People & Society Tapestry

“You have to give classical music a new tone to keep it alive”

Updated 26 Mar, 2015 01:15am

Sachal Studios is the brainchild of Izzat Majeed and Mushtaq Soofi, is a labour of love for both men. Their passion for music and their own personal experiences with artists have led to a deep-rooted involvement in bolstering the performing arts. In a candid conversation about the music industry’s decline, the lack of patronage for traditional arts, and Sachal Studios’ unique efforts to create a platform for musicians, Majeed and Soofi talk to Mekaal Hasan of the Mekaal Hasan Band about their journey which has led them to create an ensemble that is placing Pakistan on the world music map.

Mekaal Hasan: You have been running Sachal Studios for close to a decade now. You have provided a source of livelihood for many families who would have otherwise suffered because of the demise of our recording industry and the film industry.

Izzat Majeed: The culture of music has been based on film music. All the great musicians and all the great composers created some great sounds, some great compositions. Almost half of them were in classical structures. I don’t know how that has got eliminated in Bollywood but it is atrocious. There is just one keyboard and then you have something called the item song.

MH: So, is music more or less dead?

IM: Yes, it is. And classical music is evaporating. I have been discussing this with Soofi for the last decade that our classical music requires patronage. It had always required patronage — from Akbar down to the Maharajas of Patiala. Now, what is being done in the subcontinent, mostly in India, is that they have hundreds of academies teaching classical music. To my knowledge, not many great musicians have come out of them. As Oscar Wilde said, they know the price of everything and the value of nothing, so they’ll tell you exactly what the raag is but I haven’t seen any younger musician creating massive waves of attention.

MH: One of the main reasons for that is that all the skilled musicians are getting absorbed by the Bollywood industry. You’ll find very fine musicians playing on Bollywood scores because that pays the most. And, while state-funded festivals are happening all the time [in India], most of the classical practitioners are earning mostly from the West, through festivals and concerts. You know how they have residencies in different music schools.

MS: There is a lot of state patronage in India. There are festivals, stipends, institutions and associations. The musicians make a lot of money and the state has huge funds for the promotion of music and arts. In Pakistan, nothing like that happens. The state does not show any interest.

IM: But even though you are right [about India], I haven’t seen any great wave of new classical generation coming about. Some of the old masters are still alive and they are treated with respect and are given their stipends and awards but state patronage can only give you money. The tragedy is that we have no mentor for classical music training.

MS: So, the question is why are there no great musicians despite state patronage [in India]?

MH: There is no demand for classical music at a commercial level [and you can see that] when you compare the amounts of money being poured into Bollywood scores. If there’s no commercial demand for the music, then the musicians have to keep the whole classical scene alive on their own.

IM: No, even the so-called billionaires of India care for music and hold a mehfil (soir´ee) every night. But why does such patronage not reflect in musical innovation? Why does it not reflect in the newer generation creating another interpretation of our classical music? The younger musicians, firstly, don’t have the time to learn classical structures. It’s not easy to learn; it takes years. You can’t just go one day and get a BA in classical music. You need 10 or 15 years [to learn]. The instruments are also difficult to play. So that requires patience; and it requires consistent patronage. The other important factor is that the concept of social time has changed. Nobody is going to sit and listen to eight hours or six hours of a raag.

MH: Attention spans have become shorter.

IM: The attention span is no longer there — even of the singers. I’ve got albums from Siraj Khan and his bhajan stream ends in 15 minutes.

MH: Mr Majeed, what’s your background? Are you are a businessman?

IM: No. That’s a camouflage. I haven’t done a day’s work in my life. I started my career as a lecturer in Punjab University. I got hold of a friend of mine and learned a lot from him about our culture, our music, our poetry that goes back a long way. And then there was this friend who said, okay, let’s start recording. So we did, and recorded Mian Shehryar in 2003, which, I think, is one of our great achievements.

MH: How did you guys then set about formalising Sachal Studios into a fully-fledged world class studio?

IM: That actually took two things: a lot of money and, I think, the good luck of getting hold of Abbey Road Studios in London. They set up the studio.

MH: Is the whole studio custom-designed?

IM: Yes.

MH: Yours is probably the only studio which has been properly designed. How did your vast experience in music help in setting up such a studio?

IM: Vast experience? In what?

MH: In camouflage, possibly.

