“Do not go gentle into that good night/Old age should burn and rave at close of day.”
- Dylan Thomas
Pakistan has had many gifts to bestow upon its people: supreme gift of loadshedding (12 hours during monsoon season), rising economic tide and no love lost for the performing arts among other virtues. Anyone looking to make a living through music was on their own. Now imagine the situation just 20 years ago. Before YouTube and bedroom producers and pre-Coke Studio ambitions.
Setting up a studio was even more difficult then. But one man refused to let his talent go to waste or those of the contemporaries that he came across - even today.
The man is Mekaal Hasan (from Mekaal Hasan Band) and the studio being referred to is Digital Fidelity Studios. I once called it Digital Infidelity Studio as short-form for DFS and Mekaal suggested a factual change but not before heartily laughing. The studio is Mekaal Hasan personified.
Apart from spearheading the legendary music group, when the chapter on contemporary Pakistani music is written, it would simply be incomplete without Mekaal Hasan’s DFS.
Why are we talking about DFS? Digital Fidelity Studios, owned by Mekaal Hasan and situated at Waris Road in Lahore, caught fire after an electronic malfunction set the place ablaze and reduced everything to rubble this past week. The music industry, recognising its value, has appealed to people to contribute to a GoFundMe campaign started by Mekaal, with artists such as Fawad Khan and Ali Azmat rallying fans to contribute.
Pakistani music is running on the high of Coke Studio (a cola-produced national music platform) and other skewed versions backed by other brands, but Digital Fidelity Studios, owned by Mekaal Hasan, was never about appealing to cola brands. It was, however, about making a larger and much more significant contribution to music. To pay the bills, he has corporate clients. But it is to fuel DFS.
Both chapters of music are as different as night and day. If Coke Studio is a platform that allows musicians to showcase their music to a national audience, in many ways, DFS, has a history that is much more compelling than the series.
Even comparing DFS to Coke Studio would be a great injustice since the studio came at a pre-Coke Studio era in the mid-nineties.
Digital Fidelity Studios is the reason that Co-VEN’s 1997 cult classic Not in Your World came to be. It set the mood for what was to come. It may be easier to start up your own studio but, in the nineties, that’s not how records were made. What musicians lacked on their own was found at DFS with its audio production tools that were regularly updated by Mekaal Hasan. Some of this equipment is so expensive or hard to find that DFS was the heart of Pakistan’s music industry.
When DFS was established in 1995 by Mekaal Hasan, even the producer couldn’t have imagined the records it would go on to produce or the artists who walked through its doors. From the mid-nineties to the noughties, the shape of Pakistani music was the resounding power of DFS as a studio facility and Mekaal Hasan’s ability to play a variety of roles.
CoVEN’s Not in Your World (1997) was followed by Junoon’s Parwaaz (1999 - and later, Ishq), Jadoo (2001) by Ali Haider, Abstract Point of View (2001) by Faraz Anwar, Irtiqa (2003) by Entity Paradigm [EP], Suno Ke Mei Hun Jawan (2003) by Noori, Peeli Patti Aur Raja Jani Ki Gol Duniya (2005) by Noori, Volume I & II (2007) by CoVEN, Apna Muqaam Paida Kar (2007) by Various Artists (National Sufi Council), Boondh (2007) by Jal, Chup (2008) by Zeb and Haniya, Qawwali Volume 1 (2010) by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Let’s Pretend (2011) by Fables of Cantt. Qawwali Volume 2 (2012) by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, We Are Your Friends (2014) by Poor Rich Boy, Elham (2017) by Sounds of Kolachi and Tales from the Punjab (2020) by Shez Raja.
One anecdote I still remember from years ago was during an interview, Zeb Bangash explained how Mekaal Hasan was the strongest force that compelled them to make the record. As Zeb had told me, without Mekaal Hasan’s efforts, there would be no Chup today and maybe we may or may not have had the years of Zeb and Haniya as a duo. This same duo has gone onto inspire a slew of female artists. And Mekaal did it all by pushing Zeb and Haniya to pursue their album and providing his facility to do just that. Imagine no ‘Paimona’ on Coke Studio or an album called Chup?
“The scope of the work ranges from live Qawalli recordings and Sufi Rock records to roots based folk and traditional music.”
Apart from personal anecdotes, there is the work, seminal to the country’s growth in the music department. Not in Your World by CoVEN was released in 1997 but it brought about a time where DFS was involved with glorious records and productional value. I shared an anecdote with Co-VEN’s Hamza Jafri about getting in a car accident (unharmed) because a friend and I were arguing that (a) this album is not a Pakistani one (I knew it was and he didn’t) and (b) there’s no way it was Ali Noor singing that debut EP of CoVEN (I knew it was Ali Noor). Hamza laughed and noted he hoped no one was harmed before chuckling himself. This was before DFS tragedy had struck.
Since Co-VEN’s Not In Your World, Digital Fidelity Studios has opened itself to artists of all stride and lent space where different sounds, innovation were welcomed.
The overwhelming DFS shadow will exist as long as we listen to music from the mid-nineties to about last week.
Engulfed in a fire, as the shock wore off, we can look at DFS and trace our own musical history. It wasn’t only Irtiqa by EP or an Ali Azmat solo record that was respected at DFS.
Over the years, DFS has also been at the heart of singles including ‘Sajna’ by Junoon, ‘Supreme Ishq’ Shoaib Mansoor, ‘Bulleya‘ by Junoon, ‘Preacher’ (2018) by Poor Rich Boy and ‘Younhi’ by Atif Aslam.
In addition to all this, DFS has played home to Mekaal Hasan’s own music outfit, MHB releasing Live at Baroda (2015), Andholan (2014), Saptak (2010), and Sampooran (2004).
Working with filmmaker Bilal Sami, Digital Fidelity Studios and Mekaal also ventured into documentary production with their short Dhun showcased at the Alchemy Festival in the UK. DFS has also applied itself to movie scores on top of everything else.
To cut a very long story short, these album, singles, productions and leading others to teach themselves was a process that began at Pakistan’s first premier music studio. There are many more, some as accomplished in terms of audio tools as DFS if not more, but is there any studio that has had such influence on the music scene? I think not. In the end, the ferocious flames took down the very studio working for music and the importance of eastern music to western ideas. Can DFS be resurrected? Yes, just check out their GoFundMe page and donate. As Mekaal Hasan finds his way back to DFS with a positive approach, as listeners we, too, must contribute for the future of great music the studio had been working on.