Instep Today

Setting the musical tone for 2023

By Maheen Sabeeh
Sun, 02, 23

After much observation, it seems obvious that we’re looking at another big year in pop culture. In just the second month of the new year, who are the artists that are promising great things? Here is the Instep guide

Anoushka Shankar and Arooj Aftab performing ‘Udhero Naa’ at the Grammy Awards, earlier this year. TNS
Anoushka Shankar and Arooj Aftab performing ‘Udhero Naa’ at the Grammy Awards, earlier this year. TNS

In: Arooj Aftab (GOAT) 

She’s won a Grammy and has been nominated three times in entirety. That very fact puts Aftab ahead of nearly everyone else. But to add to this triumph, how can we forget her performance at the 2023 Grammy Awards ceremony. She performed at music’s most prominent award ceremony in the world (and in front of a ground audience that consisted of the likes of Beyonce and Adele), and nailed it. Aftab put her soul in the ‘Udhero Naa’ performance and it felt so authentic and visceral that it is, to us, among one of the best performances to have taken place during the Grammys. What does it take, it made us wonder, to put up such a soulful, glorious performance. It actually makes us re-think the process of the Grammys, and for once in their favor for (not only nominating) but inviting Arooj Aftab (ft. Anoushka Shankar) to perform at this year’s ceremony in Los Angeles.

In 2023, Arooj Aftab will perform at the prestigious Carnegie Hall in New York. She has a new project in the works. It isn’t a solo project but an experimental trio that will play with genres like pop, jazz. According to Aftab, it was recorded two or three years ago. The first single is scheduled to release this month. The album, Arooj told Instep, would be called Love in Exile. Is there a more appropriate title at a time when children, women, families, individuals in thousands are internally displaced persons and/or refugees with no place to call home as they perhaps once did? The trio includes Arooj Aftab, alongside the accomplished Shahzad Ismaily and the laudable Vijay Iyer. Their upcoming album is scheduled to drop in March. Arooj Aftab is also writing her fourth album, after the success of her last album, Vulture Prince. Her fourth record is planned for an early 2024 release.

Out: Ali Sethi (GOAT)

2022 was the year of Ali Sethi who came up with the song narrative of ‘Pasoori’, co-wrote the single (with Fazal Abbas) and co-composed the song with Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan, (better known as Xulfi) and co-performed it with Shae Gill as part of Coke Studio 14. The song appealed to millions around the world; it also has an African version and put Ali Sethi in TIME100 Next list. We cannot discount Ali Sethi completely (which is why he, too, is a GOAT in the first place). Truth be told, ‘Pasoori’ is still going strong with fans. In 2023, he released ‘Ghazab Kiya’, the enchanting cover of an original by Mehdi Hassan, and is scheduled to perform at Coachella 2023 in addition to a tour. Though we still expect good things from Sethi and Shae Gill, we doubt that even Sethi can create another original that has the same amount of appeal as ‘Pasoori’.

In: Kaifi Khalil

It is one thing when an artist gets a national platform like Coke Studio and collaborates with other equally talented artists. This is where Kaifi Khalil’s narrative gets interesting. In 2022, he appeared in Coke Studio 14 with a song called ‘Kana Yaari’, a folk-rap zinger with Eva B, and Wahab Bugti, and outstanding direction by the underrated Jamal Rahman. A thriller of a song, it quietly rose higher than one thought it might. The Quick Style dance video that followed the song after it released was the cherry on the cake. But the story didn’t end there for one artist: Kaifi Khalil. His original, independent song called ‘Kahani Suno 2.0’ began rising and has earned him the status of the breakthrough artist (much like ‘Aisay Kaisay’ did for Hasan Raheem). 100 million hits on YouTube, at the moment it is the world’s 38th most popular song, also on YouTube. According to recent data provided by Spotify earlier this month, Kaifi Khalil’s ‘Kahani Suno 2.0’ has climbed the ladder and “in the last couple of months”, it has surpassed many others to attain the status of being among the “top four local songs in the country” being heard. But the numbers alone can’t paint a picture of popularity. It’s not just algorithms but the song itself. It’s got a noticeable factor that is being embraced by not only fans within the country but also those across geographical boundaries. A Baloch singer from Lyari in the city of lights that is Karachi, Khalil’s determination and hard work has brought him to this position and we’re hoping this indie song opens new doors for him. And by that we are NOT referring to versions of the song by Aima Baig and others who have followed.

Out: Hasan Raheem

We cannot dismiss Hasan Raheem’s popularity as an artist as well as his contribution to the music scene. But in terms of breakthrough artists, Hasan Raheem is no longer the underdog; he is a well-established name. He broke through the music scene with an independent song called ‘Aisay Kaisay’ ft. Abdullah Kasumbi and followed up the breakthrough track with a number of songs including ‘Joona’, ‘Faltu Pyar’ with Natasha Noorani, ‘Aarzu’ and the Coke Studio hit, ‘Peechay Hutt’ with Talal Qureshi and Justin Bibis. However, Hasan has given us an unimpressive album in the form of Nautanki. Truth be told, we were expecting a great deal more from the boy who gave us ‘Aisay Kaisay’ in 2020.

