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Bring it back, carry it forward
In these divisive, hard times it is more important to come together as one than ever before. Only big dreams can chase away our cultural nightmare.

By Muniba Kamal
Enough talk of global recession and people painting a scenario of gloom and misery all round. Enough of everyone complaining about business going down: not enough clothes being sold and hardly any music coming out. The prophets of doom need to shut their traps and focus on the positive instead. Things have never been so bright for in terms of platforms in Pakistan and the innovation that one is seeing in terms of bringing our talent and more importantly our traditions and our living legends back into the spotlight.
I must admit I had lost my mojo thanks to the naysayers. The general mood of the entertainment industry was down and out after the Mumbai attack and the political upheaval that has lasted now in Pakistan for years now. But come to think of it now, it's been that way pretty much since I was born… since the creation of Pakistan even. Yet despite from the headline grabbing power play, the protests, the riots and the bomb blasts, there are other things that have carried on and must carry on. There is so much greatness in this nation that is overlooked in favour of our problems and now there are platforms being created that are bringing it out. They are more pleasant to think about than the latest stupidity of our 'leaders'.

The high point that brought me out of my cynical stupor was meeting Saeen Zahoor and Sohail Rana within a 24 hour gap. I met THE Saeen (he is the first amongst un-equals) at the rehearsals for Coke Studio and Sohail Rana at the Jang Building where he was busy finaling details for a musical night titled Aaj Jaane Ki Zid Na Karo, A Tribute to Sohail Rana where he would conduct the music.

Saeen Zahoor, one had seen before at the Sufi Festival organized by the Peerzadas in Karachi, where he was hypnotic swirling on stage while striking just the right notes in that mellifluous voice that tugs at the chords of the heart. At Coke Studio, up close and personal, he is even more iconic. With that weather beaten, chiselled face, the kindest eyes and a dignity to his demeanour, wearing his robes and turban with grace, an ektara in hand, Saeen Zahoor is enigmatic. He talks in dulcet Punjabi and though he cannot read or write, he is a philosopher as all dervishes are. His speech is punctuated by Sufic kalam of the great saints particularly Baba Bulleh Shah. He has been around and learned from life.
Perhaps the most surprising thing seeing Saeen Zahoor at the high tech Coke Studio was how savvy the man is. Calling backing vocalists Saba and Natasha as Beti at times and Bachi at others, he told them exactly what he wanted them to sing and where. Comfortable with the mike, with headphones in his ear and looking every inch at home in the studio, Saeen was nevertheless not of this world, that is to say he was other-worldly.

What sets him apart from the stereotypical pop star is that while he may go and perform all over the world, which he has, but nothing holds him back from playing at the shrine circuit. He does not speak English or Urdu, and he has no desire to do so. He will never modernize his image let alone his lifestyle. He is who he is and he is incredibly sophisticated, even though he doesn't know how to read or write. And he has made it, beyond the dreams of most pop stars and rockers of our time.

Saeen Zahoor's fan following is massive. Not only have people in cities heard of him, he is a folk legend, all over rural Pakistan. For the awam, (most of Pakistan's people) who do not watch music channels, he is the biggest star. Musicians who complain of the lack of a circuits should take note. Saeen Zahoor has played his music circuit for well over 50 years now and he carries on doing so. This is one musician who has not stopped playing live because of the security situation. He's been giving concerts all his life and continues to do so. If only our rebel rock stars and pop stars had such gumption.

