“If you earn respect, then you will be remembered for decades”
- Asad, lead singer of Swaras
There is no doubt that for a country with no real record industry, Pakistan has an amazingly vibrant music scene. New artists are emerging all the time. And without record labels to support them, they still find ways to get recorded and promote their music.
Swaras is another new group trying to get noticed. And so far, they are managing to get some serious attention. Their Facebook group already has over 2,000 fans. Not bad for a band that has only recorded two songs. In fact, the Toronto-based duo has just released a video. “‘Jo Tum Kaho’ is our second track but our first video,” says Asad Qizilbash, the band’s lead singer. “To our surprise, this song has been played on the radio in Pakistan, India, Canada, as well as the UK, US, UAE and even Luxembourg – so we decided to make a video out of it.” The video has been getting airtime on music channels in Pakistan recently.
The song ‘Jo Tum Kaho’ has a hauntingly beautiful melody that is introduced by piano, violin and an effects-coloured guitar line that seems to shoot and slither through the air. Lead guitarist Hassan Bokhari – and the quiet half of Swaras – has found a way to blend his penchant for hard rock into the band’s very mellow and moving sound.
In this interview with Newsline, both Asad and Hassan talk about their musical inspirations, their musical differences and the poetry that ties it all together.
Why the name “Swaras”? What does it mean to you?
Asad: It refers to the seven notes of a scale, or “sargam,” if you want to make it simpler. It means everything to us, i.e. our passion for music and a vent to release our fears. I mean everything!
Have you always wanted to be a singer?
Asad: Well, yes and no, I grew up listening to Habib Wali Mohammad, Kishore Kumar, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Saigal Sahib, as my dad was a big music buff, and he especially loved these legendary singers. He wanted me to become a singer, but my mom never wanted that. So you can say that the desire has always been there.
Are those the singers that you admired growing up?
Asad: While growing up I was a big fan of Kishore Kumar, Asad Amanat Ali, Vital Signs and Bryan Adams. Later, it was the legendary Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Junoon, Gypsy Kings. Now, Shafqat Amanat Ali, Abbas Ali Khan, Lenny Kravitz, John Mayer, Matt Dusk and Michael Bublé are my sources of inspiration.
Do you have any formal training as a singer?
Asad: Yes, I am a student of eastern classical music. My guru ji, Muhammad Munir Ahmad Sahib – who is a student of Tufail Niazi Sahib, Hameed Sheikh Sahib (Ustad Barkat Ali Khan Sahib’s student) and Prof. Paramjeet Singh Sahib – really helped me through eastern and western voice culturing techniques.
Hassan, I believe you are more hard rock than “qawwali.” How does a kid from Pakistan get into heavy metal?
Hassan: I pretty much heard every kind of music while living and growing up in Pakistan. Most of my influences are hard, progressive and classic rock, but my roots always go back to classical eastern music. Even though I never really listened to a lot of classical music by choice, I was exposed to a lot in my uncle’s car, and mind you, I travelled with him often.
In Pakistan, do people respond to metal? Most people seem to like either hip-hop or pop stuff like Bryan Adams. Harder music lives underground.
Hassan: Yeah, well, I played for an underground progressive rock band called Insomnia. Being in a band never got to our heads, in part because we were not that big anyway. But honestly for us, being in a band was more about friends chilling out, playing and making music.
When did you know you wanted to be a musician?
Hassan: I always wanted to perform; I remember I was about seven years old when I saw Michael Jackson’s Dangerous concert on MTV and I was truly mesmerised by it. Right then I realised that music is the way of bringing people together regardless of race or ethnicity.
Swaras’ music is a fusion of eastern classical and western rock. Do you think you are offering something unique to South Asian audiences?
Asad: We hope our music is not just confined to South Asian audiences. We also amalgamate different sounds from all across the world and consider the genre of our music “World Fusion.” For example, in our debut song “Aag Kuch Aysi Lagi,” we used African conga drums and it synched beautifully, much to our surprise, and in our second track “Jo Tum Kaho” we added Italian violin. So each of our compositions has a different instrument from around the world.
Where have these influences of world music come from?
