Anyone who is remotely interested in music that is emanating out of Pakistan or has been in the last ten years or so cannot and should not be immune to the name Omran Shafique. For some, he’s the chilled-out guitarist who made funky, gratifying and memorable tunes as the front-man and leader of the cherished musical outfit, Mauj. For others, he’s the guitar god who replaced Salman Ahmed without skipping a beat when Ali Azmat left the mighty Junoon philosophy behind and entered the solo music realm. For the majority though, he’s the elegant guitar player who has been an essential member of Pakistan’s most talked about music production to date, Coke Studio, with its lush and illustrious history.
From playing music producer to Rushk to working with younger artists like Sara Haider, Natasha Humera Ejaz and Zohaib Kazi to learning from stalwarts like Abida Parveen, Tina Sani and many others who have graced the Coke Studio platform to playing free-flowing melodies in the ambient outfit, Chand Tara Orchestra, there is no one whose career is as diverse or impressive as Shafique, or Momo as he is fondly called by friends, fans, and industry experts, in Pakistan at least. In ten years, he has accomplished more than most manage in a lifetime.
In person, Shafique remains as articulate, forthcoming and thoughtful as our first official encounter when we met at Ali Azmat’s apartment in Karachi nearly a decade ago. If anything, the passing years have made him wiser.
Recording for Coke Studio’s upcoming tenth season, his days are busy and taxing since he is no longer as young as he used to be but he carves out time for this interview – after a marathon recording session – without any difficulty or starry airs.
We meet on a quiet, almost desolate winter evening at his sparse, cozy home-studio. Before beginning the interview, he quickly disappears for ten or so minutes to eat and upon returning, sits across from me and answers my many questions with a smile.
Married happily for more than a decade and father to two beautiful girls, Omran leads a life that is both ordinary and extraordinary. In our extensive conversation, he spoke about Coke Studio, the new age of music, Mauj and an inner wanderlust that may take him away from his adopted city of Karachi. Here is an excerpt from that conversation….
Instep: Since you’re recording Coke Studio, let’s begin with it. This is the tenth year for Coke Studio. You’ve been a part of it since the first season. You’ve worked with Rohail and Strings. Last year we saw six producers. There’s been criticism and love that has chased the show for years now. What do you make of the show’s evolution?
Omran Shafique (OS): When it was first coming out, it was exciting because no one had seen or heard anything like it in Pakistan at least, nothing in this region basically. After a couple of seasons, it became standardized and it became a bit safer. Now there’s a general oldness about it because it’s the same idea and the thing is people expect it to be the same and when it’s not the same, they get upset.
For instance, in season six, Rohail did something completely different, and people were upset about it…
Instep: I thought Rohail was a bit more experimental in the last season he produced.
OS: Rohail has a very specific idea of what he wants and if you’ve been paying attention to what Rohail was doing, he’s been doing it since Hum Tum (the last Vital Signs studio album). He started on this feel and he’s refining it and in my opinion season six is one of the best Coke Studio seasons, even though I wasn’t on it. What he did was international quality production of the same old Sufi songs that you hear on Coke Studio to this day.
What Strings have done has definitely added a more Bollywood-ized version of it, which is ironic considering that’s what Coke Studio India was doing. And further ironic, Coke Studio India is no more; it’s finished.
Instep: They seem to be doing better with MTV Unplugged.
OS: I think MTV Unplugged has done a better job. I think Coke Studio is stuck because it’s gotten so big that it can’t deviate really from the path too much. You can’t remain experimental after ten years. And there’s only so many singers and so many ideas that you can throw out while remaining mainstream.
The show has become so big that your country is known for it. If you go to India, people will say ‘Oh I love Coke Studio Pakistan and don’t listen to the Indian one’ just like when we meet an Indian person we’ll say ‘oh we watch your movies’. Our dramas and Coke Studio is what people know.
At the end of the day, it is a commercial venture so there was definitely a point where it could’ve gone a lot more experimental but I think Strings have made it a point not to do that. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Obviously, they have their own ideas about it and I think considering the numbers, that’s what matters. Critics aside, the brand is looking at what’s the reach and the reach is massive. It gets bigger and bigger each year. So it’s achieving its goal and it is marketing on a massive scale. And it provides a platform to many artists that otherwise would not have a voice.
Instep: Coke Studio, for many, is the ultimate goal…
OS: And that is a double-edged sword. People are focused on trying to get on Coke Studio instead of trying to come up with their own identity; artists are trying to cater to what Coke Studio would like so every artist has a Sufi song now. I tell them get to a point where Coke Studio calls you. And how you do that is by making your own music and make a name for yourself. Write a song, make a video, do a show and then they’ll come. That’s the way to get on Coke Studio. People are going about it the wrong way, which I think is bad for the industry. Granted it’s a great platform for eastern classical people that get to be on it and may otherwise get forgotten or sidelined, but even their pure eastern classical stuff is diluted and they always come off kind of disappointed by the experience and by not being able to do what they want to do. But then that’s Coke Studio; come in, do your song, we don’t have time to like ponder and be all philosophical about it. Now it’s like clockwork. The early seasons did include pondering and not to say that doesn’t happen now but it is much more streamlined. It was a lot more haphazard back in the day.
