Instep: Here we are, again. Let’s begin with Moor. It isn’t surprising that Jami and Strings teamed up for the soundtrack of Moor. You share a long and illustrious history of working together. But this was the first full-fledged film project for Strings. Tell us about the experience?
Bilal Maqsood (BM): Jami knows what to expect from Strings. We are on a perfect wavelength. When we started working on the film soundtrack, we didn’t have a studio. So, we designed one. Normally, when you’re working on a film, the songs and the music go through a back and forth process. With Jami and Moor, no such thing happened. He gave us complete freedom because he knows that we would never create something that will clash with his vision.
Anyway, we made the songs and the whole process was amazing.
There were so many different textures to the film; it starts from the beautiful, snow-capped mountains of Balochistan and moves to the fast-underground life of Karachi. There are so many characters, their relationships, so for any musician, Moor is a thrilling project. You have to remember the flow of the film. When Jami showed us the film, and we added the songs, it was like a jigsaw puzzle and every piece just fit. The process was so organic.
Instep: You worked with a combination of singers and musicians for Moor. How and why did you pick these particular singers?
BM: For the very first time, Strings were working with other singers and the process of selecting the right voices was interesting. We called Javed Bashir and Meesha Shafi and Rahim Shah. Rehma Ali was not our first choice. We called someone else but it backfired and so, then, we called Rehma. Abu (Anwer Masood) knew her and he recommended her. We needed a sweet, fresh voice and Rehma fit the bill perfectly. We called Javed Bashir and said, ‘Javed Bhai, we want to do this’ and he agreed. We sent him the songs and he loved them. We told JB that he could improvise and he did. After that, we worked with him on Coke Studio and we’ve developed a strong working relationship with JB. And it all started with Moor.
I had Meesha’s ‘Dhol Bajay Ga’ in my head. That was the kind of gritty voice we wanted for ‘Eva’. When this song was composed, we took it to Meesha; we were recording in Mekaal Hasan’s studio in Lahore. Meesha was singing the track normally and we told her, “No, you must go junglee (wild)” and she did.
Instep: Junglee (wild)?
BM: Yup, we told her to be as junglee as she can. She sang and enjoyed it so much.
Instep: How did Rahim Shah fall into the Moor soundtrack?
BM: We needed a Pushto song for a particular moment in the film. When you watch the film, you’ll see what I mean. At first, we thought of composing a song ourselves. But that didn’t work out so we asked Rahim for a folk melody and Rahim played this song, ‘Gul Bashri’. This track was originally up-tempo. The moment in the film where this song plays is dark and filled with grief. And so, we toned this song down and took it into a really dark space. We twisted it and turned it around and got what we wanted.
Moor required us to come out of our own shells and we had to leave Strings behind. We did two songs for Moor, and they retain that Strings sound. But when you’re making music for a film, you have to remember what will sound good on the big screen and what will work as a cinematic experience. The two numbers sung by Strings, to be fair, are not very cinematic. They sound like songs off our album because our sound is pop-rock. For a film, you have to think big and songs like ‘Talabgaar’, ‘Jogiya’ and the others fit the bill.
We always wanted to do a project like this but we couldn’t find the opportunity.
Instep: What is your take on the revival of cinema and the opportunity it presents to the music industry?
BM: In Pakistan and India, music is the key to any film’s success. If the music is good, at minimum, you will get noticed. Music plays a crucial role in boosting a film’s prospects and it brings audiences to cinema. That’s what happens in India. In Pakistan, people still haven’t realized and understood how important music is to its film and how necessary it is for that music to be visible. Films like Main Hoon Shahid Afridi, Wrong No and many others, their music is not visible, not as visible as it should’ve been. The songs are not promoted. In Karachi Se Lahore, for instance, there are two beautiful Noori songs; we should be able to find those songs with their videos on television. They should play on radio stations. We are constantly pushing Jami to promote the music and he has. Jami, of course, has sold his cars. He has sold so much that he has no money to advertise. But he’s still doing it, and it makes a difference. Shah (the film) is releasing on the same day as Moor but that film hasn’t registered with a lot of people. See, a song is an effective tool to promote a film and, Pakistani directors and producers should think in terms of music.
Instep: What do you make of this evolving state of movies and by definition, the actors who make up the scene?
BM: When people go to the movies, they want to watch their favourite stars. Pakistan doesn’t have movie stars yet; we have to create them. Our film (current) stars seem too accessible, they are visible on every channel and they are present on every morning show so we’re not there yet.
Instep: In film music, the item song itself has become a controversy. Do you find it reprehensible? There seems to be a lot of moral policing on the matter.
BM: If an item song is done well…
Instep: Do you think it’s about aesthetics?
BM: Yes, no one will criticize a good song but if it’s vulgar, people will see it for what it really is. If the song is not connected to the film’s story in any way, if it appears out of the blue and plays up vulgar, misogynist themes, people will realize what the director is trying to do.
