any conversation about music and its origins in Pakistan, one band
that would, or should, repeatedly be mentioned would have to be
Vital Signs. As their name would suggest, they were the 'vital signs'
of pop-rock in our country. It would be crazy not agree with that.
That said, any conversation we have about the band, its members
and their present statuses, more often than not people mention Junaid
Jamshed and his search for fulfillment in his faith. Obviously another
name people would mention is that of Coke Studio genius Rohail Hyatt.
But one name that continues to fly under the radar since the band
mates went their own ways is that of Shahi Hasan.
Junaid, with his good looks and great vocals, was the bona fide
front man for Vital Signs. While immensely talented, as is evident
now, Rohail was the business savvy member, more likely borne out
of necessity rather than choice considering how cutthroat the corporate
side of this industry can be. Shahi got on with his business which
was music, opting to stay out of the limelight. Even after they
all went their separate ways, Shahi remained balanced, keeping grounded
with the conservative ways of Junaid and liberal thoughts of Rohail.
To this day he himself chooses to stay out of the limelight, working
behind the scenes on various artists' albums. Out of the trio he
has consistently immersed himself in some creative venture, be it
musicianship, production or photography.
Though his roots are in playing guitar and bass, his creative acumen
lured him towards newer pastures.
After the trio disbanded in 1998, Shahzad, or Shahi as most know
him, decided to focus on production and mastering albums for various
bands and artists. He later re-discovered photography and also mentioned
that he wouldn't mind trying his hand at making music videos.
What follows is an in-depth discussion with Shahi about the three
current passions of his life. Through our conversation we often
digress onto other topics, a sign of men consumed by multiple things.
However, the relevant material has been sifted, compiled and printed
to display Shahi's creative zeal.
The vital sign
Seated in a cozy basement, sipping tea, which seems to be offered
to every journalist on every visit, it is clear that this basement
belongs to a creative soul. A line of string instruments on one
wall (amongst which is a sitar), and a studio set-up adjacent to
it, the room has melody in every corner. State of the art recorders,
mixers, computers, keyboard and screens, Shahi paints the picture
of a man who eats, sleeps and breathes music.
Casually dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, he conveys a relaxed image,
a paternal figure of sorts to various aspiring artists. Less rock-star
and more of a sage, as deduced by the entirety of our conversation,
Shahi tells the story of his musicianship and Vital Signs.
Born in 1967, Shahi grew up in the golden era of rock which was
the '70s. Growing up listening to traditional eastern and western
music, Shahi soon developed an affinity for the guitar. "I
remember asking my dad to buy me a guitar," he utters with
a reminiscent glow. Since there were no music shops during those
days in Pakistan, Shahi recollects his father telling him that he
would buy him a guitar "if he could find one in Pakisan."
As fate would have it, he finally found a guitar when he was around
13 years old. Shahi met Rohail at a common friend's place and they
immediately hit it off. Little did they know that their budding
friendship would eventually lead to etching their names into Pakistan's
musical history. Shahi remembers that Rohail had a guitar, which
his mother had broken due to excessive playing. Shahi borrowed the
instrument with the promise to fix it. He took the nylon string
guitar home and assembled it with Elfy (super glue which was relatively
"It was slightly warped but it was working and I didn't have
enough strings so I had to make do with the existing ones,"
he recounts. He learned to play with the help of Rohail and they
started to jam.
In college, after mixing a couple of gigs for Rohail's band Progressions
(based in Pindi); he went to one of their jam sessions where the
bass player was missing. "It was the first time I picked up
bass," Shahi tells of when they asked him to fill in. It was
then that he found out that he had a knack for the instrument.
"In my first year of FA I formed a band with some friends and
class fellows… I asked Rohail also, so he joined the band
as the most experienced member of all," he tells of his first
foray into the music biz. Playing covers of Deep Purple, Eagles,
Nazia and Zoheb and Led Zeppelin in the early '80s, they made a
name for themselves. Getting offers to play in Lahore excited Shahi
and Rohail but their band mates weren't as dedicated to music as
"We were confused as to what to do, so Nusrat Hussain, who
was an ex band member of Rohail's, came up and said there was a
show at his friend's restaurant," he continued. Rohail and
Shahi joined by Nusrat decided to play at this show in Islamabad.
However there was one issue that needed to be resolved before they
could do so.
