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SOUNDSCAPE: LIGHT AT THE END OF THE TUNNEL

July 07, 2019

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Photo by Awais Gohar
Photo by Awais Gohar

They’ve done it again. Kashmir, the band that won the second season of Pepsi Battle of the Bands (BOTB), has come out with another hauntingly beautiful song called Pari. In a statement posted on their Facebook page, the band mentioned that Pari was written by the 28-year-old singer-songwriter for Kashmir, Bilal Ali, in hopes of helping someone extremely dear to him during a very difficult stage in their life. It was an outlet and a glimmer of hope for them.

The video, directed by Ashar Khalid, is quite simple in its concept, but that’s also its strength. You focus is entirely on the music, the lyrics and the emotion. Filmed entirely in black and white, it shows a young girl who’s clearly in great anguish, listening to the band perform this song in front of her, as if to provide her solace from her pain. Towards the end of the video Bilal reaches out and places his hand on her head, as if to show that he’s got her back and that she’s not alone.

That’s what Bilal hoped to communicate when he wrote this song. “Around three or four years ago, my sister was going through a really rough patch when I wrote this song for her,” he says, his voice visibly cracking from emotion at recalling this period in his life. “I just sent her a small recording of it. The scale of the song was different back then. A few days later she texted me back and told me how it really helped her. She didn’t know how to vent her feelings out to anyone. But I could see it in her eyes and I thought it was the right thing to do. She got better a few months later.”

The video shows a young girl, but in reality, Bilal is the youngest in his family. “I have two older sisters,” he relates. “This is for the elder one. [Our relationship is such that] she’s like both a mum and a younger sister. We’re both very protective of each other.”

Kashmir the band hopes Pari will help others in times of personal trauma, just as it did in the case of singer-songwriter Bilal Ali’s sister who drew strength from it

A year after writing the song, he shared it with the rest of the band. “They liked it as well. [Band member] Ali [Raza] composed a piano piece on it and I really liked it. I thought it complemented the song. I told them why I wrote it, and they thought that if this is something that helped my sister, then it might be able to help others as well.”

I can tell this is something that affects him very much even now. “Yeah,” he said quietly. Does he still feel emotional listening to it? “I do,” he confessed. “I tend not to listen to our own songs. It’s … very weird for me.”

His honesty seems to have had an impact. The band has been inundated with feedback from their listeners. “It’s been huge and great!” says Bilal. “I thought this song would help out women, but men have been tagging their sisters with messages that go, ‘This one’s for you. I know how you’re feeling right now. I this will help you out.’ That’s what we wanted. If it could just help people out.”

What’s next in store for Kashmir? “We have to finish the album in a couple of months,” says Bilal. “We’ve got a couple of videos coming out. The next song we’re going to release is called Bhaago.”

Roughly about a year ago, Bilal logged into his Facebook account to see that someone he knew had posted about their friend who had committed suicide. “I felt that this was all because of us,” he says. “Now we’re coming out and writing [tributes] about that person but they really needed us [when he/she was alive]. Life is so fast these days that no one has time to think about anyone else. I think if we share people’s sorrow the way we partake in their happiness, I think life would be better for everyone.

“So, like Kaghaz ka Jahaz, it starts out like a fun playful song but Bhaago is a taunt, it’s sarcasm towards people, towards us, that we’re always trying to share in peoples’ happiness but not in their sorrows. The main chorus goes:

Sab bhaago bhaago,
Sab bhaago uss se duur,
Dunya ka hai dastoor,
Sab bhaago uss se duur,
Jo hai mayoos.

[Everybody run,
Run far away from them,
It’s the way of this world,
To run far away from them,
Those who are in despair.]

Does he feel the pressure to do more covers or music that’s ‘safe’? “A lot!” he laughs. “Especially if you want to get paid for your work, but thankfully, we’ve never changed our music [for that].” He says they get hired for performances, but get strange feedback or ‘requests’. “They want to hire Kashmir because they’re different, but they want the same lyrics that everyone else is doing and a bit of classical as well … I’m not saying classical is bad, it’s great,” he says. “But that’s not us.”

What’s the worst critique he’s ever gotten? “That ‘he doesn’t know how to write’,” Bilal responds. “People say a lot of things on the internet. I used to discuss it with the band, ‘Are my lyrics really that bad?’ You get insecure, obviously, but now I know better.”

If not for his song writing, sometimes Bilal gets picked on for his singing style. “People start critiquing me saying that you can’t sing classical,” he adds sounding a little frustrated. “I’d like to clarify that I have learned classical, it’s just I sing in a different style. When I sing classical, you won’t recognise my voice. These are two different schools of thought.

Photo by Abdullah Harris
Photo by Abdullah Harris

“That’s what people don’t understand. It’s completely different when you’re singing blues rock or grungy music. You can do classical in that, but everyone’s doing that. Do something different. I grew up listening to Stained, Nirvana etc and for the past 10-12 years I’ve been listening to Pink Floyd for music inspiration and Thom Yorke for vocal inspiration. I’m completely inspired by him.”

While they were competing on the second season of BOTB, the band had an unexpected encounter that left a deep impact on them. Bilal was still reeling from the negative feedback given to the band after they performed one of their favourite tracks. “We were all really disappointed because we thought Buddha Baba was a great song and people didn’t understand it,” says Bilal. “Buddha Baba is about the fear of darkness. Three performances after Buddha Baba, I think, we were in the top two.

“Umar Sheikh called me,” he says. “But I didn’t know who he was.” Well known to those in the music industry, Umer Sheikh worked for a few years with EMI in the ’90s as an expert on legal affairs and music publishing. He’s responsible for launching several artists and bands that are now prominent names in the industry. Soft spoken and amiable, he was also always available to anyone who sought his advice on legal or business matters pertaining to the music industry and, sometimes more personal matters, like how to keep a band together. Sadly, Umer Sheikh passed away unexpectedly earlier this year.

“He said, ‘Buddha Baba jaisay ganey nahin aatay [Songs like Buddha Baba don’t come often]. This was a revelation to you. Yeh Allah ki taraf sey deyn hoti hai [It’s a gift from God] and I loved that song.’ I really admired that,” added Bilal.

Umer had valuable advice for the band as well: “There will be a time when you won’t even have 20 rupees for a bun kebab. This goes for the whole band. But you need to keep on making your albums because that’s how the music industry is in Pakistan. Until you get really big, you cannot survive in it. It’s going to be hard, but you have to keep at it — you guys are good enough.”

“That was a reality check for us because even almost two years after winning, it hasn’t really sunk in,” says Bilal. “We’re still living our normal lives. Most of the time we hang out with each other. The only way life has changed is that financially we’ve gotten a lot better. I was looking for jobs before BOTB and people wouldn’t hire me. I’m not looking for a job anymore. I don’t know what I’m going to do tomorrow. I don’t know if we’ll get a concert. But we’ll make it through. We have faith in that.”

How is he enjoying the rock star lifestyle? “People think that it exists but it’s not true,” he says. “Half of the band members are also gamers. We play Dota [a multiplayer online battle arena video game] a lot. If the electricity goes out at the gaming zone, we’re just outside the venue having chai.”

Bilal relates how they almost blew their cover. “Once what happened was that our gaming names were Usman, Vais and Bilal on Dota and the team opposite us texted us and asked, ‘Are you guys Kashmir fanboys?’,” says Bilal, laughing at the memory. “We changed our [gaming] names after that! For example, Vais on Dota is now Disco Pathan.”

But what’s your gaming name? “That, you don’t want to know!” he laughs.

Published in Dawn, ICON, July 7th, 2019