Salt Arts co-founder and Arts Director for British Council, Raania Azam Khan Durrani talks to Instep about what it really means to curate and design a live music public show in Pakistan, working closely with artists and embracing our South Asian identity.
When Raania Azam Khan Durrani was eight or nine years old and started singing properly, it was her Bangladeshi music teacher who taught her to not “listen to s*** basically” and that “we learn from memory”. And those two lessons, she tells Instep, have guided her forever.
Presently Arts Director at British Council and co-founder and executive advisor of Salt Arts, Raania is in the spotlight for co-founding a company whose mission statement since birth has been to collaborate, curate, design and produce authentic, well-thought out live music public shows in Karachi. But in our extensive conversation, it appears that her contribution to the artistic movement and to the great city of Karachi is both unparalleled and remarkable.
Having grown up in Karachi, Raania pursued a liberal arts degree and studied languages, poetry and ethnomusicology while training as a studio artist at Bennington college. Since graduating and returning to the city by the sea, she has co-founded the Commune Artist Colony, worked with Shahid Feroz for the Port Grand inauguration and for Karachi’s creative heartland, T2F, before co-founding Salt Arts. A visual artist, educator and a writer, her curatorial projects include Women of the World Festival (Karachi 2016/2017), Heritage Now Festival (2017) and RPM (Rounds Per Minute) digital exhibit at the Alchemy Festival (2016).
In addition to all this, Raania can sing, beautifully so, and is a member of Midnight Kitchen, a music group that also features Dilawar Hussain, Rakae Jamil, Terrance Kenny and Faraz Hussain. She describes the group in the following words: “Our sound is the memory of midnight music made at a kitchen table; a golden tumbler, a shared space, an elusive scent, near yet far – the unexpected quickening of the heart. We draw from the melodies of longing, and stories of heartache. Our musical influences are classical and contemporary, our music is for the urban Southasian listener.”
This story, however must begin with Salt Arts, who, since coming into existence in 2015, have put on dozens of live public shows with artists as eclectic as Ali Hamza, Strings, Jimmy Khan, Khumariyaan, Mauj, Sounds of Kolachi, Slowspin, Natasha Humera Ejaz, Zoe Viccaji, Natasha Baig and many more.
Salt Arts, in addition to Raania, counts Junaid Iqbal as co-founder, Hasan Waliany as creative director and Sara Nasir as manager arts and production. When asked to reveal its origin story, begins Raania, “Junaid Iqbal, a friend from school whom I trust a lot, wanted to work together and take ‘creative risks’. I said ‘this is what I want to do’ and he said ‘okay let’s do it’. That was in August and our first show as Salt Arts was in October.”
Apart from doing live gigs, Salt Arts has also launched the South Asia Ensemble and continue to expand the definition of what it really means to curate and design a public show in Pakistan, working with artists closely and doing it with an aesthetic that you will certainly not find, for instance, at food festivals that come attached with overt branding, and only provide a glimpse into what a certain artist can do.
“Festival gigs can be watered down versions of music performance(s) because I feel we don’t have the kind of production value that we can run festivals,” says Raania. “In our shows, we don’t do disco lights; there’s a set mood. Any live performance to a country that has had such a big vacuum is experience-based. As our elders told us, it is about your memory, it’s about experience.”
And collaboration plays a huge role in bringing that experience together. “Collaboration is this beautiful thing where you have to shed your ego a little bit and work with the other person and I think that’s when we win. In our portfolio, as of now, we have not been too fast either. We’ve maintained a semi-gentle pace. It’s not easy because you have to keep doing it and you have to sustain and survive but artists we work with become a part of our daily lives. The production is not about the show; it’s much longer. We don’t do things on a whim; we work on a calendar. It’s impossible to put out two shows in a month on a whim.”
To give an example of how collaborative and immersive the process can be for a Salt Arts shows, Raania points to the famous Ali Hamza ‘Sanwal’ show that was held in Karachi nearly two years ago.
