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SOUNDSCAPE: IN SESSION WITH THE ALBERTS

June 09, 2019

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Salman Albert - Photos courtesy Albert Studios
Salman Albert - Photos courtesy Albert Studios

It is a spacious three-room basement — a veritable haven for those who want to cut themselves off from the mundanity of real life, and just create art. The walls are slightly bare, except for the posters of Nirvana and Slayer on one side of the room that make their presence felt.

A dog-eared poster reads ‘No smoking, eating or drinking inside the control room please’. Inside, the faint glow of monitor screens light up the dark room with padded walls. In an adjacent room, guitars stand seductively waiting to be held, a couple of amps sit like rocks, and an old faithful Korg keyboard is ready to stir up some trouble.

On this quiet May afternoon in Lahore, Farhan Albert, with his usual solemn demeanour, remembers how he and his brother Salman landed in music, and how far they have travelled. It has been 30 years since they first dabbled in music and, today, after collaborating with several artists including Junoon, Mekaal Hasan, Shahzad Hameed and Jal — some of whose songs have also won national awards — the brothers have now begun working on their own material under the name of Farhan aur Salman. They have a variety of influences and are not restricted to any one style. Their new song, Sapnay, is an edgy and intense track with heavy progressive rock influences. It speaks of their journey and talks about band experiences through thick and thin.

“Music was never alien to us because of family,” begins Farhan. “Irene Parveen, who did lead vocals on the film song Tumhi Ho Mehboob Mere, was my paternal aunt. Her brother and my uncle, Sohail Basil, played the guitar in a band called the Wanderers, and my maternal side, though not professional musicians, would bring out their tabla and harmonium to family gatherings, and would sing the night away.”

It has been 30 years since brothers Farhan and Salman Albert started to dabble in music, but for many they remain just sessions players. They are determined to change that

Musical performances were a tradition at Christmas, Easter and other family events. As children, the Alberts would often tag along with their uncle Sohail to see him perform. It was the ’70s, and in Lahore live music was the ‘thing’. It would have been rare not to have a live band playing at a wedding, a birthday, a party or any other kind of celebration. The Wanderers were a product of the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll that hit Pakistan too, but were probably one of the first few bands of Lahore. Most of the time, they played western music, such as the Bee Gees and the Beatles, playing every day by the poolside of the Intercontinental Hotel.

“I was stunned to see the level of appreciation,” says Farhan. “There were hefty tips and people danced to the music. When the country still served alcohol openly, people even sent bottles of whiskey to the band. That was when there were more foreigners here, too. Occasionally, the bands had more bottles than money!”

Visits to the hotel played a large part in the brothers’ exposure to music, for right in the main hall of the hotel was a grand piano, and Farhan, for one, was deeply marked by its echoing tinkles belting out all kinds of compositions. There were other inspirations: the church choir definitely helped.

“Our father played tabla and harmonium and taught us how to play Jaanay kahan gaye woh din” from the Indian film Mera Naam Joker,” he remembers. “Soon, we began working out other songs on our own, especially ghazals by Mehdi Hasan and Ghulam Ali which we also sang at family events.”

It was in 1988, when Dil Dil Pakistan by Vital Signs came out, that the Alberts’ fascination for music turned into a yearning to make it real. “When I saw Rohail Hyatt play his two-tier keyboard, I was hooked!” says Farhan. “I used to go to my room, and pretend to do the same with a couple of book shelves on my wall,” he laughs, remembering. “So I begged my father to get me a keyboard, which he did, and Salman got an acoustic guitar.”

The choir boys helped a little, but music is innate says Farhan.

“We picked up music so easily, it was proof that we were born with it. I strongly believe that artists are born not made from scratch.”

A bunch of boys converged and formed a band with Farhan on keyboard and Salman on guitar. They were nameless till, at a hired event, a friend introduced them as the Eastern Boyz. The name stuck. Before DJs monopolised weddings and parties, bands would be hired to play, which was how they mainly survived. The Eastern Boyz had their fair share of competition. They met many other budding musicians and singers in bands such as String Fellows, Avengers, Night Creatures, Wet Metal (Najam Shiraz), Music Math and Jupiters. And they could also feel a rising popularity. “We were relative unknowns who suddenly shot to fame,” says Farhan.

