Umair Dar, Daniel Arthur Panjwaneey and Istvan Csabai, who run the state of the art studio in Karachi and double up as members of music group, The D/A Method, speak to Instep about the formation and vision behind the studio.
"The idea of something has been there for a long time, since I was a teenager," begins Umair Dar, the 33-year-old founder, producer and chief visualiser at A for Aleph, a studio-meets-residency facility in Karachi that took eight months to come into being and recently recorded Lahore-based music group Takatak’s debut album.
Zeeshan Mansoor from Malang Party is here. Adeel Tahir aka Eridu is here as well. Aleph is a place where musicians, artists are always welcome.
Having lived in Karachi, it was during the ages of 14 to 16 years that Umair Dar moved with his family to Nairobi, Kenya where his father had a job. It was there – when Umair saw kids playing the guitar – that he finally picked up the instrument. "I just started trying to teach myself stuff. It was the beginning of the Internet but that was the first time I had access to the Internet. Only when we moved to Kenya did I have internet where I watched tabs and bands playing their songs and mimic it."
"I wondered what the scene in Karachi was like and heard of a band called Messiah," continues Umair.
Messiah - among others - featured Daniel. A. Panjwaneey (Danny P) who, at present, makes music under the identity Alien Panda Jury; he is also a member of The D/A Method and audio engineer at Aleph. Life can be serendipitous.
"They (Messiah) had a forum and I could hear their songs and shows and I was like ‘damn, this is happening with friends of mine so what am I doing here?’ And I went back and old-school friends had picked up instruments and we opened for Messiah and that’s how I met Danny."
Leaving for college for the UK, the first summer Umair came back, he got to play with Messiah, something that meant a great deal to him. "I went from listening to bootlegs of them in Kenya to playing with them. It made me think music is something I can do."
Since Umair was good in an academic sense, he went to the UK where his parents were also living at the time and that’s when he got to explore the bands he liked because, as Umair reveals, everyone comes to the UK.
"I left for college at 17 and was done at 20," he says, and continues, "I started working in finance."
In a long-term relationship, he got engaged and was married by 23 but Umair confesses he wasn’t happy.
"I trained myself to not feel anything," Umair notes, but, by 2008, the bank he was working for had been involved in shady deals which resulted in the economic meltdown. "I was in the middle of it and once I started questioning my superiors and the system, I was fired."
By the age of 27, he was divorced as well. "I lost my job and wife left and the very next day my cousin from the States - he was visiting on spring break from college - showed up and I started jamming with him (Talha Alvie) and some of those songs ended up on the first The D/A Method album. I got an idea that I want to do music; initially it was about making an album."
What is this place?
Umair walks me through the facility, which really is unlike other studios I have visited. "In my journey to find out who I actually am, through my music, I’m getting to experience my feelings and realizing there’s a lot of trauma inside me from my whole life, from things I didn’t acknowledge. Through the music, it started coming out but I also started breaking down."
Umair goes on: "I discovered I was clinically depressed for a long time and there are a lot of things people generally don’t address or talk about. Issues with negative energy and all that kind of stuff and I had to understand it because I’m the kind of person who needs to understand everything I’m experiencing."
Umair tried self-help and a therapist before exploring energy therapy. "It fit perfectly with my own philosophy of the world and as a Muslim because Islam is something I have always believed in."
"We are all part of the same collective consciousness," he says. "This (A for Aleph) is something I knew would happen and it has. You start with a Nukta as Umair walks me by the artwork (designed by Faizan Riedinger), in Urdu and there are 27 steps around this. I was 27 when everything happened. I see 27 everyday. Faizan made the Aleph logo and it all began from there. These words, I don’t understand them all, but I understand the meaning later, which is the same with my music after it’s done. On any given day, I will see the words (‘Himmat’, ‘Maut’, ‘Khoobsurati’, ‘Barzakh’ and once the artwork was done, it gave me an idea. See, I didn’t make this place; it was made for this purpose and I found the house."
"This is a place to manifest dreams," says Umair further. "It just kind of unfolded and that’s what I’m trying to show people. You need to follow your heart. And if you’re doing that, I’ll go to the end of the world to help you and all the forces of the universe will come together in this place to make it happen."
"My father has been extremely supportive of me - it is our combined resources but what I’ve learnt is that we live in very fractured societies and it’s about bringing your whole energy and karma together."