In: Awais Gohar

Out: Everybody else

Yes, it hurts when every director is being dismissed but that’s not what we’re saying. There are any number of directors who are impressive including Yasir Jaswal, Umar Riaz, Kamal Khan, Hamza Bin Tahir to name just four off the top of my head. But Awais Gohar’s body of work is so varied that we can’t help but applaud the director ahead of others. In 2023, the cinematographer and director has already given us music videos like ‘With Love’ by Faris Shafi, ‘3:45 am’ by Moji and the HBL PSL Official Anthem 2023 called ‘Sab Sitaray Humaray’ by Shae Gill, Asim Azhar, and Faris Shafi. Awais has captured each song and the artist’s work with sincerity. He has used whatever technique was at his disposal from using landscape as a device to going from a strong storyboard to make the song shine. And in the case of Pakistan Super League (PSL) anthem, he’s made the song look stronger than it is through a killer music video for ‘Sab Sitaray Humaray’.

In: Cape Monze Records
Out: Everybody else
Can we just say how

underrated Cape Monze Records, an independent music label from Karachi is? You may (or may not know) but this label played a pivotal in bringing Boiler Room to Pakistan. Yep, they did manage to do the unthinkable, friends. But that isn’t their one move followed by no activity. Au contraire, since formation, they’ve been busy releasing music and putting together or partnering with others to add to the music ecosystem. This indie and electronic label from Karachi has been working with indie music’s coolest cats, including (but not restricted to) Aman Karna (from Nepal), Shorbanoor ft. Iman Shahid, Nadir Shahzad ft. Natasha Noorani and Misbah. As 2023 has begun, in terms of releases the label has dropped the second EP by Tarbooze called Taraqiati Kaam earlier this month. Apart from that, Cape Monze Records with Tiny Dancer Live & Echo Records has delivered a second edition of Good Scene Festival 2023 in Islamabad.

In our opinion, this festival offered the most creative line up a festival-going fan could hope for. Big ups for all the artists including our favourites Natasha Humera Ejaz, Sana Nasir and Daniel. A. Panjwaneey who have consistently contributed to the growth of the scene in multiple ways in addition to being terrific artists. Alternative musicians, indie-pop, eastern classical and techno, Good Scene 2023 offered something to everyone, making it a cherished event.

In: Haniya Aslam (artist, producer)
Out: Everybody else

It’s not that we don’t enjoy the variety of how the sound of an artist can evolve with good producers. The fact is Pakistan has some of the best music producers in the world, whatever genre you may choose except maybe reggae (although that’s perhaps more subjective).

Who can forget the likes of Zain Ahsan, Mekaal Hasan, Adeel Tahir, Natasha Humera Ejaz, Daniel A. Panjwaneey, Talal Qureshi or Abdullah Siddiqui? This, technically, is one place where there can be no competition because just those mentioned are top-tier names, having left a permanent mark with their past work, let alone present.

But if we had to choose just one name, we’d pick Haniya Aslam whose self-expression as an artist and collaborative nature as a producer makes her someone we deeply cherish. As a fan, or a critic – whatever the label – we’re happier than ever that she not only has set her base in Pakistan but that she is dropping her own EP sometime this year. Her production of Jimmy Khan’s EP, Shukar (from which two songs have dropped) are evidence that Haniya Aslam can take a good artist and produce an authentic record. In doing so, she can and has left an indelible mark, or a quiet respect for her on the artist. The material she produces has longevity and she is our perception of what a producer should be like in the studio with any artist.

In: Rivayat Music Series
Out: Other music series

Imagine this for a second: You can see seven broomsticks flying over London. Sitting on those broomsticks is Harry Potter and as we have learned from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the book by J. K. Rowling, there are seven different people who look like Harry Potter. Only one is the actual Harry Potter. Think of Rivayat Music Series in a similar manner. At a time when music has platforms such as Coke Studio, Velo Sound Station, and several others in one format or are either on the horizon or already here, you can either stick to the OGs or feel ambiguous towards the many, many corporate and non-corporate platforms, all offering more of the same names with some succeeding and others feeling like a waste of time. A series like Rivayat, in a war weary world like this, can foster a lasting bond based on the purity of music. Mekaal Hasan is the right man to steer this ship because of his experience, as an artist and a producer. For a man who has produced some of the best modern music and worked with artists such as Atif Aslam, Ali Azmat, Zeb and Haniya, Noori and many more, the idea is not stardom but creating a space for traditional artists who can earn based on their craft, find survival and continue to pass on the music to the next generation rather that withering away.

It is, therefore, an absolute must for those interested in cultural anthropology, traditional live music and seasoned international players all coming together for one goal: to create lasting music. To talk about Rivayat Music Series unless you hear it first or watch one of the videos is sacrilegious but in terms of music shows that pop and drop or are a consistent, the one that does command time and real attention without procrastinating is Rivayat Music Series. It should be on the top of the list of worthy music shows to follow.