LIVE WIRE: SEASON OF SALT

December 22, 2019

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The queue snaked around the venue and it took most people anywhere between 30-40 minutes to finally make their way inside for the annual SuperSalt 2019. That’s the kind of excitement this annual performance event’s artist line-up for this year generated. The event boasted the participation of over 50 artists and major acts such as resident DJ Hussain Dosa, Baloch Twins, Ali Gul Pir, Shamoon Ismail, Meesha Shafi and Hamza Akram Qawwal.

SuperSalt 2019 was the second annual event hosted by Salt Arts, an event management company that has fast established a reputation for hosting well-executed, high-end performances by a carefully curated select group of artists and performers from across Pakistan (and at times, beyond) and from various musical genres.

The main concert was being held at the Arts Council open-air amphitheatre located on one side of the venue. The other side was dedicated to a few select food and beverage vendors, independent artists and ‘ethical’ fashion clothing brands. Since performances were going to be taking place throughout the afternoon and evening, the idea was that people would be free to move between these two spaces.

Running the show is chief at Salt Arts Raania Azam Khan Durrani who could be spotted at the sound stage at the farther end of the amphitheater with a clear view of the audience next to and below her.

By the time I made my way into the amphitheater, there was hardly any space, it was that full. A far cry from the first SuperSalt concert last year. “We had about 600 people back then,” says Raania. “At the same venue. It was half-empty.”

Salt Arts put together its second annual musical performance event last week. After the enthusiastic response to SuperSalt 2019, we might just see live concerts make a comeback in our lifetime

She and her manager scoured the amphitheatre sometime last year when they were looking for venues to host the first SuperSalt. She mentions sitting on one of the benches and remembering that back in the day, “When we were young, we used to watch Junoon concerts there. So, we decided to use it. We spent three days and had it cleaned. We painted it. We’re invested in that space. And we did the same this year. I’m not sure if we’ll do the next one here, because this has gotten too big. But perhaps we could do smaller events — we want to invest in smaller cultural institutions. It’s such a privilege to work on a proper stage.” As opposed to? “A garden!” she laughs.

I spent most of the evening with a view from the backstage area. Right up to the very front of the stage, the amphitheatre was packed with people. And surprisingly (in a good way) with women. How many people were there? “I’ll be honest,” says Raania, “we didn’t even sell that many tickets. We sold about 1,500 tickets and we gave away 600 comps [complimentary passes] — sometimes out of courtesy and sometimes out of pressure.”

Meesha Shafi
Meesha Shafi

What she was most proud of is that 60 percent of the audience was women.

Now, coming to the stage, it was designed aesthetically to give different graphics and colours for different artists, that would change according to the song they were performing. Among some of the major performances that stood out was Ali Gul Pir’s. He performed some of his more popular numbers and then, to everyone’s surprise, performed his recently released diss track Karley jo karna hai. What was even more surprising was hearing the audience respond to him — they loved it!

Overheard backstage during the performance: “That’s a pretty gutsy move.”

I caught up to Ali as he got off the stage. What was he thinking? “I was actually really excited,” he says with a laugh. “I was really excited to share it. The amazing part was that people were rapping along and the song has only been out for two and a half weeks.

“I think people connect to the bigger message of it,” he adds. “Which is against censorship and being free and letting powerful people know: you can do whatever you want, but we won’t shut up. This resistance — a lot of people can relate to it.”

Shamoon Ismail, from Islamabad, was up next. He’s been putting music out since 2013, with a gap of a few years in between, and has become very popular without ever appearing on any mainstream or traditional media. His band member went on stage to set up his tracks while he waited to be miked properly — the crowd already chanting his name outside.

But there were problems — he asked for the microphone to be changed twice. “I was listening to something very different in my in-ear monitor compared to what we had set during the soundcheck,” he explained.

Much like for Shamoon, except this time it got louder, you could hear chants of “Meesha! Meesha!” from the audience during the interval before her performance. “There were a few hecklers,” related a friend who was in front of the stage. “But they were drowned out.”

Having said that, in my experience, no live event in Pakistan is without its own set of problems and artists do the best with what they have. So off he went.

To say that the audience was excited to see him is an understatement. They knew his songs word-for-word. They sang along and they sang loud. He especially had young girls screaming for him — if he stepped closer or made any kind of move, they’d scream louder — but one noticed that the more they screamed, the more he pretended not to notice — seemingly shy and awkward with all this attention.

Overheard backstage: “This is his moment. He’s breaking through. This is it.”

