Like many musicians, Zohaib Kazi works out of a studio built inside his home in Karachi. However, unlike other musicians, the studio is a grand, eclectic space.

Along with the usual items one would find, such as equipment, mics, speakers, monitors and musical instruments, that make up a digital audio workstation, Kazi’s studio has elements of the earth as well: a wooden floor, climbing plants with vines that creep up the window panes, branches that hang down from the ceiling. There are possessions that Kazi has collected over the years — paintings, carpets, artefacts, that have been hung lovingly across the walls. It’s clear that Kazi has a habit of trying to bring things together.

One wonders how Kazi has managed to save all the mementos in his studio, considering he has shifted homes several times in his lifetime, and the process of packing, unpacking and storing can result in the loss and abandonment of things.

Originally a resident of North Karachi in his younger days, Kazi moved to the south of the city in the ’90s, and has moved homes several times since getting married. It’s a feeling many among us can relate to, as Kazi believes that “Karachiites are in a constant state of displacement. Either you are planning to leave, or will leave eventually. It feels like our stay isn’t permanent here.”

Musician and producer Zohaib Kazi has a habit of trying to bring things together. He has been passionate about bringing recognition to indigenous artists and styles. So why does he feel he is fighting a losing cultural battle?

He touches upon a feeling that Pakistanis are particularly sensitive to nowadays — that our friendships, professional networks and other relationships that we’ve invested in over the years, or have grown to depend on, are coming to an abrupt and painful end because many people are leaving Pakistan. “Nobody really wants to go, but we are forced to.”

Karachi and its identity

This is in stark contrast to the original identity of Karachi, the city Kazi has grown to love and find love in. Considered the business hub of the country, people often found themselves coming to Karachi to find work and an upgraded lifestyle and livelihood.

“You would see religious and cultural diversity in Karachi before. We would see nuns in their attires, Parsis, Jews, etc. A lot of the culture of this city has always been borrowed. But we see less and less of that diversity now.” In short, Kazi reflects that the identity of Karachi lies in our constant struggle to amalgamate different cultures and make sure they all come together.

Why is it important to establish this sense of identity? Our policymakers certainly don’t think so. Heritage sites are in ruins, we see traditional art and music forms dying before our eyes, artisans and musicians struggle to make ends meet, and Pakistan is in a cultural identity crisis, both locally and internationally. “Essentially, we have been operating under various constraints, one of them being an inorganic attempt to preserve this concept of being an Islamic state.”

Photos: Zohaib Kazi
Photos: Zohaib Kazi

Kazi compares food and music to illustrate his point. “We literally make some of the best food in the world! You can travel anywhere and proudly make this claim. And that’s because food has been free from politics. No ego is hurt if we enjoy a plate of nihari. Therefore, the food industry has had freedom to expand and evolve. Music on the other hand, suffers.”

Pakistani music in the headlines

This is not to say that Pakistani music hasn’t been making headlines. There is a sense of optimism in the air, with Ali Sethi and Shae Gill’s success with Pasoori, Arooj Aftab’s Grammy win for Mohabbat, and a new crop of young and talented musicians, such as Young Stunners, Hasan Raheem and Taha G making waves across the country by finally producing original music and releasing albums, a trend that had dipped in the Pakistani music landscape in the last decade. However, we still struggle to give the stage to our ethnic sensibilities.

“If you look across the border, India has made their indigenous work mainstream,” says Zohaib. He’s referring to the recent launch of the Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre that witnessed Hollywood stars in attendance. Indian performances and fashion were on display — it’s their culture’s uniqueness that stands out and becomes memorable. Our mainstream culture displays a vision of who we aspire to be, but sometimes fails to connect with who we were, or still are.

Essentially, all these conflicts and conversations are at the centre of Kazi’s work as a music producer. After working on Coke Studio (CS) alongside Rohail Hyatt and then with Ali Hamza in Season 11, producing several albums — such as Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher (a sci-fi novel and music album), Fanoos, Coke Studio Explorer and his most recent musical offering, Gulistan Janoobi — as well as an upcoming cinematic production, a documentary titled Milaap, among other incredible collaborations, Kazi is trying to find his place and purpose in the divisions that separate us. And to make sure those who feel most invisible, are seen.

“There is a whole range of music that we simply don’t take into account,” he laments. “Rajasthani musicians are ignored, Saraiki music is a complete genre of its own, but unexplored. We tend to ignore 70 to 80 percent of Pakistan’s population, and fail to recognise who they are.”

