From their very first release, ‘Saki-E-Bawafa’ to working on Sarmad Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha soundtrack and their newest release, ‘Intebah’, Saakin has been garnering acclaim. In this conversation with Instep, the group talks about finding success and why they are more than a ‘Sufi’ music group.
Four out of five members of Saakin (Varqa Faraid, Parham Faraid, Ali Hamdani and Usman Shakeel) have made themselves available for this interview while Ibrahim Akram (is not available) but his role in the band is well-established by the rest of the band members, almost as if Ibrahim is a presence among us during this conversation. Ali calls him a teacher to him.
As I rewind and listen to the interview, this is what’s most palpable: Saakin want to be presented as a band and not have the interview focused on any one person. From the onset they reiterate that you remove one person and Saakin is not the same. This especially includes the vocalists who don’t take all the questions but let others speak. This harmony and friendship they share is what makes Saakin such an anomaly.
In a time where rock stars are, as is often said, dead (figuratively) and one or two people are often the stars of a band that emerge nowadays, Saakin is about a deeper connection.
“Who cares if one more light goes out?/Well I do” - ‘One More Light’ by Linkin Park
The interview doesn’t begin with their newest release (backed by original lyrics and an animated video) but the story of Saakin and how the band first came into being. As it turns out, Saakin didn’t happen overnight. Saakin began as a duo featuring Ali Hamdani and Usman Shakeel with the sound based on acoustic guitars, jembe and Shakeel wearing a ghungro (Ankle Bracelet); both sang as well. Making their debut somewhere in the 2010s, as time went by, they developed a strong reputation and musicians they looked up to as such as Ibrahim Akram, Varqa and Parham Faraid noticed the musicianship. Plus and most importantly, the guys knew each other prior to their bands. They were friends.
Says Ali Hamdani: “Varqa, Ibrahim and Parham also play music as VIP. We just connected and started playing music together. With the same music of Saakin, we fused this set-up.” That led to an expansion of Saakin, which now features Ali Hamdani, Usman Shakeel, Ibrahim Akram, Parham Faraid and Varqa Faraid (with the last two being brothers as well). They officially came out as a band in 2016. The band had been formed. They had honed their skills (and continue to do so). This was followed by a desire to record something.
Notes Usman Shakeel, “‘Saqi-E-Bawafa’ was on our list but we didn’t know that we were going to release ‘Saqi’ as our first track. The song is in another language. When we used to play it live, the response from the audience told us if we do ‘Saqi’, it would be out of sheer love. It was as if we were chosen to do this kalaam.”
Back then, Saakin didn’t have the technological setup they have now. Parham agrees and adds: “The song was not recorded on great equipment but everyone’s hardwork makes it what it is. As to why it became a success, even we don’t know why it is popular.”
Saakin clear the air and explain that the kalaam is not written by Shams Tabraiz. Upon research, they recount that it is written by another religious poet called Shams who belonged to the region of Central Asia.
However, Saakin do not necessarily see themselves as a Sufi group. They all agree - unanimously. “We make music together and whatever is in our hearts,” says Varqa.
Their last release, ‘Intebah’, Saakin point out is an original song with original music. “We highly support the idea of producing original music but still I would say that as a band (Varqa, Parham, Ali, Usman, Ibrahim Akram) – all of us wanted to release an original song first but something told us to release ‘Saqi’,” says Ali and adds, “But in the future, we won’t be releasing only ‘sufi’ songs. We will release love songs, socio-political ones and you can expect a Saakin song on any subject.”
As Saakin point out, since a couple of things released at the same time, it pigeonholed them as Sufi band. Their debut single was followed by the group working on the soundtrack of Sarmad Khoosat’s Zindagi Tamasha. As Usman, Parham and Ali point out, the background score by Varqa Faraid and Shamsher Rana is sublime.
Varqa explains that Sarmad Khoosat, who had heard ‘Saqi-E-Bawafa’ flew in from Lahore to Islamabad to hear them at a gig. And it was followed by the director taking them to dinner. Khoosat doesn’t usually go to such gigs. But ‘Saqi’ moved him so much that he gambled on a band that was independent and was not looking to pander to producers over their musical aesthetic. Sarmad managed to rope in Saakin to do the music for his film, Zindagi Tamasha. Though the film still hasn’t released in Pakistan on the basis of arbitrary and myopic reasons, the music elevated Saakin to another level of musicianship and magnificence. It should also be remembered that the film’s music is tied to its narrative and required a different dynamic.
What was it like working on Zindagi Tamasha and with Sarmad Khoosat?
“We got work and we did it,” recalls Varqa, “By the grace of God, we got to work with a really good person (Sarmad Khoosat).”
