People & Society One Hour With

One hour with Shehzad Noor

Updated Jun 24, 2015 02:07pm

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Shehzad Noor performs at the Lahore Music Meet in April 2015 | Nadir Chaudhry
Shehzad Noor performs at the Lahore Music Meet in April 2015 | Nadir Chaudhry

A day after Sabeen Mahmud’s murder in April this year, the mood is bittersweet at The Free Fest, a music event organised by the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop and Music Machine, in Lahore. Shehzad Noor has just got on stage, unaccompanied by the members of his band. With just an electric guitar dangling from his shoulders, he hums a beat-boxed melody into a pedal and tries to loop it. He gets it wrong. He starts again — same mistake.

At this point, he should be getting nervous — after all, nobody has come here to see a musician practise on stage. But he employs the crowd as metronome and they clap him in again. He then loops a tabooed mantra: Balochistan repeats over the beat and the melody; in his angry, nostalgic voice, he sings “How many more?” The crowd is overcome. You can see terror, joy and even relief on their faces. Suddenly, people draw out their cameras like guns out of holsters.

This is Shorbanoor— Noor’s latest musical reincarnation.

Shorbanoor, loosely translated as luminescent gravy, is the outcome of his somewhat secret battle with what may have been the music equivalent of a writer’s block.

Six years after co-founding Pakistan’s most successful indie rock band Poor Rich Boy, Noor recently decided to part ways and go at it alone. Shorbanoor, loosely translated as luminescent gravy, is the outcome of his somewhat secret battle with what may have been the music equivalent of a writer’s block.

When Noor talks about years of struggle through a creative drought, one is inclined to see this as his version of the myth of a suffering artist — he sacrificed a normal life to negotiate the rigid demands of an established social order and the emotional needs of an ‘individual’ artist. But a few minutes into a conversation with him, I realise that he is not faking it. Despite his success and talent, he has been struggling to break free artistically.

The internal dynamics of a band as successful as Poor Rich Boy can be restrictive. When a team of half a dozen people works together, tensions are likely to flare up, spontaneity can be diffused and ambitions diluted. And success, too, has its own demands — there is increased pressure to maintain its momentum. “Acrimonious and stressful environments stifle me. Juggling too many things stifles me,” he says.

This is neither new nor something exclusive to him. The inexplicable nature of creativity makes all artists insecure. They can never know if they will always be successful in their work. Good art, it seems, more often than not, comes through lucky coincidences, if not by sheer accidents. Audiences, too, feel compelled to fall in love with artists who brave internal doubts, fight external obstacles and make the lucky coincidences happen over and over again. We worship them as heroes precisely because they are such daring individuals.

Till recently, he has been “deeply suspicious” of the use of technology in music but now he is beginning to open up to the “immense possibilities and freedoms that technology can offer”.

With Shorbanoor, Noor is certainly trying to be daring. He is demonstrating that good art does not come from a position of control but from the vantage point of vulnerability. “This solo project is the outcome of a desire to follow spontaneity, it invites people to see somebody construct a song in real time,” he says.

In many ways, Noor is a master of deconstruction, showing his audience that any piece of art requires a certain level of sacrifice. To make something, you have to undo yourself first. “I run the risk of sounding stupid. I run the risk of getting humiliated.” But a part of an artist’s job is to “steel myself against those fears. I feel like people are responsive to honesty.”

Photo by Nadir Chaudhry
Photo by Nadir Chaudhry

Noor explains that on-stage rehearsals are an integral part of this process: “I want a space where I cannot just create but also educate myself.” A deliberate attempt to step out of his comfort zone, relying almost entirely on a spontaneous instinct, has helped Noor overcome his bout of creative infertility. It has offered him the liberty to experiment in ways that are surprising to his audience as well as to himself.

Take, for instance, his latest focus on using technology for creating music. Till recently, he has been “deeply suspicious” of the use of technology in music but now he is beginning to open up to the “immense possibilities and freedoms that technology can offer”. Loop pedals and synthesizers have become common features in his live ensemble. Learning something new, he says, is the single biggest motivation to create. It is the manifestation of “the desire to seek something out and to be unafraid and foolish.”

Two recent music-related initiatives – Storm in a Tea Cup and the Lahore Music Meet – have also helped reinvigorate his spirits. The former, a live indie music festival put together by Jamal Rahman of TrueBrew Records, meticulously featured great talents like Slow Spin, Nawksh and Rudoh. “It was phenomenal.” The latter event brought out a deeper discourse on the future of Pakistani music and showcased musicians such as Sikander Ka Mandar and Ali Suhail. “Man, what immense talent!” says Noor.

In the last decade, however, public space for music has shrunk, presumably because of security issues. The music being created is delivered to the audiences directly either through television channels or through the internet.

His words underscore the importance of such events for the future of indie music in Pakistan. Music created in an environment not conducive to its production and promotion is bound to be transient and vacuous. Music is not an art form an artist will create and enjoy in solitude. It always requires an audience, no matter how tiny.

But indie or folk musicians seldom have access to corporate production houses and distributors to reach out to an audience. A public space is all that these musicians have if they wish to perform. In the last decade, however, public space for music has shrunk — presumably because of security issues. The music being created is delivered to the audiences directly either through television channels or through the internet. But the glitzy commercial productions peddled through these mediums are ultimately contrived and can never capture the magic of a wild impulse or the wonder of a successful blunder that a live public performance can offer.

Noor underscores this relationship between music and public space. His work suggests that music creation has to be seen as a meaningful societal process, rather than as a commercial commodity. This is an idea worth witnessing.