Hadiqa Kiani and the songs of the dervish

July 23, 2017

The singer-songwriter speaks to Instep about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Hadiqa Kiani and the songs of the dervish

Instep interview

It’s 11:00 on a Saturday night, rain is still making sporadic appearances after pouring heavily earlier in the night and Hadiqa Kiani has settled down for dinner at a restaurant at the Marriott Hotel in Karachi, where she is joined by Muniba Mazari, Ali Hamza, Juggun Kazim and a handful of others. In town for one night only, just hours earlier she participated in a Nestle event that was meant to promote their 1000 Days campaign.

As I call her to remind her about our one-on-one meeting – after rushing back from a Sikandar Ka Mandar gig – she invites me to dinner. I politely decline the offer and she willingly and without any airs, sets her dinner course aside and we make our way to a quiet corner of the lobby to discuss her most recent album, Wajd and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Dressed in a white pantsuit, Hadiqa, now in her 40s, sits opposite me and leans in as she answers all of my questions.

The last time we sat down like this was in 2010 and she had just released the groovy Aasmaan. In some ways, it feels like a lifetime ago and in between those days and now, there is a marked difference in Hadiqa.

She knows what it’s like to have a hit on your hands. She’s done it repeatedly with songs like ‘Jaan e Jaan’, ‘Mann Di Mauj’, ‘Boohey Barian’, ‘Dupatta’ ‘Yaad Sajan’, ‘Jogi’, ‘Mahi’, ‘Mehr Ma’, ‘Inteha-e-Shauq’ and ‘Iss Baar Milo’.

She knows what it’s like to write thrilling pop albums and what it’s like to do it consistently. It also means that she has an extensive body of work, made up of records as eclectic as Raaz, Roshni, Rung, Rough Cut and Aasmaan. Writing good pop songs is also an art and one that Hadiqa has excelled at for several years.

Wajd, her six-track EP that first made an appearance earlier this year, is therefore a complete change of pace for the singer-songwriter. It is an amalgamation of Sufi poetry, divine inspiration and is meant to celebrate ethnic diversity, languages and rich traditions. Wajd is unlike anything else Hadiqa has done and shows that she is neither bound by past success nor looking to repeat it.

And though her personal life has seen its share of heartbreaks and joyous moments, Hadiqa’s greatest strength is her optimism, for the industry, for herself and others around her.

If her last unabashedly pop album was about celebrating love, life and relationships, Wajd is about exploring, through sacred texts and the learnings from Sufi saints, the depth of her own consciousness and expanding it.

Throughout the interview she is forthcoming and does not make evasive maneuvers even as she takes time to articulate her thoughts.

Our conversation opens with the subject of shrines since her fifth song from Wajd took her to the shrine of Baba Bulleh Shah. Given the fact that shrines have also come under terror attacks, I ask Hadiqa if she’s afraid. "I’ve been going to shrines for the last 15 years," she says with a smile. "This (attacking them) is the norm now but 15 years ago it was different. From shrines in Multan and other spaces to the shrines of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, I still visit them. I pray to Allah over there and pay my respects and gratitude to the Sufi saints."

In this conversation with Instep, Hadiqa reflects on how her music has evolved, why she no longer cares for making pure pop melodies and everything else in between…

How and when was the idea for Wajd first born?

Hadiqa Kiani: Lala (Irfan Kiani) conceived this whole journey at first. We were going to Murree on a family vacation and were listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s ‘Kun Faya Kun’ repeatedly; we didn’t want to hear anything else because we connected to it. At the same time, we also wanted to do something out of the box. We felt stagnant in our work and didn’t want to do anything commercial. We wanted to satisfy our own souls.

There is always criticism on artists when they approach material that has been done before by others.

HK: Honestly speaking, I’m not answerable to anyone. I sing what my heart wants to sing. Some of the songs on Wajd have been sung by others before me but they are close to my heart.

For instance, I could have followed Mussarat Nazir ji completely while doing ‘Kamlee Da Dhola’ but I have put my own colour into it. That’s the beauty of old folk songs, if you do it with your own flavour then people react to it.

I did wonder how my fans would react because it’s a complete departure from the Western pop genre but the response to Wajd so far has been very good. I was not expecting it.

The music scene, since you began, has completely changed. How do you see this progression? Do you think we’re on the right path?

Hadiqa Kiani: I don’t think things are that binary; nothing is entirely good or bad. I think it’s really about the path you choose for yourself. The artists who exist today are doing what their frame of mind allows. For all these years, I did what my frame of mind allowed and it was pop music. At this point in time, if you ask me to do that same kind of music again, I can’t do it. I no longer relate to it. I feel that I have to keep doing more mature, thoughtful and soulful music. It has nothing to do with age, but it has to do with my life experiences and the personal evolution that comes with them. I was selective but now am even more so. I have to be satisfied with what I do. Only then will others connect with it. If it’s not genuine, it won’t register.

What does the future contain?

HK: Wajd is an ongoing journey. Volume 1 will finish after two songs. Volume 2 might include some original melodies and some old songs that I’ve grown up listening to or things that inspire me as a musician. I might be doing some variation of pop-esque songs for OSTs or film soundtracks. If I’m asked to do it by a producer, then as a singer I can deliver it. But my own music has to be Wajd.

