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THE ICON INTERVIEW: SUFI, SOUL, ROCK ‘N’ ROLL

February 03, 2019

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Chand Tara Orchestra - Photography: Ameeq Pirzada
Chand Tara Orchestra - Photography: Ameeq Pirzada

I’m told, this is where it’s all happened, in Omran Shafique’s studio where I meet him and the founding member of the band they’re a part of — Babar Sheikh. It’s here where they came together to create the first album, Volume 1, from a collaboration of music and video industry giants called the Chand Tara Orchestra (CTO). There’s Omran Shafique, who’s been a part of Coke Studio since its inception, plays with Ali Azmat, has been a part of popular bands such as Mauj and Co-VEN. He’s also done a lot of work as a music producer.

Alongside him, there is the versatile Babar Sheikh. He’s one of Pakistan’s top video directors, and member of somewhat alternative bands, Ganda Banda and the 3D Cats, Dusk (along with Faraz Anwar). When he’s not directing films or strumming his guitar, he’s teaching filmmaking at a local university.

One of the main members of the band is Rizwanullah Khan. “My partner in beauty and art,” adds Babar. “I don’t like calling it crime.” When it comes to drummers, they change their line-up quite frequently.

In a conversation with Icon, the bandmembers behind the Chand Tara Orchestra talk about the almost decade-long journey it took for them to release their debut album, Volume 1

And then on vocals, we have Shaheryar ‘Sherry’ Tariq, who’s been with the band since its inception almost a decade ago — except for a very brief period in between. “We got Ahsan Bari to come in, literally, a day before one of the shows for a rehearsal and we played the next day!” laughs Omran. “And we played a kickass show,” affirms Babar, adding that it’s the improv nature of the band, the spontaneity in which music just comes together sprinkled with lots and lots of soul ... the essence of CTO.

CTO aims to be a classic alternative-rock band with a twist, their lyrical content is ‘borrowed’ from the poetry of Sufi saints, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and ‘existing kalams.’ On paper, it sounds a lot like what the Mekaal Hasan Band (MHB) was about when it first came out just under two decades ago, but in reality, CTO sounds nothing like MHB.

Babar Sheikh
Babar Sheikh

“I live in the ’80s, musically,” says Babar. “There are a lot of bands abroad right now that know what to take from that genre or time and how to reapply it.”

“They cut out the fat, what’s not needed,” adds Omran. “That’s what the Chand Tara experiment really is.” “That’s exactly what it is,” affirms Babar.

Both Babar and Omran are quite strong personalities. Sometimes they talk over each other, but often confirming what the other says, adding to or even finishing off each other’s sentences.

Chand Tara Orchestra (CTO) aims to be a classic alternative-rock band with a twist, their lyrical content is ‘borrowed’ from the poetry of Sufi saints, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and ‘existing kalams.’ On paper, it sounds a lot like what the Mekaal Hasan Band (MHB) was about when it first came out just under two decades ago, but in reality, CTO sounds nothing like MHB.

Although the original line-up of CTO was formed back in 2010-2011, I’m told back then the band followed a different concept. “It was more of a live band,” says Babar, “with a focus on free form and improv. There was no talk of recording back then.”

It might have taken eight or so years, but CTO has finally come out with their first album. Volume 1 is available to hear in its entirety on Patari.

A few years ago, in a section of the press, CTO was described as a ‘super group.’ How do they feel about that now? “I guess it’s a super group because we’re like, old farts, and we’ve been around long enough!” laughs Omran. Judging by Babar’s expression, I can tell he doesn’t think of himself as an ‘old fart’ ha!

“I think it became that when Gumby joined the band because then we were three strong faces that were a part of it,” says Omran. “But we’ve been, like, a factory of drummers. We’re lucky enough to have some of the best guys in the band. There’s Gumby on Khaak Nasheen, in [our performance in] Coke Studio we had Kami on Nami Danam, we had Ahad play on Meda Dil, then we had Aziz play on two tracks — Nami Daman’s electronic version on the album and Rung De. Sikandar Mufti has also been a part of the band at some point. We almost have a different drummer with every song. Which I think adds a bit of flavour to things.”

