In music, there are groups and then there are super-groups. In the case of the latter, members “are already successful as solo artists or as part of other groups or well known in other musical professions”.
Karachi-based music group, Chand Tara Orchestra (CTO), featuring Omran Shafique, (Momo), Louis John Pinto (Gumby), Babar Sheikh, Kashan Admani and Shahryar Raza (Sherry), falls in that super-group category.
Between all of them, they have the musical experience and genius of a lifetime and they are nowhere close to stopping.
When it comes to the subject of music in Pakistan, sponsored content often gains more space, particularly in the media, since it has strong PR machinery and/or a lot of money behind it. And while that is how the industry functions, it is also true that focusing on an under the radar band like CTO can be a blissful experience and from time to time, one must push away the overt to make room for the subliminal.
The reincarnation of CTO is therefore a silver lining for all those people who do not find comfort in glamourous yet empty music productions, or are jaded by the persistent trend of covers that has enveloped mainstream music.
This and a lot more became apparent during a sit-down interview with three of the five members from this unique music outfit. The word ‘unique’ is thrown out far too liberally within music circles but few bands can lay claim to it. Fortunately for us, CTO is one such outfit.
Shafique and Gumby have managed to play with almost all industry giants via Coke Studio as well as in their individual capacity as sought-after session players and music producer(s). Babar Sheikh, meanwhile, has delivered striking songs via diverse, iconic acts like Ganda Banda and the 3D Cats and Dusk and remains a terrific filmmaker with some memorable music videos to his name.
In their individual capacity, they have left a permanent mark on the music scene, the kind that lasts through the ages and now they are doing the same, as a unit.
Having managed to amaze both industry insiders and serious music listeners with their most recent effort, the magnificent single that is ‘Khak Nasheen’, they have plans to move forward but will not release anything shoddy or thoughtless.
In a time where music feels heavily corporatized and lacking in innovation, barring certain exceptions, CTO is the antithesis in every single way.
As I listen in rewind to the interview conducted with the band at Gumby’s studio in Karachi on a warm summer evening, it’s obvious that the three members share a strong working rapport and respect each other a great deal even as they make jokes, some so internal that they fly right over my head.
It is also obvious that CTO, a blend of post-rock, prog-rock, ambient and psychedelic influences, harbours a clear vision. The purpose is not to become a superstar overnight or to pander to trends but to create music that has value, first and foremost to the band, and consequently to those who look for thought in music.
Though CTO has released two songs so far and that too years apart, the evolution of the band has led to a renewed focus in the studio.
As Shafique and Sheikh, the two original band members, confess, Gumby’s inclusion into the band has added a direction that was previously lacking, which has resulted in the creation of several songs, thus far unreleased but whose emergence in the distant future is inevitable.
The story begins, as always, with the rebirth story and Gumby recalls how it happened. “I’ve known Babar for a long time,” he began. “But we had never played together. I called him one day and told him that a musician is here from abroad and asked him to come and play a couple of songs with us. He then asked Momo to ask me to play with CTO.”
Having heard CTO’s debut single, ‘Makki Madni’, Gumby had admiration for the band and upon inclusion noted that a direction was necessary.
“All I said was that there needs to be a direction; doing one song in two years, one random thing here and there, that can’t be the case. The reason you’re here is that the band has some direction. Kashan Admani has come onboard. That has changed the sound a little.”
On the surface, the evolved line-up of CTO has put out just one single that appeared for the first time last year and reemerged again this year with a music video that is a fantastic ode to the city of Karachi and its inhabitants.
But behind closed doors and inside the studio, the band has a sketch for at least four songs, which is enough to make up a small EP.
“We’ve got about three or four songs lined-up,” reveals Shafique.
Adds Babar: “The third song is polished and that was conscious.”
As I ask them to describe the process behind the songs, Gumby is visibly excited about the jam session they had yesterday while Shafique and Sheikh break down the process for me.
