The sitar wizard talks to Instep about the larger ideas behind his band, Mughal-e-Funk, the reasons behind drawing inspiration from the Mughal era and producing music for Ali Hamza.
The name Rakae Jamil, to a lot of people, evokes memories of Coke Studio season two where he performed with the likes of Noori. But the sitar player from Lahore has so much more to offer.
Equipped with a Bachelor’s degree in Musicology from NCA, with a Master’s in Humanities with a focus on music, Rakae Jamil also learnt the sitar at a young age.
Presently in Karachi, where he is visiting faculty at IBA and teaching a course on music, Rakae Jamil is also a part of a contemporary instrumental funk-fusion music super-group called Mughal-e-Funk.
In 2018 the group made their Coke Studio debut with a gorgeous track called ‘Aurangzeb’. Though most familiar for his sitar-playing abilities, this year Rakae was also a part of the Coke Studio 11 audio-post team.
Having performed with the likes of Ali Hamza, Jimmy Khan and many more, Rakae is a musical wizard when it comes to the sitar but stays humble when told so.
In real life, he plays many roles - teacher, observer, producer, sitar nawaz - and through it all remains soft-spoken, articulate and kind.
As the story begins, Rakae reveals that Mughal-e-Funk has been in existence since the last three years. In addition to Rakae, its core members include Rufus Shehzad, Kami Paul and Farhan Ali.
Most of all, it’s a concept group that draws its inspiration from the Mughal era, which explains their name and their compositions - each named after a Mughal emperor. The music, therefore, draws from that period’s history including poetry, literature, art and certain values.
"We started this band three years ago," begins Rakae at his current home over coffee on just another quiet, bluesy Karachi evening. It was before Karachi and the country hadn’t been turned into Gotham city.
"We started performing last year. But it was six years ago that we played together for the first time," he adds. "It’s funny because I was hired for a gig and I put it together."
As Rakae reminisces, "Rufus was also in NCA and played keyboards. Three years ago, we realized that we play for other artists, session gigs and let’s come up with something of our own. We just wanted to create something."
Mughal-e-Funk’s first major gig, as Rakae remembers, was at the Heritage Now Festival in Lahore last October. As for how their shows have been going so far, in addition to the original four, they have featured various vocalists at various gigs.
The gigs they play, Rakae tells Instep, are designed with a set list that often includes both original compositions and covers that are sung by various vocalists.
"Sameer Ahmed played in our first gig because Farhan wasn’t available. In one of our songs, we have Danish Khwaja featured."
The first gig, says Rakae, woke up the band in a larger sense. Encouraged by a series of people, the group went on to perform whenever an opportunity materialized.
But, as Rakae admits, the historical inspiration behind the band, the concept, came much later. "After we created these songs - we have six instrumentals - we thought that it should be something that is historical and modern. We kept pondering over what name to decide on."
Six songs qualify as EP, one that Mughal-e-Funk plan to release this year.
"People say do a proper launch, have people over and things like that, make them listen to it," says Rakae of the industry standard. "Right now, Kami is in America so we’re just waiting for him."
Upon Kami Paul’s return, as Rakae says, they will put thought into how to release it. "We’re thinking about putting the EP out there, on Apple Music and platforms like that," ponders Rakae.
Mughal-e-Funk, it seems, is making the most of its debut appearance on Coke Studio for the first time with ‘Aurangzeb’. It was good for them, admits Rakae and says: "I think we got a big boost through Coke Studio."
Why the Mughals, I ask Rakae?
"We started thinking about our music – Rufus and I did Musicology from NCA – and we read a lot about the evolution of music in Southasia and how in different periods, there have been good times for music and bad ones. We thought about Akbar and Tansen and how they impacted music at that time. They had a very healthy relationship, according to the books and through the stories we read and the ones told to us by Ustaads. That, therefore, became an inspiration. Furthermore, we want to bring back a positive outlook on the arts and make it more pluralistic. It wasn’t so polarized. The tolerance and music in Akbar’s era are some of the themes we’ve explored. It sparked an interest."
The idea developed into one where each song in the upcoming Mughal-e-Funk album is named after a Mughal figure such as ‘Babar’, ‘Akbar’, ‘Humayun’, ‘Shahjehan’, ‘Aurangzeb’ and ‘Bahadur Shah Zafar’, not necessarily in this order though.
"We see Shakespeare’s adaptations again and again; we want to explore these stories and there’s a historical context to it."
As for the music itself, says Rakae, "We have six songs ready. Another three to four songs are in the process of being made. And we have eight vocal numbers. But the first release will be an EP with six instrumentals."
It will be followed by a record/EP featuring Sufi songs that the band has already prepared. Are you afraid doing covers will land you into a spot of trouble given the responses we’ve seen across platforms?"I know - that’s true," laughs Rakae. "Nusrat’s songs are always done and re-done. It is about interpretation as well. We have a few of those. We have one in a classical composition; one is a bhajan, we have different things. We’ll try to do compositions that haven’t been done too much."
After releasing the first EP and continuing to work on more originals, the focus of the band is to get gigs. "What we’re trying to focus on is to get as many gigs, maybe for festivals abroad. We’ve performed at The Mix, I Am Karachi Music Festival, Salt Arts gigs. We also did Lahooti Melo this year."
How does a diverse audience such as the one in Pakistan respond to a band like Mughal-e-Funk, I wonder?
"The audience response has been encouraging; maybe at Lahooti it was a little tough. We only played instrumentals. That’s why we have those vocal songs that can be sung so audiences can connect but also give them a flavor of what we are all about through our instrumentals."
The vocalists include both young names, including classically trained people, one of whom switched careers from IT to music.
"The chemistry evolves; Nimra Rafiq is among vocalists who Mughal-e-Funk has played with and she’s amazing. Raania Azam Khan Durrani featured in our last show. She was a lot of fun. She’s got a very nice, soothing timber. We look for a sound that is conducive to our culture - that can easily help the audience connect with the tunes musically, emotionally and aesthetically."
In addition to Mughal-e-Funk, Rakae teaches and produces music, both for commercial projects and non-commercial ones.
"I taught at Punjab University - still there. I’ve taught at LUMS, Aitchison, NCA, BNU and now I’m at IBA but as visiting faculty. I want to focus more on music and production."
Why? What changed from his academic pursuit to full-time music efforts he plans to pursue?
"I have my own production studio back at home in Lahore. So, I keep getting projects. Some of them are commercial and some aren’t. I produced a song for Bayaan; I did a couple of projects with Ali Sethi. Since about two years, I’ve been producing some of Ali Hamza’s stuff. I’m hoping to produce some of his original material that’s going to come out either this year or the next, when he’s free. I like to collaborate with artists, keep it healthy, keep it productive."
Rakae Jamil is not one to complain, despite being prodded.
"As a freelancer, even as a music producer, you don’t know where your next pay cheque is coming from but I can’t complain. I’ve been lucky and fortunate."
Teaching students has given him an insight into what young people think and he disagrees that they are despondent as a generalization, something we say far too often.
"I once played Coke Studio’s version of ‘Chori Chori’ followed by the original by Reshma. The students agreed they preferred the Reshma version. They connected to it. They felt it was more organic. The students are responsive; they want to learn, they want to hear something new."
When it comes to Mughal-e-Funk, the journey has just begun. Rakae will continue to play his sitar and hypnotise us with it for as long as he plays. And, in the end, that is the hallmark of a great artist.