Faisal Kapadia (FK): Our culture is similar to India but the content that is consumed in India won’t always appeal to Pakistan. Look, India has club culture. Excessively vulgar songs will work in India because those songs play at clubs and parties and the audience is accustomed to dancing to them. In Pakistan, item songs are used in weddings. It’s a matter of consumption and environment. So, if you are making an item song, and there is nothing wrong with it, you have to find the balance.
BM: I think directors should realize that adding one item song to your film will not make it a success. It has to be about the content.
Instep: The other big project in your life is Coke Studio. You took over the show last year as producers and are back for a second round, which begins today. How has life changed post-Coke Studio?
BM: Before Coke Studio, we were performing regularly as Strings on different stages, consistent live shows with teenagers right in front of our stage(s), screaming and singing and cheering for us. Now it feels like it’s an old story. Suddenly, we feel kind of old, more mature. We’ve worked with giants like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveenji and so many greats. And so, we’re thinking about our shows where we jump and just play, and wondering if we’re doing the right thing. We know we’ll go back to that.
Instep: That’s also your identity, playing as Strings.
BM: Yes, and when the Coke Studio season ends, our shows begin. But it has to be said that Coke Studio opened a new spectrum for us. We’ve started looking at music in a whole other way. This music, be it folk or qawwali, is different from Strings’ music and we’ve started taking ownership of these other genres.
FK: We love these other genres and have grown up listening to it. But we couldn’t own it in our own albums because we were limited to a particular genre. I think for a musician, it doesn’t get better than this.
Instep: The music industry hardly resembles an industry and is filled with contentious relationships and operates in a fragmented manner. But when Coke Studio releases, it looks like there is some sort of unity to this community. You can’t work on songs and melodies for so many days, and so closely, for weeks on end and not form bond that will survive the test of time. Yes?
FK: The Coke Studio environment is beautiful and we always hope that that unity survives afterwards. Coke Studio gives the music a boost, and people want to watch this show.
Instep: Farida Khanum is part of the new season. Let’s talk a little about her. She’s part of our rich, musical history, which we, as a nation, tend to forget.
BM: We wanted her in the last season as well but it didn’t work out. This year, she wasn’t well, but, somehow, we convinced her. We knew her from before. The most surprising part was what she said when she sat down with us. She asked us why we hadn’t produced a song of our own.
FK: For a minute, we thought that maybe she isn’t recognizing us. She told us that she follows our music and that the last song we did was ‘Main Tou Dekhonga’. “Why haven’t you done anything else since then?” she asked us. Then she told us that ‘your Sanjay Dutt song was good”. We were completely surprised and so happy. Wow. A legend like Farida Khanum…
Instep: …listens to Strings. Okay, that got me.
BM: You know she said to us, ‘You both didn’t change’. Wow.
FK: For us, the seventh season of Coke Studio was our first attempt. We had certain ideas in our head last year, like Abida and Rahat collaborating on ‘Chaap Tilak’. This year, we made a conscious effort of inviting several artists who’ve never appeared on the show before. There is so much music in Pakistan that as producers we have to choose. A platform like this should be given to all deserving artists and there are many. We may have missed out on many for one reason or another, but the idea this year was to branch out and give this platform to others. It is our responsibility to reach out to as many artists as possible.
Instep: Let’s talk about some of the new faces of Coke Studio. Every season has its own story.
FK: Ali Haider is one of those guys with whom we’ve toured a lot. ‘Sar Kiye Ye Pahar’ and ‘Qaraar’ released around the same time. I still remember, we did this one show in 1992 where we decided that Bilal would leave the song on the line, ‘Mann Ka Qaraar’ and Ali would come onstage and take over. But Coke Studio gave us the opportunity to work with him. Ali Haider is doing an old song of his, for instance, but the sound is completely changed. The arrangement will take you into a different space.
Instep: You’ve managed to retain the Coke Studio sound. How challenging or easy was this task?
BM: We feel our Coke Studio sound was very different from the first six seasons of the show. It wasn’t even close. And the reason is that the sound changes with every producer. The way we do it, we divide the show. We knew we had to bring our legends onstage. The show has a nostalgic value; we wanted to include younger acts as well. There are elements to the show and different slots with different requirements.
FK: There are certain songs that we thought we wanted in the season and then you look for the voices who can do those songs. Then there are certain voices that we think are necessary so we call them up because their presence is needed. We’ve been a part of this industry for decades but God has been kind to us. No one has any hang-ups about working with us, whether it’s Atif Aslam, Ali Zafar or Ali Azmat and biggies like Farida Khanum. The beauty of this project is that we all work together as one big band.
Instep: You’ve managed a coup of sorts by roping in artists like Mai Dhai.
BM: When folk artists come in and when they have to sing in sync with the (house) band, it isn’t easy for them. Mai Dhai has this amazing treasure of folk melodies and you won’t find them anywhere else. Our biggest concern was merging her with the band because every thing is live. You have to sing with the band. But she was so effortless; she picked it up so quickly. She doesn’t repeat anything, twice. Every line is different.
Instep: Coke Studio, under Strings, has added film music to the mix. Will it continue?
BM: Yes, we want this element to get bigger with every season.