‘The artist must shine’

Published August 7, 2011

At the beginning of Season 4 of Coke Studio, Rohail Hyatt spoke to Ahmer Naqvi. This is what he had to say.

I personally ventured onto classical music by myself. Perhaps discovered it about a year before Coke Studio, and I was pretty blown away by the fact that here I was, a musician all my life, and I had no idea about a treasure of an art form that we had such little knowledge about and it was so different from the western music that we had grown up with. The PTV syndrome [of how] classical music had been presented in a certain way – there was a sort of repulsion to it, sorry to say. [I felt] that we as a people needed to experience our heritage, so this stems from one small experience into discovery.

I spent one year, experimenting, calling in various artists, Fareed Ayaz, Ustaad Saami etc. I messed around with ideas. And I just felt that our folk artists were in a terrible state. On the one end you’ve got telecom companies sponsoring modern pop acts for crores of rupees, and here was talent – real talent – passed on from generations but barely surviving. It was important to have a person like Saieen Zahoor stand with Noori right up front.

One thing that was very clear from the beginning was that the intent – jo humara pehla qalma ban gaya hai; the artist must shine. So through all our efforts, from the time we approach them right to the track that we’ve achieved, if the artist doesn’t shine, then we’ve achieved nothing. That’s been the purpose from day one that a platform will be actually given – in the absence of artists getting proper facilities or good production value. As an artist, I know during the times of Vital Signs, that was a very difficult thing to want. Every time we wanted to do what we really wanted to do, there was somebody telling us that ‘no one is going to listen to this’. It always used to be a really weird thing to give in to – my creative expression [to corporate sponsors or record labels].

Actually prior to this project, I had sworn that I would never, ever, ever work with corporate entities again. Before Coke Studio I was asked by Coca-Cola to be their music consultant. I had proposed fusion music to them, a year before it actually happened, but it wasn’t really perceived as a good idea. Then, I read their brand charter where it says that Coca Cola sought to encourage inclusiveness, not exclusiveness. And so I actually read it back to them – ‘you know this is your charter, and this fits really well onto where we [want to go.’ Had that not happened, I don’t think I could have survived four seasons with a corporate sponsor. I’m pretty demanding when it comes to doing things my way. It’s been so long in this industry for me that if at the end of the innings I still have to toe someone’s line, then what’s the point?

The first season was different – you can tell the concept of fusion was there, but it was limited to something like a dholak in every song. The real experimentation was with ‘Allah Hu’ by Saieen Tufail and Ali Zafar, because I had put that out there as a test reaction. You know I could be wrong – maybe fusion didn’t work. So I told Coca Cola I’m doing a song like that. And nowadays it’s very normal to see that whole spiritual thing happening. Back then, just mentioning to a corporate international company that we’ll be doing a song like ‘Allah Hu’ was a very weird thing. I don’t know how else to put it. It was a very mesmerising moment when Ali Zafar finished that song – there was a pause, and then the audience started clapping, and they just wouldn’t stop. And I instantly knew ‘yaar this tune has connected.’ It gave us all the confidence and encouragement to move on to the next season.

[But] the journey is not really a reactive one. There was a lot of pressure last year because you’ve got a hit like Jugni, now what are you going to do? You know instantly there was this notion that ‘Challein ji, Arif Lohar ko bula layein, Meesha Shafi ko bula lein wapis’  but I said ‘No, not yet.’ Of course they are most welcome to come back but this is not formula oriented. One thing I know I am not going to do is try and make another Jugni.

The entire engine of Coke Studio is the tuning that we are working on. It’s not just simply music packaged differently or some addition of instruments: it’s the entire engine of the way the compositions are done based on eastern music philosophy. Now, having said that, there’s a strange resonance that people are feeling with this music they can’t put their finger on it. Because it’s coming from the same guitar, the same bass, the same drum, but fundamentally the reworking is entirely on a philosophy which is based on eastern musical ideas, [and this is why it resonates.]

Every song we do is really stripped down to the bare bones, and then reconstructed based on a raag. Even if it’s not a song based on a raag, we bring it down to one. A raag is actually reflective of an emotion, and it’s a very deep and intricate art form. When we’re fusing it, we do violate some of its rules but it’s important to know the rules in order to break them because rule tornay ka bhi ek adab hota hai na. That’s why some songs, like Sanam Marvi’s Sighra takes so long to get into, because you can’t appreciate it until you’ve actually experienced the right emotion while the track is playing. That’s when it connects to your heart. And that can happen a year, ten years down the line.

Depending on who the person is and where they are in life, their whole experience to a song will change. I like that kind of depth in anything that allows your perspective to view it differently. And I think that’s what gives something its longevity. That’s why it’s passed on – like wisdom is passed on. People are only meant to understand as much as they can. Wisdom or information protects itself. Because it is protecting itself, it is not going to go and register with a mind which is not ready to accept it.

You know, we’ve got the golden ratio of the set happening on our show.  Again you don’t see it, but that’s okay, we know it’s there and that’s what matters. That’s what the shape of the set is – it’s a spiral. The artists are sitting in the centre of the spiral and Gumby’s sitting right at the other end of the spiral. And it’s a weird shape to shoot, to record on even, but it signifies fundamentals of creation, signifies the fundamentals of music, it signifies so much that I don’t want to ruin it by talking about it.

When foreign publications tried to portray Coke Studio as a sort of anti-terrorism resistance, it was horrific. I mean here’s someone totally changing what we’re trying to do, and encapsulate it into what they think is going on, and as a story just totally ruining it. You know it’s not about trying to bring in an alternative thought process – it’s totally different, it’s free from all that. That is it’s beauty. It’s free from purpose to change, free from purpose to dictate, it’s got nothing of that embedded in it anywhere.

[Coke Studio is] a great meeting point, where you’ve got something from the past coming into something from the future, and something new comes out. This journey was really just all experimentation, and continues to be experiments to date. It’s not an exact science by any stretch of the imagination. I always keep telling people that it’s an experimental format, experiments do go wrong, it’s okay. Take it as that.

With special thanks to Zubair Mallick, Safieh Shah and Rohail Hyatt.

Ahmer Naqvi is the Brian Lara of his generation – he’s a genius but his team usually loses. He blogs on his own property in Blogistan, and makes short films you can see here and here.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.



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