Five Strong Winds

March 1, 2020

Paanch – The Mixtape Volume 1, ft. Natasha Baig, Jimmy Khan, Chand Tara Orchestra, Sounds of Kolachi and Mughal-e-Funk offers some of the best new music Pakistani artists can conjure.

Photo by Amna Zuberi

In 2018, during Coke Studio 11, five diverse acts featured on the iconic music series; Jimmy Khan (‘Baalkada’), Natasha Baig (‘Shikwa’), Chand Tara Orchestra ( ‘Nami Danam’), Sounds of Kolachi (‘Ilallah’) and Mughal-e-Funk (‘Aurangzeb’) with Wajiha Ather Naqvi being one of the backing vocalists, also for season 11.

The rough sketch for creating Paanch - founded by Babar Shaikh (Chand Tara Orchestra), Ahsan Bari (Sounds of Kolachi) and Wajiha Ather Naqvi (Ethnomusicologist; IAMKarachi advisor) – took root from there.

Developing from a rough idea to a concrete one, Paanch first finalized its goals. As explained by its creators, it is a community-based, inter-disciplinary collective, whose mission is to “publish and curate content through collaborations in music, art, and culture.”

Their first project, Paanch – The Mixtape Volume 1, thus features the same group of artists, each presenting an original song to the mixtape, with Ahsan Bari of Sounds of Kolachi (SOK) also taking on the role of co-music producer on some of the tracks.

Ahsan Bari, who is expanding his repertoire beyond SOK – even as the band still exists and is thriving – has previously worked for Pepsi Battle of the Bands (season 2) and has been revealing his musical prowess as producer by his work with several artists including Mai Dhai, Darvesh ft. various artists (‘Azaad Houn’) and the very recent Quaid Ahmed song (‘Shamein’) from his debut EP Sunlo, among other projects.
Paanch – The Mixtape Volume 1 is therefore a significant achievement for Ahsan Bari as producer because of its sonic landscape.

The release, marked by a listening session, held in late 2019, was divided in three parts including pairing individual visual artists with each song respectively, with Paanch keeping its promise of providing art space.

The album is also accompanied by individual photos per song as well as a cover photo, all taken by Amna Zuberi, who recently released the book, Finding Lahore.

‘Oh, angel sent from up above, you know you make my world light up’

Paanch – The Mixtape Volume 1 qualifies as an EP but there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. This is pure quality over quantity. Each of these singles depicts its own musical universe, depending on the artist. And there is a tangible effort by everyone involved to push themselves out of their comfort zone. It is exponentially palpable on each single. The method has been to create songs that do not pander to a particular trend but stays true to the individual identity per artist.

Our story begins with, in no particular order, ‘Jehangir’ by the instrumental super-group Mughal-e-Funk that consists of some of the top session (and/or) live musicians in the country: Rakae Jamil, Kami Paul, Farhan Ali and Rufus Shahzad. You may recognize some or all of them from Coke Studio, or from Pepsi Battle of the Bands, Noori, Ali Noor (solo), Ali Hamza (solo), Meesha Shafi (Live), citing prime examples.

After releasing their debut album Sultanat that featured songs inspired from the Mughal era with each song named after a prominent figure of the time - ‘Babar’, ‘Humayun’, ‘Akbar’, Shah Jahan, ‘Aurangzeb’ and ‘Bahadur Shah Zafar’ – in late 2019, they appear on Volume 1 with ‘Jehangir’. The song, much like their sensational debut album, delves deeper into the ethos of the Mughal history while getting experimental in sound.

The ominous bass that begins the song tells you this is Mughal-e-Funk going beyond the call of duty. The 4 minutes 35 seconds song rides on the sitar played by Rakae Jamil before it enters a space that conjures the imagination to go anywhere. The transitions and shifts from synth (Rufus Shahzad) to the gorgeous albeit darker bass (Farhan Ali) make such a dynamic mix that you wish the song would go on for a lot longer as it flows like a river. From the ominous beginning to the retro shifts in-between to the faster, sharper finish, this is Mughal-e-Funk at their very best.

Moving on to Jimmy Khan, he pens songs that are so approachable that it makes him an irresistible force of music; he is one of the country’s most intriguing solo artists whose songs appear everywhere from Coke Studio (multiple seasons) to recent films like Parey Hut Love and Ho Mann Jahan. He can cover tracks creatively, as visible on his EP (Tich Button), but original material is where Jimmy Khan thrives the most and his single for Volume 1, in that sense, is no different.

‘Naa Jaa Aajaa’ - co-produced by Jimmy and Ahsan with lyrics and composition also by Jimmy Khan - is a sumptuous treat. The single has a romantic narrative with the sound matching Jimmy’s beautiful lyrics. The feel of the song is that of a love song, a yearning for someone to return. With the acoustic guitars flourishing and electric guitars appearing in the background only when necessary and the surprising, elating appearance on harmonica by Rizwan Ullah Khan (of CTO), makes this single one of the best Jimmy Khan songs.

‘Khuda Janay’ by Chand Tara Orchestra (CTO) is the divine musical intervention that was needed to make the album truly diverse and with their presence it does. For one thing, CTO pull off a song that is unlike their previous releases. For another, it is an original composition with each member playing a strong role.

The single features composition, vocals and lyrics by Sherry Raza, bass and co-production by Babar Sheikh, slide guitar by Rizwan Ullah Khan; guitar, co-arrangement, co-production and mixing by the mighty Omran Shafique as well as the surprise addition of Veeru Shan (Coke Studio, Nescafe Basement and Pepsi Battle of the Bands) on percussion. Mastered at A for Aleph, the production is pristine and the song is CTO going rogue, removing any one genre that is attributed to them because they play the field. ‘Khuda Janay’ has a bass that never loses momentum, a narrative that asks about the colours of love while the guitar is so controlled that it commands attention. In cohesion, it is CTO – with all that experience of being in the industry between the members of the band – who blow you away with their sweet transitions and grunge-oriented, post-rock imperfectly perfect combination.

‘Dil Lagee’ by Natasha Baig, with lyrics and composition by Hassan Ali Effendi and producer credits belonging to Ahsan Bari, is one of her strongest songs. Drenched in the narrative of love, the sound is the biggest success here because it completely changes what you have heard from Natasha Baig in the past. The sound is not hurried; it leaves room for Natasha’s range as a vocalist to shine before transitioning into a heartbreaking notion as it travels faster towards a beautiful crescendo. Natasha Baig has arrived and ‘Shikwa’ was not a one-off; she is capable of so much more. Here is a great example.

The fifth and final track off Volume 1 is ‘Sultan’ by Sounds of Kolachi, an ensemble that outdoes itself, led by the very creative Ahsan Bari. ‘Sultan’ is what you expect from the group and also what you don’t see coming like a shot of adrenaline that gets the heart going after it stops. With lyrical material by Sachal Sarmast, this is the face of Sufi, folk, ambient, acoustic coming together in unison and experience.

It is also good to see multiple studios involved, such as A for Aleph, Gangwar Studios as well as the involvement of Saad Hayat, Veeru Shan and others. It’s good to see this kind of musical camaraderie, creating a sense of optimism at a time when culture remains under threat with insurmountable socio-political, myopic times we live in.

The five tracks will make you marvel at just how much Pakistani artists have to offer and when working in harmony, there is so much they can conquer. Paanch – The Mixtape Volume 1 is a beautiful example and I sincerely hope there is a Volume II.

Five Strong Winds: Paanch – The Mixtape Volume 1, ft. Natasha Baig, Jimmy Khan, Chand Tara Orchestra, Sounds of Kolachi and Mughal-e-Funk