April issue 2006
Interview: Mekaal Hassan
“Don’t expect any hulla gulla concert from our band”
– Mekaal Hassan
He prefers not to make direct eye contact with the audience, he lets his guitar do all the talking. Down to earth in his demeanour and a complete genius in his craft, Mekaal Hassan is one of the rare species of Pakistani musicians who have proved to be a powerhouse of creative talent in a short span of time.
A:When I took my album to Sadaf Company, I was told that this album would be a total failure. Khalid (Sadaf’s owner) went on to say that not even five copies would be sold. However, I convinced him, as I had a firm belief in my music and the kind of response it would find in the market. After it came out, it became one of the steadiest selling records that Sadaf had released to date.
The album held its position as the number one album on the charts for two months and the three singles namely ‘Saanwal,’ ‘Rabba,’ and ‘Sajan’ topped the charts as well. The record was nominated in the “album of the year” category twice, first at the IM Awards and later at the Lux Style Awards. The main reason for its success is that we had been playing these songs for live audiences in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi, prior to the release of the album, so people were already aware of us. Yes, it did take us a while to garner an impressive response because we were establishing a new market for the kind of sound we were making. It was not pop or bhangra music that people would find instantly appealing, it was progressive music.
Q: Describe your kind of music in one phrase.
A: That phrase would be “traditional music in a contemporary format.”
Q: Which age groups do you actually target with your music?
A: MHB is the first band on the Pakistani music scene that has targeted people from three generations. Children listen to our music, then we have a middle-aged audience between 20 to 40 years of age and finally we have the older generation following our music as well. This is an incredible achievement in itself. You can say that it’s the only band in Pakistan that caters to such a wide range of audiences. And this range of listeners is still growing.
Our concepts are very specialised. Don’t expect any ‘hulla gulla’ concert from our band aimed at making you dance. We serve you our brand of music in its finest form.
Q: You recently won the Lux Style Award for “Best Live Band” and the IM Award for the “Best Alternative Track.” Do these awards put an additional responsibility on you as a performer?
A: I honestly don’t measure an artist by the number of awards that he or she has won. Yes, winning awards show that there is a strong sense of acceptance from the industry and the audiences, but for us the acceptance was already there; it’s only that now it has become official. I must also add that the band profile has greatly improved after the awards because if Lux acknowledges you, then there has to be some substance to you. After these awards, I think MHB has become a hip entity.
Q: Be it for the music awards, fashion awards or television awards, LSA has garnered a significant chunk of criticism from people who matter. Is this criticism justified?
A: I also have some issues with LSA. The Lux people should project the work of the artists who are being nominated because that’s how an award ceremony should be. I would have liked to see the bands who were nominated to have come and played live in the show. Also, I strongly disagree with the composition of the jury; they should have only music critics or people from the music industry to judge the music awards.
On the other hand, I must also say that it’s good to have award ceremonies like the LSA, and we should have more of these to acknowledge our artists. At the end of the day, LSA may be a glamourised ad campaign for Lux, but one should recognise that it is doing a lot of good for the artists here in Pakistan.
Q: You are trying extremely hard to draw younger listeners to your brand of music. Frankly speaking, do you think this generation appreciates the classical arts?
A: As Pakistanis, we have very little to be proud of. Moreover, we are in total denial of our rich musical history. We have always had issues accepting any element of art or culture that has originated from the Indian side of the subcontinent as our own. We have a shared musical history and I think we need toaccept and promote this common heritage.
Since today’s younger generation has grown up listening to drums, bass and guitar, and not taanpuras and harmoniums, there is a need to connect with them in a code that they would find interesting. I think my music has struck a fine balance between the western elements that this generation can relate to and the elements of our traditional music that need to be projected to this generation. You simply can’t expect them to sit up one day and listen to Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib; they wouldn’t do that. You have to take this music to them in a palatable form and then tell them where it is coming from. This is the only way to preserve its traditional and lyrical value.
Q: Our musicians are fast exploring new horizons across the border. Have you joined the bandwagon yet?
A: It makes sense for us to do that because we share a common language. MHB has already toured India twice and received great critical acclaim over there. I would first like to get Sampooran released in India before my next album. I haven’t given Sampooran to Indian labels yet because I am not willing to make any kind of compromises. If I am going to do it, I will definitely be doing it in style. I wouldn’t just throw away something that I have worked so hard on. I wouldn’t do playback singing in Bollywood because I find that very tasteless.
Q: How different is your forthcoming album from Sampooran?
A: The album is called Andolan. It is a Hindi word which means ‘revolution.’ This time we are trying to incorporate different influences in the album; we are concentrating more on Bullay Shah. This one is going to be more progressive and dynamic, with a lot more energy as compared to our last album which was more laidback and soothing. I didn’t want both of my albums to sound similar.
This one is geared to have more mass appeal simply because in our three-year-stint in the music industry, we have toured extensively and our fan following has multiplied rapidly.
Q: What took you so long to come up with your second album?
A:It has taken a little more time because I am very particular about songwriting. Also, I don’t want to include more than seven or eight numbers in the album because I feel the human ear cannot absorb more than nine numbers. I want to work on fewer compositions so that I can maintain quality and people remember them for a long time. The remaining space on the album will be covered with some interesting multimedia stuff like live jams, interviews, etc. It will be a complete package.
Q: How do you view the current state of Pakistan’s music industry?
A:I think there is a lot of ignorance in our people. Every sphere of music production is in dire need of change — the way profits are handled, the way shows are organised, the way sound systems are set, etc. People need to be aware of the origins of a particular kind of music. Bands are blindly copying other bands, who are themselves imitating others, and the ripple effect continues. This is not being creative in any sense of the word.
Q: Any suggestions for the improvement of the music industry?
A: I feel now is the right time for professional record labels and professional management companies to step in and take over in organising the industry. The government needs to chip in as well. They should build proper concert halls here, provide subsidies for musicians, and not tax the music equipment that we bring in because it’s for professional use. They need to recognise music as a profession.