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Unplugged with Mekaal Hasan

Instep sits down with the unsung hero of music as he unveils new plans for his band and advocates solutions that will help the industry overcome barriers of class, divisions and visibility

Unplugged with Mekaal Hasan

The story so far…

Mekaal Hasan has shifted base from Lahore, the city he was born and raised in, to Karachi. We settle on meeting on a blissfully breezy evening and the music producer guides me to his home in the quiet vicinity of Bath Island like a pro Karachiwala.

He is happily married to the multi-talented Rubya Chaudhry – who greets me with a smile and a hug. Between cigarettes and coffee, Hasan and I discuss everything that is on his mind and he is as forthcoming as I remember.

“This (Karachi) is the smaller studio, the big one is in Lahore,” explains Hasan and adds that he will continue to work in both cities.

You will not find Mekaal Hasan plastered on billboards or in the social pages. He is an introvert in an industry that appreciates extroverts. His achievements, however, tell a very different story and within the context of the music industry, Hasan is an unsung hero for more reasons than one.

Some know him as the founder and leader of Pakistan’s finest live music act, the Mekaal Hasan Band. Others know him as a music producer. Hasan is both and neither. In the age of hasty commercialism and multi-tasking, Hasan is an anomaly and won’t compromise on his musical integrity for anything or anyone.

Having been educated at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in the nineties, he founded the Digital Fidelity Studio (in Lahore) where he honed his skills as a producer, a sound engineer and instrumentalist before founding the impeccable Mekaal Hasan Band, in 2000.

His contributions as a singular producer to the music industry remain undervalued. Artists he has worked with include names like Ali Azmat, Atif Aslam, Zeb and Haniya, Noori, Co-VEN, Jal, Sounds of Kolachi, Poor Rich Boy and that’s just off the top of my head.

Mekaal Hasan Band, on the other hand, has an identity that is rooted in tradition, innovation and collaboration. Whether you’re listening to Sampooran or Saptak or the lesser known Andholan – which Hasan is planning to re-release in Pakistan – it is perfectly clear that the inventive musicianship on display has a thinking mind behind it. The players may change but what remains a constant is the strong musical landscape that each record conjures every time it is heard and revisited. Part of it is because Hasan’s perception is simple: making records is not about trends or whims; it is the true mark of a dedicated artist.

The great gamble

Our conversation opens with Hasan’s music avatar, the Mekaal Hasan Band in which he plays the role of composer, songwriter, guitarist and producer. Having put out three cherished, distinct studio albums, the group has several incredible plans in the pipeline.

One of them is to re-release their last effort, Andholan, in Pakistan in prominent fashion. I ask Hasan why?

“When we put out this record, at that point, there were absolutely no labels left in Pakistan so we didn’t do a local release,” he begins. “We released it in India and we put it on CD Baby in North America. Patari came later while Taazi had also appeared on the horizon but we didn’t launch with them. What we want to do is put out the old record to release it for local consumption because a lot of people don’t know about its release. It’s got some really good songs on it. People who loved the first record could really get into it, these big epic songs. I just want to get it out so at least it has an official release in Pakistan. Otherwise, we did get some really good reviews from America, India and the United Kingdom.”

The second plan is to release a separate live album that contains songs from all three records. “For the longest time we were winning these awards for Best Live Act but no one could actually hear the thing,” explains Hasan. “So I decided to take all those old songs and have the new line-up perform them and then we move on to the next record.”

Hasan’s philosophy has two central themes; one, releasing records is crucial to your musical identity and two, it has to be followed up by live music. “Records are important, in my opinion,” says a reflective Hasan. “It shows what an artist has heard, the ideas they have, the people they have collaborated with, all that comes out on your record. With live music, unless people play live regularly they will not become better players. You are relying more and more on technology to cover up what a human being should do. I’m a big proponent of live music, play the thing, learn and practice.”

