About a couple of weeks ago, when television programming, newspapers, magazines and other forms of media communication were taken over in a bloodless coup by the “retro” OSO (Om Shanti Om) army, I heard an interesting song on television. And no, it wasn’t on one of the talent shows that litter television programming these days. It was probably on MTV, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Having gotten to that ripe old age where I want simply to listen to music and no longer want to have to see hip-grinding, pelvic-thrusting images of garishly and sometimes tartily dressed creatures strutting their stuff to some dance track that now constitutes “performing”, I often let music channels play on in the background until I hear something that attracts my attention.
I must admit that it was vocalist Javed Bashir’s voice that first caught my attention as he sang Sajan in Punjabi in an unmistakably trained and honed voice which moved rather effortlessly and swiftly through a track that had a certain quality of itminaan—an unhurried savouring of the music and the song text. The credits revealed that the track was from the recently launched album Sampooran by the Mekaal Hasan Band from Pakistan.
Old and new:The Mekaal Hasan Band
I decided I would like to hear some more and tried to buy the album, only to discover that it wasn’t available at some of the leading music stores in New Delhi. “Sold out?” I asked. “No,” they said, “other customers have also asked about it, but we haven’t got copies yet.”
Now, old cynic that I am, I decided it was yet another case of a band having given away their album to a couldn’t-care-less record company that didn’t bother to distribute it properly. But then I’m persistent when it comes to music, and finally managed to order a copy and get the album. Once I heard the album, I had a list of questions I wanted to ask the band, and tracked down Mekaal Hasan, who very graciously agreed to chat with me on Google Talk about the album. I include excerpts below that have been edited only to correct typos, spelling errors and punctuation marks:
me: I read somewhere that the album has been ready for three years and has only now been launched in India. Is that correct?
mekaalhasan: Yes. Actually, I had this record done in 2002. Pakistan released it in 2004, India in 2007. Sometimes it’s hard to get decent music out there.
me: So how do you go about recording? I mean, do you produce and finance an album yourself and then offer it to a label or do they commission you? I ask this not out of inquisitiveness, but because I believe that in a vibrant music industry, music labels should be out there looking for good work.
mekaalhasan: All by myself...writing, recording, engineering, production, videos.
me: Gosh, that’s a lot of work!
mekaalhasan: Javed and Papu are writing, of course, but all the other stuff is totally my own thing. Yeah, no wonder I have no energy!
me: :) I’m sure you do and will end up making a lot more great music.
mekaalhasan: All the classical thing in the band is really their contribution. I just write around what they do and the end result is the band’s sound.
me: Ok, how come you titled the album Sampooran?
mekaalhasan: Hmm...well, normally we have seven people playing onstage, the title track was written in 7/8, the ragas we used were mostly from the sampoorna family (seven note scale ragas), so I thought Sampooran was a good indicator of the classical nature of the record.
me: When working with classical musicians, do you ever feel that you would like them to perhaps look at other systems of music? For example, the different kinds of ways in which voice has been used in jazz is quite fascinating. Have you ever wanted to use any such elements in your work with the band?
mekaalhasan: Yes. I think that, firstly, classical music’s biggest enemies have been classical musicians. The reason why Javed (Javed Bashir, the band’s vocalist, and belonging to a family of qawwals) and Papu (flautist Mohd. Ahsan Papu) will no doubt go places is because unlike many others, they are willing to stretch and not be judgemental about what is or isn’t classical.
me: Delighted to talk to someone who does some plain speaking :)
mekaalhasan: I also find it amusing that almost all classical musicians dismiss Western music with statements such as they only play in 4/4 . This obviously reflects an astronomical ignorance of not only Western music, but human intelligence too.
me: Yes, I would have to agree that this is an uninformed statement many classical musicians make.
mekaalhasan: It would be just as ridiculous if I claimed classical musicians can’t play with drums or can’t sing over chord changes.
mekaalhasan: Classical music is so beautiful. It only takes one person to bring that beauty in a palatable form for music lovers...
I have a problem with musicians claiming to reinvent classical music or promote it by arranging it differently, and I know I should have asked Mekaal at this point whether he feels that classical music (which in the album notes he refers to as “Eastern classical music”) in its conventional presentations is not palatable. But I decided I would save that discussion for another day and for the moment, enjoy the music—tuneful, unhurried, and with some really nice singing.
And yes, fashionably retro too! After all, the lyrics of the great Sufi poets such as Shah Hussain and Waris Shah could justifiably be called classic retro, no?
Write to Shubha at firstname.lastname@example.org