THE ICON INTERVIEW: THE WORLD ACCORDING TO MAANU

Published October 22, 2023
Photo: Abdullah Naseem
Photo: Abdullah Naseem

There’s a new generation of artists sweeping the electropop scene in Pakistan and essentially redefining what pop music should look and sound like. They’re the post-pandemic babies of the music scene, if you will. Most of them made it ‘big’ during the Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020-2021 when, confined to their homes, Pakistanis and the world turned to online platforms to keep themselves entertained.

The artist known as Maanu is one of them.

With a string of hits ranging from ‘Melancholic’ (which has garnered over 1.1 million views on YouTube), ‘Dou Pal’ (1.3 million views, he collaborated with Taha G on this), ‘Kidhar’, ‘Pyaar Hai Asli’ (featuring Hasan Raheem), ‘4u’ and the latest, ‘2 minutes’, Maanu’s star has only been rising for the past couple of years. And he doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.

Maanu is also featured on ‘Come Through’ by Abdullah Siddiqui, another young and extremely talented singer, songwriter and producer. ‘Come Through’ is a song from Siddiqui’s 2020 album, Heterotopia. Maanu’s also collaborated with the very popular Hasan Raheem and music producer extraordinaire Talal Qureshi on ‘Sweetu’ — a fun, quirky number that has the three of them walking in Hasan Raheem’s native region, Hunza, with the grand Passu Cones in the backdrop.

One of his more prominent releases this year also included the collaboration he did with Ali Sethi, Shae Gill and Abdullah Siddiqui on ‘Left Right’. And finally, one of Maanu’s latest ‘big’ songs includes a collaboration with Rozeo called ‘Spicy’ for Velo Sound Station’s second season earlier this year. A fast, energetic danceable track, ‘Spicy’ is definitely one of the more popular tracks to come out of a season that wasn’t promoted very well.

The young musician has been quietly reshaping the electropop scene in Pakistan. And he is now ready to step out into more mainstream limelight. Meanwhile, he dispels the shadows around what prompted him to change his given name, his wild-child alter ego, his upcoming collaborations and how he lost out on one of the biggest songs of last year…

With all of this work under his belt, it’s sometimes easy to forget that Maanu is still very young — he just turned 25. A quick scroll down his social media very quickly reveals a clean shaven, teenage version of him — still very tall — in amateur phone-shot videos in which he’s having fun with his friends, featuring rudimentary versions of some of his more popular tracks.

From then to now, Maanu has certainly come far.

One of the things that stands out about him is that, in almost every picture and video that you see of him, Maanu towers over everyone around him. “I’m too tall,” he laughs. “I’m 6’3. I’m too tall to fit into normal aeroplane seats and bus seats. I’m at that height where it’s not a cool thing, it’s mostly inhibiting your quality of life, because you don’t fit in anywhere!”

Hopefully, he fits into the vocal recording booth. “Weirdly enough, I sit down when I record,” laughs Maanu. “I think that’s why I never had a problem! I don’t like being in a separate recording booth. I’m generally engineering myself, so it really helps knowing I can instantly go back and fix it [the track being recorded] and learn from it.

“Plus, jiss tarha ke meray ganay hotay hain [The kind of songs I have] are all very conversational. I try to prioritise comfort uss waqt [at that time] because expression is really important.”

On becoming Maanu

Photos: Flux Media/ Abdullah Naseem
Photos: Flux Media/ Abdullah Naseem

How did you become Maanu, I ask him. “My real name is Rehman Afshar,” relates Maanu. “No one is able to say ‘Afshar’ correctly the first time,” he laughs, “This was a really big problem in school. Every new teacher would just butcher my name!

“When I decided to get serious and go down this career path and properly make music, I decided it only makes sense if I have a much simpler name,” he finishes.

Maanu initially spelled his name Manu, “but people would be calling me Mannu [not to be confused with the long-time Coke Studio house band bass guitar player Kamran ‘Mannu’ Zafar],” relates Maanu. “It’s been a long journey to properly establish ke Maanu hai.”

Would he find it weird if someone from the crowd yelled “Rehman!” at him instead of Maanu? “Yeah, I would completely freak out!” he laughs. “Kaun mujhay itni achhi tarha pehchanta hai ke mujhay daant raha hai! [Who knows me so well that they are scolding me!]

