The album and story project, from Zohaib Kazi, second from left, brings together some of Pakistan’s best musical talent. Insiya Syed
The album and story project, from Zohaib Kazi, second from left, brings together some of Pakistan’s best musical talent. Insiya Syed

Album review: Zohaib Kazi’s cosmic journey takes Pakistani music into uncharted space

“Yaar to be honest, every time I am using music software or applying a plugin and I find myself marvelling at how a bunch of numbers are making the sound do what I want – I mean these are just zeros and ones which are helping me add some echo or a delay and I find myself in awe of those amazing people who managed to create something like that.”

Reading these words, there is a sense that the person saying them is a novice, someone new to music production who still hasn't lost the initial wonder of it all. But instead, it's a testament to Zohaib Kazi's humility, and perhaps the secret to his unique vision, that he still feels this way. Last week in Karachi, the young producer released something that has no precedent in the Pakistani music scene – a concept music album and a sci-fi graphic novel called Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher, or Ismail's Urdu City. Featuring a cast of some of the best musicians in Pakistan and gorgeous, lush illustrations, it is a truly remarkable work. But perhaps even more remarkable is the story behind the album, which took almost a decade to complete.

In 2006, Kazi was a young musician playing in an underground band and trying to break through the local scene, which revolved around several music channels, and various gigs in the major cities. At this point he was still deciding on which sound to experiment with, having found himself intrigued by developments in electronic music versus looking to create something “user-friendly”.

In what was the first of many serendipitous moments, a friend noticed that three of the tracks he had made seemed to be hinting at a larger vision, and he encouraged Kazi to pursue it. Those three songs were part of a film soundtrack Zohaib was working on that had only one problem – there wasn’t any film. Spurred by his friend’s encouragement, he decided to start writing the story he had wanted to be filmed.

Almost three years later, Kazi mailed a CD with one of his songs to Rohail Hyatt, one of Pakistan’s most acclaimed musicians and, at that time, the producer of the show that would define the last decade of Pakistani music – Coke Studio. Broadcast annually for a few months each year, it features songs (often as collaborations) from some of the country’s leading pop and folk artists. It is the most successful programme of its kind and spawned other versions in India and the Middle East. When I asked him, Kazi admitted that he didn’t know the generally reclusive Hyatt at that time but he knew where he lived and so sent over another CD after that too. Hyatt liked what he heard, and offered the young man a job first as his assistant and later as manager of operations. Kazi is now the associate producer of Coke Studio.

But Coke Studio proved a major distraction in the story of this album/novel, leaving Kazi very little time to work on it. It wasn’t until 2014, and a series of chance encounters with several people who would go on to be part of the final product, that things changed again.

Given that the journey took so long, I asked him whether there was a point where he struggled to hold together the vision for such an ambitious project. After all, despite Coke Studio’s success, even mainstream acts in the Pakistani music industry have struggled to gain a foothold outside of the show. “When you’re creating music you can’t ‘see’ what you’re making – you have to take an emotion and express it using notes and words, and you have to believe in it even if you can’t see it. In that way, it’s similar to having faith – imaan – because you are believing in something that you can feel even if you can’t see.”

Given how unique it is, the lush graphic novel is laudable in a Pakistani context simply for existing. It takes local literature towards the boundaries that have only occasionally been breached in recent years, by people and organisations driven by a similar DIY-ethos. The futuristic story follows Ismail Aslet, the world’s premier scientist, who is looking to resolve the problems caused by a Large Hadron Collider-like experiment whose effects are causing challenges to the very fabric of the universe. Ismail, who has few clues to work with, undertakes a journey that helps him discover the universe’s great secrets, as well as those of his own.

Beyond his personal motivations for the project, Kazi was also troubled by a lack of heroes that were created in the Pakistani milieu. “We are telling our children stories that aren’t our own and the philosophies or the morals being told in those are sometimes culturally alien. And heroes, throughout history, are what people look to for hope and guidance, and I wanted to create something like that, something modern and contemporary in a Pakistani cultural universe.”

But what sets it apart is the 12-track album that accompanies it, which is one of the best to come out of Pakistan in recent years. The album brings together a plethora of stars – Zoe Viccaji, Sara Haider, Abbas Ali Khan, Jaffer Zaidi and Zara Madani, among others, on vocals. Omran Shafique with the guitar is one of several musicians who also feature. The album, as per Kazi's intentions, does stand on its own but also creates its own very powerful narrative and Kazi does brilliantly in coaxing his vocalists to create the most of his ideas. Black Coffee, for example, has two versions: the reprise, where Abbas Ali Khan's voice is like a crisp, cold night and the original, where Jaffar Zaidi's bluesy voice sounds like the last regrets of the night.

Central to the various songs is the idea of desolation, and of the boundlessness of emotions. Given that the premise was a futuristic story with space travel and the like, I had expected a moody, sparse collection of soundscapes. Instead, Kazi’s songs, while produced delicately and largely without any attention-demanding frills, are replete with narrative. There is a feeling that these songs go with the larger story in the tradition of South Asian films, where they serve both as flights of whimsy and fantasy from the main plot, as well as reinforcing and driving it forward in other places.

At one point during our discussion, Kazi referred to the process of making music as "making a blind man see". In creating Ismail Ka Urdu Sheher, Zohaib Kazi has made a brilliant, and hopefully successful attempt, at opening up new vistas for Pakistani popular culture to see, hear and embrace.

Ahmer Naqvi is an Islamabad-based journalist who writes on culture and sport.

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