“We get into the studio and we just start playing. There are no preconceived ideas. If we play for 40 minutes, one or two things will emerge from it,” says Shafique to which Sheikh adds: “Gumby has a small recorder and we just record our ideas and we listen to them back. In fact, in the moment, even without listening to the recorder, while playing we’ll know and we’ll replay something. For us, it’s not about sounding good or bad. It has to sound like CTO. It should stay within the CTO realm.”
All three of them take on projects; some of those are taken for the sake of financial stability and as they admit it, some satisfy creative hunger while others don’t as much but the trick is to find a balance. “We’re running houses and families and our livelihood lies in the field of creative and performing arts,” says Sheikh.
It is also why CTO takes such precedence for them.
“We are not confused about Chand Tara Orchestra,” says Gumby about the identity of the band. “We know damn well that this music has a target market and that’s what we’re aiming for. We aren’t thinking of making millions because that’s not the kind of music we are making. This is a project that we all are, very consciously, putting together and it’s almost like we don’t give a flying f*** about who is doing what; we’re going to do what we want.”
Sheikh adds that there is criticism within the band as well. “We’re critical of ourselves.”
Shafique also explains that while a lot of material emerges when the band gets together and starts playing, they also make sure that there are certain parameters within which each production has to stay.
“All of us are are capable of going into many other directions but for the sake of cohesion we’re like, ‘okay, we can’t go beyond a certain direction’. We can’t write a punk song because the feel changes; it’s not CTO anymore.”
Sheikh concurs that the style is deliberately minimalistic. The idea is to not sound so perfect that it borders on the clinical. “We left mistakes in ‘Khak Nasheen’,” says Sheikh.
“What’s missing these days in music is that everything can so easily be pitch corrected that the human element gets squeezed out,” says Shafique. “The modern-day challenge in a studio now is how to take a piece of music and retain its humanity so it doesn’t sound like it is played and performed by a machine. That is the hardest thing to do because people are so accustomed to it.”
As the hour changes and the conversation veers into territories beyond CTO, Sheikh rightly points out that we belong to an age where no one wants to pay for music. The culture of not paying for music is as rampant as it is toxic for the long-term growth of the music scene.
“Nobody wants to pay for music,” Sheikh says, addressing what is perhaps the biggest issue in music. “You can take out someone for dinner for 3000 rupees but paying 1000 rupees to see a band play live is too much. The concept here is freebies. We belong to the music/art/culture scene and if we were to do a show tomorrow, people will ask us for passes and they get offended if you say no.”
Having said that, the band maintains that it is easier to do things now than it was when they started out.
“It’s not as simple as being a good artist,” notes Gumby. “We come from an era where there was one channel, which was PTV and they had a monopoly. At that time, I’m sure there were some great scriptwriters and musicians who never got to come on television because of the monopoly and today it is the same. At least now you can upload anything online and get instant traction, 50 likes and so on. What is stopping you from understanding the marketing or sales prospect of your product?”
Bringing the conversation back to CTO, the band also managed to land a Lux Style Award nomination in the category of Song of the Year for ‘Khak Nasheen’ and while they appreciate the gesture, it was never the goal.
“It’s the individual person who connects with us, saying how much they like it, that affects us,” reveals Shafique. “The response we got from Patari was positive and it felt good because these guys were proper music fans. When it connects with people we respect and we like and they get excited about it, that’s our reward at this point.”
“All the conflict or negative things we’re talking about, CTO is derived from it,” explains Gumby. “It is our contribution or answer to everything else out there. If I’m saying something about somebody who is putting out a production I don’t like, then what am I doing? Am I putting out something that is better, not according to others’ standards but my own?”
As the conversation is coming to a close, and each member needs to head in a different direction to other commitments, it is clear that CTO has no axe to grind nor are they dismissive about the reality of music as it presently stands.
“We’re not aiming to make millions but there’s nothing wrong with others who are able to do that,” says Gumby on a parting note. “Good for them. To each their own. Whatever we are doing, we are doing it because we enjoy it and tomorrow if we have to play it a million times, we won’t get sick of it.”
In the end, there is no reason better to play music than for the joy of it and with CTO around the corner, rest assured that joy will make itself known in the coming days, months and hopefully years ahead.