Having released their spectacular debut album last month, Chand Tara Orchestra sit-down with Instep to discuss the band’s evolution, why the thought-process behind any artwork is as important as the work itself and how Pakistani music is suffering from overproduction.
Chand Tara Orchestra (CTO), as a music group, has had some iteration(s) over the years but it’s their current sequence of members – Omran Shafique, Babar Sheikh, Sherry Raza and Rizwan Ullah Khan – that is working out most for the band and consequently, their listeners. For one thing, it shows in their chemistry as they converse, not just to me, but with each other during the course of this interview.
For another, it publicly became visible when they appeared on Coke Studio 11 [in 2018] with the song ‘Nami Danam’. Though joined on the song by drummer Kami Paul on the music series, their performance remains one of the highlights of the 2018 season, produced by Zohaib Kazi and Ali Hamza.
CTO followed it up with the music video and single, ‘Rung De’ and dropped their album with it, also in 2018. Those two songs proved that as a group they work, even as they bend genres while singing Sufi texts, make instruments do incredible, almost unrecognizable things and continue to pursue other avenues as filmmakers or artists, et al because everybody has to make a living and have responsibilities.
It was the last day of 2018 and CTO had an hour to spare. As I later learned, they come together when all of them have time to spare and those hours are precious to all of them.
Sitting at Omran Shafique’s cozy, home studio where Babar Sheikh and Sherry Raza are also present with Rizwan Ullah joining us nearly towards the end, we drink coffee, tea, water and our conversation varies.
From the state of Pakistani music to feature films to Coke Studio to the album listening session they held as opposed to a glitzy, red-carpet album launch affair – it’s an unrehearsed interview and the men in the room share what they think while maintaining a modicum of decency that is not a facade but intrinsic to each of them.
I ask them to tell me about their album, which truly deserves a separate review – but in a word is beautiful.
“If you dissect the album, what is Chand Tara Orchestra (CTO),” says Babar Sheikh, rhetorically. “CTO is a blend or an interesting amalgamation between the traditions of Pakistani folk and I’m not using the word ‘music’ here. What comes under Pakistani folk tradition? There is poetry, literature, a lifestyle, a pure connection with the soil – that is our inspiration. And we take that inspiration and fuse it with something unique and different.”
CTO as a group work because, as Omran Shafique points out, “We never try to separate but nor is there any extortion, or a forcefulness to stay.”
The band has received – so far – mostly critically acclaimed reviews with author Meher Murshed having written a blog on their release, ‘Rung De’ with a historical context – that easily serves as the best review I have read so far.
Part of the reason they sound so organic is that CTO as a collective have enough experience to decipher things, things like the sound of Pakistani music, which means they know what not to do.
“Contemporary Pakistani music also suffers from overproduction,” notes Babar Sheikh, not speaking in conceited tones but simply how he and the rest of the band see it.
I cut in and ask what they mean by overproduction.
Omran answers, having been a part of big shows, big platforms, smaller ones and a lot in between with enough experience to last a lifetime.
“It’s the technical aspect of music, the formula people have made. Junoon was a classic example of minimal production that they did back in the day. Coke Studio would be the example of being overproduced in the sense that you don’t need ten instruments in every song. In some songs, you need maybe two.”
Omran is, however, speaking of past seasons, not the 2018 one. “In 2018 Coke Studio, Zohaib Kazi and Ali Hamza [as producers] minimized it.”
Babar gives an analogy as an example before going into the season itself. “If you’re accustomed to drinking a cup of tea with four spoons of sugar and then you are given a cup of tea with half a spoon of sugar, it will take time for your taste buds to accommodate and eventually enjoy that. As a musician and as an artist, I think Coke Studio 11 did one of the biggest things last year with Lala – we call Attaullah Khan Essakhelvi that – and his son, Sanwal with ‘Allah Karesi’. That EDM type stuff Sanwal was playing while Lala sang was something no one had done or the song, ‘Wah Jo Kalaam’, between Asrar, Vishnu and Shamu Bai…”
“It was beautiful,” cuts in Omran Shafique.
They are speaking of sparseness, experimentation, storytelling, subtlety, narrative and nuance in music that is more than a tried and tested (albeit a regressive) formula.
“It’s good to see such things (alluding to ‘Wah Jo Kalaam’ and ‘Allah Karesi’) like this happening because that’s what Chand Tara Orchestra is about,” Babar finishes the sentence.
