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Fusing the Punjab to Rock and Jazz

Mekaal Hasan’s band brings folk themes to the forefront in second album

Rolling Stone IN Jan 19, 2009

Mekaal Hasan stands tall in the tight knit Pakistani rock scene which is eagerly awaiting Saptak, his band’s second album. EMI will release the album in India soon, so fans across the subcontinent will get a chance to judge how far the Mekaal Hasan Band has grown since its first album, Sampooran.

Hasan, who headlines his band, infuses Punjabi themes with Western Jazz influences. The band’s composition practically makes it a requirement. The lead singer is Javed Bashir, supported by the flutist Papu and by Hasan on guitar. Bashir and Papu come from a traditional folk and classical background, while Hasan brings Western jazz sensibilities – he was trained at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. And the band has, over time, collaborated with a range of musicians, from percussionist Pete Lockett to drummer Gumby.

Hasan has aimed for this dynamic, fusing Western and Punjabi themes. “Why would anyone want to listen to a Pakistani jazz rock band?” says Hasan. “We have our own identity and roots in Punjab.”

For evidence, fans need only listen to ”˜Waris Shah,’ one of the eight tracks on Saptak. The song is based on an Amrita Pritam short story on partition, and the band adapts the Punjabi writer’s work with verve. Zeeshan Pervez, singer for the popular Sajid and Zeeshan duo, has made an animated video of the song. The video and song capture the spirit of Pritam’s story, with its plea for sense and peace amongst the violence of the partition. The cartoon blood red drops that splatter the screen as planes fly overhead are an emphatic reminder in the video of the human cost of violence. The song was originally meant for Sampooran, but it was so popular that EMI insisted it be included in the second album, and the band has made a video to satiate demand.

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The other songs on Saptak are new. Of note is ”˜Chal Bullehya,’ inspired by Sufi poet Bulleh Shah’s poetry. Bulleh was in conflict with the religious authorities of his day, and his free spirit appeals to many musicians and artists in Pakistan, especially those reaching for a return to roots by connecting with the ‘folk’ oral traditions of the Punjabi heartland. The band makes clear its synthesis of roots with innovation.

Hasan has brought classical and folk music to the forefront. Typically in Pakistani rock, classical musicians are pushed into background support. Frontlining them is a statement of intent. And classical musicians, while working within their traditions, have iron control and are not afraid of improvising: after all, they start practising at a very early age. For people working in the Western tradition, things are more difficult.

“It was difficult to even find a guitar pick in Pakistan,” says Hasan, of growing up in Lahore in the Nineties. “You had to ask someone from abroad to get you a guitar pick. You had to ask people to get you guitar cables, guitar strings. That’s how bad it was.”

Mekaal eventually studied in Boston, where he came into contact with a whole generation of western musicians. “It was mind-blowing,” he says.

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And also educational. Hasan is established on the circuit, and is today regarded as the best guitarist in Pakistan. A high point is his collaboration with musicians like Pete Lockett, who has toured with Peter Gabriel and Björk, and Mark Levine, an expert on Muslim rock bands, cites him as a major influence on the rock scene worldwide.

Political troubles in Pakistan mean bands rarely get time to perform in public; terrorism has dampened concert culture, depriving musicians like Hasan of crucial revenue. He is luckier than most, as he also runs a studio. Several of Pakistan’s major acts, like Junoon, Jal, and Zeb & Haniya have recorded at his studio. This makes him more important. Hasan is a node, who is helping several of Pakistan’s major music acts complete their work. Their influence has seeped into his work, and he has influenced them. Saptak is eagerly awaited. It is the work of a musician of consequence.


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