Even in his attempts to preserve ethnic music, Kazi likes to break rules sometimes. For Har Lehza, a qawwali featuring Ghayur Moiz Mustafa Qawwal Group & Brothers, Kazi didn’t include the dholak and tabla, usually considered the backbone of qawwali.

Sometimes, Kazi receives criticism for his approach. “As a producer, I will inevitably add my own interpretation to the music I put together. That’s my job. Otherwise, one can go to any recording studio and record music as is.”

But that’s not the only criticism he’s faced in recent times. Kazi also faced a lot of flak for including Hum Dekhain Ge, penned by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in CS Season 11, but removing a verse which could have been interpreted as anti-state. Critics had pointed out that CS was trying to commercialise and depoliticise a very political poem — one with a very rebellious history.

Photo: Ali Adarsh
Photo: Ali Adarsh

“We wanted to give Hum Dekhain Ge a new life, and we wanted to rebrand it as a people’s song. It was never intended to be siding with any particular party at the time, even though we got a lot of love from PTI supporters.

“Also, that verse that we removed, we felt that the brand would not approve it and then this song would become forgotten. The Coke Studio version definitely sparked a conversation. In fact, I was told that this version was played at anti-Modi protests across the border also.”

While Kazi laughingly admits that perhaps the producers hadn’t put as much thought in Hum Dekhain Ge (in comparison to the detailed and very specific feedback that came their way), his music albums are another matter.

Kazi explains that Fanoos, Explorer and Gulistan were designed as a trilogy, in an attempt to document and preserve our culture and heritage. For the first two albums, Kazi travelled far and wide, from Balochistan to Gilgit-Baltistan, and tried to record indigenous artists in their natural elements.

Tracks such as The Gulmit Anthem with the Bulbulik Music School, Takht Hazaar with Riaz Ali Qadri and Pareek with Ariana and Amrina display that richness of diversity, in terms of singing styles, fashion and geographical location.

Gulistan Janoobi, as the name suggests, focuses specifically on the south, and songs have been recorded in various locations in Karachi, such as Manghopir, as well as his home studio. Even so, there is so much diversity in the south alone, and tracks such as Har Lehza, The Sheedi Offering, Tune of the Baloch and Maan Le Kehna Humara exhibit exactly that.

Other than highlighting ethnic diversities, Kazi’s musical journey also speaks of a maturity that comes with age and experience. His first two albums have a happier, more optimistic outlook towards life. As he reaches the third and final story of this series, Kazi realises that he’s now more realistic about what’s possible and what isn’t.

“I wouldn’t say that the latest album is sad, but I’d say that it’s definitely a lot more emotional than the other two.”

Milaap and water activism

In fact, Kazi paints a heartbreaking picture in trying to explain where his heart, and his music, is at. “It’s like watching Pakistan playing a losing cricket match. You know that feeling, when you know you’re about to lose? But you can’t give up. You should always face the end gracefully.”

Which end is Kazi referring to? Well, we face various threats. An identity crisis, socio-political displacement, radical forces overriding tolerant voices, as well as threats to our natural resources.

The upcoming documentary, Milaap, produced by Kazi, Marvi Mazhar and Abuzar Madhu, is trying to raise awareness regarding the future of water in Pakistan. The film features various indigenous activists and their work, as they share their native knowledge about industrial water practices, and give advice on what can be done to save ourselves from a complete water shortage in the coming years. “We are looking at a future where Pakistan might not have any water in the next 50 years!”

How did Kazi find his way into this project, considering that this is a slight deviation from his otherwise musical work. “Marvi [Mazhar] is a very dear friend, and she had done the first Milaap. At the time it was a more scaled down production. This is an extension of that documentary and has a bigger budget.

“One day, I made Marvi listen to The Sheedi Offering and she was blown away. After listening to that song, she offered me an opportunity to collaborate with her. So my contribution to the film has been more about music, while Marvi has brought all the other elements together. The documentary will be showcasing water activism alongside indigenous music,” he reveals. Milaap is currently in production and will be all set to release later this year.

Perhaps Kazi is also referring to the end of his relationship with ethnic music (for now at least) and is looking to experiment with a different, more futuristic sound and medium for the next leg of his musical journey.

One can only hope that the future that he finds is a happy, hopeful one.

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 14th, 2023

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