IM: Listen, music is something you either have in you or you don’t. I don’t believe it can be learnt. There is something in your psyche, in your heart and mind that just keeps you connected to music. From the age of five or six I was immersed in music. At the age of eight, I saw [jazz pianist and composer] Dave Brubek pass through Lahore. Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, all the giants were there [with him], so I got hooked to jazz. My dad was into jazz but he was also well-trained as an amateur and he used to play music. He was friends with Ali Akbar, who was one of the few people in British India who were allowed 45 minutes of radio time. This was sometime in 1945. So my father imbibed a lot of music and when he came to Pakistan, he had enough going in terms of business. But he was totally taken in by music. He started making films in which the music was always good.

MH: What’s your background Mr Soofi?

Mushtaq Soofi Photo by Azhar Jafri for White Star
Mushtaq Soofi Photo by Azhar Jafri for White Star

MS: I have been writing Punjabi poetry and other things. I have been friends [with Izzat Majeed] since the 1970s. I have also worked at television.

MH: How did you guys decided to work together?

MS: It’s only due to enthusiasm that great music gets created. I had some experience of doing it for television and personally knew all the musicians – from the classical ones to the folk singers.

MH: When did you decide to take your interest in music beyond merely being a passive listener or an enthusiast?

IM: I was blessed because Soofi was around. He knows the ABC of music and what it means. [Understanding] what these musicians are all about — that took a while. But now, we are both very comfortable with what we do, which is, basically, looking at the arrangement after selecting compositions. The other thing that we did was to interact with the musicians two or three times a week. We called them home, played all kinds of world music for them. We have been taking them to the BBC proms almost every year for the last three to four years. The first time they went and saw The Royal Albert Hall proms and the symphonies that were being played, they were totally gone. They were crying.

We are also very lucky because maestros like Ustad Nazar Hussain, Riaz Hussain and Mian Shehryar have worked with us. There is a new generation of musicians who are doing quite well in terms of composition. There is this guy called Saawan. I think he has done some very good compositions. We now have the greatest instrument players in Pakistan. They are certainly among the best in the Subcontinent. The tabla player is second to none; the sitar player, the flute player, each one of them is a master.

When we got hold of an orchestra, I didn’t want simple instrumental arrangement; I wanted a symphonic arrangement. When we used to go to London, I would go back to Abbey Road Studios to bring in other instruments which we don’t have in the Subcontinent, like a piano. When the jazz album started, we were already being labelled as producing fusion music.

MH: I think it’s important not to overlook the importance of the social aspect of what you’re trying to do and the fact that you’re personally involved in this work. It is not like you just tell the musicians to insert random flute notes here, or sitar notes there — which is how a lot of such projects are conditioned. Your work is very deep. Both of you have been deeply [involved in it]. And you’ve always been sitting there, in the rehearsals. You are there at the recording. You guys spend a lot of time on it. We continue to crib that music is dying and that there will be no more classical music, or that there will be no more traditional players. But, at the same time, no one really wanted to go and work with the musicians. Working with them is actually the real challenge.

IM: The other thing is that you have to give classical music a new tone to keep it alive. Not a new structure.

MH: So, what is the importance of music that is produced by Sachal Studios? I know we can’t call it fusion.

IM: There is no such thing as fusion music. It is just instruments being used to enhance your own culture. Where is the element of fusion? Unless, of course, you make a fool of yourself and you give credence to the Western way of playing things. What I’m saying is that you bring in your own instruments but the composition and the structure remain theirs — which people do and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, see, it’s not fusion then. It’s their [Western] music getting hold of another culture’s music. Doing our own thing is what we are doing.

MH: But it’s become sort of a populist way of describing music any time a traditional instrument is brought out with a new sound or even when you try and marry it with a new arrangement.

MS: What people mean by fusion is very simple: You get hold of a saxophone and I get hold of a sarangi. You keep on playing yours, I keep on playing mine. This is what the circumstances in Pakistan are.

MH: It’s very difficult to change that…

IM: I am saying something different. I am saying that, strictly speaking, you only have three instruments in India and Pakistan. You have the three-stringed instruments which are the sitar, sarod and sarangi. Some people can say that they are 2,000 years old but that is not true. The sitar that we play today is about 150 years old in terms of its structure. We do not know the structure of the sitar that Amir Khusro made. He may have just put two pieces of wood together. Secondly, sarod was the rabaab of the invading Turks, which Allahuddin Khan added metal strings to.

MH: What was Sachal Studios’ first record?

IM: The first record was [with] Mian Shehryar.

MS: He is generally known as a composer but very few people know that Mian Shehryar was a very good vocalist. Sachal Studios’ first album is also his first album that has his vocals. He composed all the songs and he himself sang them in an inspired way.

IM: It was also a great tribute to Khwaja Ghulam Farid.

MS: It was extremely beautiful, highly inspired.

MH: Run me through the recordings that you guys have done. And also, what is the Sachal Studios ensemble now doing?

