Instep Today

Rolling with the times

By Maheen Sabeeh
Sun, 06, 23

In an extensive conversation with Instep, executive producer Rohail Hyatt speaks about his role in Velo Sound Station 2.0. and the future of the series.

Rolling with the times

Rohail Hyatt, Pakistan’s most iconic music producer of the last two deca-des, is talking to Instep from a remote location. Hours away from the capital city of Islamabad, he is leading an organic lifestyle and has left the hustle bustle and danger of Karachi behind.

The lifestyle, says Hyatt, has been nothing short of a “transformation” that has brought a great deal of clarity.

Rohail Hyatt is the executive producer of the second season of Velo Sound Station but in the capacity of a mentor and a guide. He is not the music producer and insists on giving credits to the artists.
Rohail Hyatt is the executive producer of the second season of Velo Sound Station but in the capacity of a mentor and a guide. He is not the music producer and insists on giving credits to the artists.

As a music man, Hyatt has left a permanent stamp on contemporary Pakistan music as an artist during his days with Vital Signs as well as a music producer. But when he introduced Coke Studio to unimagined success 15 years ago, he changed the game. The illustrious music series changed producers after season six but Hyatt stepped in the familiar role of executive producer when the show needed him. It might have gone into extinction otherwise, he says. But more on that next week.

Rohail Hyatt is now the executive producer of Velo Sound Station, which first arrived in 2020 and made a smashing debut under the aegis of Bilal Maqsood. With Maqsood deliberately stepping away from Velo Sound Station 2.0, Hyatt took over the reins, but is adamant that the spotlight (in reality) belongs to the featured artists, the songs and veteran directors (Kamal Khan and Zeeshan Parwez) who were running things on the ground. He maintains right off the bat that his role – more than anything else – is of a mentor and a guide. He has played no part in making the music.

Mahira Khan is a part of the show, adding an oomph factor.
Mahira Khan is a part of the show, adding an oomph factor.

But the name - Rohail Hyatt – does carry weight. It makes us pay attention because if he is endorsing a series, or a musician, or is involved with a music series, it has to have some merit to it. His endorsement, therefore, matters, within the industry and outside of it.

During an interview that lasted over two hours, we talk about Coke Studio, Pepsi Battle of the Bands, brands and folk heritage, and while he provides answer in context to every question, we always end up making a segue back to Velo Sound Station 2.0.

Meesha Shafi and Natasha Noorani are two of the artists who are back for Velo Sound Station 2.0.
Meesha Shafi and Natasha Noorani are two of the artists who are back for Velo Sound Station 2.0.

 The foundation of VSS 2.0, remembers a friendly and approachable Hyatt, goes back to the 2020 season (and in some ways to an older show that Hyatt and Maqsood had done many moons ago called Top of the Pops). In Hyatt’s mind, Velo Sound Station is a stronger, bigger, better, fresher build-up of that idea. “I think Velo is a direct reincarnation of that.”

More to the point, it has a narrative that is removed from past music shows like Coke Studio and Pepsi Battle of the Bands (season one) as well as its second iteration.

VSS 2.0 is meant to provide comfort, fun and escapism from the stressful environment that envelops us as individuals and as a people. And, some of us will agree that Velo 2.0 has (so far) done just that.

Rohail Hyatt fit the role of executive producer without being the music producer because he has done every major show in the country and has an understanding of what a brand is looking for and what an artist can get out of a show. As he speaks, it is obvious that he has the mind of a musician as well as a philosopher.

“True art evolves us – opens our arms and weakens our prejudices so that the ever-present seeds of healing and renewal can take root in our soul and sinew, cause joy.” – Daniel Ladinsky from The Gift, Poems by Hafiz

Stepping into Velo Sound Station 2.0 came after Bilal Maqsood decided not to do another season. An old ally from the Coke Studio days got in touch with Rohail Hyatt, he recounts. “I said that there’s no way I’m producing it or anything like that but I’d love to help the youngsters in any way they need.”

Velo Sound Station 2.0 features Ahsan Pervaiz Meh-di, Aima Baig, Asim Azhar, Atif Aslam, Bilal Saeed, Hydr, Maanu, Meesha Shadi, Nata-sha Noorani, Romeo, Sham-oon Ismail, Talhah Yunus, Young Stunners, Umair Jas-wal, Ziggy, Zoha Zuberi and Mahira Khan.

Every song is original and the series has multiple songwriters, composers and music producers, most of whom are the featured artist themself or preferred by the featured artist or someone they are collaborating with for the first time. If we saw other artists watching the performances from a balcony in 2020, this year some of them are a part of the show.

Among them is one of Pakistan’s biggest actors, the cherished Mahira Khan, who was a part of the first song from Velo Sound Station 2.0, lending it oomph without singing and [consequently] ruining it.

