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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Quest for hidden notes takes Zohaib Kazi to the soul of Pakistan 

Zohaib Kazi tells us about looking for rustic sounds for his album ‘Fanoos’ 

Zohaib Kazi records a track with Zarsanga, far left, a Pathan singer, in Nowshera in northern Pakistan Photo Insiya Syed  
Zohaib Kazi records a track with Zarsanga, far left, a Pathan singer, in Nowshera in northern Pakistan Photo Insiya Syed  

When 34-year-old Zohaib Kazi set off on a musical expedition across Pakistan in 2016, his motto was simple: if it’s not on the internet, then it’s what he’s looking for. Thus emerged Fanoos, a six-track album recorded in the villages and homes of the singers that Kazi found during a humbling journey that has changed his life.

“I was in the midst of an identity crisis,” Kazi says. “Life in the city is so fast-paced; everybody is forced to adapt. You forget where you come from, what you represent, or which side you’re on. I wanted to explore myself as a Pakistani and a global citizen.”

The music producer is an indie legend in a country that’s largely seen through a singular lens by the world – a violence-ridden conservative Muslim state in constant flux. But while Pakistan has experienced tremendous sociopolitical turmoil, few know just how diverse it is. For instance, its 20-odd ethnic groups ­collectively speak at least 65 dialects, and a wide-ranging topography has developed hugely different cultures.

Fanoos rekindled my love for my country and my people,” he says. “It really humanised me.” Kazi is easy to talk to, gentle in demeanour and characterised by a graciousness that’s typical of Pakistani society. His views are rock-solid, though, and he has demonstrated his passion and commitment unequivocally through his work.

His connection to music has been lifelong, but he did not consider making a career out of it until one day when he was sitting with a quality-management report as an MBA student and decided to bin the report and drop out.

He worked as a video director for a while, dabbling in songwriting and composing on the side, and released his popular single Maan Lo in 2009. That’s when Coke Studio Pakistan ­approached him to assist in the video and audio ­departments, at the end of Season 2. Kazi announced his departure from the show at the end of Season 9.

“I consciously didn’t offer musical input for the show,” he says. “I took care of the technical stuff, managed the line-up, the aesthetic of Coke Studio and operated behind the scenes for years. I’d gotten far enough, the next step was to explore my own ideas.” From a position of importance, Kazi suddenly became insignificant, in a sense. “My emails went from hundreds to zero,” he says with a laugh. But that gave him time to chart a new path. It also allowed him to bond with his wife, Insiya Syed, an independent photographer who hit the road with him.

Zohaib Kazi, left, and singer Ali Hamza
Zohaib Kazi, left, and singer Ali Hamza

In association with Patari, Pakistan’s music streaming site, Kazi and Syed travelled through Hunza, Nowshera, Balochistan and Punjab to find singers who are distinctly native and talented. To their recordings, the producer added his own sounds – a minimalistic electronic beat and echo that do not get in the way of the originals, but enhance and contemporise them – and created a dynamic and unique series of songs. They pulsate with joy and a folksy charm that modern music can never replace.

Fanoos also surprised Pakistani listeners who hd come to associate Kazi with futuristic sound after he released his ground-breaking album and graphic novel, Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher, in December 2015.

“Everyone was so warm and welcoming,” he says. “These people are so wise; they’re survivors. I loved their stories, they had so much depth.”

The videos accompanying the songs offer a peek into the lives of communities many don’t know exist. The Gulmit Anthem, for example, was performed by the students of Hunza Valley’s Bulbulik Heritage Centre, set up to preserve the traditional Wakhi-Pamirian folk tradition. It’s a sweet song about love and longing, quite the opposite of the feisty and rhythmic Jee Aao by Balochi folk singer Akhtar Chanal Zahri. The album also features Riaz Ali Qadri and Zarsanga, popularly known as the Queen of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Its critical success paved the way for Kazi to return to Coke Studio Pakistan as well, this time as executive producer alongside singer Ali Hamza for Season 11. “When Fanoos ­happened, the decision-makers at Coke Studio realised how much the show had inspired it,” Kazi explains.

“The show has made valuable contributions to Pakistan’s cultural ethos and we have a hardcore, passionate audience. But it was time to break the mould, evolve and forward the human story.”

The result is a season that has expanded its boundaries exponentially, stepping out of the studio with Coke Studio Explorer and finding singers who not only represent diverse communities, but are also stars waiting to be discovered. Pareek by teenagers Ariana and Amrina is a Kalash folk song that was recorded and shot in their village in snowy Chitral in a remote corner of northern Pakistan, while Naseebaya highlights the rare Balochi art of Nar Sur, or throat singing, a skill that has passed down for generations. Tere Bin Soona by Mishal Khawaja signals a detour; Hamza and Kazi discovered her on Instagram thanks to her social media stardom.

Shamu Bai records a folk song in Sindh, Pakistan, for ‘Coke Studio Explorer 2018’
Shamu Bai records a folk song in Sindh, Pakistan, for ‘Coke Studio Explorer 2018’

“The younger generations are connecting differently to music today,” the producer ­says. He and Hamza continue to be feted for the boldness with which they approached the new format, and of course for their music – that electronic ambience and groove blending seamlessly with their folk counterparts.

“There’s a world of music out there waiting to be explored and I want to continue to do so as sincerely and honestly as possible.”

Which poses the question – what about the struggle for creative freedom and fear of conservative backlash that has plagued Pakistani artists for years? Kazi is pragmatic about this and holds a balanced view. “When I was going to Balochistan for Fanoos, everyone said ‘don’t go’. But I believe that as musicians, we are supposed to be daring. The region has been in a state of upheaval for ­several centuries, but stories have prevailed. It’s not easy, but it’s not that difficult either. One must learn to work around the limitations of other cultures.”

He is also wary of how conscious people have become. “Being overtly critical, paranoid, fearful – these are very common now. But we must see the glass as half full. At some point, we need to step up instead of staying behind closed doors,” Kazi says.

The music producer is now planning to make his mark in films, as well as develop a green energy project. It’s safe to say they’ll be worth the wait.

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