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Space and Time

As preparations for Nescafe Basement’s fourth season pick up steam, the show’s creator Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan, aka Xulfi, talks to Instep about the show’s evolution, successes, and future plans

Space and Time
To date, Nescafe Basement has unearthed 45 diverse young musicians hailing from all corners of the country like Karachi, Rawalpindi, Rahim Yar Khan, Quetta, Islamabad, Lahore, Khanewal and Chitral.

Instep: How has Nescafe Basement evolved since it first aired in 2012?

Xulfi: It has evolved in many ways but the core vision hasn’t changed, which is to create a future for the Pakistani music scene. Encouraging and mentoring young musicians is the most important aspect of that vision.

In the first season, the aim was that underground musicians, not just vocalists, of Pakistan get to know there is hope for them in the form of a music platform. Back then, we had a set of artists who were dominantly from Lahore, except two who were from Khanewal and Chitral respectively. But as time has gone on, our audition drive has expanded and talent scouting has become more intense. Moreover, my Facebook fan page is always loaded with auditions. All of this has resulted in a more diverse group of artists, season after season. Till today, Nescafe Basement has unearthed 45 diverse young musicians hailing from all corners of the country – Karachi, Rawalpindi, Rahim Yar Khan, Quetta, Islamabad, Lahore, Khanewal and Chitral.

From 100 auditions in season 1 to over 2000 in season 2 to 5000 plus in season 3, the initiative has kept growing and has kept infusing our music industry with young, raw, and brilliant talent.

Instep: What impact has the show had on the Pakistani music industry in the last three years?

Xulfi: During the early 2000s, so many musicians surfaced on the scene and are still part of it in one way or the other. But when we couldn’t capitalize on this amazing beginning, the industry spiralled downwards. Record labels disappeared, most of the music channels were gone, and the ones that remained played Bollywood music. The established artists were discouraged. The new ones didn’t know what to do. And that’s where music shows like Coke Studio and Nescafe Basement have played their highly crucial part in saving the industry. The audience’s lost interest in music has awakened again. The record labels are reassembling, knowing that Pakistani music is on the rise once again. New music portals like Taazi and Patari now exist, not only giving the audience a lot of great Pakistani music to hear but helping the artist legitimately earn through his music. All of this wasn’t possible when there wasn’t any new music coming up.

Talent scouting all the year round and honest mentoring are needed to help the next generation of musicians be better than us. After all, that should be the aim if a music scene has to evolve.

It makes me proud to know that today, NB artists are working in the industry as singers, music producers, composers, and songwriters for dramas, movies, and commercials. Some of them have formed bands. Some of them are playing as session musicians for renowned mainstream bands and artists. The most important mission here is that the dream should never die for these young talented performers.

Instep: Looking back at season 3, what were the salient features of the latest installment of the show?

Xulfi: This season saw the biggest recruited group yet. 26 artists! We jammed for two months, working on seven originals and nine covers. The best part of this initiative is that it is very free flowing and dynamic in nature and that’s why everyone gets a chance to shine. There is no set plan for the music that we do; it is created in long yet extremely fun jams, and with every new set of artists, there is a new breed of music that evolves every season. For me, that’s the true spirit of music. Artists meeting each other for the first time and then start connecting through music and finally, from being individual musicians, evolve into a band. My aim every year is to help achieve that. And when that happens, it’s magic.

The biggest positive out of this season was the listeners’ overwhelming response to the original songs, which was very heartening. It gives me a lot of hope for the future of our industry.

Instep: Which originals stood out? And what, in your opinion, made these original songs special?

Xulfi: It was amazing, in a way a relief, to see our audience falling in love with the original songs of these young future stars. ‘Bhangi’ by Rizwan Butt, ‘Sajna’ by Sibtain, and ‘Out of My Mind’ by Ikra were some of the originals that made quite a few waves.

Also, I feel the covers are as important as the originals. For a young artist who is learning, sometimes working on someone else’s song in a new light helps the artist figure out ways to reinvent melodies, arrangements, and in that process, learn how to think differently and creatively. Moreover, it’s always a big challenge to cover an iconic song, something that people relate to very religiously and still end up being highly appreciated and loved by those same people. The icing on the cake is when the artists whose covers we performed share our versions with nothing but praise.

Instep: How did it feel when Roxette shared the Nescafe Basement cover of ‘She’s Got the Look’ on their Facebook page?

Xulfi: Out of the world! To know that the music crossed continents to reach Roxette who not only just heard it, but shared our version, it puts a big smile on my face whenever I think of it! It’s an amazing achievement for all of us at NB that we are able to present such a positive outlook of our country to these music legends and then through them, to their followers all over the world.

