The Peshawar and Islamabad-based music quartet speaks to Instep about representing KPK across Pakistan and abroad, the 10-year landmark they are celebrating by releasing their debut album this year and Coke Studio 11.
Khumariyaan are in Karachi for 24 hours to perform at the Salt Soiree 27, presented by Salt Arts. I find them doing the sound-check hours before the show.
Minus Shiraz Khan, the percussionist for the band who has gone back to pick up some gear, the other three members are present. Farhan Bogra is doing sound check with his instruments (Peshawari sehtar and rubab) while the other two, Sparlay Rawail (lead guitarist/dhol master) and Aamer Shafiq (rhythm guitars) are grabbing a bite to eat.
The venue is Cotie Rotie in Karachi.
Given the fact that the band is doing sound-check, the first question that instantly strikes me is why? Not that any artist doing a sound-check is an anomaly but why is it so important, particularly to this hyper-modern-folk-instrumental group?
Sparlay Rawail is the primary speaker for the band, not because it’s a role he coverts but because it’s a decision the band has unanimously agreed upon. My guess is probably because he articulates the Khumariyaan sentiment well.
Begins Sparlay: "When a place is packed with people, the sound changes. There are dead spots. There is always a difference when a place is empty and when it’s not. By the first half of the first track, I’m roaming around; the flow comes with the second song."
He goes on to add that while a great deal depends on the mixer, it is interesting when you play abroad at festivals because they are not accustomed to rubab, for instance. "So, we tell them and we play," he laughs, before adding, "They’re professionals; we tell them about our instruments…"
Playing shows in Pakistan is a different beat, admits Sparlay. "If we do shows here, we’re at the mercy of the sound operator. At one festival, we had Mekaal Hasan on sound and that was nice. We’ve been playing for nine years nearly so we know all the major sound operators in Pakistan and they understand our setting now."
As Farhan joins us, we discuss the December festival coming up in Islamabad that will feature some artists who also played at this year’s Mad Decent Block Party (MDBP) featuring Diplo.
"Their heart was in the right place and there are so many good artists and DJs in Islamabad," says Aamer, as we talk about the logistics of pulling off a show featuring multiple local and international acts. "Too many people turned up but they’ll get better with each event," says Farhan, who was present at MDBP, along with Aamer, in Islamabad this February.
When asked whether there is disconnect within the music industry, Sparlay says: "With this year’s Coke Studio, I think they tried to alleviate some of that disconnect because the three seasons before that featured the same established names. This time, when I went to the launch, there was a Coke guy there who called it Coke Studio 2.0."
As Sparlay recounts, he went back through all the previous seasons and noted that no season had all hits, under Rohail and Strings tenure as producers respectively. "But the psyche that there should be three songs in every episode that can be played in your car - that psyche was dangerous particularly for artists like us and anyone who is emerging or underground."
"It also depends on the artists," adds Aamer. "It is on them to stop doing covers only. You have to come up with something original and unique."
Sparlay is reminded of an anecdote when someone asked him, "‘I’m a singer, what should I do?’ I told him, 1) I’m not a singer so I can’t tell you and 2) to become an overnight sensation, I don’t know, do a cover, do something. That was the best advice I could give in these days because if you’re not going to get (live) shows, how are you going to support your career? I was feeling ashamed saying it but we too have done some covers like the Game of Thrones cover. This was something that came to us later. We realized that we did it with pure intentions and to us it felt like a good tune - if we wanted to capitalize on it, we would’ve released it when a Coke Studio season was coming but we released it six months later."
"There was no time calculation," observes Aamer.
"But it had this value and to some extent, Coke Studio perpetuated the culture of cover songs too where every second song was a cover song. It’s a hit formula but ten years is enough. In Coke Studio 11, a lot of artists made their debut and that’s good. When we tell people we’ve been playing together for ten years, they are like aren’t you guys new or underground or something? When we recorded for Coke, it was three months till it came out. And you can’t tell anyone. But nonetheless, it doesn’t matter until you’re on Coke or Pepsi or something. That said, you can’t say that Coke Studio as a series didn’t give us some incredible music too."
Do you think Coke Studio boosted your profile?
"Of course, I mean it’s the premium platform. Look, they gave you the platform," says Aamer. "What you do with that opportunity is up to you."
"For us the experience was excellent," chips in Sparlay. "10 years of Khumariyaan, 11 years of Coke Studio, I think it was time."
The members of Khumariyaan remain open through the course of this interview. I ask them about Attan - the dance they do at nearly every concert.
