I finally managed to get an interview with Noori. This story was published in the first issue of Smudge Magazine (November 2010). Originally published under the title: Music Succors When Nature Abandons. Embedded above is Noori’s first studio recording, Tann Dolay, off of their upcoming third album. The song, released as a single this summer, also features internationally acclaimed duo Zeb & Haniya.
Ask many in the music industry how the local music scene is changing with the war and they respond in different ways. Often you might be told it doesn’t have anything to do with the war, at times people will say the war is used as an excuse for the failings of the music industry and the rest may say that the musical rebellion has lost its way, like everything else in the war. The local music scene is searching for ways to find its footing in a climate marred by all sorts of bad news.
Many now look back to the early 2000’s as the golden period of post Junoon/Vital Signs modern pop and rock. A new generation of rockers had found their voice and found their labels. The experience seemed short lived though: audiences began to fade as the quality acts either broke up or began to take time off. Concerts began to dwindle, record labels had lost their touch and popular musicians began to be associated with a disconnected class that lives in a bubble of its own, like the fashion industry today.
However, the floods might have spelt good news, albeit in unconventional ways, for the music industry. As I began to contact Noori for this piece, it was obvious they were swamped with first recordings, and then flood relief work that they have enthusiastically undertaken. They might be devising new ways for music to come back as an essential fabric in our new social structure.
Seven years on from their debut, the release of Noori’s third record, as announced in their one of a kind video blog, was highly anticipated.
“We were actually quite busy and all geared up to launch our 3rd album this September. But with the floods all plans got washed away”, Hamza says, “It took us some time to gear up for relief work, especially since we had consciously stayed out of the fundraising scene ever since we got into this profession.”
“However, this year had been about exploring new directions,” both personally and musically it seems for Noori. After leading the organization of ‘Celebrity Camp’ at the Mall of Lahore, which brought together a diverse range of personalities, from Call the Band to Shoaib Akhtar to Todd Shea (followed by an unconventionally transparent video blog entry showing the counting of the money), Noori has decided to launch their own platform, Khayal Rakhna (take care), which has been launched with impressive humility and lack of PR shenanigans.
“Our focus will be on raising funds and mobilizing our fan-base for the rehabilitation phase. We recently completed our first activity, which was to spend Eid with the displaced. We focused especially on the children who, we feel, need the most support. We intend to carry on with Khayal Rakhna even beyond the Floods and pursue a variety of causes that we feel we can take upon. This is just the beginning for us, and we expect a lot of evolution before things get streamlined.”
The floods hitting just before Ramadan meant that musicians’ contributions were going to be limited, at least for the month. But the lack of performances has perhaps given them time to plan out their efforts, and many, like Noori, are now running their own campaigns and not just sporadic fundraising concerts. This whole effort makes you think how much our modern crop of pop/rock stars can do outside of the major cities. Little work exists that tries to look at how deep into the roots of this country our popular music actually goes. Have the floods given the music industry a chance to truly stamp its Pakistani identity?
“Well, honestly speaking, we are in very interesting times – a kind of a melting pot. There are serious communication and perceptual gaps between the metropolis and the ‘areas affected by floods’ (because of the floods, these areas have come to the forefront, but the divide is there, irrespective of the calamity). Yet, there is immense potential to bridge these gaps, especially with the new technological developments taking place – communication is getting easier and faster by the day. On top of that, music is beyond cultural and linguistic barriers.”
“The onus is now upon the musician community, as to how they use their communication capabilities in helping bring about some constructive changes in this melting pot. The potential is immense, but directions are seriously needed.”
This issue goes beyond celebrity outlook, and into the actual music as well. Rock acts have oscillated for decades now between the East and the West to the find the ‘Pakistani’ sound. While a healthy demand for urdu western rock exists, only acts that have found unique ways to blend east with west have made it very big internationally, case in point the meteoric international rise of Junoon compared to the Vital Signs and the recent fame of Zeb & Haniya. Noori’s first two records have been largely western, barring perhaps Manwa re, which Ali Noor has often described as ‘not a Noori song’. This third album might be more experimental, according to Noori.
‘It is clear to us that we have a variety of styles to offer and we can actually deliver well on the different fronts we take upon. So we will explore a variety of genres.”
“The third album might specifically focus on our existing listenership – it’s about consolidating the platform we already have command over, but the intention is to expand over the next few years, into as many directions as possible. So, within this album, we also intend to show a few glimpses of what the future has in store.”
