
Strings sang a very slow, sober version of the song that echoed with soul. It was new, innovative and preserved the spirituality of the song. They avoided singing the main Mast Qalandar part of the song, ending their line right before it. The understanding being that for anyone who is familiar with the song, these words would resonate within rather than come from outside.
Euphoria picked up the pace with their own version. The intro their guitarist provided was quite impressive — he shredded his guitar in his beautiful solo before the band dhol-ed it up like most of their songs. They seemed more intent on making more noise in the song instead of enabling people to embrace the spirituality of it.
That became more than evident when they merged the qawwali with — horror upon horrors — Kajra Re (OST Bunty aur Babli). Merging a Bollywood item number with a Sufi qawwali, where is the sense in that? They might’ve gotten away with in Dubai, but this sort of thing wouldn’t have been acceptable on home ground. That’s also a problem that comes about when you perform a composition without fully understanding the essence of it.
In this round, each band had to start playing one of their own songs and the opposing band had to finish it in their own way. From Strings’ side came Chaaye Chaaye and Yahan Koi Aaney Wala Hai and from Euphoria’s side came Ab Na Ja and Mehfooz Ho — both were their slower, more ballady numbers.
Euphoria would introduce more percussions in their versions of String’s songs and would do medleys with other songs merged in their rather long performances. Strings would pick up the pace of Euphoria’s songs and introduce a more old-school rock element in them.
With the ongoing banter between the two bands in between songs, it was more than evident that this was a friendly competition and it was interesting to see how each act adopted the other’s music.
DJ Kung Fu Panda provided the tune, and the bands had to perform according to that genre. The first genre on play was dubbed as ‘Unplugged’ and Strings chose to get a guest artist, Sophia on the violin, to collaborate with them on Sar Kiye Yeh Pahaar. It was a beautiful performance. The band had the lights turned off, enveloping most of the hall in darkness and they asked the audience to illuminate the venue with the light of their cellphones. And they did. “We want a galaxy of stars,” said Faisal Kapadia on stage. And that’s exactly what they got.
Euphoria changed their wardrobe for this one — from desi band outfits, they followed a black and red theme and sang an unplugged version of their song Alvida.
The genre that followed was reggae. Strings sang their song Meri Sohniye for this one and Euphoria brought in local guest musicians on the meena and darbuka for their medley of songs which included Yama Yama, Masha Allah and only for the last one, Roop Tera Mastana, did they switch to reggae.
For the ‘electronic’ genre, Strings peformed Dhaani and Euphoria, Sanson Mein Ho Tum.
Round: Wild card
Each band gets to pick an artiste of their choice from the opposing country. Sagarika, whom most would remember from the late ’90s/early 2000s as Shaan’s sister (the singer from India) was selected by Strings to sing a duet with them. This doesn’t come as a surprise as Sagarika collaborated with the duo on a song called Pal for their 2003 album, Dhaani, which they also performed on stage at the Soundclash. Strings was getting together with Sagarika after 13 years.
Euphoria selected Pakistani songstress Quratulain Baloch — who, one must say, is a rockstar and a half, at least in terms of attitude. She came dressed in a shimmering black kurta pajama and belted out the opening sequence to what is Euphoria’s most recognisable song, Mairee. There couldn’t have been a better choice for this. QB’s voice has a raw grittiness to it, which complemented Mairee perfectly.
The only downside was that this was pretty much the only part she had in the entire ‘duet’ other than maybe one more line somewhere in the middle. The rest of the song she sang with the backing vocalists — and a backing vocalist she is not; she is more than that. It would’ve been nice if Euphoria had given her a more equal share in the song, as Strings did with Sagarika.
QB did get a chance to shine, albeit briefly, when at the end with all of the artists assembled on stage Bilal handed her the microphone. She belted out the main chorus of Woh Humsafar Tha and the audience erupted in applause and appreciation. Two lines, and that’s all it took to show what a star she is.
For a band that claimed to be the last bastion against Bollywood’s increasing influence in India’s pop music industry, Euphoria performed a lot of filmi music — both old and new. They continued to do so right up to and beyond the point when the audience began leaving the hall at the end of the evening.
Strings won the most number of rounds but chose not to make a big deal out of their ‘win’ and shared the limelight with Euphoria — there are no winners or losers when a brother plays with another brother. Euphoria band members moved to the Strings’ side of the performance area with a Pakistani and Indian band stitched together and everyone exchanged hugs. All of the artists came on stage and sang together.
In the end, Euphoria displayed a lot of personality but Strings had better, more recognisable songs. But the Redbull Soundclash, despite its title, wasn’t an event of two bands competing with each other: it was a story of friendship — of brotherhood beyond borders.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, December 7th, 2014