Awari Once upon a time, back in the early aughts, I was a student at the National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences (FAST-NU), stumbling, rather clumsily, through a computer science degree. On the day in question, the object of my struggles was an assignment that required the coding of logic gates, a task that my group members and I had no idea how to accomplish. Taking pity on our plight, an acquaintance decided to come to our rescue by introducing us to one of his friends: a senior who was taking the same course with our batch and who could potentially give us a few pointers. And so we were schlepped to the aforementioned senior … who then took one look at the sorry state of our project and promptly refused to help, dismissing us instead by saying the assignment needed too much work.
So I guess my first question is, what do you have to say in your defence, Xulfi?
“Computer education was never my forte. I helped you by not helping you,” he deadpans, then laughs and adds “I really don’t remember this.”
Insult to injury. We’re off to a great start!
Just as I was being introduced to Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan as the grumpy dude you shouldn’t even bother asking for coding tips, the rest of the country was getting to know him as the guitarist of the rap rock band Entity Paradigm, which itself had its genesis on the grounds of the university where we first met. Xulfi was the president of the FAST-NU music society, conducting auditions for new members. Among the hopefuls were the then-unknown Fawad Khan and Hassaan Khalid. He heard the former sing and the latter play the guitar and thought, why not make a band? That’s how the dream of Paradigm started.
That dream eventually led him to the stage of Pepsi Battle of the Bands, where his group – merged, by then, with Ahmad Ali Butt’s band Entity – finished in second place. The creation of an album, Irtiqa, followed, but the union didn’t last and the members eventually parted ways.
Now, some two decades later, looking back at his time with EP, Xulfi is left with a sense of appreciation for the experiences he had with the outfit. “When a band breaks up, it can sometimes seem like it’s the end of the world. Obviously, when EP broke up, it did feel like that, but, parting ways leads to the start of beautiful new journeys for everyone involved. You don’t know where the road will take you and when everyone’s paths will coincide again.”
Their paths did indeed cross in the form of reunions. But where, I ask him, does EP stand now? “We talk. We occasionally meet. We all share a good friendly bond. That’s where it stands,” he answers with a smile. “It’s a chapter that involves a lot of emotions and memories, and I honestly feel blessed to have experienced all those emotions and been through it all.”
While working on EP’s music, Xulfi was also learning the ropes of music production. “We recorded Irtiqa at Mekaal Hasan’s studio when I was still a university student. We used to arrange music, sequence drums, and do the musical parts in my room; then we’d take those tracks to Mekaal’s studio and do the guitars, bass, and vocals. I used to sit there when Mekaal was recording and mixing, learning a lot and giving my suggestions as well.
“In fact there was this thing that Fawad and I used to do. Whenever Mekaal would leave the studio for some time, we used to go in the recording room, and if we thought that, say, the guitar’s distortion gain was too low, we used to increase it so that we’d get the sound that was in our heads. Maza aata tha,” he laughs. “Mekaal probably doesn’t know about that till this point.”
Well he does now. Sorry Mekaal!
Inspired by the experience, Xulfi decided to pursue his dream of making his own studio. After graduating from university, he asked his parents for a year to do what he most wanted: set up a studio, work with different artists, and make a career out of it. And he says he has not looked back ever since.
The first album he produced was Jal’s Aadat, using basic equipment and dilapidated instruments. Fast forward to 2021, and Xth Harmonic is now a fully-equipped, high performance studio that has given Xulfi the chance to work with a wide range of talent, including the likes of Atif Aslam, Meesha Shafi, and even his old pal Fawad Khan.
“After the release of the Jal album, my belief kept growing that everything is possible if I put my heart and mind to it. Subsequently, trying to find new musicians and recording their work became the purpose of my studio. The universe always helped me with that. Artists from all over would somehow find me. While recording their work, I’d notice that a band had a talented guitarist, and another had a talented keyboard player or vocalist or songwriter. So I used to think of combinations, putting the talented people together in my mind, and dream of making music with them,” he recalls.
That idea eventually led to the creation of Nescafe Basement, a television series in which Xulfi mentors and works with young artists. “You need to discover and inspire new people to progress the industry,” he believes. “There is so much talent in Pakistan. There had to be something that empowered this talent.” He is happy about the success of the show’s alumni, like Bayaan, a group that formed during Nescafe Basement, then won Pepsi Battle of the Bands, and now has an album out, as well as the duo Soch, whose song ‘Awari’ found popularity across the border and who have since developed their own studio and become successful songwriters. And it’s this part of his journey that has brought Xulfi a lot of gratification.
But while he has always been dedicated to discovering and polishing new artists, he has also continued his own performing career. Before his time with EP was through, Xulfi had already joined another band, Call, previous members of which had included his brothers, Danish and Khurram. And their partnership – a brief split notwithstanding – is still going strong. “Call has been quite an extensive journey for me,” he says. “I have explored a huge palette of colours with my bandmates – Junaid, Sultan, and also our session players Kenny, Bilawal, and Farhan; I’ve travelled a lot with these people.