Izzat Majeed Photo by Azhar Jafri for White Star
Izzat Majeed Photo by Azhar Jafri for White Star

IM: The Bandish album we did with Fateh Ali Khan was a major hit in India. Nobody has even listened to it here [in Pakistan]. In India, we have had a five year contract for that. We have also arranged Reshma’s last album, Pakhivas, in a very modern sense. Then there is Tarang by Humaira Channa and we’ve also gotten Hari Haran. Mohe apney rang mein rang de [from his Sachal Studios album Lahore Ke Rang, Hari Ke Sang] is his signature song. Wherever he goes, he sings that first. We also did Mehnaz Begum’s last album — A Range Khaak. We got a very surprising invitation by the Alchemy Festival…

MH: The one that happens on the Southbank Centre in London…

IM: That was the year of the London Olympics and we were among the first people to inaugurate it. It came out very well. It was a full house and received a standing ovation. Then out of the blue, we got an invitation from Wynton Marsalis [the first jazz artist to perform and compose across the full jazz spectrum, from its New Orleans roots to bebop to modern jazz]. He said come over [to New York] for two days in November [2013] and he will collaborate with us. So that will be something very new in the Subcontinent – us playing with the great jazz artist. We are also going to the Jazz Festival in Paris where, again, he’s flying in to collaborate with us. He is very excited about what we do and we are mesmerised by what he does. Then we are going to Rio at the carnival next year and are visiting five cities in India.

MH: You get a lot of hits on YouTube?

IM: Our Take 5 album is approaching 600,000 clicks — which for jazz is a big deal.

MH: It was, I think, one of the top sellers on the iTunes world music charts.

IM: It was number one in the US, the UK and Japan. It is among the top ten tracks in France, Brazil, Australia and Norway. It went viral.

MH: What about the local market?

IM: To say the truth, nothing happens here. What has happened is that somehow we have a heartbroken middle class. When they sit with me and listen to music, they are transported somewhere else. But they won’t go in search for it. Throughout history, you don’t have culture unless you have the bourgeoisie. We don’t have culture because we don’t have rich people.

MH: Well, we have rich people, but not rich souls…

IM: No, no. My definition of a rich person is not someone who is carrying billions of dollars in his pocket. It is not that you have money. It’s what you do with it. That makes you rich.

MH: We don’t have social mobility. That’s the biggest problem. This is something India has dealt with well because there the flow of wealth is such that the middle class groups actually have an aspiration to become upper middle class. So they can finance their lifestyles.

IM: That’s true, but then it is also the sheer weight of numbers. Their middle class is approaching 450 million. [Here in Pakistan], the rich people who can provide patronage to music don’t have the ear for music. There are zero listeners around [here].

MH: Isn’t that generally true for theatre or for any performing arts…

IM: This is true about all cultural activity.

MH: Yes, cultural activity is all dead and gone.

IM: Look at films. [Before Ziaul Haq took over] Pakistan used to be the third largest filmmaking country. It would produce anywhere between 90 and 120 films a year. Now it makes 10.

MH: It was Zia’s tenure when all this changed.

IM: That’s when the coffin was made [for the cultural activities]. Everything was done away with.

MS: Yes, music was one of the casualties.

IM: Then, the younger generation came along and did some great work but it was based on rock and some pseudo-folk music.

MS: Then, the tape recorder and the audio cassette came along and people like Ataullah Esakhelvi started becoming a hit. The reason was that radio and television would allow only a few selected folk singers to perform. When the cassette came along and facilitated the recording of music, folk singers got a chance to record their music and the phenomenon spread all over the country. Esakhelvi made the biggest contribution towards reviving folk music.

IM: But it did not thrive so much in the middle classes. Only the servants would listen to those cassettes. You never heard them play in the rich households or people there talking about what kind of a singer Esakhelvi is.

MS: My point is different. The phenomenon of folk music – of the rural areas as well as of the urban working classes – did not have any space on radio or television. With the cassette revolution, music became accessible to those who did not want to listen to a ghazal by Fareeda Khanum or Mehdi Hasan – even though both are great singers. He wanted to listen to folk music but he did not have an avenue. So they recorded everything and people like truck drivers instantly liked that.

MH: The cassette recorders marketed themselves well. They became both the distributors and the product manufacturers.

IM: Do you know whose cassettes sell the most in India after religious music. Esakhelvi’s — right down to Madras.

MS: Same is the case in Pakistan.

IM: It was truck drivers who spread this music around.

MH: That’s how cassettes got transported from Karachi to Gilgit.

IM: This is what real public relations is.

MH: That’s word of mouth.

IM: Word of mouth is what public relation [is really about].