“Bachpan mein jab daant parrti thee tab Rehman kar ke bulaya jata tha mujhe [I would be called Rehman only while being reprimanded as a kid],” he elaborates. “Otherwise it’s always Maanu. Or even Chotus, which is my alter ego and who appears a lot in my music videos. At least I won’t feel awkward if someone is calling me Maanu.”

The makings of a music star

Like a lot of artists of his generation, Maanu started young. He was only eight or nine years old when he started learning how to play the piano and, by the time he was in the fifth grade, his instrument of choice had changed to the guitar.

“It was just me singing covers for my family and friends,” he relates. “I’ve always been a very shy person, so performing in front of big crowds was not something I really pictured myself doing, back then at least.”

By the time he was finishing his A levels, he decided to write songs… while also preparing to apply to go to medical college. “Somewhere along the line I had written enough songs and had this conversation with my parents that, ‘I don’t see myself becoming a doctor, I want to do music’,” he says. “[At that time] I didn’t know people like Hasan Raheem existed.”

Hasan Raheem, one of Pakistan’s most popular electro-pop icons right now, began releasing music while still in medical school, made it big in the music scene and still managed to finish his studies. He’s a qualified doctor now.

Instead of becoming a doctor, Maanu applied to go to Lums (the Lahore University of Management Sciences) and took a gap-year in which he, along with his friend and fellow artist Mujju, wrote and produced as much music as possible.

“I was in my first semester at Lums when I shot my first music video and produced my first song with Jamal Rehman at True Brew Records,” says Maanu. “Half of my first video was shot at Lums, in places you’re not allowed to shoot but, somehow, we just sneaked our way through the whole thing.”

But in terms of a music scene that he could follow, Maanu didn’t feel like there was one at that time. “There was a very strong underground indie scene, with bands such as Sikandar Ka Mandar, Janoobi Khargosh etc. These are people that I was hugely a fan of.”

While Maanu’s earlier music had a very acoustic, unplugged vibe to it, he quickly switched to incorporating electronic beats into his songs.

“I could feel that our generation is on the cusp of entering this electronic space,” he says. “People like Talal Qureshi, Shamoon Ismail [who also started out producing music with a very Indie rock vibe] were popular and this is around the same time when I also started finding beats online that I could buy from producers and licence them, and make songs.

Photo: Abdullah Naseem
Photo: Abdullah Naseem

“I also feel like when it’s an acoustic ballad, your subject matter is very restricted and limited,” he relates. “Unless you’re Mehdi Maloof and you have the ability to talk about a lot of things.”

Maanu’s generation of artists are also very often seen collaborating with each other. It helps not only creatively to join forces, but also in terms of promotion — a song featured on several artists’ platforms will certainly get noticed more quickly than if it’s featured on only one.

“The reason why we make so much music is because we’re hanging out all the time,” relates Maanu, talking specifically about Talal. “When we’re making music, it never feels like it’s work. It’s the same with Towers, Rozeo etc. We’re all just really tight friends that I hang out with on a daily basis. We all met through music, but music is five percent of our daily hangout.

“Now we’re more careful about it,” he adds. “If we are doing a song, it has to be something special. It has to be something we haven’t done before. Just because we have access to each other doesn’t mean we take each other for granted.”

Between Come Through and Go: the song that got away

Another Lahore-based artist Maanu has loved collaborating with is Abdullah Siddiqui. “Abdulah has been releasing music for much longer than I have,” relates Maanu, adding that being featured on Abdullah Siddiqui’s album Heterotopia was a big deal for him.

“He was someone I was a huge fan of, and he already had a really good reputation in the industry,” says Maanu. “It was pretty cool that he wanted to work with me. I was on the same album as Meesha Shafi, that was huge for me!

“We decided to make another song for another album he was working on,” he adds. “That song basically ended up becoming ‘Go’, his song for Coke Studio. I wrote my parts on that song, he and Xulfi bhai [producer Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan] really liked it. [But] they wanted Atif Aslam to be on it. That was an interesting experience.”

‘Go’ ended up one of the most popular songs to come out of Season 14 of Coke Studio. And sure enough, the songwriting credits do mention Maanu. Is writing songs for others something Maanu might be interested in doing?

