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Mekaal Hasan’s quest for creating social change through music

As the Rivayat Music Series, curated by Hasan, makes its debut appearance in Karachi with a qawwali evening featuring Farid Ayaz and Abu Mohammad Qawwal, Instep talks........

Mekaal Hasan’s quest for creating social change through music
Mekaal Hasan is creator, producer and curator of Rivayat Music Series.

As the Rivayat Music Series, curated by Hasan, makes its debut appearance in Karachi with a qawwali evening featuring Farid Ayaz and Abu Mohammad Qawwal, Instep talks to the music producer and live music expert about its significance and long-term goals.

Mekaal Hasan, 44, is a rare musical bird. He is an expert in live music as well as the production of music. Both are completely different skill sets and Hasan has refined each of those skill sets with years of perseverance. He is also wise enough to know the difference between the two.

Having worked with the likes of Ali Azmat, Atif Aslam, Jal, Noori, Zeb and Haniya, Meesha Shafi, Poor Rich Boy, Sounds of Kolachi and many more as well as having spearheaded the still active Mekaal Hasan Band, Hasan has left an indelible mark on the music landscape of Pakistan.

Beyond skills though, he has a reputation for calling things out for what they really are and for not playing it safe when asked about the reality of music in Pakistan as it stands.

One such reality is how music that belongs to us all is only accessible to those who live in certain (posh) areas. This is particularly true in the case of live music where events that do crop up tend to emerge in certain spaces only. The restriction of music is one that Hasan is hoping to reverse with the Rivayat Music Series (RMS). Making its debut (in just a few hours) at the Karachi School of Business and Leadership auditorium, the first gig from the series features Farid Ayaz and Abu Mohammad Qawwal and is meant to cater to residents of Gulshan-e-Iqbal and North Nazimabad primarily; it is also open to anyone who is genuinely interested. With a population numbering over 23 million people, Karachi is the perfect city for unveiling of this proposition. Presently sitting at his compact Karachi studio, Hasan explains that the concert series, backed by Publicis Pakistan and Karachi Youth Initiative, consists of four shows in total. While the first one begins tonight, the remaining three will be held back-to-back in the month of November. The series in totality is meant to cater to the residents of Gulzar-e-Hijri, Pehlwan Goth, Sakhi Hasan and Paposh Nagar, all areas that none of us – as music industry insiders and Karachiites– usually associate with live music activity.

“This is absolutely nothing like doing corporate work,” begins Hasan who is operating on very little sleep and is running on adrenaline more than anything else. “This is community work. The whole idea is to create a community and give access to quality events to people who inhabit overlooked spaces. All these local communities who live in a lot of these areas, most of them are from middle to lower income groups and socially you’re cutting them further off by not providing them with the reprieve of entertainment. They are kept so outside from the milieu that if they don’t come to this side of the bridge, they have no access to entertainment.”

Hasan, who is eventually joined by co-producer of RMS, Waqas Almas in this interview, states that there are a number of objectives behind the series. “One, I want to bring the culture of all the various regions that make up Pakistan to Karachi,” he says. “The event is Karachi-centric to begin with because it’s happening here but why make the entertainment Karachi-centric? I want to feature quality musicians from all over the country. For instance, I have eight instrumentalists; each of them is given a solo tune and the rest of it is them backing each other. We also have a vocalist called Ejaz Lohar, who is phenomenal.

Zaheer Kidvai, Waqas Almas and Abu Mohammad (joined by his qawwali troupe) at the first edition of Rivayat Music Series.

Zaheer Kidvai, Waqas Almas and Abu Mohammad (joined by his qawwali troupe) at the first edition of Rivayat Music Series.

Two, we want to establish a healthy system where the artist who plays is not only getting paid but they’re able to play for the common public. Whatever collateral we make, it goes back to them and that becomes part of the repertoire of the label and the artist. To that end, we’re also creating Rivayat Music Series label, which will carry properly edited, high quality videos as well as audio and the proceeds will be sent to the artists who are playing. We also want to create an archive where we have a database of all such artists and we can suggest them for other events as well.

Third, we want to cater to people who are actually and genuinely interested in listening to music; I don’t want to encourage only people with means to have access to music.

Fourth, to create a platform for the unknowns. If a poor person wants to go into music, what hope does he have? He can’t get on Coke Studio or Pepsi Battle of the Bands. Nescafe Basement is not going to call him. Where will such people go? They have no place to go. This is a good way of identifying talent within those areas. This particular show is this month but the rest of the remaining three shows, we are picking local musicians from the designated areas and highlighting them and they will open the show for Farid Ayaz next time and the Folk Ensemble and so on.”

Almas, who is the co-producer of RMS and knows the streets of Karachi better than Hasan, says that it also has to do with perception. “The perception is you can’t go to North Nazimabad or Pehlwan Goth or Orangi Town. There is always the fear that you will get mugged or that it’s too dangerous and it is particularly common to the inhabitants of the city. No one does anything on the other side of the bridge whether its festival or a readings or a gig. So the idea is to change that perception through community events. It will also shed a light on the movement of non-violence.”

As part of doing the series, the Hasan/Almas team is also collecting data on the local communities and the ethnicities that make up the populace with the aim to hone the material that is presented to these diverse groups of listeners.

The response to Rivayat has thus far been promising from both artists and listeners. Almas notes, “We were talking to a banjo player called Mumtaz Sabzal. He’s travelled all over the world so when he came to meet us, he suggested that we do one project in his area and guess where he lives? He lives right in the center of Lyari. When we sat down and created Rivayat, we thought that it should cater to areas where the presence of media and entertainment is non-existent and where the perception of violence is strong.”

Farid Ayaz performing at the Rivayat Music Series

Farid Ayaz performing at the Rivayat Music Series

Adding to the conversation, Hasan notes, “It is community entertainment. My carpenter was here and he knew we were doing this event and he wanted to come and I told him to come; the idea is to enable people like him to enjoy music once again. There was a time when people would, in the evening, go to mehfils and ghazal programs. We want to bring those ideals back to existence.”

As Hasan and Almas tell Instep, the gig (which began an hour after the designated time and had the audience in rapture and devotional wonder for two straight hours) received positive response from a variety of localities. Participants came from areas like Gulshan e Iqbal, North Nazimabad, P.E.C.H.S, DHA, Garden East, Malir, Gulistan e Jauhar, F.B. Area, Saddar, Quaidabad and Orangi Town.

Rivayat Music Series is the first such event but Hasan hopes to create similar events that highlight other forms of performing arts as well. “I want to do an electronica festival. I’m not stupid enough to say that we will only do traditional music but that’s a long term goal. The idea is to start humble and keep building it and keep introducing more singers, more artists and at some stage incorporate visual art as well. Everything has become so visual now that it can be boring to look at someone who is just sitting and performing. I want to take the ambience and do something with it. We also want to work with art installation(s) and dance and using young artists – who have their work on display while a certain kind of music is playing. But this edgier stuff will come later. Right now we’ve taken the first steps; we have a long way to go.”

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