Icons of a new generation

November 22, 2020

Bilal Maqsood talks to Instep about Velo Sound Station and the reason he took on a show about pop music.

Bilal Maqsood on set during Velo Sound Station.

There’s a twinkle around Bilal Maqsood, who is the executive producer of Velo Sound Station (VSS), a digital music show where emerging artists and mainstream names are ‘performing’ and is meant to highlight pop culture.

The offices of Main Stage Productions, under whose banner Strings also did Coke Studio, has changed. Somewhere in Defence, in a secluded building that doesn’t advertise what is inside, VSS is being worked upon. You know you’ve hit the right floor as a billboard of Strings greets you inside.

The room we settle down in to talk is the video suite where editing takes place and ergo, is very dark. Except for the video editor and Bilal, no one else is in the room and interaction is kept at bare minimum.

We meet to talk about VSS, to see some of the performances (released and unreleased) while explaining the show’s ethos, which Bilal admits is deliberately distinct than Coke Studio. Bilal was also judge for Pepsi Battle of the Bands (for two seasons with cohort Faisal Kapadia).

The conversation begins over steaming mugs of tea and coffee. A digital series, Velo Sound Station consists of five episodes that will feature 10 original songs and just 4 covers. As Bilal admits, the covers might encourage people to watch the show and create further curiosity, but the originals are just as refined and ultimately an improvisational ‘performance’ even though choreographers were hired for each song.

Watching VSS, a mixture of covers and originals, prior to the release of the series, the producer explains how it all came together.

What is palpable from the offset is that Bilal Maqsood, after appearing in Coke Studio as featured artist in season 1 and 2, followed by becoming co-producer (with Faisal Kapadia) from season 7 to 10, had no inclination to recreate a similar show even if some of the performing act(s) have appeared on the former.

Among artists who are slated to appear on VSS are producers, songwriters, even a Kathak giant. The playing bill includes Takatak, Nighat Chaudry and troupe, Shamoon Ismail, Aima Baig, Sajjad Ali, Strings, Meesha Shafi, Atif Aslam, Sara Haider, Umair Jaswal, Uzair Jaswal, Aag, Ahsan Pervaiz Mehdi, Sarmad Ghafoor, Natasha Noorani and Abdullah Qureshi.

At least some of these artists are considered experimental and independent so much so that prior to VSS, they’ve been considered too obscure by big shows. VSS will drop one episode each week but instead of loading it up with four or five songs, it will contain just three. To make one analogy, Bilal Maqsood has pulled a Netflix on us, where the shows often contain fewer episodes but offer incredible quality.

We discuss Bilal’s experience with the coronavirus, and how its second wave has led to hundreds of cases, before moving on to the show. He shows videos of several performances and even someone as cynical as I am about corporate money driving the music scene, is awestruck.

“We have 14 songs in total; 4 songs are covers and 10 originals. Some are new artists and some might be artists who (will) or have appeared on Coke Studio in the past,” explains Bilal.

What was the driving force behind choosing artists for VSS?

“How will people like Natasha Noorani and Abdullah Qureshi standout in this line-up; it struck me as a question. Singers are tools for the producers; how do I want to use her and what kind of song do I want to give her,” says Bilal, speaking of Natasha Noorani. “What kind of image am I thinking of when it comes to Abdullah Qureshi. If I give him a song that is suited to Umair Jaswal, I will destroy his (Abullah) career. Take Aima Baig. She came on Coke Studio for the first time; she was a newcomer over there and no one knew her profile as an artist prior to it.”

Bilal carries on, “In all of them, there is a hidden superstar waiting for that one song. And to find that song is the work of the producer.”

Covering songs is not something to shrug off. David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ and Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ became bigger hits when covered by Nirvana and Whitney Houston respectively. However, it was original music from these artists that made them global names. The key, therefore, is balance.

But why covers, I ask Bilal. It’s a quarrelsome topic in Pakistan.

“Covers are not a bad thing,” he begins. “It happens around the world but the question is how you do it,” he asks, rhetorically. “The question is what value you are adding to the song. If you are adding value, then both the cover and the original have lasting value(s). And both the artists become valuable.”

What is VSS when you say pop culture?