This future, as Noori told us, is to release many albums in quick succession to finally put out “a hell of a lot of music” that Noori has been creating. They note that the Pakistani music scene is slowly shifting to a singles driven market, the album is losing its life and the one-album-every-four-years plan will no longer work. And with more music out, one can expect that Noori’s international exposure should also rise.
“Our international recognition has increased a lot, especially after Coke Studio. Secondly, good or bad, Pakistan is getting a lot of PR internationally, hence avenues are opening up. People are getting intrigued by this nation and culture is the first thing they look at. Music is the primary representative of Pakistani culture, so yes, things are looking good in coming times.”
While the floods and subsequent activities with Khayal Rakhna, which has included volunteer enrollment in various cities, Noori is back in the studio. “A lot of multitasking is happening”, they tell us excitedly.
This third album, surprisingly, is not part of the famed trilogy that Suno Ke Main Hun Jawan and Peeli Patti aur Raja Jani ki Gol Dunya formed the first two thirds of. The album echoes the SKMHJ sentiment of “believing in yourself”, but the stories are about Noori’s personal journeys this time. “The last 2 odd years have been about us rediscovering ourselves as individuals and as an enterprise (and this is not just Ali Noor and AliHamza, but the entire team that we call ‘Noori’). The 3rd album, hence, is a means to reorganize ourselves and establish ourselves as a group of individuals who want to do something big with the skills and talents we share.”
The new music seems to be more introverted, more music that you ‘listen’ to, instead of just bop around to. As Ali Hamza once wrote in a blogpost to Sanjana Zehra, Ali Noor’s daughter, “As far as the immediate is concerned – how I will be a part of your upbringing, I would mostly want it to be via observation, i.e. you observing my growing up.” We hope we get to hear a more grown up sound, a’la Peeli Patti. A more mature soundtrack for an audience that grown with Noori.
It is not clear how this album will be released at this point, but in the light of the changing dynamics of the music industry locally and internationally, and also perhaps owing to the dismal state of record labels and television music channels in Pakistan, Noori say they are open to experiment.
Noori’s releases have been sporadic at best, and they have often disappeared from the music scene entirely, but they have always managed to command a loyal cult following. After their “rebirth” in Coke Studio 2, however, as Ali Hamza calls it, with Noori discovering more of its mellower eastern Manwa re vibe, and perhaps more, Noori’s reputation in the industry and outside has grown manifold not just as talented live performers but also as highly skilled composers. Their lyrics on the other hand, while widely considered meaningful, have been often criticized as simplistic and repetitive.
“As far as we are concerned, we have never felt that our lyrics were incomplete. The message and intention behind every song we have written is clear in our heads. And then, art is meant to be interpreted in many different ways.
As far as limitations in our command over the language is concerned, it is a maturing process. We are evolving and we love to evolve. Personally and frankly, we feel much better off than most of our contemporaries because we work with ideas, not just words – which are, in fact, only a means of communicating those ideas. Our criticism of many of our contemporaries is that they bypass the ideas and focus on beautifying language. The difference becomes clearer once we evaluate and compare our work with many others over a longer time-span. We can confidently say that a Noori song has a longer life. And the reason for that is our focus on communicating ideas; ideas which are modern and reach out to the heart and mind of a contemporary Pakistani. If that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t have survived for 9 years with just 2 albums!”
They are open to working with lyricists and old poetry, which has been the case in some of their biggest hits, but they believe even their lyrics might be appreciated more as time goes on.
The release of Peeli Patti was hit by the earthquake of 2005. Consequentially sales were slow and the album took a while to make it big time. Noori then disappeared for a while, as the music scene soon began to catch on to a downwards trend.
One hopes that political and natural disasters do not continue to mar the release of albums like they did with Mauj and Kaavish earlier this year, among others. As Noori points out though, the number of concerts has actually risen after the floods, compared to the “dead scene” prior. The responsibility to help out our countrymen is pushing a movement to stand up against fear rallied by extremist elements.
“Music is finally giving an outlet to our frustrated ‘awam‘. So the ice of social taboo, as mentioned earlier, is actually breaking. Which is great news!”
There is work to do though. “It has taken a few decades for Pakistanis to realise that our music and musicians are a unique asset we have has a nation. We stand out globally on this front, and we are finally realising that.” This might be the time that we begin to create a social and musical legacy around a promising, hopeful part of life in modern Pakistan.