Beggar at Ghazi Chowk


Tuesday, 30 November 2010

New Directions for Noori.


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.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Garmi On – Urban Life & the Underground.


This is Garmi On (the heat is on), a single by underground band Moen Jo Daro (named after Pakistan’s famous ancient ruins). Ironically, considering the name, the song itself is about Pakistan’s modern love for ancient times, load shedding and all.

The song is unbelievably promising. The first thing you think about of course, is the lyrics, which aren’t the best piece of writing you’ll ever see, will be flicked away by traditionalist Urdu speakers but are relevant, and anything about load shedding is bound to strike a chord. Reminds you of the Junoon days, where anti establishment rants were chic, now they’re just sort of cliched, kind of like the soon to be ‘we-must-fix-things-ourselves’ patriotic vibe.

The lyrics are a great glimpse into Pakistani urban life today. From references of the UPS (backup power supply), of electricity coming back on the hour (power cuts occur on a timetable), and then the language. The title itself, Garmi On, is a glimpse of how minglish (or Urdish) as we call it, Urdu mingled with English is the urban language spoken today. This has traditionally been looked down upon by traditional Urdu speakers, and is continued evidence of Urdu’s weakening as a language. Recently however, scholars have come to the defense of minglish, with linguist Tariq Rahman talking at TEDxLahore 2010 about how this is a natural process that we must grow with. The entire talk is embedded after the break.

Musically the song is catchy, it’s mixed well, which is a nice change for underground bands. The guitar riff in the beginning is very interesting, it’s going for the whole wall of sound effect, but with fast fret work intertwined with it, which gets you intrigues as you begin listening. The bass riff is catchy, clearly supportive to the guitar but nothing groundbreaking there. The entire sound is reminiscent of the freedom of not having a drummer in the band, kind of like the Vital Signs days, when you’d have to make do with a metronomic electronic beat and make your music on top of it, which sparked a lot of creativity sonically. I’m not sure if Moen Jo Daro have a drummer, this song is the last I heard of them until I tried researching for this post, to which I found some bad recordings of live cover performances. I hope they keep playing though. The only disappointment, somewhat so, is the vocals in the song, which just seem a bit too heavy for the music. Perhaps if the band were to do another recording that would fix itself, but as of now it just doesn’t let the song flow.

But for the many who are crying that Pakistani music has gone too commercial, Garmi On, is a really interesting sign.

Download the audio here. (Via Koolmuzone)

A translation of the lyrics if you click below.


Thursday, 4 November 2010

Picking up the Sagar Veena.


Noor Zehra Kazim is perhaps the world’s only player of the Sagar Veena, a string instrument designed for use in North Indian Classical Music, developed entirely in Pakistan over the last 40 years. I first heard of her when I found the Sanjan Nagar Institute’s website, a few years ago. News about Sanjan Nagar and the Sagar Veena has been slow to reach out to the mainstream, though it seems that even before its popular debut, the institute and the instrument were a big deal among the intellectual circles of 21st century Pakistan.

Sanjan Nagar is the brainchild of renowned lawyer Raza Kazim, who has made his name as one of the leading intellectuals in Pakistan, regularly publishing papers and tackling subjects from neurology to philosophy to music. The Sanjan Nagar Institute of Philosophy and Arts is known for the opportunities it provides for women especially.

The Sagar Veena has been under development since the 1970s, constantly being fine tuned under the supervision of Raza Kazim and instrument maker Mohammed Riaz. The former’s daughter, Noor Zehra Kazim, has been instrumental in testing the instrument and providing her feedback as a classical musician. Together the three have created an instrument that signifies a revolution of sound production in North Indian Classical Music.

The Sagar Veena‘s is capable of producing an unparalleled range of sound timbres and pitch registers, providing the musician with the ability to take her music to new levels and directions. The unique sound of the instrument is a result of its close modeling on the sound of the human voice, in an effort to capture the emotion and intellectual depth of the vocal in an instrumental form. By separating the vibrating and resonating parts of the instrument into separate bodies, the designers have managed to create a highly clear, resonant sound. And while the instrument continues to be tweaked, it is finally stable enough to be played in the studio and in front of live audiences.