MH: We went from having art and culture flourish in the pre-Zia years to a very dark time when there was no encouragement and, socially, it was considered reprehensible to be involved with the performing arts. People who were involved were considered outcast.

IM: They were unemployed, my friend.

MH: People like Kathak dancer Naheed Siddiqui had to leave the country.

IM: So many people lost jobs because of the lapse of the film industry.

MH: But you have managed to provide not only an income but also a respectable means of living for musicians who otherwise probably would not be playing anymore. Many folk instruments are not being played because the musicians have given up and had to take up other jobs to survive.

IM: Even the alghoza is gone. But, honestly, we have no agenda to revive the culture in Pakistan on our own. It can’t happen. The best we can do is to get hold of the genius of these players, the words of our poets, the classical traditions that are still available and put them together. If you want to call it fusion, that would be hurtful. But we get hold of every instrument that we need and that we think will work in a particular composition.

The Orchestra Courtesy Sachal Studios
The Orchestra Courtesy Sachal Studios

MH: Another encouraging thing you have done is that you have brought instruments to the fore whereas the focus in Pakistan and India is always on the vocalist. In your music, both the players and the musicians are the focal point. It’s not just [about] one singer. In the traditional setup, on the other hand, a song is synonymous with the singer.

IM: In films, music was the filler. Songs longer than three minutes would not work. In India, iconic composers like Sachin Dev Burman, Salil Chaudhry, Madan Mohan and Anil Biswas laid the foundation of a different kind of music. They also wanted to keep classical music alive. So, they made a deal: the song for a film would be three minutes long but in the album it would be seven minutes long. That was the contract. So, when we started getting hold of the composers’ vinyl records, we were totally astonished to discover things which were not part of the film score. Here [in Pakistan], nothing like that has ever happened. Here, film songs were only around three minutes long. No director took interest in music.

MH: Even when you are making a music video, you are told that it won’t work if it is longer than four minutes.

IM: I don’t think we’ve ever made a three-minute long song. Firstly, to be honest, Soofi and I never measure it in terms of duration. We take a composition, sit down with the arrangers and wait, having no idea how long it will take. Then you look at it and say, oh my God, it’s still six minutes. So, what to do with it?

MS: But what Meekaal has said is very relevant. Who should be the focus – the singer, the musicians, the arrangement, or the instruments? We have revisited the concept of arrangement. Music is not vocals only.

IM: The idea is not to take away the focus from the vocalist. It is to embellish it.

MH: The melody has to be embellished by the music. It’s like a play where you can have a central character but you need a stage, you need a set, you need a backdrop.

IM: We have been raised in a situation in the Subcontinent, especially in Pakistan, where interval music — the arrangement — means nothing. Our greatest composers, from Baba Chishti to Master Inayat Husain to Rashid Atre, could not care less about the interval.

MS: The interval was basically a cue for the vocalists.

IM: What was critically important was who was singing on the screen and what was he doing. So the arrangement was totally linked to the character on the screen. It was nothing on its own. We have very few compositions where intervals matter. That is what we have reversed. We brought in the musicians and, most importantly, we brought in the strings, the orchestra…

MH: Can you talk a bit about each of the players you have in the ensemble?

IM: Javed and Saleem are among the lead first line violins. Baqar is probably one of the greatest flute players in the world today. I don’t think anybody else can come closer — maybe Hari Prasad but that’s about it.

MH: So, Sachal Studios has a fixed ensemble? Will you be getting more musicians on board?

IM: The people we have so far are the people who are the best players. We are generally approached by people who want to sing or to compose. Nobody has come to us to play. The other thing is it’s a small world of musicians in Lahore. They all know who is playing what for Sachal Studios. So if you are a flute player, you don’t even dream of doing that in Sachal Studios because Baqar is already here. It is not a crusade but, just out of self-interest, we encourage the younger generations of musicians who come to us. We have educated them for free – some have learnt cello, for instance, from the masters. Now they are part of the ensemble. They are playing very well. But it is very slow process. Not many people are interested in learning. We also don’t want to undertake something which will put us in a bureaucratic mode. Otherwise, it is all free. Anyone is welcome.

MH: What is the importance of eastern music for the foreign audiences and how far have you been able to connect?

IM: If you play something that is based not only on your own culture but also draws from other cultures, then it is very readily acceptable to the West. But if you just sit there with a sarangi and a table, no one listens to it.

MH: So basically music has to be transmitted through a medium which is accessible to audiences which may not be used to our music.

IM: Another thing important to understand is that there are no studios in this country.

MS: You basically have home studios or factory studios. They are good but they are not professional.

The interviewer is the lead songwriter and composer for the Mekaal Hasan Band