There is a method to MHB music, a complexity and propulsive character that is achieved with an unhurried vision. “It’s really complicated with the band being in two places,” says Hasan. “It includes a lot of back and forth. But there’s no other way for me to do it. I have to get certain kind of players onboard in order to push the sound of the band along. Otherwise, I end up with the same kind of thing and I don’t want to make the same record again and again. I want each record to be distinct.”

Expanding on this idea further, he tells me, “I figured I should move on to another traditional form, which will be qawwali. It is interesting hearing it sung by a woman because qawwali is very much a male form. I’m interested in doing these juxtapositions. After that, I’m thinking folk.”

Songs traditionally sung by men being sung by women is a deliberate effort on Hasan’s part. “The qawwali direction comes from the fact that we’ve done three records with all these traditional ragas. If I do a fourth record of the same thing, then I’m putting myself in a corner.

Qawwali is another tradition and not a lot of women sing it so I thought why don’t I try and work with that. It will be more riff-based, groove-based with killer drumming from Gino Banks and with Sharmistha Chatterjee singing on it. The songs we’ve picked are all in Farsi.  Some of them are popular while some are unknown but you probably haven’t heard them done in this way before. In some cases, we took something very traditional like ‘Chaap Tilak’ and have set it to very fast tempo; normally it is sung at a slower tempo. By manipulating stuff like range, tempo, delivery, you can change the feel of the idea.”

Problems and solutions

As this conversation moves to the issues that ail the industry, Hasan points out the real problems with great clarity. “The issue is that the government has an extremely non-supportive stance towards performing arts in general and theatre faces the brunt of it, music gets the brunt of it…. In Punjab there is 65 per cent tax on performing arts. What that means is that if you do sell a ticket, then you have to pay more than 50 per cent of your ticket value to the tax authorities. Even if you have a sell-out show, you’ll still be running at a loss so this is a policy that we’ve been trying to push the Punjab government to change.

In Sindh, it is lower (25 per cent) and that is why there are more events happening in Sindh.  In a country where people are struggling to survive playing or performing, it seems completely counterproductive to not subsidize and instead envelope it in further taxation.”

But Hasan is not about pointing out problems and leaving them there. He has ideas and genuine solutions that can help us overcome these very ailments.

“During our tours abroad, the venues we play would range from big festivals to clubs to bars to restaurants, schools, colleges.  Sometimes the venue would be the size of this room. Sometimes, there were huge halls.

Having had that experience, I want to bring that idea to the live scene. I’m not really interested in adding to what is happening on TV. What I really want to do is establish a series of festivals for Karachi. And then hope that other people emulate that model.”

Hasan has done it once before, two years ago to be precise when he formulated the game-plan for I Am Karachi Music Festival, circa 2015.

“Two years ago I did the I Am Karachi Music Festival and we had every artist playing on it. I want us to do away with this idea of headliners because if it’s a community event, then everyone should be given the same money and same amount of space. A festival needs to be inclusive. We ended up putting up 60 acts in those two days. That is how artists can build a following.”

The idea, says Hasan, is to develop smaller festivals that are held in various areas all over the city and followed up by an annual, much-bigger music festival.

“You can’t have one festival a year and hope that things will improve. But if you had smaller festivals in different areas, from there you can select people who can be on the main-stage the following year. It has to be a process of continuity. You can’t develop it otherwise.”

As we come to the close of the interview and I ask Hasan how artists can thrive in a country where daily lives include a permanent sense of loss and overt violence, internal paranoia, he quietly sums up his philosophy: “I can speak for myself. I feel alienated from the things that are happening around me, it alienates me further because this is not what I grew up with. I think when people are into something like say you genuinely like music, their sense of disaffection is stronger because they’re expectations are higher. I feel all of us are in a grip of an existential crisis. It is affecting everyone. So the music you make should resonate on a deeper level.”

Fortunately for us, MHB has always excelled in that department and it remains their single greatest strength.

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