“Only for Atif Aslam!” he laughs. “Abhi bhi we’re helping each other out,” he adds, “but I don’t think I’ve ever written a song visualising someone else singing it. I’m not at that point where I’m not going to be bothered giving someone else the success I could’ve got for myself.”

The battle of the alter egos: Maanu vs Chotus

A lot of artists have alter egos that they channel when creating new works. These seemingly harmless identities help them channel a different facet to their personality or their self, that they normally otherwise don’t really identify with. For a lot of artists, it even helps them perform.

I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with Meesha Shafi backstage before a concert a few years ago and at a Coke Studio shoot, where she was getting ready to perform and record Muaziz Sarif with her brother, Faris Shafi. Both times, Meesha’s look was carefully constructed with keen attention to detail — from the elaborate clothes to the make-up, accessories et all. “All of this,” she had mentioned in passing, “is like our armour before we go on stage.” It helps her get into the character that’s going on stage. One of the most successful global artists of all time, Beyonce, has an alter ego called Sasha Fierce.

For Rehman Afshar, his alter egos are Maanu and Chotus. Maanu, of course, is the primary. It’s who he is.

“There is this sad boy and romantic side to my music, which comes out in songs like ‘Melancholic’ and ‘4u’,” says Maanu. And then there is the wild-child side to him which we can see in songs like Hico and 5am. That wild child is Chotus.

“The idea is that Chotus is the person that Maanu wants to be — he’s very confident and enjoys everything fully,” says Maanu. “He doesn’t have limits and he’s free. But… you can’t always be that person. Maanu is the more vulnerable side to the music. For a long time, I focused on Maanu, because people seemed to like him 100 times more.”

But we haven’t seen the last of Chotus, yet. In his upcoming album, Maanu has promised to bring out both his vulnerable and wild side and give a little bit of everything to his audience to pick and choose what they would like to experience more.

Third time’s a charm: the ‘double’ album

Maanu has already released two bodies of work (“mixtapes” I’m told) — his ode to Lahore, Yain City, sometime in 2020, and Sakuna Matata in 2021. He is now planning on releasing a third body of work next month — an album titled Yin Yain.

But Yin Yain is not just any album, in terms of volume and by modern standards, with around 17 to 18 tracks, it’s at least three albums worth of music packed into one.

“It’s something I’ve been working on for a really long time… from the time I wrote my first song,” says Maanu. “It’s a double album but I don’t want there to be a division with Side A and Side B. It’s about this whole duality that exists in life in different ways. Whether it’s Lahore and Yain City, Maanu and Chotus, good or bad... It’s about these sorts of things.

“It’s not a concept album, it’s not that heavy,” he continues, adding that, “the songs are listed in a way that it takes you through different sides of my music and everything I have to offer. It’s meant to be one hour of music, you put it on and forget about it.”

I’m nearly 100 percent sure that Maanu is going to have some stellar collaborations on this album. We’ve just spent an hour talking about the collaborative nature of music-making and especially the way he finishes his music, so there have to be some co-produced or co-written tracks in Yin Yain.

“I don’t want to give that away yet,” he says. Surely his long-time producer Talal Qureshi is a part of the album, I comment. “He is there on the production side,” Maanu concedes.

Undeterred, I prod further: what about the usual suspects, aka Hasan Raheem, Rozeo, Abdullah Siddiqui, Mujju, Towers and, maybe, even Turhan James or Shamoon Ismail?

“Yes,” he laughs without confirming any names — Maanu’s determination to keep the album line-up a secret until its release is unbreakable. “Some of the usual suspects are there but they’re presented in different ways,” he elucidates. “People you would expect to be rapping are singing and vice versa. There’s some strange stuff.”

Hopefully, it’s a good kind of strange. The stars seem perfectly aligned for Maanu to release his upcoming album. And rumour has it that the artist is also set to be featured on the upcoming season of Coke Studio launching next month.

Unintentionally robbed of his CS debut last year and replaced by one of the country’s biggest artists (and someone Maanu really looks up to and values his friendship with), hopefully this year, if he does make it, Maanu will finally be able to put that behind him and ‘go’ beyond.

Published in Dawn, ICON, October 22nd, 2023

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