And Roxette weren’t the only one who shared our cover of their song. Noori shared Nescafe Basement’s version of their ‘Nishaan’. Overload shared NB’s rendition of their song ‘Dhol Bajay Ga’. I think it is important to acknowledge our great musicians. Paying them tribute by reinventing their songs is the young musicians’ way to express their love and respect for our country’s amazing musicians.

Instep: Who are some of the successful alumni of NB so far? Who are the faces that have made a name for themselves in the music industry since being a part of the show?

Xulfi: There are many. Adnan and Rabi’s song ‘Awari’ from season 1 opened a lot of doors for them, one of which was Bollywood. The guys just returned from IIFA Awards in Malaysia where they were nominated for the Best Music Composers award. Now they are doing songs for a Pakistani movie, Dekh Magar Pyar Se. Adrian, a flutist and keyboardist from season 1 and 2 now operates his own studio and has been giving music for television dramas for a year now. Asfar Hussain, season 1 and 2 vocalist, has been drafted in to compose and sing two songs for a Pakistani movie that I can’t disclose the name of at the moment. Bilawal, one of the drummers from season 2 and 3, had his wish of playing alongside Gumby, one of Pakistan’s best drummers, come true post the last season. They played together in drum duels across the country. Sharoon, the season 3 violinist has been contacted by an extremely respected and famous music composer (can’t disclose at the moment) from India, who wants to draft him in his group of musicians.

Mentor and producer Xulfi, the force behind Nescafe Basement

Mentor and producer Xulfi, the force behind Nescafe Basement

In addition to all of this, some of the musicians are now performing countrywide with seasoned artists as session musicians. What makes me happy is that all of them are continuing to follow their dream with faith, and I believe that’s the most important part of an artist’s journey.

Instep: Soch, the most successful name associated with the show, already had some recognition when they joined NB. Do you plan to work with other relatively lesser known bands who are already striving to make a name for themselves in the industry, and help them get noticed? Or do you want to primarily focus on undiscovered musicians?

Xulfi: Yes, Soch did have recognition, but mostly in the underground circle. These immensely talented lads had the talent to pass through all hurdles and cross over into the mainstream and I do believe Nescafe Basement helped them achieve that.

Now coming to your question, I feel, at the moment, it is important to mentor individual artists. Why? Because usually when a band is made, a lot of the times, all musicians are not at par with each other skill-wise. I think if the musicians are better skilled in playing and writing music and hence, arranging parts, they stand a better chance of carving a name for themselves and contributing more in the band in their respective department. Every now and then, there are bands that have a united aim and musical direction and every member stands for that.  This philosophy is exactly what I try to instil in all individual artists at NB so that they become a band and they understand the nitty-gritty of working alongside other musicians in a team.

One very evident truth is that you don’t see a lot of bands survive in our country. Duos work better in Pakistan and we have ample proof of that. Noori has evolved into a duo from a band. Strings have always been a duo. Hence when I audition bands (and I audition them every season), sometimes, I recruit two out of a band or a single person out of them, whoever I feel has got it in them. And then once they are back in their bands after NB, they are able to contribute much better in every way.

Instep: Do you think the musicians/performers would get more individual attention and see more success post-NB if you worked with a smaller number of artists each season?

Xulfi: (Smiles) You know I always begin with this aim when I start auditioning. But as I keep listening to these young artists’ talent, I don’t feel like letting any deserving candidate go. Hence the number increases. It’s a very emotional journey for me, every phase of Nescafe Basement. And sometimes, I let my emotions decide. Even with this large group, if you talk to any of the NB artists, they are going to tell you that none of them felt neglected.

Instep: How far along is the preparation for season 4?

Xulfi: This time around, we have started very early. We are done with the planning and are now at the most important phase of the season, the auditions, which are going to start next month. The artists will also be able to audition online so that no one misses out on the chance of being a part of Pakistan’s music initiative for the young.

Instep: Any specific plans for season 4 that will make it different from the previous seasons?

Xulfi: We’ll be telling the story in more detail. From the auditions to the jams to the recording, the journey that Nescafe Basement is for us – we will make the audience experience, this story, and journey more detailed than they have been in the previous seasons. From the visual direction to the overall theme that the initiative stands for, things will be more evident. One thing’s not going to change though and that is fearless music. If I tell you more, then I’ll be taking surprise element away. But be assured, this is going to be a joyride for everyone tuned in. Nescafe Basement is always full of surprises for the audience, and these surprises are not going to stop this time around too. In fact they’ll be more and better.

Instep: How soon can we expect to see the fourth season on television? When will it start airing?

Xulfi: Very early next year! The reason for the slight delay is that we are working harder than ever to bring out the best of everything this season!

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