Instep Today

Embracing sounds of the soil

By Maheen Sabeeh
Sun, 04, 23

Mekaal Hasan talks about Rivayat, the importance of archiving traditional music and creating collaborations between desi musicians and international artists

Afzal Qawal image by Faraz Hasan
 Afzal Qawal image by Faraz Hasan

"So needless to say/I’m odds and ends/But I’ll be stumbling away/Slowly learning that life is okay/Say after me.”

– ‘Take on Me’ by A-ha

Mekaal Hasan, known as the leader of Mekaal Hasan Band (MHB), has had a soft spot for traditional music, poetry and languages since he began what is now a distinguished career. If you’re looking for evidence, the three studio albums by MHB – Saptak, Andholan and Sampooran – reflect that empirically.

Hasan has also looked beyond his own band and its success. This opinion is also shaped by the road he chose to follow his entire career. One example is how more than a decade ago, MHB patiently waited for their turn as they were due to play at the All Pakistan Music Conference (APMC) in Karachi. The line-up didn’t feature rock bands but names like Ustaad Naseer-uddin Saami. Mekaal Hasan Band played at that event because their music was a presentation of spiritual and contemporary ideas. Sizzling guitars, sure, but the group never tried to surpass the kalaam that was being put forward. It was for this reason that an adult population, who found solace in traditional material at APMC, deliberately stayed back to hear MHB perform their blend of kalaams such as ‘Ya Ali’ or ‘Waris Shah’.

If you remove any sort of personal bias, Mekaal Hasan hit the mark years before various music shows and individual artists walked this road of traditional, classical and folk music fused with modern music.

While MHB made its own remarkable brand of music, Mekaal Hasan also paved the way for contemporary artists. The likes of Ali Azmat, Noori, Zeb and Haniya, Atif Aslam, Jal and many more got their music recorded at his studio facility with Hasan’s watchful eyes as he guided them rather than forcing his own ideas. In fact, there was a time when so much contemporary music was coming out of Mekaal Hasan’s Digital Fidelity studio that it almost felt that no other music producer could come close to his virtuosity.

Mekaal Hasan Band’s own journey continued as band members were deliberately changed to make each album sound brand new. There is Mekaal Hasan Band’s Indo-Pak line-up, a Canadian MHB line-up and so on. It allowed the audience to experience the music in eloquent fashion. And that journey is ongoing.

What is important to remember is that no matter what MHB did, including playing in Bangladesh or India (before the political situation blew up and culture wasn’t spared either) and Pakistan when the opportunity presented itself, one question lingered at the back of Mekaal Hasan’s mind. What will be the ultimate fate of traditional artists, folk musicians, both seasoned and inexperienced? Were there others exploring and working with such artists, he often wondered during the many conversations we’ve had over the years.

I point to a number of people who are also working with similar artists. Lauding the efforts being made by individuals, he knew enough to know that these efforts were neither enough nor lucrative for the traditional unknown names, folk upcomers and even experienced names.

In 2022, Mekaal Hasan’s state-of-the-art studio facility burned to the ground and he was in a state of shock followed by a sense of loss. As luck would have it, this particular material was on a hard drive that didn’t burn and the plan to work and release music with folk and traditional artists [and teaming them up with international collaborators] was not put on a backburner.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

“By the time the pandemic hit,” begins Mekaal Hasan, “I had known all the session players, qawwals for the last 20 to 25 years. Some are good friends and I’ve been to their homes in the inner city as well as some who live outside Lahore.”

In this extensive interview with Instep in 2023, Mekaal recalls his reasons for doing what is the Rivayat Series with international collaborators from Russia, the United Kingdom and the treasure trove of Pakistani traditional, folk artists and what inspired him to delve into this series with such vigor.

“I thought to myself that none of them have corporate backing of any sort. They go to people’s homes and end up playing at weddings or a shrine. The session work available to them once upon a time is no longer available either. My immediate thought was ‘what will happen to them’ and I decided that

if anybody needed support and deserved their music archived, recorded and promoted, it is this batch of musicians, artists.”