Omran Shafique
Omran Shafique

Although they’re all quite skilled and technically proficient musicians, what they truly love about how they jam together is the mistakes. “When Gumby was in the band, he only played on a song called Khaak Nasheen,” says Babar. “That’s full of mistakes, but he loves it. Gumby’s always been recorded pitch perfect. But he also got into the idea of letting go.”

Financially, it makes sense to release a song or a single ever so often and then have a video for it. But I would like a group of songs to come out at some point,” says Omran

Louis J. Pinto or Gumby, as he’s popularly known, is one of the most prominent musicians in Pakistan’s music industry. He also moonlights as a music producer. “I don’t want to do any ‘hobby band’,” Gumby is said to have stated when they asked him to be a part of the group sometime in 2016. “We said, ‘It’s not a hobby band. It’s something we want to pursue seriously’,” related Babar. “We had our intentions.”

“We’re not a hobby band, but we’re also not trying to be a ‘Top 20’ band,” interjects Omran, adding that it was their other commitments, Coke Studio sessions for Omran and working on video film projects for Babar and Gumby’s own commitments that prevented them from focusing too much on CTO.

“It was taking too long and I think it basically reached a point where he messaged on the WhatsApp group: ‘Best of luck guys. I don’t want to make anything uncomfortable for anybody, but I’m out’.” And that was it. Gumby had been with the band for roughly under a year. Time to find a new drummer.

“To his credit, Gumby had a very good regimented approach,” says Babar. “It’s good to have discipline, but sometimes, you can’t force-feed creativity. You cannot say: we’ll meet on Sunday and we’ll do two songs.” If the inspiration and creative magic isn’t there, it’s not going to work.

Considering that Babar is one of the top filmmakers in the industry who has made some truly legendary music videos, does he plan to direct CTO’s music videos as well? “No way!” he exclaims. “Two videos have come out so far. Khaak Nasheen was done by my students which turned out beautifully. This one has been produced by Shani here who works together with me, I run a film business. The director of the video is my assistant director.”

Seems like you’re pretty heavily involved, I tell him. “I didn’t go into the nitty gritty,” he says defensively. “Nowadays, things have changed. You don’t need intense narrative videos, you just need some nice visuals to go with your music.”

But you’ve done some intense narrative videos, I say to him. There was the dark and grainy video he directed of the somewhat eerie but haunting Kitni Sadiyaan (2004) by Mizraab, shot at the Cantt Station in Lahore. Babar also directed the video of Teri Yaad by Jal shot with the Lucky China Circus around 2004 as well, I remind him. Both of these are intense narrative videos.

“It worked for that time,” he responds firmly.

But they were so good, I protest. “Well, nobody wants to invest so much money into videos anymore,” he says.

You’ve been around for a very long time, I say to Omran, you’ve seen how the music industry has changed, for example, from distribution via TV channels, cassettes and CDs to primarily a digital form available on online media streaming services. Have you had to adapt your approach?

“To some degree,” he responds thoughtfully. “Financially, it makes sense to release a song or a single ever so often and then have a video for it. But I would like a group of songs to come out at some point. We have about seven or eight songs and we can release them over the next two to three years for whatever maximum impact. But, internet metrics and all such things aside, for me, an artist really comes across when s/he releases a collection of songs and they’re not all singles.”

“It’s like you’ve got the deep cuts,” Omran elaborates. By ‘deep cuts’ he’s referring to the songs in the album that are extra, other than the band’s big hits — the ones that don’t get marketed. “I think the deep cuts now get lost because everyone’s so worried about making songs that’re going to be massively popular,” he explains. “That [deep cuts] is what makes the identity of the artist. That really tells you who the artist is apart from their most commercial song. For someone to say, ‘I’ve only heard their stuff on the radio’. That’s the worst stuff. That’s not what you listen to get into the band.

“Woh cheez reh gaye hai [That’s what has been lost]. All these new acts are just releasing singles. You’re also placing undue pressure on every song to be a hit. Not every song has to be a hit, not every song is supposed to be a hit.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 3rd, 2019