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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Pakistani band Strings on their three-decade musical journey

At the end of last year, Strings announced they would resume touring after a 10-year hiatus

Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia, centre, pictured with their house band, are the duo behind Strings, who have enjoyed huge success in Pakistan despite several career breaks. Courtesy Mainstage Productions
Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia, centre, pictured with their house band, are the duo behind Strings, who have enjoyed huge success in Pakistan despite several career breaks. Courtesy Mainstage Productions

Karachi has always been a city fond of its roadside snacks, and in the early 1990s, a place named Spinzer became a favourite among the upper middle classes. It offered a mix of local dishes, including its famed chicken tikka, to more “continental” offerings, such as its signature flying-saucer grilled sandwich.

On the last evening of 1992, however, Spinzer became the scene of one of the most momentous decisions in Pakistani music.

Four friends sat at one of its plastic tables. The mood was sombre, because a band that had made it pursuing music as a hobby now had to deal with the reality.

There were degrees and jobs; there were family businesses to be taken over; there was a plane ticket to the United States; there was a girl that liked collecting seashells who kept receiving marriage proposals from everyone except for one of the boys at that table. They all knew it was time to call time on the band, even though no one quite wanted to.

So they decided to make a music video, one final act before saying goodbye. Shot on one of Karachi’s beaches a few days later, that music video had a scene with sea shells imposed in the background via a green screen.

The song was called Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar – it remains one of the most influential pop songs in Pakistani history.

During the next year, each member was inundated with calls and requests for shows, even though they had disbanded. At first, these calls came from within Pakistan, then, increasingly, from abroad – even from India, which was an almost alien land given how distant the two countries had become.

As each of them pursued professional and personal paths farther away from their musical past, the success of Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar continued to haunt them.

A quarter of a century later, Faisal Kapadia, one of the members of Strings believes that “if that video had not been shot, then perhaps we would never have had our [eventual] comeback. That video had a power that, had it not been there, perhaps we would have never regrouped”.

The remarkable story of Strings – acclaimed for their stringed rhythms and melodious, poetic songs – is one where the search for safety and stability comes up often. It is one where they have seemed to try and impose order and caution to the notoriously fickle and chaotic world of Pakistani pop music.

The story of Strings is a story of understanding limitations. How else can we explain the fact that throughout each of the major eras of Pakistani music, which have seen egos, fame and money rip apart countless bands, Strings have largely managed to remain ubiquitous and familiar? When one looks back at their journey, it showcases rational choices in an impulsive industry.

Their first break-up was after the realisation that their teenage passions had brought them quite far, but weren’t likely to let them live like adults. Not for the first time, Strings made the sensible choice.

For six years following, the members each pondered: “What if?” As Kapadia puts it: “We slowly realised that as we kept going further apart, Strings kept getting bigger.”

Eventually, they met up again and thought about giving it another shot. Almost immediately, the foursome became a duo, as the demands of careers were just too strong for Rafiq Ali and Kareem Bhoy. It left Kapadia and Bilal Maqsood as the new faces of Strings.

The two recorded a few songs and put together a demo. Then, much like with the Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar video, which was sent to Hong Kong to debut on MTV Asia, Strings showed off their industry-intelligence by emailing their demo to producers and labels in India instead of just Pakistan.

They received positive responses from just about everyone, so after shooting a video for a single called Duur, they left for India.

When they returned two months later, their song had made them so famous even the local fruit seller recognised them.

Most other bands would have been dreaming of changed lives much earlier, but for Kapadia and Maqsood, it was the success of Duur that convinced them to commit to music. Until then, both had been working during the day and making music in the evenings, refusing to get carried away until things felt certain.

“That was the point,” Bilal says, “that we decided to burn all our boats and go in full-time.”

Indeed, this refusal to get carried away showed in one of their next major successes. In 2004, Strings were approached by Columbia TriStar to have one of their songs used in the Urdu/Hindi version of international blockbuster Spider-Man 2.

The duo were convinced that it was too good to be true, so until the video was shot, they didn’t tell anybody at all, including their wives, that they were part of the project.

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This lack of impulsiveness perhaps stems from the harmony that seems to define the duo. “Often, in bands, each person has their own influences, their own styles” Kapadia explains. “I met Bilal in college, and the initial compositions that he had when we met became part of me and became part of Strings.”

Bilal adds: “I think we never had any creative conflict, because Faisal has always given me space.

“We made our band when we were 17 to 18, and since then, we kind of grew up with our own sound. Even today, whatever I make Faisal happens to agree with it. He lets me know if something’s wrong, but we rarely ever disagree, because our tastes are so similar.”

This internal harmony also suggests that Strings haven’t looked to be disruptive. That was certainly the impression from their four years producing Coke Studio, Pakistan’s premier musical production and perhaps the most prestigious job in local music in the country.

They aren’t looking to talk about their experience just yet, preferring to focus on what lies ahead. The success of their tour has made clear that they retain their star power.

They have also showcased their skills as producers for film soundtracks, with a critically acclaimed OST for the film Moor, which was directed by their longtime collaborator Jami.

But in many ways, despite managing to remain relevant over changing eras and tumultuous times, the band’s sound and its heart remains in its youthful, nostalgic origins. When asked to compare the different eras that the band had been through, Kapadia says his favourite remains the early days on PTV (the state-run Pakistan Television), which played pop songs just once, but would be watched by the whole country.

“PTV only gave you one shot, but that one shot was enough to make you a star,” he recalls. “Back then, albums would be made around concepts and people would know which was the second song on the B-side of the cassette because they would listen so closely.”

Strings have resolutely sought to treat music with discipline and order, making careful decisions and not getting carried away.

But they have always retained the simple charm that both they and their fans have always related to, and the fact that they’ve done so is one of the most enduring stories of Pakistani music.

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