Singer-songwriter Umer Khan from Poor Rich Boy talks to Instep about writing Urdu songs and what makes him write about loss.
Poor Rich Boy is a band known for its English language albums. After Old Money and We Are Your Friends, the band has released several tracks from its third album, Almost Tuesday even as they have moved on to their next album.
But PRB has begun making Urdu songs as well. The Urdu track began with ‘Tootay Huay Admi’ and was followed by ‘Kakhazi’ - that released earlier this year - and is now followed by the release of ‘Samandar Ki Teh Mein’.
Speaking then about the language shift, Zain Ahsan had noted, “Actually, there has never been a shift. Maybe we started off with English but there were always Urdu songs in there too. Now there are a few songs that are bilingual. There is Urdu, but there’s English as well. I guess we’ve just focused more on the English side but there were always Urdu songs that we never really put out but I think it’s time to throw them out there, too.”
With a singer-songwriter like Umer Khan and the song-writing he has showcased, both in English and Urdu, the result is somewhere between Sufjan Stevens and Bob Dylan. And I am not saying this lightly.
‘Samandar Ki Teh Mein’ – based on a poem by N.M. Rashid – is exactly the kind of song we need right now as the world tears itself apart. Accompanied by a sweet music video by Mosiki, (the website/blog) it is shot and edited by Abdul-Rehman Malik and though it has bass, snare, synths, and guitars, it doesn’t go in the elaborate, almost exaggerating landscape and its simplicity and honesty is its greatest success. It appeals from the start.
From being compared to legendary bands of the western past to being revered as one of the best independent bands in Pakistan, the story of Poor Rich Boy is ongoing through its music.
The video also echoes that and all we have to do is really listen and watch. There’s a melancholic vibe, to the songs, but there are also questions, metaphors and courage.
Umer Khan, also known as the artist Duck, speaking to Instep, reveals what is it that he writes about as a songwriter and why is there a sense of melancholia - beyond interpretation - that we tend to do as fans, always.
“I grew up with this vague feeling that something was terribly wrong either with me or the world. I think I was right about both. I write about loss. I wish there were some easy way to answer this question. I think, as a songwriter, I wish to express a profound sense of loss. I have spent 33 years here on this planet, and I can safely say that I am horrified with what I have seen of mankind’s propensity for stupidity and cruelty. Just the scale of it is so fundamentally disheartening that you can’t really ever be sure whether you ought to be sad or just laugh at the sheer absurdity of it,” began Umer.
He added: “We live in a world in which it makes perfect sense for a nation with a crumbling economy to spend billions of tax payer dollars - not rupees, dollars - on defense deals. So I write about loss.
We have inherited a world brought to its knees by the destructive power of global capitalism. Add to that the twisted logic of patriarchal thought and you have in front of you a society in which children are raped and videotaped for the viewing pleasure of those who can put a price on anything. So I write about loss.
This is a diseased society that worships money and power. We are divided along lines of religion, gender, class, ethnicity, etc, and we have been kept illiterate and miserable, fighting amongst each other while our powerful overlords rob the country blind till there is nothing left of a viable future.
You can’t move about in your own city. And I live in Lahore. Can you even begin to imagine how awful things are for those who live outside of this privileged Pakistani urban zoo? Beyond lies a vast desert of neglect, want and tyranny. But even in this gilded cage, we breathe poisonous smog, we drink arsenic laced sewerage water from our taps, and we feast on each other’s flesh. I write about loss, mainly.
A student is brutally lynched to death for having protested against a fee hike in his university. His murderers are celebrated as heroes of the religion of peace. A woman is shot dead after hosting a discussion on the subject of Baloch Missing Persons. Is Asia Bibi free now? This is endless. This goes on forever. We live in perpetual cycles of brutality and degradation.
I write songs about loss. Loss of love, loss of friendship, loss of any form of human relations except those determined by the exchange of money. I write about the sense of loss you feel when you have the answer to something but can’t seem to remember what the question was. I write about loss of freedom.
I understand that there is limitless capacity for good in people, but our institutions are structured to suppress it. The way our institutions function, perhaps this is the case the world over, ensures injustice, suffering and degradation.”
As for writing in Urdu, Umer told Instep, “It isn’t particularly difficult to write in Urdu. Though I find it easier at times to write in English, mainly because this is a language I have studied the most, and have been teaching it for the last eight years. It’s just a matter of practice. But the songs you mention, they’re not really recent.”
As Umer explained, “These are old songs. I wrote ‘Kaghazi’ back in 2010. ‘Tootay Huay Admi’ was written in 2013. ‘Samandar Ki Teh Mein’ is one of N. M. Rashid’s poems, so I can’t take credit for that. I discovered his poetry back when I was an undergrad.
I can’t say I’ve written an Urdu song recently. The last one was maybe in 2014: ‘Hum Majbooran Aap k Saath Kharray Hain’, which was a song I wrote on the occasion of the Long March for Baloch Missing Persons. The title of the song comes from a statement Aitzaz Ahsan made in parliament once. I thought there was something deeply cynical, depressing, shameful and comic about that statement and all that it implied in that particular historical context.”
“I suppose my songs have a sad feel to them. I don’t know how to write happy songs. Usually Zain manages to sneak in a happy chord to mitigate my relentless pessimism. That’s how it goes.”
When asked about his time with Poor Rich Boy, Umer noted, “My time with PRB has been challenging but rewarding. Rewarding in the sense that it has allowed me to know more about myself, my strengths and weaknesses. It has provided opportunities for personal growth. For instance, it has brought me into contact with countless people, people I would not have met otherwise. I am not a particularly social person. So the fact that I was forced to meet such a diverse set of lovely and also downright evil people has been fortunate. I think the most valuable insight I have gained from all this is that there is no contentment in any of it. There is no end to our desire for fame and fortune and material comforts. If there is contentment, it lies in being a source of benefit and comfort to our fellow human beings. Not that I have achieved sainthood yet, but at least I recognise that beyond a certain point, living solely for yourself is futile and unsatisfying. I think the most important benefit of being in this band was meeting people I could be friends with. I’m weird, so it’s always good to find people who are okay with that. Zain is my friend. He has probably ruined my life, irreversibly. But I suppose there is always a cost.”