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SOUNDCHECK: THE NEW SOUND

October 08, 2017
Photo: Hassan Dar
Photo: Hassan Dar

What does the ultimate team player do when he suddenly sets his sights on ‘world domination’? He releases his first solo album, of course.

Asad Ahmed has decades of experience as a musician playing with numerous bands and solo artists, including the likes of Vital Signs, Ali Zafar, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Sajjad Ali. Despite being a lead guitarist and an integral part of three seminal bands, however, Asad has mostly remained in the shadows, choosing to play a supportive role for others rather than grabbing the limelight through flash and exploitation of his celebrity. But perhaps he was just biding his time. After years of gaining invaluable experience in the music industry he is now up to something closer to his heart — his first solo album, Rebirth.

When I hear about the launch of the album, I contact Asad to meet up with him. Asad welcomes me to his state-of-the-art home studio in Defence, Karachi. It is a post-production facility where Asad mixes and produces his music. The ambience seems cozy with comfortable leather couches placed on a wooden floor and guitars hanging on the dark green walls. One interesting aspect of the studio Asad tells me is that the window is bullet-proof; which is of course done for sound insulation. His long hair, once styled in the fashion of the big hair bands of the 1980s, is pulled back into a ponytail. With his wire-rim glasses he seems almost studious, more mature, which he is now of course. His collection of guitars, of which I have always been a fan, lie stacked neatly in a corner.

With the release of his debut solo album Rebirth, Asad Ahmed has his sights set on going international

Where he has been all this time? “I have actually been really busy with projects over the last 10 years,” he says. “Five years of Coke Studio during Rohail Hyatt’s tenure, from Season 2 till Season 6. Then there were many recording projects for Bollywood films like London, Paris, New York [starring Ali Zafar] and some corporate jingles. I also toured with artists such as Ali Azmat and Ali Zafar during this period. It was after the disbandment of [Asad’s band] Karavan in 2012 that I decided to set up a post-production studio at home to begin recording my solo album.”

I ask him why, having always remained a team player, has he decided to go solo. “Being a solo artist is really liberating because you no longer have to rely on other peoples’ input,” he tells me matter-of-factly. “I can now make all the melodies myself and play them on the guitar as opposed to having a singer interpret them. I have played the guitar, keyboards and bass on my album Rebirth. For the tracks which demanded a more proficient bassist, I took on Bradley D’Souza and my buddy Eric Soussan from Phoenix, Arizona, to play the drums. Rebirth is a direct response to fans’ demands for an all-guitar album. The instrumental album also opens doors to an international audience sans the language barrier. I hope to tour the world far more than I have in the past.”

Asad has seen the highs and lows of Pakistan’s pop music industry. After starting out in 1987 with the short-lived The Barbarians — often regarded as Pakistan’s first hard rock band — he has been the lead guitarist for two other famous Pakistani bands, Awaz and Karavan. For the more pop-ish Awaz, during the heydays of the 1990s, he teamed up with Haroon Rashid and Faakhir Mehmood and together they released three albums, giving massive hits such as Jadu Ka Chiragh, Main Na Manu Haar and Ae Jawan. They disbanded when Haroon and Faakhir launched their solo careers.

Being a solo artist is really liberating because you no longer have to rely on other peoples’ input,” Asad Ahmed says matter-of-factly. “I can now make all the melodies myself and play them on the guitar as opposed to having a singer interpret them. I have played the guitar, keyboards and bass on my album Rebirth.”

Later on, Asad formed the more rock-centred Karavan which led to an even more interesting story. It initially featured Najam Sheraz on vocals, Sameer Ahmed on bass and Allan Smith on drums. After their first album, Rakh Aas, Najam went back to his solo career and Karavan replaced him with Tanseer Dar. They released three reasonably successful albums, Safar, Gardish and Sara Jahan before dissolving in 2012.

Asad remained resilient and survived the lean patch of Pakistani music post-2008 as the music industry plummeted into an abyss with hardly any album releases and few-and-far-between concerts. Then came Coke Studio (CS) under Rohail Hyatt which, in addition to producing some marvelous music, also gave much-needed financial stability to musicians.

