As I walked through the gate of the Esakhelvi house in Lahore it felt like I was transported to another space, time and era. I could feel the musical energy all around me. The family name, which has its roots in Mianwali in north-western Punjab, is known to everyone, from long haul truck drivers to more urbane music aficionados. The patriarch of the family, widely known as ‘Lala’, is one of the living legends of the subcontinent.
Attaullah Khan Esakhelvi has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the Pride of Performance award in Pakistan and a Lifetime Achievement Award from Queen Elizabeth II. The Guinness Book of World Records also features him, for recording an incredible number of songs, second only to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Now carrying his father’s legacy forward is Sanwal Eskhalevi, a former cricketer and sound engineer working in the UK who returned to Pakistan to hone his musical talent and follow in the footsteps of his childhood inspirations such as Mehdi Hassan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Tufail Niazi and, of course, his father Attaullah Khan.
The new star on the horizon of music, Sanwal Esakhelvi, talks about his inspirations, his strengths and Pakistan’s rich tradition of folk music
During our conversation, it becomes clear to me that Sanwal would make a fitting global ambassador for fusion music, what with his experimentation in music and having had the same vocal trainer as Amy Winehouse. The future looks bright for this dreamer-cum-singer after his debut on Coke Studio Season 10. Excerpts from the interview follow.
From cricket to engineering to singing … How did that come about?
After an injury while playing cricket in 2001, I continued to play for five more years but then I had to stop and decide. It wasn’t easy. From then on I turned to music.
Is there pressure on you to continue the legacy of the Esakhelvi tradition given that your sister Lariab Atta is an FX animator in Hollywood and your brother, Bilawal, a scriptwriter?
The pressure is immense. Only those who are in my situation can understand what it’s like. For instance, Shafqat Amanat Ali carrying on his father’s legacy or Rahat Fateh Ali Khan sahib living up to the reputation of being the nephew of Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. You are expected to deliver the goods, and especially in the music business it’s twice as hard. You reach breaking point often but you have to stay strong and not let things get to you. Lariab never wanted any of it and since I am an electronic engineer, my first priority is to be technically correct when it comes to sound.
My father was born in a different era and time. The environment and inspirations were totally different back then from what they are now. He didn’t have to carry on the Esakhlevi name and hence he faced no such pressure. I, on the other hand, have to live up to the name and fame. Whatever I do has to be of a certain quality. But honestly speaking, I haven’t taken up music after any pressure. I’m lucky enough to tap into the soul of what music is. If I wanted to achieve fame, I would have done covers of Kameez Teri Kali and Theva a long time ago. I want to keep the legacy aside and discover myself as a musician, sound engineer, producer and then bring all of these together.
Right now, I feel the technicalities in music are being ignored. If you take a song from our part of the world and compare it to any foreign composition, you will see a huge difference.
How was your experience as a debut singer on Coke Studio Season 10?
Pakistan’s version of Coke Studio is more famous than India’s. To run a music show for 10 seasons is not easy. I wanted to work with big musicians. I wanted to experience Coke Studio and see how it shapes me as a musician. It was a huge learning curve for me. In many ways, it made me find myself as a musician.
You also ended up as a sound designer on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I believe?
I had some experience working as a visual effects artist and it was my sister who encouraged me to do it. When I entered the field, I realised it’s not easy and since I was into other things as well, I had to leave it.
Which music genres have you listened to while growing up?
In my younger days: folk and playback. Then lots of different stuff. Then after the injury and the recovery phase, I started listening to progressive rock, R&B, Muse, Linkin Park, Foo Fighters, Radiohead, Amy Winehouse and John Mayer etc. Also, Vital Signs, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Attaullah Esakhelvi, Tufail Niazi, who by the way is one of the most talented folk artists of the subcontinent, the way he used to take on the off notes. Technically, he was really good. Nazia and Zoheb Hasan as well.