At the top level, which is the rooftop, Umair describes jam sessions taking place and where he spends a lot of nights getting to know fellow musicians in residency as well as those who drop by the door.
As Umair continues to describe the importance of the number 27, the artwork that runs through, we run into Daniel Arthur Panjwaneey and Istvan Csabai, both of whom are members of The D/A Method (more on them later) and work at Aleph as well. "This is the drum room and you can change the reverb. We have natural light in the studio."
They join us but let Umair continue to speak as founder.
As for what Aleph is primarily about, it is, on the surface about producing albums for artists who have something to say, who haven’t had a chance to do it yet. "I’m not someone who cares about that side (money). I care about the art being made. For Takatak, it was just seeing them perform at Lahore Music Meet. It was the most electrifying performance I had seen."
Beyond the surface, it is a lot more.
There’s cost involved and neither me nor my dad, who has been supporting me, have unlimited resources so I have been trying to figure out various ways where we can make it make sense. That might mean different bands paying different amounts depending on their ability to play; it might mean just mastering tracks here as opposed to recording everything here, whole productions. More than a studio, I see Aleph as a vision and a movement for people to come together, people who want to make a difference through their art and want to express ideas. We might make money through a project but eventually I want to do a festival where all the bands that come through these doors are represented. The idea is that everyone is doing their own thing and there is no corporate; there is no katchra being sold. There is a space for that kind of stuff. It won’t happen immediately. It’ll have to build up."
So far, the Aleph facility, which was designed by Bilal Nasir Khan over 8 months (he has a degree from London, which Umair confesses made him the perfect person for the job) has recorded Takatak’s album; Zeeshan Mansoor is presently staying at Aleph and he will be doing something. Whether it is released under the Malang Party name – a music group from Islamabad known for the cult hit, ‘Dil Jale’ – or something else remains to be seen. The D/A Method, which features Umair Dar, Talha Alvie, Daniel Arthur Panjwaneey and Istvan Csabai, among others, have released two albums with the third one in the pipeline. "There is a cosmic fluid album, which I need to get back to…" trails off Umair.
"Aleph means all of us; a major part of it is Danny and I can’t stand bad audio. In two weeks, we knocked out the Takatak album," to which Daniel, who has been sitting (mostly) quietly, pitches in, "It’s not an easy task at all. It took a team of 9-10 people who were at it for two weeks with a lot of pre-production and preparation."
Daniel Arthur Panjwaneey, the audio engineer at Aleph, has worked on Coke Studio under Rohail Hyatt and before that, Lussun TV, giving him a lot of experience.
"I’ve learnt a lot working with Rohail Hyatt, his aesthetic; I learned from Bilal Iftikhar. Obviously, there’s a certain standard that you have to maintain when you are doing recordings like that. That’s something I bring here. I don’t want to do something half-assed. Compared to what I was doing when let’s say I was engineering and producing Lussun TV, going to Coke Studio was a completely different aesthetic. One was very ghetto, DIY kind while the other one was a very professional setup. I think Aleph has a professional setup but the heart of DIY (Doing It Yourself)."
Daniel continues: "Over here, we are getting to execute our vision and not just our vision, the vision of the artist."
"There is the idea of the artist," says Istvan Csabai, "but I mean we’re giving our own as well. We used to jam, pointing to Umair, and I fell in love here, basically and stayed on."
Adamant on creating a strong culture of art, using music as a form of communication, A for Aleph has had a lot of artists come in. Among them is Takatak, the D/A Method, Malang Party and Cosmic Fluid. Tamashaa (from Pepsi Battle of the Bands) have been through Aleph as well as Mauj.
"As musicians, we have to finish the third D/A Method album," says Umair. "The album is about finding sanctuary. It is called Sanctuary – in fact. In 2018, we opened our doors, and everyone is very respectful of this space. Adeel Tahir (Eridu) has been a huge resource."
"People are planning to do things here and people want to come in," Umair continues. "We’re not thinking about lack of venues or whatever. We have good 3-4 albums we need to finish and release and then we can worry about shows and where we will do those shows."
Authenticity, hope, vision, professionalism and a strong aesthetic is what Aleph brings to the table from what is happening within the music and arts scene and it is beyond the corporate universe of music we exist in right now. It’s the antithesis. And for that, as a listener of music, I, for one, couldn’t be more grateful.