“Coke Studio gave me an opportunity to play music with artists whom I have admired and come to respect over the years. It also reaffirmed my faith in our heritage music as being the strongest export from Pakistan. Qawwali and traditional folk music are the best things to come out of Pakistan. I have Rohail to thank for introducing me to it, and understanding the way it is structured and composed.”

How does he rate the music programme after Rohail’s exit? “Making comparisons is difficult,” he says deflecting the direct question. “I believe Rohail conceived the idea and brought great spirit and soul to CS. Strings are just carrying on the legacy of a show he built and doing a decent job of it. The other cool thing is that CS gives a lot of younger and older musicians a chance to show their talent, which is essential for musical growth.”

Rebirth

Rebirth marks the return of Asad Ahmed the guitarist. Did he always want to do an instrumental album? “It started off as an idea for a solo album with different singers,” explains Asad, “and quickly evolved into an instrumental after consultation with American producers who advised me to pursue a solo career as an instrumentalist and producer. I ended up recording 20-plus tracks out of which I chose 10 for Rebirth. It has been a great learning experience. Rebirth is a reinvention of sorts that I am really proud of.”

Asad plays me some of the album. From the first listen the album captivates me. The tracks on Rebirth are of a fairly diverse nature. The first is Animal, an all-out rock number which will appeal to rock fans and whose video has been used to launch the album. But the song I really love is Bitter Sweet Love, about a relationship that has become emotionally distant but which remains physically potent. A video of the song will also be out soon.

The title track is about letting go of the past and looking to the future, while Inside the Vortex ignites slowly before reaching a turning point and then goes full-speed ahead, drawing the listener into its vortex. Maximum Throttle is a signature rock number while Will You will appease hardcore metal fans.

My favourite guitar riffs are on the latter with some immaculate guitar playing by Asad. Grand Design is a funky rock number complete with a blasting horn section while Drive All Night was written during a road trip he took from Houston to Los Angeles. Up-tempo in beat, it has a very catchy riff. Interestingly, the final track Above the Cloud was composed while Asad was flying over Europe in an airplane. He says the melody came to him instantly.

According to Asad, “Rebirth is a new sound. I listen to Pakistani music and I listen to the music produced globally and I see ours is quite outdated. So, with Rebirth, I am saying this is the sound of the 21st century and the future.”

Isn’t going totally instrumental a huge risk for a comeback album, I venture to ask. He is quick to respond: “Instrumental music will work all over the world. Pakistan is only one country on the map. I am looking at worlddomination, which is why I chose to do instrumentals as opposed to vocals in Urdu or English. Being on iTunes and 800 other online streaming services affords me the luxury of not thinking about one region but the whole planet!”

Asad is particularly proud of his technical expertise in production on the album. “Before starting off, I did a lot of reading and studying about how to capture instruments and identifying certain frequencies. It is a lot of work and not for the faint-hearted. But once you get results, it’s extremely gratifying. I sent my masters to a well-known mastering engineer in the US and his response was ‘Great job! I can hear and feel all the instruments. You don’t need me to fix anything.’ His approval really made my day.”

Changing industry

Asad is also more content now with the music scene in Pakistan. “There is plenty of talent out there, it just needs to be nurtured and protected. With EMI Pakistan now back in the game I believe artists — both new and old — will have a place to build their catalogue and get paid for it.”

But he also understands the shift in the music business. “In the past you had CDs and tapes which would sell and earn you royalty or a one-time payment only. Today we have the online revolution with iTunes, YouTube, Sound Cloud, Spotify and other streaming services which are monetised and can make you huge sums of money. If today’s musician understands that it’s now called the ‘music business’ and not just ‘music’ then he or she stands to have a successful career.”

Asad is also a strong proponent of social media and considers it a prime factor in the promotion of music. “With the advent of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube etc, you no longer become just a Pakistani artist but an international one.” World domination is obviously never far from his thoughts.

Does this mean his days of collaborating with other musicians, particularly singers are behind him? “In the future I would like to have other artists play on some of my albums,” he says with a smile. “But we’ll see when the time comes.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 8th, 2017