"It is a Pushtun cultural dance much like how the Baloch have their own. And over the past ten years in Coke, all dances had happened except Attan," says Sparlay.
As for ‘Ya Qurban’ where the band also sings, it was meant for, not just loyal Khumariyaan fans, but the whole nation. And as the band tells me, the reaction videos to the song went from people singing to dancing to showing shock over vocals to their attire. As Farhan points out, "It did one thing more; it created more inquisitiveness about Khumariyaan."
It made the band a curious entity to a wide array of people who gauge success - not by merit necessarily - but by your very appearance on Coke Studio and to cater to them all on a national platform, the band tells Instep, they sang Pushto verses, did the Attan dance and everything they could possibly pull off. In doing so with ‘Ya Qurban’, they created a performance that easily belongs in the top ten Coke Studio performances of all-time.
Moving past Coke Studio 11, the band who made their European debut this year (in Paris) and has played in the UK, USA and Ireland tells Instep they plan to perform in multiple European territories, next year.
In between playing shows at home, they hope to release their long-awaited debut album. "Our upcoming song," says Farhan, "is something we recorded two years before Coke Studio. But we were waiting to release it with some recognition and momentum going. With Coke Studio 11, MashaAllah that has happened. This feels like the right time to release it."
Adds Sparlay: "If you look at our live music videos, the sound is not good. But the experience of a live show is very different. So we had one our two videos only; ‘Tamasha’ and another one or two. We are primarily known as a live band. We want to make a concept video, not just another band video and we aim to release both the music video and album together."
Sparlay adds: "It breaks my heart that it took me three months of making concept art that included Pushto translations as well as artwork I had designed; it was a labour of love. The problem was that now it’s an e-release primarily. In that sense, it is sad that we don’t have the culture of CDs anymore. A CD can feature beautiful album art and details the way it is meant to be seen. It’s an experience."
"I’m having meetings on how to release the album with companies here," says Farhan, "but we will release it digitally. We will e-release it on multiple platforms. CDs can be giveaways at concerts for those who want them as memorabilia."
As Khumariyaan reveal more, their upcoming record will include a number of singles that have been released, as well as brand new tracks. "The reason is that some people who have heard ‘Ya Qurban’ have not heard some of our best work - the released singles - and the unreleased tracks are songs we are super proud of."
Calling Peshawar home, the boys tell Instep that for their fans in the city of flowers that has been devastated by loss of human life too many times, their music, even momentarily, provides an escape. Their identity as a band is also inexorably linked to KPK and Peshawar. Is that a burden they feel they shoulder as a forced responsibility?
"Not at all, we are very happy and proud to represent it," says the trio unanimously.
"The city is getting better but you can’t get around the fact that it is a conservative city," says Sparlay. "Even in Pakistan, there are extreme stereotypes against Pushtuns. I can’t say there aren’t extreme stereotypes about Punjabis or Sindhis either. It goes both ways. But maybe more so for the Pushtuns. But when people say you are from Peshawar and you show a progressive side of it, it’s very interesting. There is no city in Pakistan where we’ve played and the crowd hasn’t responded to us. The thing is that the rubab is instantly recognizable and people instantly connect it to KPK. But then, it’s not. So they’re like, this is not what we heard on PTV. This is different. It’s semi-folk, embellishing contemporary rubab playing. It’s not too out there but it’s not classical either. "
Farhan says that people in Balochistan also play rubab and they also do Attan dance. Sparlay says that in Punjab, Mekaal Hasan has been doing similar things (folk/modern guitars) for a while. "In Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, you had space to do it. In Peshawar we didn’t, not ten years ago. But now though, the Internet is everywhere. And people are opening slowly to new ideas."
As Khumariyaan remember, fear has never played a part in their origin and existence. "The only time I was really scared was when APS attack had happened," says Sparlay before heading off for a final sound check. "See, if you’re from Peshawar, you wake up at 6 am with a bomb blast. People run out and see how they can help out. So, the people of Peshawar are numb - we too had gotten numb."
Asking themselves questions about how there can be music - when they were to play the first gig post APS devastation - after so many children had died haunted them.
"But it was like we gave people a break from the grief and stepped into the unknown. People loved us. We then thought that maybe we won’t be targeted because we’re not from the army or outspoken and the people who are doing these attacks, maybe we’re not on their radar. It became obvious to us to give relief to the ones who were suffering. We do get calls. ‘Leave this. What are you doing’, close to death threats. And then you say, ‘Sir, you are right, we’ll stop from tomorrow.’ And then you just carry on. You can’t get scared because you might die crossing the road."