Following a change in line-up a few months ago, the Mekaal Hasan Band has transitioned into ‘cross-border collaborators’ as the newly revived band features gifted musicians from both Pakistan and India. The group is now preparing to unveil its third album, the long awaited Andholan, which will be MHB’s first release with Indian singer Sharmistha Chatterjee on vocals. In this Instep exclusive, the band talks about the collaboration, the album and allows us a peek at their album cover.
Andholan: the album
Andholan will be Mekaal Hasan Band’s first new album in five years, following 2009′s Saptak. The record will feature eight tracks, including the group’s take on kaafis by Baba Bulleh Shah and Shah Hussain as well as their renditions of traditional classical bandishes from the subcontinent.
“I think it’s the most progressive record of ours to date,” said Mekaal Hasan, the group’s front man. “It’s also musically the most diverse and impactful record that we’ve made yet. The album features a level of song writing and musicianship which marks a huge growth for a band that already likes to set high standards for itself.”
If you want a sense of the attention to detail that the band expends in every aspect of their music, then look no further than the album’s title and the level of thought that has gone into the selection of this name. “This record’s title is Andholan, which has a dual meaning,” Mekaal revealed. “It can mean ‘revolution’ or ‘movement’ and it’s also used to describe expressive slides in classical music. This dual philosophy is also found in the record Sampooran, which means ‘purity’ in Urdu and also refers to the family of any seven note raags which are called Sampoorna,” he described further.
Indo-Pak progression:the band
The reincarnated MHB features Gino Banks and Sheldon D’Silva on drums and bass respectively, while Sharmistha Chatterjee joins them on lead vocals. “I’d heard Gino Banks and Sheldon D’Silva play throughout the years that I have been touring India,” says Mekaal. “In fact, both musicians were at our launch show in 2007 in Mumbai which is also where we first became friends. The idea of playing together really started gelling around 2010. The progressive musicians in India really admire how our band writes its material and produces its records, and I, in turn, from the very first time I heard these musicians play, was eager to have them work with me and to contribute to the ever-evolving sound of MHB.”
Even though the band parted ways with their former vocalist and went through significant restructuring, Mekaal says he was never uncertain about the future of the group. “The nature of the band is such that it will always attract highly-trained musicians and people who enjoy playing in a band format. As such, the band will continue to exist as long as people are willing to listen to the music.”
And what inspired him to recruit musicians from across the border? “It made natural sense to play material that was classical in nature and had progressive elements with the top jazz and classical artists of India. The idea of creating an Indo-Pak band actually goes back to 2010 which is roughly when I started discussing it with Gino. The idea also stemmed from a desire of wanting to play with more musicians who had a different perspective but happened to also share the same cultural heritage that I enjoy.”
“In terms of the quality of musicianship, this line-up is possibly the most versatile and experienced,” he enthuses. “Dynamically the band has a wider range, and in terms of improvisation, there is a lot more contribution from the rhythm section, meaning that there is a lot more playing and soloing, which Gino and Sheldon both bring to the band in our live sets.”
Perhaps the most noticeable change comes in the form of the vocalist, as this will be the first MHB record with a female singer in the lead. “I wanted a different texture and sound and I also wanted to work with another kind of sensibility,” says Mekaal. “With a female voice the lower registers of the music reveal themselves in a manner which a male range might overshadow. I’d also been listening to a lot of bands with female voices and I guess that also influenced my choice of going with a female lead.” But it’s hard to ignore the fact that there aren’t many prominent bands led by female vocalist in the Pakistani music scene. So does gender really make a difference? “With female emancipation, one would’ve hoped to see more female fronted bands and indeed initiatives,” he reflects. “While the situation is improving, the ultimate decision still lies with a market that seems to have more males making decisions as opposed to females.”
Mekaal Hasan Band’s evolution promises to take the group in a refreshing, innovative direction. And their new sound will not only be heard on the upcoming album; fans can also expect a lot more from the band in the coming months. “We’ll be putting out some live concert footage on a DVD soon,” reveals Mekaal, “and we’re also releasing the singles ‘Ghunghat’ and ‘Sayoon’ from the album very soon.”
Artistic expression: the album cover
An important medium for musicians to visually express their artistic aspirations, album covers have given us some of the most iconic images of recent times (Read: Abbey Road by The Beatles, Dark of the Moon by Pink Floyd). However, covers that accompany most of our local records often seem uninspired and pedestrian. Many bands seem content with just plastering their mug shots on their album sleeves. Luckily, Mekaal Hasan Band is not one of them. The group recruited illustrator and graphic designer Samya Arif to come up with an abstract image that will grace Andholan.
“The album cover has, for more than 50 years, been a canvas for some of the greatest and most imaginative artists in the world, including Storm Thorgerson and Mati Klarwein,” said Samya, who graduated with a degree in Communication Design and Photography from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, where she is now an assistant professor for Graphic Design and Typography. “Album art has become a means of showcasing the themes, renditions, and ideas behind an album’s music and the musician making it. It adds a visual context to the music you’re listening to, not only creating a bookmark in your mind but also invigorating the entire process further by employing more than one sense.”
Samya sought to capture Mekaal Hasan Band’s progression in the art for Andholan. “To create the theme of Mekaal Hasan Band’s evolution and musical movement, I used abstract elements to signify nature’s bounties, from water to mountains and skies, a shared geography of the entire subcontinent, therefore subtly reciprocating the bind of Eastern nations through sounds,” she explained. “The idea was to convey the evolution of the band itself and their music, as well as the fusion of eclectic Western and Eastern sounds native to the subcontinent in particular. The detail and colours employed echo the nuances within the music.”
(Sameen Amer can be reached at [email protected])