Veteran multi-instrumentalist and former guitarist for one of the most iconic bands in Pakistan’s pop music history — Vital Signs — Rizwan-ul-Haq has decided to return to the limelight after a long sabbatical. He is reviving his independent Islamabad-based band, Rocklite, which he was the leading light of in the latter part of the ’90s. Rizwan’s return comes as he’s turned 50, and he says he feels rejuvenated and perhaps as electrified, if not more, as he was in his heyday. Rocklite comes back with a new line-up and a fresher, quirky sound.

The first single from his ongoing album under the umbrella of Rocklite, Kon Hai Woh, left an impression for its retro vibe, complemented by an amusing half-animated music video helmed by Zeeshan Perwez. This was followed by their second and most recent release, the peculiarly titled Tharki Buddha, an idea that was apparently birthed during an observant train ride that the front-man took from Islamabad to Karachi. Thus, with Rizwan turning to his forte and playing the guitars, Allan Smith of Junoon on percussion, Imran Hassan on bass and Bilal Ashraf on vocals — amongst others — Rocklite serves as a time machine back to the progressive, simpler melodies of the ’80s.

“I was thinking only a couple of months ago — I thought about it very seriously— I’ve spent all my life playing music and somewhere I had just given up,” Rizwan began as he sat down to dissect his comeback of sorts. “I wasn’t as serious about it as I am now. I thought to myself that I’d give it one final go and I got into the studios, recorded about seven songs in four months, which is not bad. All the songs I have with me now, that are a part of the album, have some meaning to them. For instance, there’s this song we’re releasing where we’ve spoken about tolerance.”

Former Vital Signs guitarist Rizwan-ul-Haq returns to the fray by reviving his band Rocklite and working on his first album

The yet-to-be-titled album, being released as singles, will comprise approximately nine tracks, each of which has a “strong message embedded in it.”

Even though he’s had a successful run and been part of local music’s hit parade, Rizwan is far from being obsessed with fame. He’s also far from the conventional, ruggedly good-looking axe-man. He’s grizzled and ‘normal’ in the most unadorned manner, yet he believes his craft and the recent adrenaline rush to create overpowers the stereotypes associated with musicians.

“When I was younger and with the Signs, fame felt really nice. But as you advance in life and grow maturer, you begin to understand what recognition truly is and you take it more practically. The charm is there, but I’m aware that there was a huge gap,” he reflects on his position in the fraternity. “People don’t remember faces forever in showbiz. If you’re not seen, people tend to forget, but that’s not something that has ever bothered me. I don’t crave fame. Musically, it did bother me because I’d ask myself why I’m not doing it. I’ve always been someone who’s actively been involved in music.”

For a few years now, Rizwan has worked an office job during the day to provide for his family, and jammed during the night at his studio of sorts, set up at his residence in Islamabad. Now that his shift has required him to invest more than just creatively, does he view music as a business? “It is and it isn’t,” he is quick to respond, “I do need to come up with music for the mainstream market, but I’m making music for people to listen to, and I give it my all and do it all very passionately. And when it comes to the money aspect of things, it is still pretty really far off. Monetising music online is still an issue in Pakistan.”

For a few years now, Rizwan has worked an office job during the day to provide for his family, and jammed during the night at his studio of sorts, set up at his residence in Islamabad.

Rizwan has high hopes that politicians can solve some of the monetary issues facing musicians in the country. “There are some artists, such as Haroon, Fakhre Alam and Salman Ahmed, who have collaborated with the Government of Pakistan [to address the problems]. In fact, [Human Rights Minister] Dr. Shireen Mazari has been very supportive. She’s taking it very seriously and they’re collectively coming up with a strategy of licensing music, bringing back royalties such as we received from EMI Records during the days of Vital Signs. I think once this committee [formed by the government] does come into its own, it will pay off.”

Until then, the only way forward, he feels, is to bag live gigs as the concert-going culture revives and flourishes by the day. Having already performed for the capital’s niche diplomatic circle, he now hopes to break back into the mainstream. Ecstatic to be beginning a new chapter, Rizwan is, however, also cognisant of the stresses a new musical venture can place on musicians’ families.

“I’m doing an average of one song every two months, and I don’t want to stop doing that,” he says. “I have too many ideas up there and I don’t know how or why, it’s just happening through God. My family is also very encouraging. My kids love it, my wife’s okay about it.

“Music does have a lot to do with sacrifice and when you have a family, you need to find a fine balance. You have to be very careful and, if you’re not doing it calculatedly, you’re either hurting yourself or your loved ones. I think I have been intelligent about handling this, I’ve stayed sober and grounded.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 21st, 2019