As the conversation continues, Babar notes, “The thought behind any artwork is important. Architecture is similar in the sense that the workers are not making the house; they’re implementing a thought. Unfortunately, in Pakistan now, take feature films for example. The glitz-glamour quotient is high. Someone will fall out of a helicopter or the camera will be rotating around someone six times. But the magnetism…” isn’t there, I finish Babar’s sentence as Sherry Raza nods. Babar notes he is announcing his own film (which he has) and I say, “rom-com” and he says “no way”.
Notes Omran Shafique, “And keep in mind, Babar is describing our situation that we’ve come to at this point, in these last four years. It’s been an on-going process of self-discovery. I think Babar would admit that whatever we do, we talk about it ten times, and there will be discussions. The actual work will take five minutes, but we’ll have week-long discussions.”
I look to Sherry Raza who says: “It’s exactly the way they’re describing.”
What Omran adds as the rest of the band nod in agreement is that “even after four years, this thought-process will continue.”
When posed with the question that do they believe the guitar – as an instrument – is losing its importance, Babar responds: “Our guitars don’t sound like guitars. In the album version of ‘Nami Danam’, Omran’s guitars don’t sound like guitars. They sound like synthesizers. It wasn’t because we came in one day and had already decided that the guitars should sound like synthesizers. It was because it felt right.
The guitar is not finishing. It’s traditional guitar-playing from the seventies and eighties that had peaked and music evolves with time.
In our album, we have one guitar solo and that’s played by a guest guitar player. Can Omran Shafique not play solos? Of course, he can. He has played some of the most memorable solos but we’re not trying to make a statement one way or the other.”
“There is one in ‘Khak Nasheen’ but it’s small,” says Omran, before responding to the guitar question, “Its prominence, perhaps.”
“To us, it’s about the feel…” says Babar.
“The genres are converging but holistically though, that’s the thing,” says Omran. “They are not forced together but done in the most organic way we could figure out. I think that translates into something. People assume that fusion is just something where you mix jazz and classical raag…”
“Or, mix rock with folk,” adds Sherry.
“But the thing is that whatever you are fusing,” continues Omran, “Both things should emerge as one as opposed to being neither here nor there. I find whenever I hear the term fusion it bothers me a little bit. It usually means you’ve taken some blues chord progression and added raag. So you neither see the real colours of the raag nor blues; it becomes less effective. But what fusion should be is when you take two things that enhance both. We are not doing something new. We are just stripping down the additional baggage.”
Moving onto the Sufi text or kalaams featured on the album, I turn to Sherry and ask him how CTO went about selecting their Sufi text at a time when it is so popular.
“We never set out with the thought that ‘let’s make a Baba Bulley Shah kalaam today’ and ‘there should be Amir Khusro as well’,” he says. “On lyrics, Babar and I sit down often while Omran will come in and we’ll tell him and he’ll say ‘yeah, sounds good’ or he’ll say ‘matlab bata do (explain it to me). We selected kalaams; some that are known to people while others might not be. But the lyrics – we become attached to it somehow – and that’s when you know this is something that should be included. Once the kalaam is understood, we do it in our way, and what capability I have and we don’t think how to compose it. When these guys sit, start jamming, I have four or five kalaams and we select and the feel… the idea emerges. It’s a process of team work,” explains Sherry.
Omran, who has been a part of some of the biggest corporate platforms in 2018 alone, explains the difference between CTO and everything else. “Well, you said all the names – Coke Studio, Cornetto Pop Rock, Red Bull Soundclash, Junoon re-union show – these were branded. There is no money behind Chand Tara Orchestra; we have not been paid to play or told ‘you’ll play these songs’. In the last four years, there was an understanding that all of us have other things. But CTO is what we enjoy the most, we’re doing it for us, everyone is on the same page about everything. It is not created with the purpose that we have to sell it somewhere somehow or play it to impress someone or for some client. This was our reprieve from the commercial work we end up doing – this is for our happiness and I think ultimately that’s…” connecting with people, I cut him off.
Omran adds, on a parting note: “It’s not about showing off all your capability in one song. You have a whole life ahead of you. You’ll play 100 songs in this lifetime where you will showcase different things…”
–Photography by Ameeq Pirzada