In the pre-9/11, immigrant welcoming USA, besides the migrating flock of skilled labour and consistent brain drain of scientists, engineers and doctors – musicians from the Indian sub-continent benefited from the open exchange. Rejected, dejected and banned from their repressive home state, musicians from Pakistan found their souls in the burgeoning universities, coffee shops, jam rooms, open mic nights and streets of Boston.
One such musician is Mekaal Hasan. Born to a Christian mother and Muslim father, Hasan was a misfit in hometown, Lahore. Even though the extremely rich cultural conduits of the ancient city bore ancient art, scriptures and rich folk music, Hasan felt trapped. At home, Hasan’s room was always emanating with John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock and Nat King Cole. Outside, sounds of azan and a brewing revolt drowned Sufi poetry and Hindustani classical recitals, and even popular music. “There were no shows, no exposure, no common ground, nothing,” recalls Hasan who took a while to understand his need to play music, “I knew I liked music. I was always playing something in my head. I tried to play piano a few times, but couldn’t do it. Then I found the guitar.”
In his teens, Hasan taught himself to play guitar by listening to a Led Zepp record on loop. “It was like a tick,” he says, “I must have tried a million things. But I finally got it right. Books and instincts helped.”
Hasan knew he wanted to be a musician, but he didn’t know how. An application to Boston’s Berklee College Of Music helped Hasan find his way. “Those four years were the best of my life. I discovered so much about music, met so many people…I never felt I truly belonged to a place till I went to Berklee. I knew what I needed to do,” says Hasan. Adamant on becoming a session guitarist, it wasn’t till 1995 that Hasan made his way back to Lahore. The next six years would be the worst of his life. “I didn’t really know what to do or to expect. I was still into rock and jazz. Sufi and Hindustani classical was the anti-thesis. I became depressed,” says Hasan. A few years later, the underbelly of Pakistan’s music revolution was rearing its head and it took Sufi rockers Junoon to give it a body. Their song Sayonee blended Urdu poetry with hard rock. That was a turning point for Hasan.
“I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to makes songs Urdu, Pashtun and Sufi poetry and I wanted to play jazz and rock. It wasn’t hard from there,” Hasan found accomplices in flute player Mohammad Ahsan Papu and Punjabi folk singer Javed Bashir. In 2001, Hasan formed the Mekaal Hasan Band and soon their two albums, “Sampooran” and “Saptak” would soon go down the annals of history as landmark records truly representative to Pakistan’s current culture – rooted in folk and laced with rock. The albums are as old-world as they are new-world. India would soon become a major venue.
Watch the music video of their song Waris Shah from their Sufi-inspired sophomore album “Saptak.”
“There has always been unrest in Pakistan. There will never be shows that encourage musicians and we have lived through times when we have been scared of telling people we are musicians. It’s more difficult, because we aren’t even traditional artists. You can forget about respect then,” says Hasan. The band’s multi-city tours in India have been monumental. Their audiences have resonated with the same junoon the musicians have on stage and on occasion have sung along.
The band is currently looking for a label to release their third album “Andholan” that has been ready for release since last year. On their upcoming India tour, they plan to find a promoter. Their last album, “Saptak” was released on Times Music. Band vocalist Bashir too released a solo album via the same label last year, “Subrang” and has sung for various Bollywood movies, including “Cocktail.” (Tera Naam Japdi Phiran).
Hasan is looking forward to the band’s third India tour that kickstarts tomorrow in Ahmedabad. “Everytime we play in India, we feel how we imagine it would be, to play in Pakistan. It’s extremely close to our hearts.”
Details of the tour:
Karnavati Club, Ahmedabad, Jan 5, 2013
Blue Frog, Mumbai, Jan 8, 2013
Country Inn & Suites, Jaipur, Jan 11, 2013
Blue Frog, New Delhi, Jan 13, 2013
Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi, Jan 14, 2013
For more details, log onto their Facebook event page .