As this article is being written, the last song to release was the profound ‘Saranjaam’ by Meesha Shafi, which she wrote and composed herself, with music produced by CBM (Check-Box Media). CBM also produced Natasha Noorani’s ‘Chamkeela’, making them two of my top favourite songs from the series. A third favourite is Shamoon Ismail who is as inventive as he is unusual. But music, like art, is subjective and other producers like Ahsan Pervaiz Mehdi, Maanu, Rozeo and Jokhay (among others) have collectively delivered like pros. As a result, the series is well-rounded, balanced with multi-genre sounds and an electronic layer to go with it.

With Kamal Khan and Zeeshan Parwez, Coke Studio veterans signed on as co-directors, the visuals for Velo Sound Station 2.0 also look slicker, fascinating and almost like a journey to an exoplanet.

It was the creation of an environment for an individual or a people where they could escape to from the stresses of life while watching established favorites or get introduced to artists who were new to them.

With Rohail Hyatt onboard, there is a deeper understanding of what this show required due to his understanding of (a) music and (b) experience of working with brands since the early days of Vital Signs.

He is clear that you have to create a win-win situation for the brand and the artists, which translates to a good show – often. And it has, to be honest, at least in his case, he maintains.

“Velo Sound Station, in comparison to Coke Studio is a different dynamic and a shift in approach. Bilal Maqsood laid down the foundation, once again going back to the beginning with our Top of the Pops and that foundation and of course, the international one as well.

“The idea was the exploration of pop music, my reluctant roots I’d say,” he laughs, “Because I’ve never been a pop listening person but rock-inspired like Pink Floyd and that space.”

“I just did the framework for Velo Sound Station 2.0,” says Hyatt, who maintains he was more of a mentor and guide and didn’t produce the music. And there is a subtle sense of worry in his voice that the interview will be about his personal music journey, spanning decades, and less about the show. And he does share this concern.

“I do not interfere with what happens inside Velo Sound Station 2.0. So, what do I mean by framework[ed] it? To give the artist a platform where they get to express something they have created. This is a platform for the artist and whatever they want to express. The artists could share the songs with me and I can give my opinion that perhaps we do have three or four songs that are similar in certain style but I am not disrupting in any way. I’m not asking ‘why do you have these lyrics’ or anything like that. I am here to facilitate in a way. This is a platform by you and for you. Who is the songwriter an artist is working with is not something I’m interrupting with.”

So, what are you doing is [perhaps] the obvious question?

“We’re giving a platform and going out of our way to make it presentable and amplify it.”

Though there are artists like Atif Aslam and Meesha Shafi with whom Hyatt has worked with in the past, most of the artists are names he hasn’t exactly worked with, certainly not in the way he did with aforementioned in his years of Coke Studio.

But given how aware he is between the distinction within the two shows, Hyatt describes the experience as a positive one. “Working with the younger lot - who are full of potential and ideas and watching the way they work - has been a pleasant experience.

I don't give them feedback because it is the way we are working across the board. This is the fun part of exploring original music.

As people, or individuals – to escape the madness outside, we retreat in our inner world.

However, through this show we could offer some hope because each of us has an inner world where we seek refuge. You don’t have to look at a news channel; We’re consumed by information.

“As a countereffort, Velo Sound Station had an ethos that includes originality, creativity, and that is playing out and people are resonating with it.”

There are other stars who are part of the show but perhaps the biggest name is that of Mahira Khan and she isn’t the only one who isn’t a part of the show as a musical artist. “As you said, she brings value to the brand and her endorsement of the platform also matters. Who decided upon this? That was an idea that came purely from the visual team. It wasn’t my domain.”

As Hyatt looks back, he notes they brought the idea to him and he thought it was a good one if she agreed and she did. It is, he says, in the DNA of the show.

“In the legacy of Velo Sound Station, people outside of the performers can come to the station. Last season had stars at the show so it was a build-up on that. People outside of the performers were present during the last season. So, I think Velo Sound Station can open up into a very interesting space because the question is what is this space, what goes on here, who all can visit and so on. I think VSS is an industry that’ll open up spaces in subsequent seasons.

If you think of longevity, if it keeps appearing in the same way like Top of the Pops-style every year without evolving, it will have a very short shelf life. By giving it a narrative and a sense of mystery and an opportunity, at least as long as I’m associated with it, it will be full of possibility. I don’t like for it to be boxed in a way that you can define and contain it. By introduction of Mahira Khan or the vehicle in the Shamoon Ismail song, you are bordering on fantasy and I don’t want to speak too soon but I think we’ve got a trajectory building over here.”

– Read part II of this interview with Rohail Hyatt where he speaks about Pakistan's folk heritage and why its slipping, and what the success of Coke Studio means to him.