What were the inspirations behind the collaborative album Minology with Spanish Producer Jonathan Espinosa. It also carries a short story as a note before the soundtrack plays.
Minology is a collaboration with international artists and is an example of touching the soul and the inner self. I just went with the flow and reacted to the music that was being created.
My father was born in a different era and time. The environment and inspirations were totally different back then from what they are now. He didn’t have to carry on the Esakhlevi name and hence he faced no such pressure. I, on the other hand, have to live up to the name and fame. Whatever I do has to be of a certain quality. But honestly speaking, I haven’t taken up music after any pressure. I’m lucky enough to tap into the soul of what music is. If I wanted to achieve fame, I would have done covers of Kameez Teri Kali and Theva a long time ago. I want to keep the legacy aside and discover myself as a musician, sound engineer, producer and then bring all of these together.”
Jonathan Espinosa was also my teacher. We met after six or seven years. He asked me what I was up to, and said he had shot a couple of songs, done a couple of tracks, mastered and mixed everything. He asked me to listen to the project and see what I could do for it. Some 20 minutes later, I came up with the vocals for what he had shot. I went into the studio and came out with a track three hours later. That is how music should be. Artistic essence and creativity is what it’s all about. The commercial [aspect] is also necessary but if it takes over, you are finished.
Your songs on Patari.pk, Mera Watan and Sakhoo Na Meet come across as your inner voice …
Sakhoo Na Meet is a folk track. It’s an original, not a cover. It’s just me taking myself through different versions in folk traditional style. Being a music producer, I do music collaborations in different styles.
Are you interested in collaborating in cross-cultural music, like in India or Hollywood?
Why not? Like Khan Sahib and Peter Gabriel’s sounds merged and became something different, taking our music forward on a global level. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s music will not die out because it has soul in it. I am looking to do singles in the future. I am a very dark artist, so you would find darkness in my composition, arrangements and music. My father’s debut album was dark too — Zindagi ka Janaza Uthe Ga — it made him who he is today. If you have an ear, you would find darkness even in Kameez Teri Kali too. That’s what you call soul. It’s not just love that brings darkness but self-discovery, family, friends and failures.
Are you also into literature?
Yes. Reading gives you perspective. If you don’t have fiction up there, inside your head, you are bound to follow not lead.
We have revisited many rich traditions in folk music through Coke Studio. Do you agree?
Our folk music is our strength. That’s who we are. Like Tajdar-i-Haram by Atif Aslam in Season 8, my father’s Ni Oothan Waale Pyarnaal and Tufail Niazi’s Lai Beqadraa Nal Yaari by Niazi Brothers in Season 7 Episode 1. Fusion is a good thing. But I also do folk music in its original form. I think Pakistan’s music industry is doing great through Coke Studio, Nescafe Basement, Pepsi Battle of the Bands and Patari.
To quote a line from the Oscar-winning film La La Land: “How can you be revolutionary if you are traditionalists for the future?”
Exactly. In the scene the producer tells Ryan Gosling’s character, a musician, that he cannot succeed if he sticks to the original sound and does not change with the times. One real-life example of such an artist and of whom I’m a huge fan is Amy Winehouse. She stuck with the Jazz genre but she kept it original with her authentic voice which kept her going. In fact, her vocal trainer is my vocal trainer. I had five sessions with him and on the sixth he told me that he had worked with Amy Winehouse!
If you had not grown up in this environment, would you still have flourished as a musician?
Yes, I probably would have. I had the drive from a very young age. At the age of 12 or 13, I moved to England and stayed in a boarding school. I left my family, country and my legacy behind to learn and grow into my own person. Over the course of the 16-17 years that I stayed there, I didn’t have all these things that could fuel my inner drive. It is something inborn. Somehow it stayed with me. It was strong enough not to disappear with time. But the thing with art is it’s not a business empire that I would inherit from my father one day. It’s something that I have to start from scratch.
Published in Dawn, ICON, October 29th, 2017