“From the heavy side of rock in songs like ‘Jilawatan’ to something like ‘Laree Chotee’, ‘Dhadke Jiya’, and even ‘Sab Bhula Kae’, it has been a very diverse journey. A band’s vocabulary is usually not this extensive. But Call ki hai,” and that is something that makes him immensely proud.
Last month, Xulfi was busy with the production and rollout of anthems for the sixth season of the Pakistan Super League, his second year associated with the tournament. “PSL is a beautiful blessing for our country through which we get thoroughly entertained,” he opines, and he is absolutely chuffed to be involved with the league. “I am fortunate that I have been given this blessing by God to work with PSL for the last two years and I am so proud of what we have done with them. It’s an honour to work for a platform like this and it gives you coverage and accessibility with such a huge audience.”
Last year, Xulfi was approached by PSL for the anthem for the tournament’s fifth season. That’s how ‘Tayaar Hain’ happened. “PSL was coming to Pakistan completely for the first time, so we thought of the message that we are ready for this, hence ‘Tayaar Hain’.” The track was written by Xulfi and sung by Ali Azmat, Haroon, Asim Azhar, and Arif Lohar. “When you make an anthem, it’s not just a song; it’s a complete narrative,” he declares. “Creating it is a progressive, evolutionary process. You have to connect to that purpose and strike the right big idea, and ‘Tayaar Hain’ was that big idea.”
This year, discussions led to the creation of ‘Groove Mera’, an EDM-inspired pop tune with Naseebo Lal, Aima Baig, and Young Stunners on vocals. He describes the experience of working with these artists as “phenomenal”. “Every one of them is special,” he says.
“I remember when Naseebo Lal’s name came up. I immediately knew she was the one. Her lines were written specifically for her.” When he eventually heard her sing the track, her performance instantly hit him in the feels. “There was a time when I actually teared up. When she sang the line ‘I am ready tay I am sure oye’, it was so beautifully expressed and delivered that I got emotional, and, touched by my reaction, she teared up as well. When someone convincingly makes a universal line their own, like she did, it’s an amazing moment for me as a producer.”
He has nothing but praise for Young Stunners and Aima Baig as well. “I was working with Naseebo and Young Stunners for the first time, and it was a heart-warming, beautiful experience, full of emotions. Young Stunners are very future forward. They understand the power of good content and create a lot of songs. They are special songwriters. They think about life very deeply. Their lyrics in ‘Groove Mera’ are very impressive. Their confidence, hope, and excitement is contagious. As for Aima, it’s always a pleasure working with her because she works hard to understand what kind of personality she has to depict.”
As much fun as making these PSL songs has been for Xulfi and his team, listeners, however, have been far less enthusiastic about their output. Both these tracks have garnered criticism, especially on social media. How does Xulfi feel about the mixed reception and the negative comments? “I am a positive person, and I don’t see things in positive and negative demarcations. I see everything as a process. I love seeing how the narrative unfolds. I enjoy that. To top that, I have a lot of belief in the work I do with my team on any idea, song, or narrative. If you believe in something, the universe assures that it will resonate in people’s hearts. Your work of heart reaches other people’s hearts. So with this belief, I enjoy my journey.”
But doesn’t the criticism get to him? “I’m a patient person,” he answers. “Change is not easy. It’s always a battle. But at the same time, change in the form of progress is important. When you are battle hardened, you keep fighting. I am happy the song has resonated with so many people and it’s etched in their memory which is the most important thing. Insha’Allah everyone will always remember ‘Groove Mera’ and that, again, is a blessing.”
Aside from his PSL work, Xulfi has also been involved with other production projects, his most recent being rock band Karakoram’s debut album, Ailaan-e-Jang. “Producing a rock album is always a lot of fun. You have to record all the instruments live. With Karakoram, I wanted to create a benchmark sound that sets a standard and expresses their emotion in the best possible way while creating a new paradigm. I wanted people to hear it and say they haven’t heard such big sounding rock music in Pakistan before. It took us a while to nail everything, but these boys are very talented and expressive and they did a wonderful job. This is going to be a game changer for a lot of artists in Pakistan, Insha’Allah.”
With his various projects and ventures, Xulfi has every intention of keeping himself busy in the coming months.
Apart from music, his content creation agency, Giraffe, is also churning out ideas for brands. And his passion for sports is ensuring that games – he enjoys playing badminton, table tennis, and cricket with friends – remain a part of his life. His focus, though, continues to be on music. “This year my journey is more about music than it has ever been,” he states.
Rumours have been swirling about his involvement in the next season of Coke Studio, but no matter how much I prod, he remains tight-lipped. “Let’s see what the future holds” is all he is willing to say on the topic. He does promise that his mission of discovering and empowering new artists is going to continue. He hopes to help create a thriving community of musicians, and also plans to keep doing his own music and collaborating with other artists as well. As for Call, while the band isn’t working on any new content at the moment, Xulfi has an inkling that something interesting might come along later in the year.
So you can definitely expect a lot more from Xulfi in the coming months.
If you are a fan waiting for new music, he will deliver. If you are an aspiring artist, he will lend a guiding hand. If you want someone to produce your record, then he’s your man.
Just don’t ask him how to code logic gates!