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Finding the essence of Pakistan with Zohaib Kazi

The music producer from Karachi talks to Instep about the broader narrative behind his new album, Fanoos and letting the heartland of Pakistan speak through music

Finding the essence of Pakistan with Zohaib Kazi

It is close to 1 pm in the afternoon, a blazing, almost remorseless sun has enveloped Karachi and music producer Zohaib Kazi is walking outside his apartment, towards the main road, somewhere in the sleepy residential neighborhood of Defence. He’s playing guide to keep me from getting lost in the wrong lane.

We enter his apartment, greeted by absent electricity, which is not entirely unexpected. It’s a never-ending cycle in Pakistan. Kazi’s partner in life, Insiya Syed, a magnificent photographer whom he has referred to on one occasion as the guardian of his galaxy, whips up some coffee and we kill time by talking movies.

The purpose of this meeting is to explore the story behind Kazi’s propulsive Fanoos, a new music project created in partnership with music/tech startup Patari that showcases voices from all over Pakistan on one edgy, cosmopolitan, world music album.

As we wait for the fickle mistress of electricity to make her gradual appearance, we dwell on the subject of movies.

“Moor is beautiful but in terms of storytelling, my favourite is Khuda Kay Liye,” says Kazi in that thoughtful, soft-spoken manner that has become his trademark. Because Kazi speaks in cricket analogies, mirroring his love for the game, he is best described as a Test player, a role that requires thinking about the bigger picture, the long game. A great test player is methodical but is also good at finding ways to improvise when needed and possesses both courage and patience, all qualities that make up the man and the musician currently the focus of this interview.

The name Zohaib Kazi means different things to different people. Some recognize him as the creator of the ambitious, groundbreaking sci-fi book-music album, Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher that released to critical acclaim in 2016 by Markings Publishing and merged his curiosities about the universe, science, technology and ambient, electro music into one cohesive package.

For others, Kazi is one of those few individuals who has spent considerable time as one of the core members of the Coke Studio team while it was helmed first by Rohail Hyatt and later on by Strings. It also means that he has rubbed shoulders with music’s most cherished and popular acts as well as folk and eastern legends without developing a sizable ego.

As electricity returns and we head into Kazi’s studio, I am told about the stories behind the gear in this space. There is one guitar hanging in one corner that was played by guitar maverick Asad Ahmed during one edition of Coke Studio. There is a banjo and a Chitrali instrument that Kazi has played on Fanoos songs. Two pieces of paper containing lyrics sung by Abida Parveen during another season of Coke Studio, have been framed and hung on the wall.

But these are not the only things that Kazi has collected. As we speak more about Fanoos and how it took Kazi from the comfort and controlled environment of his home studio to spaces both explored and unexplored across Pakistan, what quickly became apparent is how he has evolved as an artist and is willing to discomfort himself in order to make others comfortable.

Though he has parted ways with Coke Studio on an amicable note in order to spend his time creating his most recent project, he has taken those learnings and used them to fuel a project that is not just inclusive and beautiful but desperately needed in this time where we fail to acknowledge people and places for unthinkable reasons. Think about the status of FATA, the overlooked province of Gilgit-Baltistan and the preferential treatment given to one province over another by dogmatic, power-hungry leaders and the importance of such a project takes another life-form.

What is Fanoos?

Fanoos album artwork by Shehzil Malik.

Fanoos album artwork by Shehzil Malik.

Fanoos, as Kazi explains, refers to a chandelier, the kind that hung in the drawing room of the house where he grew up. “In my mind is a fanoos that used to hang in our drawing room,” he opened the conversation. “It was beautiful according to its time. What it means is a source of dazzling illumination for these beautiful jewels out there. If you look at the artwork closely, in the bottom lies Karachi. Fanoos is, therefore, a very Karachi take on Pakistan. It is where travel meets my love for music and tradition. But it is also about a larger identity. I have an identity as a Karachiite but this is the larger identity that we need to look at and embrace. We have a very diverse culture in Pakistan. There is historical context and regional history but its not breaking on to the other side partly because of political reasons.”

