In an extensive conversation with Instep, Zohaib Kazi discusses his laudable music-book project, Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher
With his curly hair falling casually on his face, Zohaib Kazi, 31, could easily be mistaken for a younger version of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. But the similarity ends there.
Zohaib Kazi is, these days, the man of the moment; having written and produced not just a mammoth twelve-track record called Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher but one that comes attached with a sci-fi graphic novel, filled with Kazi’s wild and curious imagination, brought to life with stories that are matched with several stunning illustrations.
There is no precedent for what Kazi has achieved: this is truly the first project of its kind in Pakistan. Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher, a concept album also features some of Pakistan’s finest musicians and is as remarkable as it is inspiring.
The book-music album showcases several things: Kazi’s explosive verve as a mighty musical talent, his thrilling imagination, a clear understanding of the science of creativity and collaborations, a focus on working together in harmony with other like-minded fellow artists, and most of all, a deep and abiding respect for science, scientists, and the laws of the Universe.
As we sit and discuss Zohaib’s new record, Kazi comes across as one of the most intelligent and thoughtful musicians of his generation. Though Kazi has been around for several years, making beautiful singles, its Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher that will help put him on the music map in a significant, unforgettable fashion.
Having spent several years working for Pakistan’s most popular TV music show, Coke Studio, Kazi has had the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of music’s biggest names. Be it classical, folk, eastern, pop, rock - Kazi has seen it all and still is an integral part of the show. And yet, the experience has been a learning curve for Kazi. The Coke Studio years have made him wiser but Kazi remains as down-to-earth, curious and compassionate, as when we first met, several years ago.
"The idea of Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher began years ago," says Kazi as he describes the origin story. "In 2006, I composed two to three songs that interconnected. At first, I had the idea of approaching it as film music and thought of making a film. But this was around 2007 and one couldn’t even conceive the idea of making a film."
In other words, the current revival of cinema hadn’t happened yet and making a film was an impossible dream for many.
"I realized that making a film at that point was not an option so I thought of doing it as a book. Pondering over ideas, I thought maybe a graphic novel, but I don’t know how to write nor am I interested in writing."
Despite slight hesitation, Kazi plunged into it by taking one simple step: writing one story. "I wrote this one story and didn’t share it with anyone."
As Zohaib explains, as the years went by, the stories evolved.
"The idea and concept," as Kazi explains, "is that every song represents a chapter from the novel and the book has been designed in a way that it is an amalgamation of three flavours: its knocking on the door of comic book and graphic novel enthusiasts, which also includes people who are watching things like Guardians of the Galaxy and appreciate the sci-fi films like Inception, Interstellar, the second flavor that can be found in the book is the screenplay-storyboard narrative because this isn’t written like a traditional book, and the third flavor is the traditional novel bit. So, once you read the book, you’ll understand the songs better and once you’ve heard the songs, you’ll understand the novel better."
Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher, published by Markings, also features several beautiful illustrations that will leave you wondering about the dynamic pool of artists this country has to offer.
"The illustrations, poetic and symbolic are made by genius artists," chimes in Kazi as we discuss the book-album at length.
For years, the Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher evolved in Kazi’s own hidden musical world, while he also worked on Coke Studio. In 2012, he wrote another chapter, which meant another song was also created. "I thought it was important to make a music video which also reflects the novel." The video, with thousand of hand-drawn illustrations, took years to finish. The project, according to Kazi, started coming together in 2014. When the video started taking shape in a manner that Kazi agreed with, the hunt for a publisher was on. "I had been hearing Kiran Aman’s name for a long time and she had also heard my name before we met. She was onboard and that made me realize that the book could actually get published."
The one thing that’s also worth noting is that the songs have enough power to stand on their own but gain strength and vision and the experience becomes enchanting when the two are explored together.
Moving on from the book to the music, the album features a stunning line-up of musicians like Omran Shafique, Sara Haider, Abbas Ali Khan, Zoe Viccaji, Jaffer Zaidi and several notable others. For Kazi, the experience of working with so many of the industry’s coolest names was a brilliant experience. As he describes it, they share a relationship based on mutual trust, respect and faith in each other’s abilities. "My relationship with them has evolved in such a way that they have faith when I share an idea and believe that I will do justice to it."
The journey so far
As we move our discussion from Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher to Coke Studio and back, what’s palpable is Kazi’s respect for not just science but philosophy. When I ask him about the severe criticism dished out to Coke Studio for destroying classics and many other things, he remarks that revered men like Galieo, Amir Khusro and Plato were criticized in their time.
"You shouldn’t fear criticism," says Kazi and continues, "as long as your intent is pure. Some criticism is fair and some of it is just nonsense. So, an intelligent person would go through all the criticism and then decide what is right for the project, and what’s not."
While Kazi talks about Coke Studio’s evolution throughout the years, and excessive criticism that we as a nation struggle with, his love for cricket, also sneaks in. He talks in analogies of Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, field restrictions, the rules of the game and how they also apply to life itself.
"A subtle change with respect to time would serve the purpose," explains Kazi about why a radical change isn’t necessary yet even as innovation and gradual, sustainable change will define the future of Coke Studio.
As the conversation changes, a reflective Kazi observes, "We need to celebrate our heroes. We should give people their due respect…"
It usually happens after they die, I note.
"Whether its Rohail Hyatt or Strings, they have given us exceptional music and we shouldn’t forget that. We should be considerate of all our heroes."
The conversation, inevitably, moves towards the current scene in Pakistan. And Kazi, aware of initiatives like Taazi and Patari, is not one with a binary approach, fortunately.
"All around the world, the payment model is being figured out. If someone like Taylor Swift is having issues, then we don’t exist," laughs Kazi.
"Payment issues plague artists across so it’s a universal problem. Live music shows have diminished, so they are fewer avenues to perform," observes Kazi.
Smaller gigs continue to thrive but Kazi points out that internationally artists make money through gigs. "People need to understand that they need to start paying for entertainment. If they can pay for a film ticket, they can also pay for the album. Unlike a film ticket, with an album, there’s ownership too."
In the music world, there are also not-so-invisible divisions, as new-age musicians struggle to break on through to the mainstream and beyond urban centers. Though the gap may close as film music attracts indie names, the gap is still fierce.
"When big bands happened a decade ago, international music exposure was limited. Today, people are exposed to different sounds, be it Justin Bieber or Honey Singh, they know sounds. What has happened is that several big artists have been unable to let go of their sound. That innovation is somewhat lacking here. When big artists change and diversify their sound, the audience will accept it and as a result indie artists will be understood better. The audience will then become familiar with the sounds."
Kazi, who considers himself a fan of artists like Noori and Janoobi Khargosh, points out how Mani Ratnam had the courage to take A.R. Rahman’s stunning and path-breaking music in his film, Roja, which paved the way for Rahman to branch-out further with films like Bombay.
As we discuss several music initiatives like Salt Arts, and the many music festivals that have cropped up and are giving hope to the music scene, Kazi calls them "rebels".
In many ways, Kazi, too, is a rebel. As the conversation comes to an end, it’s clear that, despite the many issues that plague the music scene relentlessly, as long as someone like Zohaib Kazi continues to write, explore and experiment with songs, the future of Pakistan’s music is safe, and full of the promise of a brighter, kinder tomorrow.