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Denim, drums and playing live

Overload front-man Farhad Humayun talks to Instep about the music scene, Levis Live and everything else in between

Denim, drums and playing live
Starting out his career with Noori as their lead drummer, Humayun eventually branched out and started his own band, Overload. A prolific drummer, Humayun is just as good on the mike as he is when drumming up a storm.

instep interview

There’s an oft quoted joke in music circles and it goes something like this: a father is sitting with his son who is holding a guitar and the father tells his young child that one day he will make a girl very happy, until the girl leaves him for another man who will be ten times better than he could ever hope to be – that man will be a drummer.

Sitting down with vocalist and drummer Farhad Humayun, it isn’t difficult to understand why such jokes exist. There’s a restrained energy and earnestness about him that’s hard to ignore and when Humayun talks about music you can see the passion glinting in his eyes.

Instep caught up with the multi-talented artist as he prepares for several different projects and deals with the controversy of apparently claiming that Pakistan doesn’t produce enough female musicians.

We start off by chatting about the current status of the Pakistani music industry, the camaraderie visible between different stars and differences in opinion that exist about what is beneficial for local musicians and what is in fact detrimental to the development of the industry. There are conflicting opinions about what the current music industry is lacking and while stars like Ali Zafar decry the lack of structure others, like Ali Sethi insist that it is this unregulated nature of our industry that allows musicians from different genres the space to simultaneously exist.

Humayun opines that the truth is somewhere between the polar views. “Look, the foremost fact is we all want to play music. But let’s be honest, there’s no music industry here; you can call it the music scene or a circuit of musicians but the industry died a decade or so ago. You can call it an industry when you can sell your music and earn a living through it. You have an industry when you get royalties, when the radio pays you for your tracks, the TV channels buy your music. This system exists world over and is regulated by the central broadcast body, which in Pakistan would be PEMRA. But obviously, it doesn’t exist in Pakistan which leads to record labels, TV channels and various other outlets stealing original tracks and music from local artists.

Now coming to the camaraderie that exists between the current set of musicians from my generation or maybe a couple of years younger; we’re all reasonably stable and secure in our careers now. There’s a balance we’ve achieved between performing live and various other mediums of playing music which is why we can come together and jam without feeling competitive. It’s because we’re comfortable with where we are individually that we can form this collective and have musical nights at Ali Zafar’s or with the Noori brothers. And this is a great sign because it leads to a healthy circuit which can in turn build into an industry.

Talking about the unregulated nature of the industry, I have to admit that it’s not beneficial at all. Right now people like me, Ali Sethi, Ali Zafar, Atif Aslam have to finance our musical aspirations ourselves. We can afford to do so but an aspiring musician, who has the talent but the money, will struggle. When you can’t perform live you can’t cultivate a fan following and eventually you will run out of funds to produce your own music. Where does the money come from if your industry is not regulated? Otherwise if you’re a promising artist who records a song on webcam and uploads it online, you’ll probably generate traction but you won’t be able to charge the fee that could command for your music if you came from a structured industry.

Having said that, like I mentioned earlier, for me reality lies somewhere between Zafar and Sethi’s statements. It depends on what your measure of success is; is it money, fame, visibility or music for the sake of the craft? Ali Zafar is correct in saying that if you want to really go big you’ll have to associate yourself with the film industry and Ali Sethi is also correct in saying that there’s more room to experiment because he can produce one album that’s very Sufi in its sound and not feel compelled by whatever is playing on the airwaves to follow it up with another Sufi track.

What I talk about constantly is the need to perform live. If you want to see a movie you can buy a ticket and see Fawad Khan on the big screen but if you have a friend in town from abroad and he wants to listen to some live music, where do you go? When you’re in a room full of people and you share a common energy it has a big impact on you. Everyone’s understood that and we’re now making a greater effort to make music accessible live.”

The conversation turns towards his latest project, a collaboration with international denim brand Levi’s where live studio sessions will be hosted frequently and a mix of established and upcoming artists will play for a discerning audience. “So Levi’s is globally a brand that associates itself with music. Internationally they’ve paired up with Alicia Keys for a mobile mentoring program. I’ve shared a working relationship with Levi’s since I graduated and so when they approached me I thought it made sense because I have the physical space to facilitate such a project.

We’re going to shoot the live sessions, it’ll be post-produced and then put online for mass consumption. I am not the producer of this program, I’m simply facilitating Levi’s with the space and getting through to the musicians, asking them to play their live set as it is. This program is slated to last through-out the next ten months. Some sessions will have three artists, others two. We have people like Natasha Noorani, who made the Lahore Music Meet happen this year, interested in playing. There’s another young lady, Noorzaday, who is studying currently in London and will be back soon and will perform on the platform. Then we have the usual suspects like Noori and Ali Azmat but we won’t always have the big names to supplement the upcoming talent. It’s not a big, heavily financed project like Coke Studio because what we aim to achieve is different. We want to revive the culture of playing live and provide a safe, well equipped space where people get a chance to do so,” Humayun elaborates.

As Humayun names several female musicians slated to play on the Levi’s Live platform we can’t help but ask him about his comment regarding the dearth of female artists in the country. “My mother is one of the hardest working women I have ever come across, my sisters are accomplished professionals, I’ve written, produced and worked alongside female musicians; how it make sense for me to take away from what they’ve all accomplished? My words were taken out of context and the comment was about encouraging and promoting girls who have the talent and have something to say through their music through the Levi’s Live platform. 99 per cent of the demos I received from the new lot were covers, this includes boys and girls.

Then when I asked those who had sent in covers to send in original music, the majority of the boys could come back with a composition or two while a lot of the girls were stumped. Please don’t get me wrong, this is not because girls don’t have original thought but because they’re socially restricted from pursuing music as openly as boys are. Parents will often be willing to let a male child pursue music professionally while not being comfortable in letting their daughter do the same. I am not stating anything anti-feminist when I make this remark, I am simply giving you a view of what the ground reality is when you live in a conservative society.

I don’t think I said anything that required the village to come after me with pitch-forks. Girls don’t have the same amount of liberty to pursue arts as boys and hence a lot of the girls we approached for the platform didn’t have original music. What’s wrong with that? It is not a reflection on the talent of these women but rather a comment on society,” the drummer clarifies.

We sadly can’t help but agree with his statement regarding the double standard that exists in our society about what can be accessible to a woman as opposed to a man. However, the Levi’s Live platform seems to be giving upcoming talent a chance to break the mold and you certainly can’t take that away from Humayun or critique the venture in that. The uplifting aspect that can be derived from the conversation and Humayun’s new project is that a revival of the local music scene seems to be picking up pace and that can only be good news for everyone.


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