Fanoos, reveals Kazi, consists of six songs, which he has produced, by six unique artists from all over Pakistan. He travelled to their homes to record them in their own surroundings in order to capture their true essence. The first release, ‘The Gulmit Song’ is sung by the students of the Bulbulik Heritage Centre in Wakhi Pamirian language and is backed by music treatment that is tribal, gripping and electro edgy. It is just the first glorious sample though. Five more songs will be released and will feature artists such as Riaz Qadri from Lahore (Punjab), Islam Habib from Hunza (Gilgit–Baltistan), Mai Dhai from Umerkot (Sindh), Akhtar Channal Zahri from Kalat (Balochistan) and Zarsanga from Nowshera (Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa).

We will be hearing dialects and languages ranging from Wakhi, Burshaski, Balochi to Pashto while music instruments, both regional and otherwise, have also been used including baglama saz, guitars, a Chitrali sehtar, merlin, banjo, all played by Kazi while musicians Babar Khanna, Nadeem Iqbal and Azhar Ali have also played certain instruments. While the first two songs are being released with equal gaps between them, the rest of the four songs are scheduled to appear after Eid-ul-Fitr.

For Kazi, the mission statement of Fanoos, is to deliver untold stories so there is a conversation that develops around it.  The importance of Fanoos is also not being overstated in this piece. Within the context of the music industry, it has enormous layers and lessons. First, it is a departure from the studio-session trend that is so prevalent in music. We’ve seen it in Coke Studio, Nescafe Basement and other “sessions” recorded for the internet or TV that have come and gone after one season or two.

“What usually happens is that people bring musicians to their home-ground,” says Kazi and continues. “The idea was to leave my own comfort, and go to their turf to make them comfortable. There is a big difference. You cannot recreate the comfort level they feel in their own space. If they come to my studio here, that feeling disappears. You can certainly post-produce it but you have to acknowledge that there is a vibe to their space.”

The respect for sacred spaces meant letting go of a controlled technical environment, a challenge that Kazi took on with fierce determination. “When I went there, I didn’t know there were so many musicians there. I had not taken too much gear (technical setup). I took enough to record one musician. The biggest challenge was to record an ensemble of people with one mic. For the longest time I was wondering how the song/s would be made because I am so used to recording in different layers. Gadgets played a big role. The way an iPad was used and the way an iPhone helped me out…. things eventually came together.”

Another conscious effort that separates this project from all others is that there were no set parameters or genres. It is neither “fusion” music nor is it taking any cues from Bollywood. The only goal, maintains Kazi, was to let them (the various artists) speak. “Anybody can get people in a studio and record something. But for me to work with these guys, I asked them what they wanted to do. I told them my ideas and they had freedom to do whatever they wanted. All of these people gave me, they told me, stuff they haven’t given to anyone.  A lot of the times artists are given direction on what to do and what not to do. But here the idea was that they contribute whatever they want to and then I will do what I can to the track. Let them speak, do not stop them from speaking. We have to listen to them.”

Though every step of Fanoos has been recorded in a documentary format that will be released at some point in the future, another goal of the project is to bring the attention back to audio experiences that we seem to have foregone to make room for visuals. It’s a thought that I have heard before, from the likes of Noori and Mekaal Hasan, both of whom noted how listeners need to be cultivated since we tend to watch music instead of listening to it.

“The challenge is that instead of making music videos, we want to build Fanoos first and foremost as an audio experience,” says Kazi, “and if this works, it is going to become one of those initiatives that will echo for a bit. Why? Because the thing is that there was a time when we would listen to songs; we weren’t watching videos. We were listeners. So the idea is to bring people back to audio. It’s a war, it’s a Herculean task.”