I’m immune to CS criticism because it has been there since season three. Coke Studio has been a blessing for me. A lot of people know me because of it. I’ve gotten steady work because of it; it has given me steady work and pays well. It has kept Pakistani music on the map when everything else had fallen apart and I think that’s why people still take ownership of it, which is a good thing. Faisal and Bilal have to take the brunt of the criticism. But they’re like it’s good because that means people are still vested in it. The kiss of death would be the day people stop complaining about it and become indifferent to it.
Instep: Mauj remains one band that still makes people very curious. Why hasn’t there been another album?
OS: I don’t have a good answer for it. Whatever happened with Mauj was before I came to Pakistan. After everything happened with the album release, I kind of soured on it. Before the Mauj project happened, I had never sung a note in my life. I don’t like to sing and I’m not comfortable with it; I’m a guitar player. I was stuck in a position where I would have to perform these songs and it was stressful for me. I couldn’t find the right feel for the next album and I was sick of the songs from the first album.
I end up going to these jams and a lot of young players tell me they’ve picked up their instruments because of Mauj.
I’m mostly concerned about making money off music and what ends up happening is that I get busy with commercial stuff, like right now it’s Coke Studio and I have this other project. What I would like to do for the next Mauj album is to make it completely different and maybe do vocals that are much easier for me to pull off live. But then that’s not the Mauj sound. The players are not the same. The way I write or play guitar is not the same. I’m not the tight, funk guitar player I was. I can still do it and in many ways still enjoy it. I am still a blues guitarist at the end of the day but there is a marked difference in the way I approach music now. It’s been 13 years since we did the first Mauj song.
As much as people like the Mauj album, it’s too constrained. It was fine for its time I guess. It was me trying too hard. The best songs on the album were the least worked on.
Whatever I do next, I’m not sure it can be called Mauj. It’s not the same people. Apart from me, everyone else is different. I have changed and I couldn’t make that same album again even if I wanted to and I don’t want to. So how do I call it Mauj? I think its also age talking.
Instep: Music festivals have become regular in the last few years. Do you think they’re helping the cause of music?
OS: They are a good thing. I can’t say anything negative about live music happening and people getting out to see shows. A lot of unknown acts get to play in front of a lot of people and make an impression. I think it is a win for everybody.
Instep: Having worked with artists like Ali Azmat, Rushk, Sara Haider, Natasha Humera Ejaz and the musical unit you count as your own, Chand Tara Orchestra, what do you make of the modern era? The spirit of creative collaboration is all over your musical map.
OS: Everyone gets their music in a different way now. You can go to Patari and listen to just about any kind of music from Pakistan and that was needed and I think it’s helping. They are doing good stuff for Pakistani music.
These are the guys, the next generation, it’s just a matter of time before they become household names. It’s good to see their energy, excitement and sometimes its sad to see the struggle as well. Almost all of them have come through. Being consistent and persistent leads you somewhere. Some of them will go on to do other things.
I think collaborating with talented other musicians is a lot of fun and these new kids are inspiring. They want to do something different and I get to maybe guide them a little bit and get their ideas across and warn them about the pitfalls.
Instep: You’re a performing artist but never identify with the term celebrity. Why?
OS: My dream, as I was growing up, was always to get up in the morning and play music for a living. The goal was not to be the star and I think the fact that I was heading in that direction turned me off, maybe. I am wary of being a celebrity because then you become part of the rat race. The rat race is the reason I quit my corporate job. I want to be able to do what I like to do without being handed an extra level of responsibility like some sort of role model or moral compass for somebody. I don’t want to be under a microscope. It becomes invasive as well and honestly, it’s nice to be paid celebrity money but it has its negative sides as well. I enjoy my relative anonymity when I go out. I can take my kids to the mall and not be bothered and I would be upset if I can’t take them for ice cream.
Instep: The last time we met, we spoke about life in Pakistan and whether you think it’s time to perhaps move back to America…
OS: We are, always every year, discussing it. Is this the year we should go back? It’s every year, on the table.
Instep: Why? Is it because of the kids and the situation here at home?
OS: Yes, but it’s not just that. I definitely have a seven-year wanderlust that begins no matter where I am after 7 years so that feeling is there. The kids are getting older and also as much as I love doing the music, I think, like I said, I don’t have the same energy so with Coke Studio I’m mentally exhausted and drained and I’m like I don’t know if I’m having as much fun as I used to.
So the idea remains why am I doing music and the reason is it was an obsession and I had to do it and now that I’ve done it for ten years, that need has definitely been satiated. I’ve played enough music; I’ve played with people I idolized growing up, I’ve become friends with them. And for me those are achievements. 15 years ago, sitting in America, I didn’t imagine I would accomplish all this and I think I’ve done a lot.
Maybe I need to start thinking about the next chapter now and what would I like to do next. I don’t necessarily fit in, in the Middle East or America or here. I can assimilate well enough but I can never be totally immersed. Karachi has become my adopted home for the last ten years but I am not a Karachiwalla. I tend to be like that. So there is that search for the next thing and I don’t know what that is. I wouldn’t mind writing, its something I went to school for, literature so that’s something I would like to delve into but then I’m like a complete beginner because I haven’t written since college.
But music will also always remain because I’ve given so many hours to it.