Asad: Since we live in Toronto, which is considered to be the “multicultural capital of the world,” we have came across many talented artists who perform on almost every train/subway station, playing instruments like the Chinese flute, conga drums etc. One day I stood there and listened to what this guy was playing and I started singing an Urdu song to his melody and it sounded great. Since that day I have wanted to merge those sounds and styles into our music. Plus as a kid I used to watch a lot of martial arts movies and there was always this mystical flute music playing in the background, which use to fascinate me a lot.
With this whole Chinese folk-flute thing, perhaps what you really want is part of the huge Chinese market, right?
Asad: Hey, I think you’re on to something. But seriously, China has a rich ancient history, plus in Canada there is a large Chinese community who can enjoy that fusion. To me true music is something that you feel and not only listen to. This reminds me of this video I saw on YouTube just a while back: this white guy was singing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s “Sanu Ek Pal Chaen Na Awae” as he banged on a conga.
Did you ever imagine you would be fusing eastern classical and western rock and putting it to Urdu lyrics while sitting in Toronto?
Hassan: Well, I always wanted to try it, but I never took the initiative of sitting down and making a song until Asad came along. I’ve been here in Toronto for the past four years and I have been playing with different musicians who were into both classical and western styles. Fusing eastern and western has been going on in Pakistan for a long time since Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, so it’s really not new for the masses. But our music cannot be defined in this category of ‘eastern meets western.’ It should be taken as western meets eastern with an essence of world music, which to me is a completely different genre. For me, music is always going to portray a certain state of mind.
Do you find you have to rein yourself in sometimes with Swaras as the music is much more relaxed and less aggressive than progressive rock?
Hassan: Well, it is not as aggressive as prog rock. The whole idea of Swaras was not to produce some relaxed easy-listening music either, but to do something different. If you listen closely, the music is resonating in its own chaos.
Tell me about the poetry you use for the lyrics: Who is the poet? Do you feel a connection with her words?
Asad: We are very thankful to Mrs Shereen Gul Rana for allowing us to use her poetry from her already published book “Meray Sung Chalo,” which is available in bookstores all across Pakistan. And yes we do feel a strong connection with her poetry as it is very simple but touches your heart at the same time. Also it is so versatile that we can compose classical, rock, heavy and folk from a single source.
Asad, your voice doesn’t always fit Hassan’s penchant for heavy metal guitar. Comment on how you guys write music given your different styles.
Asad: Hassan is a unique musician and the reason for us to get together is because his musical thinking is totally different from that of mine. I usually send him the poetry days before jamming so that he can think of his side of the music. I create my side of the compositions and when we meet to jam, we listen to each other’s version of the same poetry and fuse them together. He has a totally different way of perceiving music than me, but we do have one thing in common: we both love music and want it to be a unique experience for listeners and fans.
Asad, you have composed some music for a short film. Is it a documentary, and what is the music like?
It is a short film called Celebrate and it is currently making its way through some Canadian and German film festivals. The music has a mystical feel to it with some eastern surprises.
Describe the process of doing music for film?
Asad: I found it much easier than composing a song without an already carved out story and mood, etc. There is less involvement of vocals, plus you get a good sense as to what is demanded by just reading the script. So to me it is less complex than a song composition, which wholly comes from the creativity of your own state of mind. And with “Celebrate,” I did see it during the initial editing phase and so I had an idea of what the director was looking for.
There are not many record labels in Pakistan. Besides, those who do buy usually buy pirated stuff. Are you going to continue to give your music away?
Asad: It looks that way. You can download both our tracks for free from our website. We both have other means of making money, so as long as we can afford it, we will. The Pakistani band Overload released their new album Pichal Pairee through their website and they had almost 16,000 downloads in the first month. The times are a changin’.
So no plans on quitting your day jobs yet?
Asad: Not really, everyone has bills to pay – but in our case we have to make music as well.
What kind of future do you want in this industry then?
Asad: We want respect more than a long future in the music industry. We all know that Pakistani bands typically have short lives, maybe five to six years. But if you earn respect, then you will be remembered for decades, like Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
I heard that both your tracks have been selected as “Canadian heritage” and added to the music collection at the National Library and Archives in Ottawa. Is it true?
Asad: Yes. We are very happy and proud to achieve this honour at the start of our musical careers.
Watch the video for Jo Tum Kaho below. Just click the play arrow.
Connect with Swaras:
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