The album Begum Gul Bakaoli Sarfarosh
The album Begum Gul Bakaoli Sarfarosh

No demo in Pakistani pop has ever been loved more than Mujhay Roko. Before last Friday, the song existed in two equally poorly recorded versions: one laden with synth-fills and an almost dance beat and the second a more emotional, bare-bones duet of the brothers on an acoustic guitar. But in both we heard something greater — honesty about the melody, sincerity in the words, the promise that there was something better out there. Not least a final, complete take on Mujhay Roko.

Mujhay Roko is about the struggle between a mind that won’t stop churning and heart that can’t bear to stop feeling in the face of all the hurt. Above it all though, it is a song about transcendence — about the belief that you can rise above the never-ending dialogue inside you, that there is something bigger worth fighting for, and that the fight will be won.

We all need to hear that. And it seems now, that Noori themselves did too. Suno ke Main Hoon Jawan, their first album, is to this day an empowering anthem for everyone that heard it when it came out. It was a call to belief, to action, and towards greater purpose. Noori saw themselves as the torchbearers of a more enlightened, energised public discourse. A torch they carried with pioneering sound and a killer live act.

The backbone of the album Begum Gul Bakaoli Sarfarosh is a series of anthems in true Noori fashion

Noori followed this with Peeli Patti aur Raja Jani ki Gol Dunya, a sobering take into the hardships that you are likely to face if you go out to pick an honest fight. The two albums formed two sections of what Noori had identified to be a thematic trilogy that encompassed a journey of life. But then doubt creeped in about whether this journey would ever come full circle.

In the time since Peeli Patti, Noori have put out a live album, made conquering appearances on Coke Studio, lost and regained and then lost again half of their band. Through this time there have been proclamations of the famed third album. Promises were made, most were broken. But perhaps most haunting was that it was the band’s spirits that appeared to have broken.

At times the album was in the works, at times it wasn’t. Sometimes the band seemed to have hit new creative highs, then they’d break up again. For a while the upcoming album was the missing third piece in the band’s ensemble, then suddenly it wasn’t. Noori prides itself on having survived all this, owing it all to the love they have received from their previous work and the hundreds of demos that remain evidence that their creative powers have not left them.

The band’s grandiose statements about their influence on the music industry and the change that they still have the power to trigger, have solid grounding. But over time these statements had begun to read less as motivation for their fans and more as reassurance for themselves about their continued relevance and staying power.

They needed this because they were scared; scared of ruining Mujhay Roko. Ali Noor has acknowledged that much. The song had become so much bigger in the audience’s imagination that it seemed there was all to lose and maybe nothing to gain. And if that were true then what good were the promises that this song and all their songs had made? What truth was there to any of it if it could all never come full circle?

Begum Gul Bakaoli Sarfarosh had to sound triumphant. For what it’s worth, Noori could have put out any album and many of their fans would still have swooned. Such is their following. But for the sanctity of the promise they made us in 2003, and for a renewed belief that Noori was what they set out to be, and what we made them to be, there was no other way but for the album to attempt to reaffirm our and their faith.

Noori’s album Begum Gul Bakaoli Sarfarosh does complete the trilogy, by loosely tying to a broad thematic picture like its predecessors. The titular character is a migrant into newly formed Pakistan, discovering that freedom was not entirely as advertised. This premise is laid out by 1947. The backbone of the album is then a series of anthems in true Noori fashion that provide both acknowledgement that life’s challenges are difficult, and that we can still find it within ourselves to rise from them. To the youthful exuberance of the first two records, this album holds a sort of a weathered wisdom.

The band’s first two albums were clearly patriotic in their own understated way, but BGBS is closer to the soil than any of their other works before. This mirrors the band’s own acknowledgement of their responsibilities as citizens and of the situation around them. Fueled both by the effects of the political and cultural climate on the music industry and as a result of the band becoming parents. Now more than ever awake to the realisation that they must leave a home for their children that they are at peace with.

But in other ways this album does not stand on its own like its predecessors. Lacking in this album is a sonic identity as was glaringly obvious in Suno and Peeli Patti. The drums are straighter, the guitar tones are fuller all the time, the texture at first a little bit more monotonous. But it becomes clear why it is this way once you see the album as a giant release of pent-up creative energy, fear and doubt. One that must answer the existential questions that band’s actions and songs have loomed over them.

Through the noticeably fast tempos, the extended choruses, the chant-alongs with a large number of fans that find their way into a number of recordings, Noori recreate what it means to be Noori. The real experience of this band is live, and it is on stage, that through the years in wilderness that Noori have remained kings. And it is through their sound on stage that they try to find their voice again.

And this is how Mujhay Roko is completed. On its final studio version, on the tail end of the album, Mujhay Roko is a forceful lift-off that never comes back down. The glam-rock angst in Ali Noor’s guitar playing meets the folk warmth of Ali Hamza bass. The vulnerability of the original recording instead replaced with a recreation of the enthusiasm this song receives when played live in this pseudo-live recording.

It is fitting that the song is recorded as an almost fake version of itself, remaining an urban myth that never really completes itself in a studio form as we expected. Because in this manner Mujhay Roko itself has transcended. It has transcended its own legacy, and become instead a pointer to something greater: the potential resurgence of a band that taught us how to believe. 

Begum Gul Bakaoli Sarfarosh adds to Noori’s canon, but one hopes that its lasting value is in freeing the band to fight more than just themselves.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 25th, 2015

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