After each song, he would turn back to his bandmate to see if it were alright. Turns out he couldn’t hear himself — something other acts mentioned as well. Backstage, singer, songwriter, musician and producer with decades of performing experience, Ali Hamza, who had also arrived to experience the show, gave him tips on what to do to overcome the technical issues present in every performing event in Pakistan.

“The sound…” Shamoon says after getting off the stage, his voice trailing off. “Everything else was great. Show bohat achha tha [the show was very good]. The stage was set up nicely. The crowd was loving. They were pumped up.”

They knew his songs and he’s not even a mainstream artist yet, I remarked to Ali Hamza. “What even is ‘mainstream’ now?” he questioned. “This [being online] is the new mainstream. You’re not putting yourself out there just for domestic audiences anymore. You’re on this platform that is for the world. That’s your audience.”

While Shamoon was dealing with technical issues prior to going on stage, Meesha Shafi walked into the backstage area like a queen, complete with a custom-made gold crown on her head. She was dressed entirely in black — torn jeans, black top and a shimmering black cape. Her crown and jewellery — knuckle dusters designed to look like musical notes — was crafted for her by Haya Lutfullah. She had a bouquet of flowers in her hands gifted to her by a fan who had been waiting for her to arrive.

Her line-up included seasoned musicians in the form of Rakae Jamil on sitar, Farhan Ali on bass and backing vocals, Kami Paul on drums, Sherry Khattak on guitars and backing vocals, Rufus Shehzad on keyboard, Zaigham Abbas dhol and a very enthusiastic Qamar Abbas on the dholak.

Shamoon Ismail
Shamoon Ismail

Much like for Shamoon, except this time it got louder, you could hear chants of “Meesha! Meesha!” from the audience during the interval before her performance. “There were a few hecklers,” related a friend who was in front of the stage. “But they were drowned out.”

She performed her latest song, Leela, from the last season of Pepsi Battle of the Bands, Mein from the season before that. Among other songs, from her Coke Studio repertoire, she performed Alif Allah Chambay di Booty, Bholay Bhalay and Aaya Larriye. She also invited Nimra Rafiq, who was present at the venue and who was one of the backing vocalists on Aaya Larriye, to perform with her.

In comparison to the rest of the performances that evening Meesha’s was by far the grandest and loudest. As she got off stage, there was a group of wide-eyed young girls (fan-ettes?) waiting to see her. “Please continue to do what you do,” said one choking up with emotion. “Exactly the way you do it.”

Now based in Canada while making frequent visits to the motherland, Meesha related this wasn’t the first major concert she’s performed in Pakistan this year. “I performed at the EuroVillage festival in Islamabad, hosted by the EU in April 2019. And the turnout was massive,” she says. “But the most amazing thing to note about SuperSalt was that it’s a ticketed event and that makes for a very special and loving audience of fans and patrons.

“The energy at the venue was super electrifying and exciting,” says Meesha. “As a performer, I fed off of that and enjoyed every single moment. After so many years of performing live, it takes a lot more than technical issues to faze me or my band members for that matter. I think the energy on stage was testament to that.”

Her enthusiasm doesn’t end there. “I have to say the SuperSalt audience was the best I’ve ever experience in Pakistan,” she adds. “No doubt about it. Karachi really came out to party and celebrate music on Saturday night. It was absolutely jam-packed and still fun as well as very civilised. Shabash Karachi! Shabash Salt Arts!”

How is 2020 looking for her? Any new music coming up? “Yes!” she responded, “Lots of singles coming out in the near future. And I’m working on three bodies of work simultaneously, so wish me luck!”

Ali Gul Pir
Ali Gul Pir

She isn’t the only one. Ali Gul Pir is working on new music, too. “Nothing I can talk about right now,” he says. “I’m working on a few concepts. I’ve been invited to perform at a music conference in Berlin. My objective is to perform this music and tell people outside Pakistan that we have other kinds of music too. We don’t just have sufi or qawwali music.”

What about Shamoon, after this experience, does he plan to return to Karachi soon to perform? “Yes, for sure,” he says. “Bohat jaldi [Very soon].”

We’re at the tail end of the year. How does 2020 look for Salt Arts? “Are you joking?” says a very incredulous Raania. “I haven’t even written the programme yet!”

She may not have worked 2020 out yet, but for me, SuperSalt evoked some nostalgia. It reminded me of a time over a decade ago when concerts for the public were happening almost every weekend before they died a slow, painful death — mostly due to the security situation in the country and sponsors shifting their focus to fashion. Judging by the audiences’ enthusiastic response, we might just see them make a comeback.

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 22nd, 2019