We spoke to guitarist and composer Mekaal Hasan about how he got into music, the Lahore scene, and why he’s angry about the term “sufi-rock”.
Pakistani guitarist and composer Mekaal Hasan has gained immense critical acclaim for the layered, complex and distinct compositions he creates. Apart from collaborating with various musicians from all over the world, Hasan has also been a part of the Pakistani independent music scene for almost a decade now, nurturing bands, producing artists and creating his own music, in the tumultuous political atmosphere of Pakistan. When the Mekaal Hasan Band decided to come down to Mumbai city (concert gallery), we caught up with the guitarist and spoke to him about his beginnings as a musician, the slowly-rising Lahore music scene and the political situation in Pakistan, among other things.
NH7: How did you get into music composition and production?
Mekaal Hasan: Half my family is Christian and half are Muslim. The Christian side of the family has always been very much into the arts and the Muslim side has always been interested in poetry and writing and journalism, so that kind of filtered down. Our house is very liberal and full of music and art and literature, so when I was growing up, that sort of rubbed off on me. I remember listening to a lot of jazz. My dad had this huge turntable and I remember listening to Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Getz and a lot of that sort of stuff. That was the sound I grew up with. When I was 13, I think, I discovered Led Zeppelin, and then from Zeppelin I started listening to a lot of prog rock bands. From there on, around when I was 15 or so, I started listening to a lot of jazz-fusion type stuff, like Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin and Steve Morse among others. When I was around 16, I picked up the guitar. I’m actually left-handed, and this was back in 1988 when you couldn’t buy any strings or guitars, so I basically started learning by myself and picked up a book with three or four chords and a few cheesy songs, and I taught myself how to play. But it didn’t go too far because I realized that I’m playing left-handed on a right-handed guitar. I decided that it’d be better if I played right-handed, so after six months of playing left-handed, I just shifted to my right hand.
Check out the music video for ‘Sajan’ by the Mekaal Hasan Band.
I found a teacher and he taught me a few basic scales, but he never taught me anything about theory and I was always curious. I wanted to know how all these chords and scales work together because there seemed to be like a billion of them. This curiosity led me into studying harmony and learning about music theory and stuff. At that point, I was very much a rock-based musician. I had no interest in eastern classical music. I had absolutely no interest in traditional music.
I applied to Berklee when I was 20 or 21. I got accepted and went there and took up Jazz Composition as my major. In 1995, I returned to Lahore to set up my studio – Digital Fidelity Studios, where I basically ended up practically applying all the stuff that I’d learnt in the classrooms and all the stuff that I’d learnt about harmony and songwriting and composition. That’s also where I taught myself how to engineer and so, I started getting into sound engineering. Because there was no one else to record me, I had to do it myself. After a couple of years, I got sort of decent at it and the bands around the area – there were a lot more bands around; a lot more people were into music then – asked me to start recording for them. That’s how the whole scene evolved. That one studio became the breeding ground for new talent. And that still continues to date with guys like Poor Rich Boy and co-VEN. All of these guys have come and worked there and rehearsed and recorded there. That’s how the whole Lahore scene evolved in terms of recording. We were the first studio to do full-on live recording. We didn’t do any sequence or loop-based recordings. Back in the 1990s, there was a tendency for everything to be programmed and just the vocals would be live, or just the guitar solo would be live, or the guitar parts would be live. Everything else would be synth-based. We never went that route because I myself play, so I want to encourage people to play.
In terms of the Lahore and Pakistani rock scene, there seems to be a huge divide. On one side, there’s Jal and Junoon and on the other side, there’s Poor Rich Boy, co-VEN and Mekaal Hasan Band. The former seem to be able to play a lot more.
That’s because they’re corporate-endorsed or are corporate-approved. All the other bands you mentioned aren’t. In Pakistan, if a corporation decides to endorse you, what you do is a series of ads with them, some billboards. In return, as part of your deal, they’ll take you to different colleges and you play with their branding at the back. Us lot have never done that. We’ve never gone that route and we haven’t been the darlings for that scene. Consequently, our music has always managed to stay free of being clichéd or safe. They can’t understand how to market it and they don’t know what to do with it either, because it’s not exactly pop music. None of these bands are pop bands.
Why did you guys never get into that kind of music?
It’s not a matter of wanting it. It’s a matter of making the kind of music which appeals to someone who thinks that you’re brand-friendly. I’ve worked with a lot of the artists and bands that became commercially successful, including guys like Atif (Aslam), Junoon, Noori, Jal, Zeb and Haniya, among others. I produced or engineered for all these guys, but since it was their music, we did what was required for their sensibility. But for our own stuff, every song is different. And then there’s the image of the band – it’s not a young band. It’s a mature band and it’s meant for mature audiences, or audiences who like listening to this kind of music. Within the corporate world, it’s all numbers and target groups so everything is looked at with the perspective – “Can we market this to a 15-year-old and how much mileage will we get out of it?” We could never fit into that. (laughs) That’s even though we have a lot of young people coming out to our gigs. Our audience tends to be more like 18 and above, and most of them tend to be people who are really into listening to music or making music. They’re not into the whole visual dynamic.
Listen to ‘Sampooran’ by the Mekaal Hasan Band below.
You have to look good?
