Wearing a Roger Federer cap, a tee-shirt and Capri pants, Farooq Ahmed is no longer the long-haired vocalist with fans screaming and following him as he took the stage with his band, Aaroh, and played shows, way back in the day. But years later, as he tells Instep, he is just as ecstatic about his claim-to-fame band Aaroh as he was when it won the debut season of Pepsi Battle of the Bands.
Two full-length albums and some changes in the band’s line-up since winning the Pepsi title 16 years ago, Farooq Ahmed, the audacious front-man who carries an ambition to be remembered and recognized by history books, is nowhere close to being done.
The return via Pepsi Battle of the Bands
Surprisingly forthcoming throughout the course of this interview, even though this is our first meeting, Farooq recalls why he decided to move to the United States and why he came back.
The saturation of the live music scene in Pakistan and Aaroh never having broadened out to India, the timing to move felt right. Farooq’s immigration was pending while the rest of his family including siblings, relatives and parents had moved to the States in the late nineties. That said, moving to the US was a decision he tossed and turned over for a while.
"I spoke to Khalid Khan (Aaroh bassist) and told him that I didn’t feel like leaving and it was him who pointed out to the music scene and said, ‘Go, you can always come back later’."
Once in America, Farooq Ahmed learned the ways of the country. "The scene in the US is such that you get caught up in the rat race, but I had setup my own studio there and I had my own business."
What clearly made him angry were some stories that followed.
"A lot of people thought I was working for a dollar store (and though there is nothing wrong in working for one), let me correct that perception, I was not."
Recalling the episode, he tells Instep, "There was an article that came there, followed by an article that came here. People there would come and meet me as a Pakistani rock-star in the USA. I got offers to play rock gigs and festivals while people in Pakistan, including Jason (Aaroh drummer), asked me what was going on. I told him you’ve seen my store. And he told me that people in Pakistan were saying, ‘Becharay ko wapis bulalo’. But, anyway, that’s how things happen here and I didn’t justify or explain the misconceptions. Everything has to be controversial, you know."
Moving to the United States in 2010, the comeback of Farooq Ahmed is no longer about him in the renewed season(s) of Pepsi Battle of the Bands as a guest-judge/performer but as much about Aaroh. In fact, it seems it never was about him alone.
"Pepsi called me (last year) and asked me if I would be interested and it was a production closely associated to Aaroh," says Farooq about his return to the show that put him on the map.
Farooq goes on: "The music bug is always there you see; Faisal Rafi [who produced the last season and is a dear friend] called me, told me what it was about and I told him that I have a business here, I have employees, and I have a family; I have to look at the logistics. I got the call in March and in April I got the ticket."
The revival of Aaroh
"When Pepsi called me, they wanted me to do a song and I was adamant about it being a band performance, an Aaroh performance. They said you handle that. I called Khalid and Jason and since we parted ways amicably and remained friends, I asked them if they were interested or if they had an issue and they said sure and we came back." The real hurdle was to find a lead guitarist in the absence of Haider Hashmi, who passed away in 2014. "A good man," says Farooq quietly.
He was fielding phone calls and in between constant apologies, fierce views and jam plans, Farooq came across as a musician who is authentic and knows what authenticity in music sounds like.
Given Farooq Ahmed (as well as the rest of the band’s collective history and friendships in the music scene), it brought them to the studio of Kashan Admani, another seasoned veteran where Aaroh began their jam.
"I landed and we jammed that night and the next night we had to perform/shoot ‘Raag Neela’ on Pepsi (2017) and it came out well, I think. Kashan is a seasoned producer, songwriter and guitarist."
But the guitarist presently playing with Aaroh is Asad ul Hafeez since Kashan is also busy with his studio work and projects and Aaroh, in this post-comeback avatar, started playing shows.
"We asked Asad and he said that he would love to be a part of the group but explained his commitments. He reassured that as and when needed, whenever he was needed, he’d be there," remembers Farooq.
As more inquiries about Aaroh began, they realized the need for a permanent session guitarist and added Asad, who had played with Najam Shiraz at one point, Shafqat Amanat Ali and (for the last eight or nine years) Atif Aslam.
"He quit Atif last year and we called him," says Farooq and the rest, as goes the old adage, is history and just like that, Aaroh is back.
The scene has also changed as Farooq notes: "The scene in Pakistan has become organized but we have been selective about the shows we play. We hired a PR agency. The scene was not like this when I left for the US eight years ago. It has picked up."
A family man
Farooq had another challenge facing him. Being a married man with a wife and two children, he asked his wife if she could handle things in his absence. "She is a fifty-fifty partner in the store and said she couldn’t do it alone. Half the time, I handled things and half the time, she would do it. I have kids," reveals Farooq. "Retail is tough and at times it has happened that employees would not be there or the delivery would arrive at the wrong time. And I would unload the truck by myself and we decided things together."
Realizing that Farooq’s heart was and will always be in music, the couple worked it out. They now live between the United States and Pakistan. At present, his family is here on vacation.
Judging the new generation of bands
Having gone from being the participating band to a guest-judge, Farooq admits that to shortlist bands is not easy. "It’s very hectic; I’m very technical in my judgments and it’s important. It is very tough. In the debut season of Pepsi Battle of the Bands, during the finale, Junaid Jamshed asked me to sing ‘Raag Darbari’ live and I did it because I’ve learnt eastern classical, not all of it, but enough. For me, the eye-candy factor is secondary. That can be achieved later. Pepsi can hire consultants to improve the image of a band but an act cannot be made technically strong by them. So, my criteria is that filtered out acts should be technically sound. I don’t shy away from saying that I am the most critical of the three but I avoid viciousness. In fact, all three of us do not wish to discourage any band while hoping that those who are coming to the show take it seriously. We get 40 bands out of the filtered-out process and we go from there. I take notes using mnemonic devices."
The future is bright
Since coming back last year, Aaroh has played at festivals like Face Music Mela and Lahooti Melo 2018, among other things.
"We played at Lahooti Melo 2018 and it went so well that the next day the organizers wanted us to perform on the second day as well but we couldn’t do it. We’ve played at Face Music Mela and it went well to a point that I felt like I wanted to jump in the crowd. That ten-year-old feeling that Aaroh is back came back alive."
In between shows, the band has followed up their return with singles. "We did ‘Main Nahin Manta’ and Khalid had made it and told me it was Habib Jalib poetry so I was very interested. The cricket season propelled us (Khalid is a huge fan) to make ‘Jeet’ but no big brand picked it, including PCB. ‘Na Kaho’, for instance, is such a hit that at a local cover gig, we were asked to play it even though it was a cover gig! Whatever we do next, in the form of singles, we want to move forward."
Where do you want to go next, I pose to Farooq as our interview is coming to an end. "As a musician, I want to be remembered by my peers, by our loyal fans and the history books. It is not about commercial success - not that I don’t want to touch the commercial base. I mean, what can be more commercial than ‘Na Kaho’? But I want to do the kind of music that tomorrow, when I die, those who listen to it are moved by it. I can sing in eastern and in western."
"I don’t want to praise Aaroh or myself," he laughs cheekily, then adds: "Aaroh has an opinion and a voice that we do not want to compromise on. We’re not doing music because of Pepsi or XYZ. Pepsi or no Pepsi, we want to do good music. In 50 years from now, we want to be remembered."