Had our musicians had the ability to chase their vision and not the big bucks offered by corporations and the glory of performing overseas and across the border, our music scene would be more vibrant than it is now. Short cuts always lead to massive losses in the long run.
One man who has never taken a short cut is Sohail Rana. It was a pleasure meeting him, bringing back childhood memories of watching Sang Sang Chalein and singing along to 'Dosti Aisa Nata Jo Sonay Se Bhi Mehnga' and 'Sooraj Karay Salam'. For any child growing up in the 80s, that show was an integral part of life. Researching Sohail Rana, I came across those songs again on the website (set up and run by one of his fans) and found that I could still sing along. Looking back, one marvels at this initiative as music as education and then when one discovered that that is what he turned to when the golden era of Pakistani films was drawing to a close after giving us evergreen numbers like 'Akele Na Jana' and 'Ko Ko Korina' the respect for him grew tenfold more!
In person Sohail Rana is lovely, preferring to speak the most eloquently in Urdu even though he is fluent in English. Though he migrated to Canada some 14 years ago, his love of Pakistan is evident in the language he speaks and his understanding of music and all things cultural. This is a man who can speak about things he's done and can cross refernce both Bulleh Shah and an O. Henry short story in the same sentence drawing paralells between all three. He speaks about art with passion, and always in terms of what it can do to bring people together, to pierce our collective consciousness, to carry our traditions forward. It's refreshing to meet him in this era of musicians full of talks of deals, corporate sponsorships and dreams of superstardom.

That is what our scene has become unfortunately, every man for himself. And that was evident at the recording of the tribute to Sohail Rana where some of the biggest stars performed sand with chits of papers in their hand. On inquiring why they were doing so, one was told that they were too busy to rehearse. When egos become so big it is is only natural that the scene will burst, but not at the seams as it should. It will turn inwards and implode within itself. The greatest artistic endeavours are all about collaboration. After all, if actors of the stature of Helen Mirren and musicians of the calibre of A.R. Rahman rehearse, then shouldn't our musicians be taking a leaf out of their books? Shouldn't they be looking as much, if not more, at the quality of what they are doing than the quantity of what they are earning?

The only recent light in the music scene has been lit by Rohail Hyatt and his vision for Coke Studio. This is one platform where musicians don't have any option but to rehearse, or else nothing doing – you are out of the show! Rohail has created a platform for music where the leading lights of the industry come and perform together as one. And he has done it with such panache that the biggest stars want to be a part of it. What is even more commendable is that Rohail himself remains behind the scenes. When you see Coke Studio you don't see him anywhere apart from the 'Making of…' segments. He is NOT the star, he is the producer and he acts like one. He has transcended Rohail Hyatt of Vital Signs and Rohail Hyatt CEO of Pyramid to become what he is today. And strangely enough, 'Pa' Hyatt, as they call him at the studio is a combination of both his previous avtars. That's reinvention, not of the cult of a person ala Madonna, but of the music scene at large. And that is what Pakistan needs right now.

Reinvention is what Sohail Rana has consistently specialized in and that is what Rohail Hyatt is doing. One thing that ties them both together is their love and understanding of folk music and its power. One of the projects Sohail Rana did in the 1960s was a record called Khyber Mail, the musical journey of a train that began in Sindh, went through Balochistan made its way up the Punjab and ended up at the mountainous heights of the NWFP. Sohail Rana is proud of the fact that copies of the record are being auctioned on E-bay till today. He is a great believer of the power of our music. And today with Coke Studio, Rohail Hyatt is pursuing a similar train of thought. He's bringing folk back and taking it forward in brand new packaging. He's taking the same nostalgic beats that are so much a part of our collective consciousness and wrapping them in a more sophisticated sound that is bigger than what any one individual musician or band can do.

And this brings me back to Saeen Zahoor who represents the primal spirit that moves us all. 'Allah Hoo' – it's an ancient strain that stirs something within, not just in us but in the world at large. Saeen was voted Best Voice and so he made it to the BBC World Music Awards in 2006. All his life, he has been chasing something bigger than himself, not caring where it takes him, remaining the same. While it isn't easy for urbanites to do the same, there are lessons to be learnt from the way he is.

Your dream of the future has to be bigger than you or else each individual will stand alone and the music scene in Pakistan will be more bereft and lonely for it. So come together… and let the good times roll!