You are raising a son as a single mother and taking care of your mother. Have you given up on love?

HK: Love is the core of life. But my love has diverted to my son and everything and everyone comes after that. My mother is my love and so is my son.

Do you think something is missing?

HK: Sometimes, but when I think about it practically, the first thought is always how my son will adjust to it or accept it. If something happens in the future, so be it. If it doesn’t, that’s okay too.

A lot of people sing well but don’t produce their own songs, which means their music has no personal narrative. You do write your own songs and play instruments as well. How has your life shaped your music?

HK: Motherhood has made me more centered and has made me selfless. Prior to it, you can say I was either self-centered or self-involved. I had no responsibility as such but after Nad-e-Ali came into my life, it all changed for the better. He’s my driving force and more that that, his existence has made me more sensitive to others. When my son was three months, my mother had a stroke. That was another life-altering moment.

As a result, I’m more thoughtful towards others around me and I count my blessings.

You appeared on a political talk show called Capital Talk to talk about the horrifying treatment meted out to domestic help, particularly children, without any shame in this country. Is this an issue close to your heart?

HK: I feel that a lot of people employ young children, teenagers and these kids are just not safe. I was trying to tell him (Hamid Mir) that people who have employed these kids can make a contribution by sending them to school. It is your responsibility as a human being.

I have a salon and I have about 35 employees. And I make sure they study in order to break the cycle. They come from homes and spaces with rampant illiteracy so it’s on me to guide them, inculcate civic sense and help them realize that they don’t have to take abuse at the hands of their husbands. They can take a stand. Helping them attain skills is significant because it will give them strength, confidence and a sense of independence.

You were very vocal about the incident that occurred during the Hum Awards, where an actor made a joke about rape. Do you think as an industry we’ve become callous? Is it apathy?

HK: It’s something that is far too prevalent in this society and we need to look beyond the surface. We need to talk about this subject, the media needs to talk about it but with a degree of responsibility and sensitivity.

What I generally see is that we have this coldness in us. I don’t know if we’re sadistic or oblivious; we tend to forget instead of investigating why it happened. So, for instance, if a host makes such a remark maybe he’s ignorant in the moment and the main priority is to make people laugh - whatever the cost. People also need to react appropriately which is to say don’t laugh. As a society we need to be more aware and bring things to the surface.

People can mistake division for diversity. We are getting lost in these divisions and forgetting humanity, which should be the core of our religion, our society and our individual beings. I believe in humanity.

Most people working in music today will no longer have a chance to work with Aamir Zaki who passed away earlier this year. You’ve worked with him on several occasions including a full-length album that released in 2007. In his death we remember how great he was but it didn’t happen during his lifetime.

HK: I always asked him, even though we argued on certain issues, why he didn’t release all the music he was making. I told him that he was an incredible musician and should release the material and he would tell me that I can’t do the commercial thing.

But I do understand where he was coming from. He never did anything for the sake of money. He was bold and brash and a lot of people could not digest what he was saying and wanted to say. His genius was such that no one comes even close to him and it’s painful to realize that his genius could not be recognized in his own lifetime. A lot of young people don’t even know who he was. Most of his masterpieces, the jams he did on the fly, they are not on record and that’s a tragedy. As an artist you have to keep releasing your work, or it won’t be preserved for the coming generation. You leave behind a body of work even if it’s not commercial.

I want to keep myself in the studio. I told Lala that every month we should come up with one song because life is short and we should do as much as we can.

You have a long relationship of working together professionally with your brother, Irfan Kiani (Lala). He is the producer of Wajd. How has this relationship evolved?

HK: His ear is very sharp and he knows my vocal texture and the synergy is such that musically we are on the same wavelength. We do have arguments but it’s not about scoring a point. We approach things logically and whomever has more sound logic will prevail. It is reciprocal. Sometimes I prevail and sometimes he does - musically.

In life, like all siblings, we too have our difference of opinion but in the studio, we are one collective vision.

As a society we still don’t look at promoting the arts and music as a tool to steer people away from violence towards something constructive and if you let it, joyous.

HK: Education needs to be a priority. Our budget allocates the bare minimum to education and this needs to change now.

I just read a story about how academic institutions are becoming a hub for radicalization.

HK: Extremism will spread if you continue to suppress the promotion of the arts and the more it spreads, the more you will see people holding guns instead of guitars. The solution is to promote the arts. In spaces where the artistic thought is given space, it will create softness. In education institutes, we need to introduce creative fields like music, dance, poetry, painting and theatre and literature. It is not necessary that every kid should become a musician. Some will embrace singing; others will embrace playing a certain instrument. Some will become writers and poets and so on. Through the arts, you can take out what is boiling within. You can use it to express yourself. There are different forms of arts and different forms of expressions. In Pakistan, we have suppressed self-expression. Existing educational institutes across the country need to incorporate this philosophy. It should be mandatory and if the government steps up, we will be on the right course.

Hadiqa Kiani and the songs of the dervish