While the trend of singles is prevalent, Kazi has a methodical approach behind it. “Releasing the songs as singles,” observes Kazi, “is to ensure that every song gets equal attention and time. ‘Gulmit’ has its own space as does Riaz Qadri and so on. This way, the attention stays on the artists. If they become stars, we become stars. The real fun will be when this song plays in a rickshaw or if it plays in a bus in Gulmit and people are singing along. That is the ultimate purpose.”

Zohaib Kazi, in conversation with Riaz Qadri, somewhere in Punjab.“What usually happens is that people bring musicians to their home-ground,” says Kazi and continues. “The idea was to leave my own comfort, and go to their turf to make them comfortable.”

Zohaib Kazi, in conversation with Riaz Qadri, somewhere in Punjab.“What usually happens is that people bring musicians to their home-ground,” says Kazi and continues. “The idea was to leave my own comfort, and go to their turf to make them comfortable.”

Kazi describes Mai Dhai as a rock star and says that the students of Bulbulik Heritage Centre are educated and well-spoken. There is no gender disparity as students, male and female, sing and play music together and are allowed to develop their own ideas. He reveals how he told Akhtar Chanal Zahri about having Daft Punk-esque ideas and how he was completely open to these treatments. He told Kazi: “We’ve done our work, now you do yours.”

The album also has a much broader narrative that extends beyond what is visible. “Living in a city like Karachi, our view is myopic,” says the music producer. “I mean if I talk about myself in this context, I would get up and the school van would come. I’d go to school and then to tuition. You go to college and university and enter the job market. Everything is back-to-back. And a big chunk of people have, as a result, missed out on the essence of Pakistan.”

Reiterating his point further, Kazi notes, “I got exposed to languages, people, stories and though you can’t put every thing in the album, the mission statement of Fanoos is to basically discover these untold stories so there is a conversation around it. This is not the end of the campaign though. In the next one, Fanoos – Volume II, we will go towards Kashmir, places in Punjab and Balochistan.”

From Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher to Fanoos: the journey so far

“Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher had a set universe,” says Kazi as I ask to differentiate between his last release and his most recent one. “It had to sound like that. The energy in this project is coming from the people who are featured on it. I have never limited myself to science fiction or ambient stuff. This is primarily world music. The attempt was to make the featured artists sound international so the reach is beyond borders. Plus, I am a big world music fan.”

What’s great though is that Kazi is not allowing himself to become complacent. “With IKUS, things became saturated. There were so many ideas and I needed an outlet. After this record, I’ll do a pop album.”

Unlike Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher, which was years in the making before finally releasing, Fanoos happened in a span of a year and a half. “The idea of this has been with me since 2005. But the album began in October 2015. I recorded Gulmit students last year. It’s been about a year and a half since it all began. For me, the challenge was to release it early and not sit on it for eight years like Ismail. No one should take eight years on one album.”

The verdict

In some ways, Fanoos is the direction Coke Studio should’ve taken but never did. I say this having heard some unreleased material and having seen some of the documentary footage. It is the breaking of mainstream tradition which is dominated by a sameness that is both overdone and uninviting.

In other ways, Fanoos, released in partnership with Patari, is proof that that the success of Patari Tabeer that preceded Fanoos (and uncovered several artists including the breakthrough Abid Brohi earlier in 2017) was not a fluke. The blurring of the urban-rural divide is another deliberate effort that is meant to make us realize that no one should be left behind and others too have things to say and we must let them speak.

As I ask Kazi to summarize, he takes a moment before stating, “This is an initiative where we want to recognize their (the artists) heritage as part of Pakistan’s culture. It’s very important for us to also understand. I could have archived them in the purist of ways without making any change but that is something they are doing on their own anyway. And that is exactly where Zohaib Kazi and Patari come in. We are trying to build a bridge for these people to make the most of this exposure.  They are exposed to a lot of things – it’s just that they need to be told that ‘you can’ and they will.”

In the end, both Kazi and Patari have lived up to this promise they made when Fanoos first appeared and as more songs are unveiled, one hopes that this journey of discovery not only entertains us but also allows us to see beyond the horizon and what is visible.

–All photos by Insiya Syed

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