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The return of an icon

Pakistan's original prince of pop, Zoheb Hassan, makes a comeback with Coke Studio and opens up about the bittersweet journey that led him there

The return of an icon
Living under the shadows for the longest time, Zoheb felt that it was the right time to return to singing with Coke Studio. Expect a brand new album in the near future.

To say that Zoheb Hassan needs no introduction sounds like a terrible cliché but what else can one say about the man who changed the face of Pakistani music forever, gave those of us growing up in the ’80s our first taste of home-grown pop and showed us that ’80s fashion didn’t have to mean bad hairdos but could be super stylish too.

Zoheb, and his sister Nazia, are the stuff legends are made of – two young, ambitious, extremely good-looking kids who got their first break while still in their teens and went on to revolutionize the music industry not just in Pakistan but in India and beyond. Their story, however, did not have a happy ending – following Nazia’s tragic death from cancer at the age of 35, a shattered Zoheb retreated from the limelight, apart from a few sporadic appearances, and there were no longer any iconic tunes coming our way.

“My heart just wasn’t in it anymore,” reminisced Zoheb, during an exclusive phone conversation with Instep from London, where he lives with his wife Gina and their three daughters. The loss of the sister who had been an integral part of his rise to stardom wasn’t easy to come to term with. But when Zoheb got a call from Faisal Kapadia earlier this year, asking him to be a part of Coke Studio’s latest season, he felt the time was finally right to return to singing.

“I have to be honest here and admit that when Faisal and Bilal first spoke to me about the show, I didn’t know much about it. Living in London, I certainly didn’t have an idea about the enormous scope of the project and its far-reaching impact. I had to educate myself about what the Coke Studio experience was going to be like and when I went through the past seasons, I realized what a beautiful platform it was,” says Zoheb.

For someone who loves the thrill and adrenaline rush of singing live, Coke Studio was the perfect platform for a comeback. We don’t know if it’s the nostalgia of hearing the romantic ballad from the ’80s once again, the thrill of seeing one of the country’s most beloved musicians return to his roots, or the electrifying guitar solo performed by Aamir Zaki – whatever the reason, ‘Chehra’ has emerged as one of the most popular tracks of the current season of CS.

As somewhat of an outside observer, someone who isn’t as invested in the success and failure of the show as us emotional Pakistanis for whom each new season and each new episode of CS evokes the same kind of feverish response as a cricket match, Zoheb sums up the reason behind its phenomenal run.

“Each new era brings with its own style of music, yet one thing always holds true – a good song is a good song, whether it was made in the ’60s or the ’80s. That’s what Coke Studio has picked up on. They’ve redone classic tunes, given them a new twist and that only goes to prove that good music is not limited to any particular year or time.”Zoheb-Hassan-Naziz

Truer words have never been spoken. Talk to a teenager today about pop music in Pakistan, someone born much after the Nazia and Zoheb phenomenon was at its peak, and you will realize that tunes like ‘Disco Deewane’ and ‘Boom Boom’ have become an integral part of pop culture, representing all that is retro and cool about the country.

Question Zoheb about his sensational rise to stardom and he is self-deprecating and humble. “I feel luck was as much a part of our success as anything else. We were just two very simple kids who used to jam and strum on the guitar after school at home. Luckily we had the means and the support to take that further. There are so many talented kids in Pakistan who don’t have the luxury to pursue their dreams because they need to think about supporting their families. Another big factor in our career, I feel, was sincerity. We weren’t in it for the money or the fame. We wanted to make music simply because we loved it. Our motives were pure,” he shares.

Luck aside, it took oodles of talent, charisma and sheer guts to do what he and Nazia did – they managed to circumvent Zia’s strict conservative laws and the ban placed on music to give the culturally-starved Pakistani youth its first real taste of what a pop star is. They grooved to disco beats on state-run national television and dressed like their Western counterparts – fingerless gloves, leather jackets and all – and we were smitten. The government could go around proclaiming music to be sinful but that didn’t stop every teen girl from sticking barrettes in her hair just like Nazia or going weak in the knees at the sight of Zoheb’s dance moves.

For all the freedom and the technological advancements that musicians nowadays can enjoy, there hasn’t been anyone who has captured the imagination of the entire nation the way the brother-sister duo did. There have been singers like Atif Aslam and Ali Zafar who’ve gone on to achieve success both in Pakistan and India but female musicians present a very dismal scenario in the country. We ask Zoheb if he thinks there is another Nazia Hassan in the making?

“I don’t think there’s another Nazia but I am sure there is a girl out there who will be herself and achieve the same level of success. I can’t be so self-absorbed as to think it all ended with me and Nazia; there will always be new singers. The problem with finding icons in the current era is that there are just too many people out there. Social media has made it very easy for anyone, whether they have the talent or not, to find a platform and be seen and heard. It gets hard to separate the real talent from the mediocre voices.”

Speaking of talent, not many people know that Zoheb is not only a musician; he also ran a media house and production company for ten years in Karachi, organizing the city’s first ever Sindh Festival and continuing to do so for the next ten years. Yet the name that most readily comes to mind in connection with the festival is not that of Zoheb but of Bilawal Bhutto.

“Back then, I told the Sindh government that I didn’t want any publicity or any money; I did it because I genuinely wanted to promote the region’s arts and culture,” he tells us.

That’s Zoheb for you – content to live in the shadows. For long, the singer had let the shadow of his sister’s tragic death loom over his career but now he is finally ready to shrug off the past. Fans can expect an album in the near future, a project that has been two years in the making.

“I was suffering from ‘musicians’ syndrome’, thinking whatever I did wasn’t good enough. I’m aware of the enormous expectations people have from me and I was scared that my fans wouldn’t like it. But now I feel it’s finally ready.” Will the album allow Zoheb to reclaim his position as Pakistan’s original prince of pop? We’ll have to wait and find out.

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