“VSS is not about having some higher purpose; it’s about pop music, pop fashion and it had to be very modern. There were some songs that we thought could be done as covers. We could make them modern, change them and give them a brand new twist. We have used those songs for covers. Covers have a huge reach and you do want your songs to reach maximum number of people. Within that umbrella, your other songs also travel.”

For this show, executive producer Bilal Maqsood has also co-directed the digital music series with Yasir Jaswal who directed ‘Sajni’ and ‘Raat Shabnami’ for Strings from their last album, Thirty. “His ability to bring bursts of colors and attention to details, from glitches in the visual medium to a mixtape that looked perfect as graphics made him a perfect choice.”

Natasha Noorani goes pop-fun with ‘Baby, Baby’ in a baby pink suit with pads akin to the era of Madonna.

For VSS, Bilal Maqsood was also willing to recognize those that have gone unrecognized or are considered too obscure for a mainstream series. Takatak’s ‘Phantom’ is a joint performance by the band and Nighat Chaudhry and troupe, developed as an ode to a dying art form (Kathak).

“It was a challenge for them and is the most experimental track on the series,” Bilal admits.

Bilal also speaks about how he convinced Natasha Noorani to get out of her comfort zone. Bilal composed and wrote the lyrics for ‘Baby, Baby’. Recognising the talent of Ahsan Pervaiz Mehdi, he was given the opportunity to produce some songs. Shamoon Ismail will appear with a song he wrote, composed and produced himself called ‘Confetti’. “His sound is so different; it seemed like a better idea to let him produce.”

“The cover idea to do a certain song was something Meesha came up with. Her other performance, ‘Amrit’ is an ode to women empowerment.”

Bilal’s focus on making the series an audio-visual experience emerges strongly when in ‘Amrit’, Meesha is in a blindfold, shackled with chains. “The song is different than the rest of the series because it is meant to be about women empowerment.” The song is by Meesha Shafi, he confirms. VSS took the visuals to the next level.

‘Tequiero Mucho’, a composition by Bilal Maqsood with lyrics by Anwar Maqsood and Ahsan Pervaiz as producer, manages to break the clutter or seal of playback singer that follows Aima Baig. The song suits her as she adds a flavor of flirtation.

Furthermore, ‘Pyar Ka Rog’ from the series by Strings first came into conception when Bilal Maqsood composed it on Instagram. It took shape as Aag’s Usman and Haroon were given the opportunity to produce it and Anwar Maqsood penned lyrics.

Bilal further revealed that a Sara Haider-Uzair Jaswal performance begins almost as an inspiration from the Oscars 2020 where Lady Gaga is performing ‘Shallow’ before Bradley Cooper sits right next to her and begins to sing. But in Haider-Jaswal’s song, that element exists but not as a copy because it gets more theatrical and akin to a Broadway performance. When I mention the Oscars, Bilal notes, “it was an inspiration but as were Broadway plays where it becomes theatrical.”

In some cases, Bilal has composed or written additional lyrics. What he has done is give the artist the chance to write, produce, perform, and bring a novel passion and energy to the stage. The visual element is complementary to each song. In turn, Bilal admits that every single act has gone the extra mile.

“What you’ve seen here is my vision. I was asked to do a show. In Pakistan’s current scenario, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to create a platform for pop music because in all these years, we’ve heard and seen fusion or Sufi music. Anyone who wants to make it creates a Sufi-fusion song. But, Pakistan was known in the ‘80s and ‘90s for its pop music. When there is political instability, somehow our industry got hit. It was able to stand-up during the initial years of Indus Music.”

A lot of events led to Coke Studio and “it single-handedly saved the industry”. However, as Bilal sees it, it led to the dearth of pop music. “I just felt that pop culture is very important for the youth of that country. And it differs in each place. What is Pakistan’s pop culture?”

Bilal Maqsood who conceptualized, co-directed and served as executive producer to the show admitted that while at first, it was strange working without Faisal Kapadia, it also led to a learning process.

On a concluding note, says Bilal, “Who are the pop icons with whom the youth can connect or resonate with? Sports, fashion, music are elements of pop culture so I just thought that if we do a show catering to pop music for the youth that includes fashion, modern music with the vision to empower them and distill some energy in them, it’s good for them. They need to look beyond news and politics. I wanted to give them colour.”

Icons of a new generation