Shahi tells of their dissatisfaction of distributing vocalist duties
amidst themselves. To focus on their individual parts (guitar, keyboards,
etc.) more they decided that they should conduct a search for a
"We looked around and then we thought of Junaid, who was in
a mediocre band and he was the best part about the band, he was
a very good singer and a lot chicks use to dig him also," Shahi
tells with a smirk sneaking up on his face. They played the show
with Junaid as their vocalist for the first time and the new partnership
bore instant fruit. "The show lasted till 3am because people
wouldn't leave, which was unheard of in Islamabad, where people
packed up at 10," he reminisces with a chuckle.
After news spread of their success, they got offered a show to open
for a band called String Fellows. A few days before the show the
promoter asked the foursome what their band name was. Immersed in
their music, it hadn't dawned on them yet to name their collective.
"We discussed various names, and my sister, who had just gone
to medical college, told me this term of how you check the vital
signs of life in a person," Shahi relays on the origin of a
name that was about to become a household one.
"So we decided yeah, why not name it Vital Signs, like the
vital signs of pop." A fitting name considering there are four
standard medical vital signs of life, similar to the foursome that
made up their crew. Performing better than the main act that night,
eliciting chants of "Vital Signs, Vital Signs" from the
audience, marked their ascendancy.
soon got a sponsor and decided not to play private shows for weddings
or New Year's Eve as their aim was to play for true music aficionados
rather than demanding adults wanting them to play dance numbers,
whose priorities are to socialize rather than enjoy music. "By
limiting our exposure we ended up doing well, focusing on musicianship
and quality," Shahi says, adding that money wasn't their main
incentive. "We have had many offers of ridiculous amounts of
money, but we always turned them down… the music always came
first, the friendship always came first."
After gaining recognition, around 1985 they got offered a music
video, by Rana Kanwal who was a producer at PTV. There was a competition
for whoever made the best video and the winner would play on all
the networks across Pakistan. "So she called up and said, I
have this poem of Parveen Shakir, can you guys compose this for
In a time when Zia-Ul-Haq was masquerading as a democratically elected
president, denouncing "western ideals" such as jeans and
music, the video naturally got appreciated as it was out of the
ordinary. It was however what this experience led to that affected
the band. At the recording of 'Chehra Mera Tha' is when they met
their soon to be lyricist.
"While we were recording this there was a gentleman sitting
in the corner watching us," Shahi recalls with much enthusiasm.
"The next day we got a call and this gentleman says 'I am Shoaib
Mansoor, a director from PTV, would you be interested in doing a
national song?' so we recorded 'Dil Dil Pakistan'."
"What Shoaib did was he created something teenagers could relate
to rather than the standard studio video," Shahi speaks of
The rest as they say is history. Vital Signs shot to fame, and even
though the fourth member of the band kept changing (primarily between
Nusrat Hussain and Salman Ahmad), Shahi, Rohail and Junaid kept
Leading up to their last couple of years Shahi managed to produce
an assortment of artists which paved a way for him into production.
The passionate producer
Putting aside his bass and spending more time behind the mixer and
recorder, producing and mastering some renowned albums, Shahi's
years of knowledge are serving him well at present.
is my passion," he says with a glimmer in his eyes expressing
sincerity. "It's what comes naturally to me, I can't really
think of doing something else." His music know-how is largely
evident in the work that he has done on artists' albums, but most
notably in the hit single from Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, 'Mann Ki Lagan',
which was featured in Paap, an Indian film, for which he also did
the score. "I finished the score in five days, they sort of
came in at the eleventh hour."
"That was partly Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's composition, partly
Rahat's and partly mine," he says of 'Mann Ki Lagan'. For the
track Shahi used minimal sound, as Eastern music is usually based
on two chords, justifying it by stating that he always believes,
"less is more and more can never be enough." This is largely
true in old Jazz records such as Miles Davis' Bitches Brew, where
by using less noise the album ends up telling a trance-like, hypnotic
story in just its music. Similarly Rahat's vocals blend in as an
instrument with his drums and guitar.
Shahi claims that out of all the artists he worked with, he got
the most joy working with Rahat Fateh. "He was creative, a
perfectionist in his pitch, tone and delivery, wanting to get it
right every time, which in turn also made him patient," he
Shahi also recalls working with Atif and being astonished at his
vocal range stating, "I did not have to tune it. It was perfect
the way it was, and that is illustrated by his success." He
was respectful and very professional according to Shahi. He has
even worked with artists from across the border, most notably Devika,
for whom he produced an entire album, 'Saari Raat'.
However, focusing on the local scene, he has also played a part
in producing all of Strings' first three albums which fared well;
their most recent one taking a slight drop as compared to its Shahi
produced predecessors. Another artist he has produced is Ali Azmat,
in particular Ali's first solo venture Social Circus. Shahi illustrates
how he tried to add a third dimension to the album, "there
is more stuff happening, not just straight up drum, bass and vocals".