“Jimmy Khan had called us and we had done his first tour of Karachi and it was quite successful and we had a great time. I came out of the show and told one of my dear friends, who is also Ali Hamza’s really good friend, that I’m going to call Hamza and ask him if he’s going to do a solo show. I called him up and I said ‘Hamza, please do it’ and he said ‘no I’m on tour with Noori and we have 40 shows in Punjab’ and I told him ‘they’ll go on but give me a date’ and he agreed. And we did all of the promotional work remotely and Hamza sent a voiceover on WhatsApp from somewhere in Southern Punjab. Hamza, in the next week came to Karachi and then I went to Lahore; he said I’ll do the show but you have to sing with me. I agreed. I wanted to sing Faiz sahib and he arranged it and we were sitting in Rakae Jamil’s living room and jamming. The set-design for Sanwal really was the living room, it was actually stuff from my house. We wanted to do a sitting room set because that is how we bonded. We get so immersed with the experience of working with an artist that it takes us that much time to recover from it as well. It’s like a relationship.”
As our conversation goes on, I ask Raania about the reason why Salt Arts is keen on promoting South Asian music and identity.
“Why can’t we own up to South Asia?” she asks. “I think Pakistani music and arts has played a very substantial role in South Asian lives. I’d travel to Nepal a lot in my youth and to give you an example, my friends would ask me to bring CDs of Junoon. We’ve always had that space and our identity, I think, is more South Asian, than any other. At least I know mine is and as a curator I think it’s important to bring that.”
As for live music, as Raania sees it, the importance of a ticketed show should not be underestimated. “The person who pays for a ticket to see a show is giving you a vote and validation that I want to listen to your music. And that was very important to establish; till today selling a show is the most satisfying thing because somebody has paid for it. And it’s not a corporate but a regular human being who saved his pocket money or whatever and made that investment. There are many artists who get corporate work but what happens is that it doesn’t include the listening public. It is a typical crowd.”
With every passing show, Salt Arts is also addressing audience development. “Audience development is not only about making the masses listen to music,” explains Raania. “There are many approaches to this. One side of audience development, in a city like Karachi, is that there are a lot of people who have a lot of income or who go out and purchase things. Are they listening to Pakistani music and paying for it? Why are people who can pay for it not paying for it? Some of our expensive, high-end series initiatives were because we wanted to develop a rich-paying audience and to change their mindset about what’s out there.”
Only by doing these shows will we learn to fear each other less and embrace public spaces, she adds before sharing a timely anecdote.
“When we were putting up the Strings show last December, somebody called me from my son’s school because somehow everybody knew about that show. So, this lady calls me from the school, very sweet and says ‘my sister and her friends have bought tickets for Strings. Can you make sure they have a safe spot to be in?’ And I said, ‘hang on, that’s very sweet of you to call but that’s not going to happen because it’s all a safe spot. I’m a woman and half my team is made up of women. We’re producing.’ We all have to learn how to navigate ourselves in public space and I think that is the only way that we as a country or we as a city will learn to love each other a little more. If we get anxious even before leaving the house, how will things get better? That was a very poignant moment for me and I think that’s a good way of being an ambassador for women audiences. It’s nice to see girls come out in groups as well. An important agenda of Salt Arts is to cater to women audiences and to make women and girls come out of the house and listen to music.”
For Salt Arts, the main concern is that people should be paying for live music performances.
“None of our shows have been free and we’ve done public shows that are at lower prices as well. Our recent Khumariyaan gig, the ticket was priced at 1000 rupees. There is a perception that we are this huge cartel doing these huge things but it’s not true. It is a small team multi-tasking.”
Though Karachi, which plays home to Salt Arts, as a city has a volatile reputation, Raania believes that it is the “contemporary hub of music for South Asia” before adding, “Calling Karachi a conflict-zone is tough but we are in conflict most of the time and we’re used to it. Your city is polarized, safe spots reduced; law and order has a huge role to play in it. There is a problem but that doesn’t mean we don’t program; it doesn’t mean that the 400 people who come out to watch Jimmy Khan and pay for it are not valid. I think it’s about ownership and association. It is important to understand that even as a subculture, our voice is important. I love this city and I think we’re one of the most interesting cities in the world.”
What are some of the ideas that will guide you moving forward, I pose to Raania.
“I want it to be that quiet, introspective high-quality space for creating audio-visual experiences. Not only music but visual experiential thing as well. I really want us to be a space where artists feel they’re collaborating and not doing a job. If someone gives you money, they may want to govern your programming, which we won’t allow. It can be tough and survival is key.”
As for British Council Pakistan where Raania is Arts Director and who brought the remarkable Women of the World Festival (in partnership with the Southbank Centre) for the second time to Karachi last December, says Raania: “They have beautiful priorities in the cultural area and are working closely with women and girls and heritage as part of the arts portfolio. The teams at BC are very diverse and include some wonderful people from different parts of the country.”