As Saakin recall, Sarmad, a good and sincere man with a fantastic script, approached them to do ‘Aj Sik Mitraan’ that features kalaam by Peer Mehr Ali Shah and the single ‘Zindagi Tamasha Bani’.
“It was a challenge to redo and recompose ‘Aj Sik Mitraan’ since it’s a Naat recited all over Pakistan,” recalls Parham. “What we did was when we got the project, Usman was told to work on the composition of ‘Aj Sik Mitraan’. And we told Nimra Gilani to do the Punjabi single, ‘Zindagi Tamasha Bani who re-composed and performed it.”
As the Islamabad-based band notes, Nimra was the closest singer they knew of who sang beautifully. It had to be a female voice since Sarmad wanted ‘Zindagi Tamasha Bani’ to be in a female voice. It was a process that took little over a month and when it was done, the band sent the music back to Sarmad Khoosat. “It felt celestial that we had done one Munqabat and a Naat became a part of our portfolio soon after,” says Usman and adds, “It was a great experience made special because we were working with Sarmad Khoosat and his artistic sense is amazing. There was not extensive back and forth. What we gave him was what he admitted he wanted. He wanted some tweaking done but as he listened to the music material again Sarmad liked it enough that he wanted it as it was created originally by the band. And it happened with both tracks: ‘Aj Sik Mitraan’ and ‘Zindagi Tamasha Bani’. The amount of time Ibrahim Akram, Shamsher Rana and Varqa Faraid spent on the production including recording the songs producing them was extensive.”
Saakin also credit Shamsher Rana for his involvement with their music. They add that they record at Shamsher Rana’s facility. “He’s a closely knit part of Saakin as a producer and as a facilitator,” says Usman.
“I want to run, I want to hide/I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside/I wanna reach out and touch the flame.” - Where The Streets Have No Name by U2
“All it takes is everyone’s effort,” says Parham. Which brings us to yet another incredible song, ‘Intebah’ which is just as arresting as their previous releases, making some of us wonder if Saakin is Pakistan’s real-deal band ahead of many others even though all of them have day jobs and haven’t released multiple albums, et.
Speaking about ‘Intebah’, Ali Hamdani says, “We don’t want to describe ‘Intebah’. The point I can articulate is ‘wake up’ otherwise we want the audience to find their own interpretations which is why we worked so hard on the music video.”
Irrespective of full-time day jobs, Saakin are making new music, admits Usman. “We are making new music and people might be thinking the next song may come after years but the truth is we are trying our best to make enough songs that can constitute an album and we release it sometime this year.”
However, Saakin remain an independent music group and are not looking for a corporate brand to sponsor their music. Parham adds, “We are independent artists and are in a state where we would like to take things in our hands for at least two albums. We would like to release an album and if it doesn’t release by this year’s end, we will definitely release it next year. We will release a few singles before presenting the album.”
Saakin do believe in the idea of an album over singles. “Had we been thinking that (singles over record), our music would sound different,” notes Varqa. “We think you can make music which has a shelf life that’s lasting and the universal standard is that when an artist introduces themselves, they do so with an album. So, in a sense, our album should’ve released a week after ‘Saqi’ released to be very honest. We have thought about the concept and the name of the album.”
“Something is happening here/ But you don’t know what it is/ Do you, Mr. Jones?” – ‘The Ballad of a Thin Man’ by Bob Dylan
“Saqi-e-Bawafa had a different feel much like the rest of the songs,” adds Varqa, “but they’re very spiritual and you play them sitting with a sense of comfort. ‘Intebah’ is also like that. But Saakin does have some tracks and we’re just thinking that when those songs release, it’s going to be a very different, fun-filled vibe.”
“Some songs will be traipsing between what is considered Sufi and non-Sufi but the melodies are so beautiful that it’s almost like we’re juggling four or five things wondering which should be finished first,” says Usman Shakeel.
Friends first with a connection to each other’s families, the question of fame doesn’t faze them. They are not looking for fame in the first place even as they admit that they make music and fans do matter. “Success makes you feel good that people appreciate the work. That matters. Even if four people listen to what we have made and appreciate it, it makes you feel good. Otherwise, why would we put it out there? It’s for the people to listen to. Success is also a relative term. We believe in a slow and steady flight. When we are making music, it’s the last thing on our mind. But the main focus is on making music together.”
However, they are not looking to become actors as is becoming a trend in Pakistan and would like to stay in the domain of music even after the success of their songs.
Parham laughs, before answering: “The people who do so are very talented and diverse but I can’t do acting, be a producer, scriptwriter. We can only do music. We work in the mornings, spend time with family and make our music.”
Rest assured, Saakin will release something this year if not the whole album. “Stay tuned,” they sign off, with graciousness that emitted throughout the conversation.