For the last 20 years, says Mekaal, the upper-middle class has been the dominant force in music. A lot of work has come up during that period. “Some of it has been good pop music but the distinction is it is one-sided. That is, in fact, the problem with the nation. We don’t balance things. So, it felt like no one was willing to take interest in these musicians and what they were making and their legacy. Their folk songs, qawwalis were being picked by others but they weren’t singing or playing them. Some other artist would be singing it and that didn’t feel right. I just wanted to use my experience, my contacts, my studio to help this situation. I invested my own money in this project because I paid the house-band, and the international collaborators in dollars, I paid for the editing of the videos and the equipment that we needed to record.”

We, as Mekaal observed, “have artists who have cars, homes, and they vacation abroad but do they think about these artists who are so poor? I have been working with traditional artists for so long that it was weighing on me and creating a sense of guilt. I just knew that I needed to do something that is beneficial to them even if it means there is never a return on my investment.”

I point out music festivals, independent artists and music shows that have also worked with a slew of traditional musicians and how then did Mekaal Hasan differentiate between those artists and the ones who haven’t appeared anywhere?

“Because this idea started taking shape during the pandemic, the artists are from Lahore and the area surrounding the city. I believe Rivayat should be able to extend to every city. When we started, I couldn’t ask people to travel and then take care of them from providing transport to putting them up and so on. I worked with what I had around me.”

An idea that was also a part of Rivayat was how each artist was involved. The musicians from the east would carry their own true cultural sensibility while the international collaborators would bring their own expertise. “The western musicians have grown up playing their respective instruments so their discipline and the amount of work they’ve done; it just made sense to engage them.”

Among international artists who collaborated with local artists as part of Rivayat Music Series were friends of Mekaal Hasan. The list includes his roommate from Berklee College of Music (Gwen Lafitte) who is from France (acoustic guitar, electric guitar), Anton Davidyants from Russia (bass) whom he met in Bangladesh for a TV recording and Shez Raja from United Kingdom (bass), who is considered quite the force and has collaborated with some iconic names. Each person who played a role brought a sense of sound and energy that Mekaal knew would add to the overall sound landscape.

“I told them about the series and sent them the music. I told them to come up with something for it. I didn’t tell them what to do. They came up with their own arrangements and while they didn’t know the raags or our cultural context, they have such good ears and are so gifted that they were able to come up with incredible stuff without understanding the language.”

In addition to international players, the songs presented by Rivayat Music Series feature MHB and various artists as Afzaal Ali Khan, Shujat Ali Khan, Fiza, Hasnain Haider, Shahzad Ali Khan Qawal, Wahdat Raheem and Manwa Sisters. By the time you read this piece, a number of songs will follow suit with videos slated to release in May.

What is most interesting is that all of it was done live – in one take. Mekaal Hasan’s flair for recording music live is also the reason the songs that have been released so far sound so different from other cultural music that is fused with western instruments or ideas. “That kind of playing skill is also unprecedented so I wanted to capture that – musicians on both sides playing together.”

Pakistan is a strange music market. Instead of organic, we listen to a lot of music that is polished in post-production and there are new shows cropping up all the time. It can also create dissonance during listening and how then, without being a celebrity or having the advantage of a major push by one corporate entity or another do you make an impact?

“A lot of these guys are not media savvy; they belong to another world. So, there is a huge chasm between the common man and what they listen to as compared to prolific music on every platform. The guy who drives the rickshaw will listen to Bollywood. But they also listen to this desi music with even more love. Why?

Because it is their music. And their music has been robbed for years. The intellectual knowledge is not acknowledged and someone else will be singing what

belongs to them. It feels wrong. I am not looking at Rivayat as a platform that will make money for me. It will make money for everyone because the artists have 50 percent stake in the YouTube channel and everything that is monetized. It is set up in a way that it will make money for them and what they’re doing.”

A lot more is coming, as we reach the conclusion of the interview. Rivayat will go on, Mekaal confirms and Mekaal Hasan Band’s own music is also dropping. For a man who has worked with the country’s biggest musicians and platforms, it is this contribution to Pakistan’s cultural music that will also serve as an archival feat in the long run that brings about a smile on his face. And if you know one thing about Mekaal Hasan, the reclusive artist, this smile isn’t an everyday occurrence. It is giving back in a near altruistic sense that has brought about this quiet smile.

Here’s to more music and the many accomplishments that will follow releasing