Lahore-based Mekaal Hasan is the guitarist and frontman of the seminal Mekaal Hasan Band, who are about to embark on their third India tour. The band is often cited as “fusion” done right, building on classical vocalist Javed Bashir’s free-flowing voice with Hasan’s complex jazz arrangements (he studied composition at the Berklee College of Music, Massachusetts, US, before returning to Lahore to set up a recording studio).
It’s been a challenging year for the band. Bashir announced his departure from the band, and they’ve been playing a gruelling set of gigs in Paris, New York and Canada—both to promote their new album Saptak, as well as to raise funds for those affected by the devastating floods in Pakistan. Hasan spoke to Lounge over Skype on new directions, fresh music and why 2010 is the new 1995. Edited excerpts:
Javed Bashir has been replaced by 19-year-old Asad Abbas. How did the change come about?
It’s a bit like that movie Almost Famous. In 2007, me and “Papu” (the band’s flautist, Mohammad Ahsan) were judges on this talent show on Indus TV called Pakistan Sangeet Icon. We were auditioning singers when we heard about this talented 16-year-old kid called Asad Abbas in Faisalabad. He was fantastic, and went on to win the first season of the competition.
Javed Bashir left our band on the day that our new album Saptak was released. We were in quite a fix, because we had a lot of media commitments and promotional tours to do. So we remembered Asad and found out that he was in Karachi, still working for Indus TV. He couldn’t believe that his former judges were now asking him to join their band.
High note: Hasan says he likes playing in India’s ‘university towns’, where audiences are more receptive. Courtesy Only Much Louder
Does this change augur a new direction for the band? Definitely. Javed came from a very technical, classical background, whereas Asad is a folk singer. Papu has spent the last four months training him up, and I think he sounds phenomenal. Just as an example, we recently did a cover of a song by the famous folk singer Tufail Niazi. Niazi is completely crazy, with wild alterations in scale and unbelievable range, and Asad pulled it off brilliantly.
Anything exciting that you have come across on the Pakistani music scene?
There’s this new huge metal scene in Lahore that I came to know about only recently. Lots of small indie groups, and some very talented guitarists. But as an industry, it’s lost the vibrancy it had about three years ago. The politics and security situation have made it hard to do shows, or get clearances for them. The record companies don’t want to sign new bands, and opportunities are drying up. It reminds me a bit of 1995, when I first started out as a musician.
How are bands responding to these challenges?
I think there’s something about the mindset here. People love music, and even when the situation is dire, it’ll never be allowed to die out. It will always resurface. Bands are using the Web very savvily, and are bringing music into everything they can find—to promote reconstruction efforts, concerts for flood relief. Our syncretic music culture is one of the greatest things we have.
Many Pakistani bands—Jal, Junoon, Strings—found near-mainstream popularity in India. But is there a sense that they belong to a previous generation of rock musicians?
You’re right, there is a sense that these established bands are part of a previous generation. Atif Aslam, Zeb and Haniya, Rahat Fateh Ali are what the new generation is listening to.
What about shows such as ‘Coke Studio’?
It’s a great programme, and the outreach it has for the musicians who perform on it is widespread. Having said that, however, you have to remember that it’s just once a year. People have latched on to it because of the lack of concerts and playing space. For the musicians, follow-ups aren’t guaranteed, so it becomes this really insular process. What I’d love to see is Coke Studio coming to other countries like India and Bangladesh, and the performers touring as an ensemble.
You called for greater international awareness of the floods in Pakistan on BBC. How can Pakistani musicians help make that happen?
A lot of us can’t be anything but socially engaged. I think the community has been instrumental (no pun intended) in a lot of international fund-raising efforts. Our band was part of a “Pakistan in Paris” festival in France, and we did some charity concerts in the US through the Pakistani Peace Builders (a US-based cultural diplomacy group). As musicians, however, we have to be careful not to devolve into angry ranting about politics or security issues.
The Mekaal Hasan Band will play at the Hard Rock Café in Delhi on 21 October; at the Jodhpur Rajasthan International Folk Festival (Jriff) on 22 October; and
at The Blue Frog in Mumbai on 27 October. For details on Jriff, log on to www.jodhpurfolkfestival.org