Natasha Noorani’s debut album Ronaq
Natasha Noorani’s debut album Ronaq

Taubah taubah kya hoga.” The refrain from ‘Nishana’, the fourth track off Natasha Noorani’s debut album Ronaq, doubles as a witty repartee that concurrently addresses the predicament faced by the current Pakistani music landscape.

Facing a crossroads between the vestiges of traditionally inspired sound and the lure of contemporary pop approach, the industry has undergone significant changes following the widespread accessibility of video- and music-sharing platforms, the advent of social media marketing and the nation’s acquaintance with global music-streaming giant Spotify.

Coke Studio’s most recent outing, helmed by Xulfi and featuring Natasha as a consultant, sought to find a balance between these extremities in what has since proved to be a milestone for the industry, accumulating tens of millions of views online.

It’s here that we find Ronaq, a measured marriage of influences that contextualises pop, neo-soul and R&B under the umbrella of an authentically Pakistani sound, drawing on a rich tradition of classics to stake its claim on the present scene.

In a conversation with Icon, Natasha opened up about her influences and what she set out to achieve with Ronaq. “Primarily I just wanted to create a sound that I think, for me, was absent from the scene. The one thing that I saw was missing around me was this kind of pop-R&B aesthetic, particularly within the Urdu language, which I think really changes the purpose behind the music,” says Natasha.

Natasha Noorani’s Ronaq’s most daring triumph is in its rebuttal to convention, redefi ning the scope within which female artists can exist

“A lot of the focus with Ronaq was on the fact that this was very much a vocalist’s album. I wanted the vocals to be resting in a place where they are the primary instrument, which is how I view not just the album but my craft.”

Staying true to the theme of Ronaq, the album finds its strength as a sharp display of ideas that showcase Natasha’s range and dynamism. Encapsulating a variety of themes from love to friendship, the LP creates its own space, by firmly planting its feet within the broader tapestry of Pakistani music.

Natasha’s background as an ethnomusicologist (an anthropological study of the relationship between music and culture at any given point) comes to the fore as the album is sprinkled with tributes to the likes of Fariha Pervez and Noor Jehan, bridging the gap between modernity and historical convention.

The opening track ‘Haan, I Know’ features a flight announcement underscored by a pulsing bassline, courtesy of Talal G’s technical wizardry, in an homage to Runa Laila’s ‘Disco Premee’. Similarly, ‘Laiyan’, a slow-paced typically Lollypop-esque tune on the latter half of the album, references Punjabi folk track ‘Laiyan Laiyan’.

The Lahore-based musician is, of course, no stranger to the concept of pastiche. Her work with Biryani Brothers employed the use of nostalgia-tinged aesthetics and a retro theme in the music video for ‘Ikeesvi Sadi’ that saw her and Zahra Paracha parallel pre-2000s PTV broadcasts.

Remarking on her foray into solo musicianship, she emphasises the direction she sought to take with the album. At just 30 minutes long, Ronaq packs enough vibrancy and colour into its runtime to leave a lasting impact.

The songwriting is relatable and timely, owing to the combined efforts of Zeerak Ahmed, Ashir, Maanu, Bilal Baloch, Salor and, of course, Natasha herself. Each track is accentuated by an understated confidence that reads as Natasha signalling her refusal to be typecast.

The opening track is immediately disarming, introducing listeners to an artist who, it’s clear, despite projecting an aura of elegance and consummate professionalism, doesn’t take herself too seriously. Her endearingly ironic sense of humour finds itself nestled in designated pockets across the album, from the sampling of a Zoe Viccaji interview to snippets of her bantering with Talal on ‘Frendz’.

The first half of the album is also distinctly more upbeat, with tracks like ‘Chhorro’ and ‘Thandi’, the latter an irresistibly catchy tune elevated by a mesmerising flute sample. Not enough credit can be given to Talal, whose signature sound finds itself threading the cohesion across eight of the album’s ten tracks.

Sampling Natasha’s own voice and extending its function to create the melody for ‘Nishana’ is a stroke of brilliance, one that speaks to the pair’s success as collaborators.

A bedroom-pop turn on ‘Raazi’, anchored by Natasha’s soft, ethereal vocal chops, is followed by the bright, synth-laden ‘Call Me’ featuring an assist from Annural Khalid. Where I thought perhaps the album began to falter is towards the very end, with the final track ‘Frendz’ providing an abrupt and incongruent conclusion to an otherwise consistent project.

Nevertheless, Ronaq is overall a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience, carrying an atmosphere transmutable to a late-night drive, a day at the beach and, most certainly, any festive occasion.

The album’s standout track, I felt, was ‘Matlabi’, a deceivingly intense and deeply personal song that wrestles with generational trauma and the Sisyphean struggle of breaking one cycle and yet unintentionally perpetuating another. A deeper analysis might tie this to the notion of respectability politics and the imposition of expectations that so often stifle the trajectory of female artists.

If anything, perhaps Ronaq’s most daring triumph is in its rebuttal to convention, redefining the scope within which female artists can exist and create music in a way that doesn’t override their Subcontinental heritage but rather enhances it.

Audiences eagerly awaiting Natasha’s next release won’t have to wait much longer, as the musician has teased the release of her upcoming music videos and the already-in-motion next chapter of her career.

Extremely telling of her dedication to the craft was her response to being asked what she might have done otherwise, had she not pursued music: “What else is there?” she asked.

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 21th, 2024

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