Instep Today

Where wild roses grow: Gulistan Janoobi

By Amina Baig
Sun, 01, 23

Zohaib Kazi draws no lines between audio and visual, art and performance, in the album that tells the story of an already much-legendized city

A very telling portrait of Zohaib Kazi: making music, surrounded by music, feeling music. TNS
A very telling portrait of Zohaib Kazi: making music, surrounded by music, feeling music. TNS

Zohaib Kazi doesn’t venture into anything lightly. Nor does he look at things superficially; it seems, as though when Kazi focuses his attention on anything, it consumes him till he can express his findings in the ways he knows how. 

For Zohaib Kazi, who served as a manager and producer for Coke Studio at varying levels for nine years, music is a natural expression. But he creates intricate audio-visual design, which can seem overwhelming, or too serious to listen to for fun, and at times obsessive. Like most children of the ‘90s, Kazi is also a retrophile: he romanticizes the days gone by. In an earlier conversation with Instep, Kazi had explained why he, with producing partner Ali Hamza, had chosen to create Coke Studio 11, the way they did.

The ’90s are really when pop music ensembles – to be less pretentious, bands - in Pakistan came up once more, after the Vital Signs made a triumphant entry with 1988’s ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’. Whether you find their music to your taste or not, the Vital Signs paved the road to the music as we consume it today. In their wake, we found Strings, The Milestones, Arid Zone, Arsh, solo acts like Hadiqa Kiani and Ali Haider, and music shows that defined a whole era for Pakistan. Music Channel Charts and Video Junction were very anticipated weekly charts shows, and were how we found everything from humor to great music, and terrible music, and straight up Ace of Base rip-offs.

That, to Kazi, was one of the driving forces behind Coke Studio Explorer, a show that took the CS team on the roads and mountains and deserts of Pakistan, seeking musical talent by region, style, genre. The Bollywood genre of music, which a lot of artists gravitate towards in Pakistan, according to Kazi, isn’t the kind of music we really grew up with. The audience listening to Coke Studio was the same one that got into Pakistani music when pop/rock became mainstream. And anyway, if they say sound of a nation, you should get the sound of the nation.

This may seem like a lot of theorizing, but there is no linear path to explaining Zohaib Kazi’s own multifaceted approach to music.

“The whole thing is very cinematic,” says Kazi, as he starts explaining every single knot in the thread that is Gulistan Janoobi. “The sound, the visuals.”

The announcement for the album is a beautiful explosion of imagery from across Pakistan, both everyday shots and elaborate timelapses. “Some might look at it and think, ‘yeah that’s too much’,” Kazi says, “but that is how I think.”

When Kazi thinks, it is safe to assume, he thinks in story. Everything has a story, everything has an image that accompanies it, a sound, a smell. How he sees things, files away and categorizes the memory, and puts it together when he pulls it out to present is a process he understands best, but marks every work he has produced.

“Some of the tracks on Gulistan Janoobi were meant to be on Coke Studio ‘12’,” he tells Instep now. “Some of them were for Fanoos originally, but I tend to hold a couple of songs back because they weren’t relevant to that collection; but everything has its purpose.”

Gulistan Janoobi’s announcement was followed by its first track, ‘Sheedi Offering’ featuring Babu Bhai Sheedi Group. Babu Bhai and his gang play spiritual music at Sheedi events, and if there was ever a joyful expression of love for the divine, ‘Sheedi Offering’ is it. The video features the long journey that took Kazi around with the group, as they sing for him, perform dhamaal, at shrines, and through crowds.

“These are going to be narrative videos,” he says, “maybe a little vlogish? But all the footage, which I have shot – it isn’t about looking like a travelogue, there are pahar, payr, darya – and it is all poetry in motion.

“The album is a narrative journey, it is my telling of the story of the region which I grew up in. With Explorer, I was looking at all of Pakistan, getting that sense of what we are all about and now I’m home, and I’m telling our story with everything that I learnt on my travels.”

Kazi took the logical route, and led with ‘Sheedi Offering’, because the Sheedi are the original settlers on the Sindh and Balochistan coasts. The videos are shot between Karachi and Balochistan, and are, according to the artist, “a very Karachiite take on Pakistan.”

Even in earlier works, Kazi has nudged – gently, or aggressively – at the diversity across Pakistan, and our treatment of it. There he was, shooting with Ariana and Amrina in Kalash, Chitral, and here is, organizing the Babu Bhai Sheedi Group into a formation to record their song. Still further, he explores a popular qawwali, sung very much in a manner he associates with his Karachi roots.

For Kazi, Karachi love hai, but he says he made Gulistan Janoobi amid conflicting emotions. “Ghussa aur pyaar,” he says. “I’ve made this with so much love and anger; I have made it because hum match haar gaye hain.

“I’ve made Gulistan Janoobi for myself, kuch cheezain khud ke liye bhi karni chahyen, not just to be commercially pleasing. I know there will be a bunch of commentary on how we could leave out the famous leva when depicting Sheedi music, but you know what? The leva is known. It has been used on Coke Studio, and it was well-received. But I didn’t work with it.”

You can almost hear the shrug in Kazi’s voice.

Karachi-born and Karachi-bred, Kazi went to a convent school in the heart of the city, Saddar. His classmates and friends came from all backgrounds, all ethnicities, all religions. He never even noticed.

“But slowly that homogeny has been eradicated from our worlds. There was a time you could drive down certain roads in Saddar, and see nuns passing by, and you can’t anymore. We simply haven’t offered Pakistani minorities any ease,” he says.

“Our history predates what we know,” says Kazi now, referring back to why he chose Sheedi music to kickstart his new album. “And the intensity of the sound of this region is different. It isn’t about Pakistaniat, but I suppose if I had to give Pakistan a soundtrack, this would be it.”