We deviate from the topic hereabouts to discuss the importance of
analog recording as opposed to digital. While the topic is close
to my heart as well, Shahi's knowledge on the matter reaffirms many
a rock-star's faith in analog recording (more often used in earlier
productions of LPs and records). Clearly he has meticulously studied
the art in detail as he spews forth ample information on recording
techniques and equipment.
In older times Shahi says that we needed better musicians due to
the lack of technology. These days with present technology someone
who cannot even carry a tune can be made to sound like a superstar.
However, the most elaborate and anticipated project that he has
worked on, and is slated for release once post production wraps
up, is Indus World Music – Essential Raag. Working closely
with Faisal Rafi, which Shahi has done countless times before, Indus
World Music will highlight the Essential Raag of Pakistan.
"This is the main project I am working on now… It has
10 CDs and two DVDs, accompanied by some literature," Shahi
enthusiastically states. "I recorded about 40 plus artists."
These artists are little known outside die-hard folk music and qawwali
admirers, and the limited exposure also means a limited income.
"We want to create some sort of an income for these artists
who do not get the recognition they deserve," he boldly reaffirms,
adding that this is like a service to Pakistan as being part of
this industry. With the help of the Tehzeeb Foundation and All Pakistan
Music Conference (APMC), this project is being dubbed as one of
the biggest of its kind by an international audience.
Accompanied with a documentary by Imran Babar, a talented documentary
filmmaker, Indus World Music, if marketed and promoted diligently,
can gain international recognition for rooted classical music and
culture. It will also make available material that is in abundance
but sadly neglected.
The project is more than just music as it will also have visual
and aesthetic treats for enthusiasts and keen listeners. Visuals
too are not an alien concept to Shahi, who has recently renewed
his affair with the camera.
The lyrical photographer
Unlike playing music or refining it as producer, Shahi's renewed
love for photography is not something he tends to make into a profession.
"Anything that becomes a profession becomes a bit boring at
times, like music, because there are times when you have to do music
when you don't want to and make a kind of music you don't want to,"
"Photography for me is a much needed break, a hobby of sorts,"
he elaborates while showing me his camera and pictures.
Evidently taking pictures is not an entirely alien concept to this
multi-faceted musician. "My dad was into photography, as a
passionate photographer and I remember as a kid he used to buy all
these expensive lenses and cameras and then he would tell me stuff,
teach me how to do things," he remembers fondly.
"So I absorbed that, tried my hand at it a little too, but
I never bought a serious camera till about a few years ago - back
then I didn't have the time to do it, so last year I bought one
of the top line cameras and got back into it," he says showing
his collection of photographs to date.
"My friends who are photographers also teach different aspects,"
he conveys to me before I could ask how he plans to move forward
with his new love. Not one for remaining idle, Shahi also shares
that he might "want to try making a video at the same time,
for a friend."
Much can be said about Shahi's photography. As it is said 'a picture
is worth a thousand words', we'd rather show you these pictures
and let those thousand words be your own.
Shahi's portrait by Fayyaz Ahmed
• Apart from his acumen for technology and fine arts, Shahi
also makes a mean omelet. While discussing food Shahi disclosed
his love for barbecue and chicken karhai, which is also in the assortment
of dishes he can concoct.
• Building on his love for photography, he recently ventured
into moving images in the form of a music video. Combining his two
natural gifts of making music and taking pictures, Shahi has made
a video for the song 'Mai Ne' performed by Arieb Azhar (a talented
musician and good friend of Shahi's) for a TV serial Woh Chaar.
• While he has an eclectic taste in music, his recent production
and compilation of eastern raags and tunes has him listening to
classical melodies of late. He generally favors classical music
whether eastern or western, citing Malika Pukhraj and Pink Floyd
as his favorites. He also grew up listening to the Beatles, thanks
to his father.
• One can tell that Shahi has good taste in film, just as
he does in music. His all-time favorite includes The Usual Suspects,
a classic in many books and minds. The more recently released Martin
Scorsese venture, The Departed also made an impression on him.
• Out of all the concerts and gigs he has performed with Vital
Signs his two favorite shows have been events to remember in his
life. One was a Shaukat Khanum charity fundraiser (a favor for his
much respected friend Imran Khan) in the States under the Washington
Monument, which attracted a large crowd. The other was a concert
at our very own, National Stadium, where due to extenuating circumstances
the crowd exceeded the amount of tickets sold, making it one of
the largest audiences they had seen up to that point.