Pakistan’s ‘String’ is still the melodious, youthful 1990s at 25 — a south Asian conversation

India-South Asia/Culture/Music/Diplomacy  

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By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

The rock-pop ensemble from Pakistan — “Strings”— turned 25 in 2013 with the same zest with which it began in 1988 in Karachi featuring musicians Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia on vocals and guitars.

The duo, who were in college then, has travelled a melody road that has been “consistent, serious, youthful and yet entertaining, rooted in the classical traditions of subcontinent’s musical heritage”.

The recording giant EMI signed “Strings” in 1990 for their first album of the same name – and since the band has crossed the border to India to create soundtracks for movies like “Zinda” and “Shootout at Lokhandwala” – besides the concert tours every year. “Strings” — together with another Pakistani band, “Junoon” — are almost as popular in India’s contemporary music circuit as any Indian pop ensemble.

The band, for the last 25 years, has been devoted to live concerts — one of most resilient performance mediums through which band music has been keeping itself alive in the face of a digital onslaught. In the process, the trans-border band has built cultural bridges between India, Pakistan and the South Asian nations, vocalist Faisal Kapadia says.  

“The South Asian music industry is today very vibrant. But if you go back by 30 years, it was dominated by cinema. Indian cinema! Bollywood playback musicians like Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman were the household names. The non-cinema musical genres were the ‘ghazal’ and the ‘kawaali’ with musicians like Jagjit Singh, Mehdi Hasan and Anup Jalota — who performed across the region. Listeners could not think of regional contemporary music as a distinct oeuvre reflecting the world,” Faisal and fellow star Bilal Maqsood told this writer at the South Asian Bands Festival 2013, where the band played a creative repertoire of old and new compositions.

The transformation in regional music took place in 1990, Faisal said. “Young musicians got an opportunity to showcase their talent with the arrival of the independent music channels on television. The satellite channels opened the doors to young musicians in early 1990s. Now there is the Youtube and  amazing musicians on it— there is so much to learn from Youtube if someone has the dedication,” Faisal said.

“Strings” is one of the few bands in the subcontinent to have survived the shifts in money fortunes in the entertainment industry, changing sounds, band mortality and the movement from the live stage, studio concerts to the Internet. The band’s early attempts to experiment with synthesized sounds and rhythms were slow in striking the right chord in listeners.

In 1992, Strings released its second album “Strings 2” with the track- “Sar Kiye, Yeh Pahar”. It became a hit on MTV Asia. The band rode the MTV wave for some time- and then disbanded.

Eight years later, Faisal and Bilal returned to play again. But by then, the collegiates had grown up — to sing to more profound realities of the world and deeper emotions. In 2003, Faisal and Bilal recorded “Dhaani”— the band’s third album. It featured the track, “Najane Kyun” which was used as a soundtrack for the Hollywood production, “Spiderman-2”.   The duo followed it with “Koi Aane Walla Hain” in 2008.      

But the ambience was different. “Independent music and the Internet made a difference in the way music was handled and received by the audience. People stopped buying music,” the musicians said. Downloading was the new distribution slogan.

“Film music will always be there because producers pump in crores to market their movies. But non-film music has almost disappeared in the commercialization of the market. It is sad,” the musician said.

The blitz launched by film music promoters affected a lot of musicians, Faisal discloses. “New musicians are not recording albums. They are putting their songs on the Internet to connect to listeners across genres and terrain”.

The band depends on the power of the Internet for both musical and intellectual kicks — almost pledges by it. “If people were to understand what was happening to the world, they should tune in to the Internet. All the wars and even the Arab Spring started on the Internet. The social networks like Twitter and Facebook will play an important role in the future — by allowing musicians to interact directly with their fans with direct responses,” Faisal says.                                      

The musical solidarity of South Asia is important to “Strings”.

 “We all grew up knowing about SAARC- South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, but we related to it politically. Politicians attended SAARC summits to discuss politics, cooperation and development. What about the common man in the region?” Faisal points out.

The last decade has been one of liberalization for SAARC – when the spotlight of regional understanding turned more to exchange of soft power. Music was a key tool of understanding.

“India and Pakistan have so much to share in films and music. We grew up on Indian music in Pakistan. In fact, ‘Strings’ released its first album in India. My family hails from Rajkot in Gujarat. But we did not know about music from Sri Lanka or Nepal even till 20 years ago. The growing cultural cooperation in the region has broadened our horizon,” Faisal admitted.

Nothing short of history— Strings from Karachi “got talking to” LRB, a band from Bangladesh in New Delhi last week (early Dec 2013). “They have great music,” Faisal said. It was perhaps symbolic of a strange redemption of history 42 years after the liberation war of Bangladesh when the erstwhile East Pakistan became an independent nation, severing ties with mainland Pakistan in 1971. When pointed out, Faisal smiles.  

“Strings” even collaborated with Advaita – an Indian band — for a special concert at Indian President Pranab Mukherjee’s Rashtrapati Bhavan. “SAARC cannot achieve what it has set out to unless there is free flow of information and culture. A musician from Pakistan should be able to live in Nepal and learn from the country’s musical tradition — and vice versa,” Faisal says.

Citing an example of cross-border kinship, the musician recalled that when the band released their first album in 1992 on an independent television channel, the response from “the Indian fans was amazing and pure”. “It was our first response to India. Since then we have been a part of the beautiful Indian music industry,” Faisal said. The fact that the people in SAARC region like “all kind of music” makes it easy for musicians to jump across cultural geographies and innovate.   

Strings owes it initial success and consolidation to two factors — band music composer Bilal’s father job at the EMI and the fact that the band took precedence over individual aspirations of its members, Faisal said. The members speak for each other — never alone.    

“Bilal’s father worked for the EMI and all the famous musicians of the era like Munni Bengum, Mehdi  Hasan Khan ‘saab’ and Rais Khan ‘saab’ would come to his home. He was familiar with classical music and the industry. I am a Gujarati. I heard a lot of Kishore Kumar and R.D. Burman. And western bands like U2, Bryan Adams, Sting and Bon Jovi. I learnt classical music for one and a half years for little knowledge about the ragas,” Faisal said, explaining about the band’s medley musical influences.

Strings sing in Urdu and Hindi. “But we don’t have any folk influence,” Faisal says, when asked about their inspiration from traditional genres of Pakistani music.  “Karachi is Urdu speaking. Folk music is native to Punjab and Sindh. We use light classical music in combination with pop sounds,” the musician says

At the moment, Faisal and Bilal are composing soundtrack for a Pakistani movie, “Moor”. “One of our friends is making the movie. It is set in the troubled border region of Balochistan.”

The movie is about a “guy who owns a railway station in Balochistan, but loses his fortune in the ethnic strife for independence in the region”. “The music is very different from the Strings sound. “We working two other musicians — Meesha Shafi and Javed Bashir,” the musicians said.

The band manages to live on music. “Corporate sponsorships, public events and tours (to US, India and UAE) carry us through,” Faisal says. In Pakistan, sustaining as contemporary musician is as tough as any other countries in South Asia.

“But we encourage youngsters to take up music as profession at talent contests – where we are often invited as judges,” Faisal says. The met its drummer in one such contest. “ He is phenomenal,” the duo choruses.

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