Affection and admiration brim up inside him as he speaks of his younger brother — who is not yet in the room. “Salman is an exceptional case,” he says. “I have never seen anyone like him before. He plays three different instruments professionally — bass, lead and drums — and performs in different bands all at the same time!”

Farhan Albert
Farhan Albert

As for him, Farhan knew he needed to improve, so once again he went to Intercontinental Hotel to find Master Sadiq Hussain (late), who played piano in the lobby. Master Sadiq was blind from birth but played profusely,both in the hotel and on Radio Pakistan, even at 70 years of age. But today, hardly anyone knows his name. For six months, Farhan learnt piano from the old maestro, till his grasp of playing keys was solid.

The band’s first big hit was Goray rang te basanti jora, which was recorded in one night. Composer M. Ashraf came up with the tune, and with ‘Akhu’ Joseph on vocals and Farhan on backing, they went into recording at Wave Studio. The song — recorded especially for an STN programme called Basanti Eid as both festivals were coinciding that year — was an instant hit. The band actually received stacks of fan mail and began getting recognised in public places.

By 2001 though, the band members had dispersed and as the music scene shifted slightly with more bands cropping up, Eastern Boyz collapsed. While Farhan delved into playing with underground bands such as The Trip (Cecil Chaudhry Jr.), and Blue Buzz (Shahzad Hameed), Salman took the more mainstream route. In the early 2000s, Salman — who had also played drums with Incision — was approached by Entity Paradigm (EP), and soon after also by Jal.

Out of the two brothers, Farhan gives a more sedate “elder brother” vibe, while Salman seems to be oozing with a frenetic restlessness.

Salman finally enters the studio, following his classes at the guitar school. He begins to tell his side of the story. “I heard Aadat and wanted to do live drums for it — something which was not a very popular choice in those days,” he says. “And this time, I chose to record in Mekaal Hasan’s Digital Fidelity instead of Wave. The live drums really brought out the song and now everyone wanted them!”

Salman began playing with both EP and Jal, while Farhan did keyboards for MHB. Salman also did tours with Junoon as a drummer. Eventually, however, session playing took over for both of them. Like Farhan, Salman has worked with some huge industry names including Atif Aslam, Mekaal Hasan Band, Noori, Zeb and Haniya, Farhan Saeed, Quratulain Baloch, Omer Inayat, Ayesha Omer, Roxen/Mustafa Zahid, Rubber Band, Abbas Ali Khan, Javed Bashir and many others.

“You have to be highly professional to be a good session player, because you are playing with many bands,” says Salman. “It’s not easy. It pays more to be in a band monetarily, as there is a percentage you are working for. If you’re doing sessions, you get a fixed sum, even if the band has done well.”

This touches a raw nerve with the Alberts. “We have a serious issue with the fee structure of a session player,” says Farhan gravely.

“If a big name is charging 4 million rupees for a show, and the session player is getting only 40,000 rupees, isn’t it ridiculous?” asks Farhan. “And when they increase their sessions charges every couple of years, people refuse to work with them on new rates.”

“Then there is the rampant lobbyism. If you are part of that lobby, you have different opportunities, otherwise you don’t,” says Farhan. This is probably the other, more real side of the glamorous music industry.

The ‘lobby’ system means some musicians miss out on many of the big projects because a certain ‘crowd’ is always preferred. “Take Coke Studio for instance. After all the producers who have worked there — don’t they know there are Salman and Farhan, too, who have given award-winning songs such as Aadat and Chaltay Chaltay by Jal, Saiyaan by QB, to name just a few?” asks Farhan. “Different producers were given a chance, so why not us? It’s not just us, they never approached a big name such as Mekaal Hasan or Ali Mustafa or Sarmad Ghafoor. Why? Because we aren’t part of that lobby, that’s why.”

“In sab ko humara pata hay lekin lobby wali game hai [They know about us but they play the lobby game],” says Salman. “It’s just about inclusivity. That’s what makes the difference.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, June 9th, 2019