Haan. You have the same issue here as well. If someone is in Bollywood, suddenly they’re making major money. They’re getting endorsements. They’re on billboards. The media has just embraced them. And then you have your indie scene where it’s like… you have your festival circuit which is supporting the indie scene, and then the club circuit. And then you have the full-on sponsor support of companies who are wanting to reach out to that active live circuit. We don’t have the festival and club circuit because the security scene in Pakistan became so bad, especially after Musharaff’s era. It became so bad that corporates decided not to risk going into live events and they said, “Let’s pump money into programming and TV and web content.” Web content took off. Viral videos started taking off. So that’s where the attention shifted. As soon as the attention shifted there, the guys who had been corporate-endorsed suddenly found themselves without any gigs whatsoever. Even those spare gigs that you would get because someone would be doing an event or something, dried out. So if it dried out for the more commercially mainstream guys, it totally nosedived for the edgier musicians, including some of the names you mentioned earlier.
You’ve been involved in the Lahore music scene for a few years now. How would you categorise your involvement?
My objective is always to try and encourage newer bands because, you see, if experienced people like us don’t introduce bands to newer audiences, and we don’t facilitate their recordings and act as sort of mentors for them, then what happens is that they’ll get demoralized and eventually give up. The scene becomes less rich because someone who was senior didn’t take enough of an interest in the bands. It’s very important for newer people to realize that there is a live circuit and that they have to invest in the live circuit. Otherwise, you’re going to have bands who never play live but just make fancy videos. (laughs) And then they’re on air and they’re superstars. Some of the pop-type bands and artists don’t have the playing experience. but they have the media exposure and image thing sorted out. It has to be balanced, I feel, and I think if we don’t do that, we’re essentially letting down the scene. And then, we can’t blame people for not having the scene because we ourselves are not interested in developing it.
A friend of mine who took a very proactive step, Jamal Rahman, runs this facility called True Brew which caters to live performances. He also has a studio – he’s a producer as well. Jamal is a younger generation than me. He realized there was a problem with this whole corporate thing; they weren’t going to do gigs for Poor Rich Boy, they weren’t going to do gigs for co-VEN, they weren’t going to do gigs for bands like Takatak. So he started this facility and he has had a very big impact in this Lahore scene in terms of catering to these younger bands.
Check out the Mekaal Hasan-produced single ‘Chor’ by co-VEN below.
You had announced the third Mekaal Hasan Band album a long time ago. What’s the status of that?
Oh! That’s happening this year. We had a 2011 target post-Saptak (second album, released in 2010) but what happened was that shows dried up. The only time we get to put money back into records is when we’re doing shows. We need resources to do our videos, our social media campaigns, our website, photoshoots, general day- to-day work like hiring people for artwork, directors, video people and you know, inflation is pretty high in Pakistan, so the costs keep escalating and the money you’re making kind of stays the same. It’s harder and harder to put out good work. So unless that model changes, it’s going to be very difficult to put out work quickly. Even though the record has been recorded for three to four years, we didn’t have enough things happening for us in terms of shows and concerts that would generate enough of an income to put back into the band.
What are your solo plans?
I’m working on a couple of very interesting things, which I wouldn’t put down as solo things since they are not my solo records. They have more to do with folk music and with international musicians. That’s something that I’m investing in as well. Then, we’re producing more of these musicians – recording more of these young bands. Then of course, the band’s record is going to come out. That’s something I’m looking forward to. What I’d really like to do is have a Pak-India lineup which is sort of like a supergroup which features some amazing Indian musicians and also people from Pakistan. That would be a very cool thing to do. So, make that like a project and come out to India and play with those guys. For me, that would be very meaningful – great artists from both countries. Because you know, the music is common, the language is common, the raagas are common, and so, why not have players who can go back and forth? If things ever got stable in Pakistan, it would be great to take an Indian lineup into Pakistan and have them play there. That would be a trip!
Watch the first part of the Tehelka Music Project featuring the Mekaal Hasan Band.
In your Tehelka Music Project video, you seem quite angry while explaining the term ‘sufi rock’. Why is that?
It’s become like this corporate, hip tag now. Anything from Pakistan is considered Sufi. But the true Sufi music is qawwali music. That’s how they spread Islam in the subcontinent – by singing the poetry of sufi saints. So now anyone who sings something with “Maula” or “Ali” or “Rabba” suddenly becomes a Sufi artist, and they may have no link to that whatsoever. Agar main bhajan gaa doon toh (If I start singing bhajans), I don’t become a devotional singer! I think they said something like, “Jal is a Sufi band.” I was like, “What are you talking about man? Jal is a pop band!”
Sufi-rock was a term that was coined to market Junoon back in the mid-1990s. Junoon had some hits with Sufi kalaams. They did Bulleh Shah’s ‘Bulleya’, which later Rabbi also did. That’s what started the tag. But what happens is that everyone becomes a Sufi singer from Pakistan. Like, you could not say that for co-VEN for Poor Rich Boy or Zeb and Haniya. You could say it for us. Some of what we do is Sufi-based, but most of it is coming from the traditional base that the subcontinent has. We’ll do tarannas, traditional bandishes, we’ll do something like ‘Ya Ali’ which is a traditional bandish set in a particular raag. But we’ll also do something like ‘Rabba‘ or ‘Chal Buleya‘. The lyric writing is what determines whether it’s Sufi poetry or not. It’s not just a tag. The Sufi lifestyle is very different from what is being portrayed. Those people are like sadhus. They’re very peaceful. Their religion is peace. It’s not got anything to do with violence or politics. It’s an attitude and if you are singing those things, then it’s justified. If Abida Parveen wants to present herself as she’s a Sufi singer, that would be accurate, because it is a part of what she does. She’s predominantly a folk singer but she also delves into Sufi music because it forms part of the landscape. It’s probably the same here as well.
This ends the first part of our two-part interview with Mekaal Hasan. Watch this space for part two.
Photos by Nayan Shah.