Having followed the Sagar Veena for a while, it made perfect sense for us to give the instrument a stage at TEDxLahore 2010. Sanjan Nagar was contacted, and the deal was closed. The introduction of the instrument into popular music with this year’s Coke Studio only made the hype greater.

I walked into Ali Auditorium on rehearsal day with Noor Zehra Kazim doing her sound check on the stage, it was choppy, she wouldn’t play for too long, would ask her colleagues in the back row if they could hear her, but she clearly knew what she was doing. The sound check itself was simple, it was just one microphone over the Sagar Veena, and the team got the sound it wanted over the Bose system specially installed for the event. The Veena was moved, and Noor Zehra Kazim would step off comfortably, the performance now prepared for and the day’s work done. It was the coordination of her ride home that became my first interaction with her. She is soft spoken, gentle, overwhelmingly kind and caring, a motherly figure who wholeheartedly trusted us inexperienced young lads to make sure her performance went well. You are forced to lose all your temper and smile as you talk to her, there is no sense of ill timed urgency, no barrier of experience.

The day of the event, the Sagar Veena sat elegantly on stage, as we tried to make as much use of it as possible. A presentation on Sanjan Nagar by musicologist and sitar player Beena Raza was followed by Noor Zehra Kazim’s performance. The performance itself was largely improvisational, as with most Indian Classical musical performances, which is one of the reasons why it is so hard to find good recordings of classical music in Pakistan today. But as with all performances, even with improv, an artist’s skill, and emotional connection with both the audience and the music is obvious, and Noor Zehra Kazim’s was extra ordinary. She walked the crowd through an 8 minute solo melody, no accompanying percussion, just the sitar like sound, but more pronounced and more varied.

The mood is set with a minute long alap, as the instrument is tuned an she plays an interesting rhythm to set the mood of the raag to follow. A conversation follows, a melody that begins on higher notes, that get sharper and more pronounced as the raag progresses, is put against a counter melody of bassy, richer notes, an answer to emotional laments that are perhaps meant to harness similar emotions in a slightly different manner. Even as the raag shifts from one part to another, a unity remains, with the traditional drone of Indian Classical music makes its appearance throughout, guiding the 400 strong live audience from absolute silence to a standing ovation.

In Hor Vi Neevan Ho, the Coke Studio song that Noor Zehra performs with her sons (rock sensation Noori), the Sagar Veena puts on a new avatar. Noori said in an interview that this year’s Coke Studio experience for them was largely about embedding the Veena into popular music, and the instrument takes center stage. But as behind the scenes footage shows, Noor Zehra does not normally play to a constant looping percussion rhythm, hence much of her adaptation comes from switching from free form playing to a structured rehearsed part that fits into a tradition western song structure, even though it might be in an eastern scale or musical style. For their really is no eastern structure of a song, their exists a performance, but with many popular musicians gaining their footing as western style rock musicians, Pakistani eastern classical recordings are now moulded into western song structures that are easy listening for the modern audience.


As the song begins, you notice there is no time for an alap, no mood setting, the melody digs straight in, and Noor Zehra plays a compliment to Ali Hamza’s baritone vocals, filling in a song that has limited lyrical elements but makes its mark with instrumental work and raw vocal emotion. The Veena takes a back seat as the song picks up with Ali Noor’s rockier vocal, but the tone is set, as the keyboards and drum set take over from the Sagar Veena and the dholak.

The song itself is a cover of an old private recording by folk singer Hamid Ali Bela, recorded by Raza Kazim himself, and is a soundtrack for increased tolerance and understanding, under the common theme of respecting the blessings we have, and showing our gratitude and respect by bowing our heads.

The significance of the Sagar Veena as an instrumental breakthrough, as well as a symbol of prowess of Pakistani musicians has still not been fully realized. The concert going crowd, which is already depressed due to a lack of concerts will have little to do with the Veena, and Sanjan Nagar is still, for the moment a small step in a large country full of larger problems. But even in the music business, which artists still lament is yet to become an ‘industry’, whatever you suppose that entails, there is little to suggest that this will become the popular art of this decade. It might just be however, one of the most important pieces of art and engineering to hit the music scene in a while. As for the non musical types, a meeting with Noor Zehra Kazim might give them enough nostalgia to hang on to with music.