We talk to founding member & lead singer of sufi folk band The Sketches
You released your highly acclaimed debut album, Dastkari, in late 2010; how you would describe yourselves to anyone who isn’t familiar with your sound?
Music is a universal language and how you perceive music doesn’t necessarily describe how other people hear or feel it. Some people get themselves attached to a particular tune because of a certain feel while others go for the lyrics, so it varies. Rather than describing our sound, I would simply ask people to listen to our music and judge for themselves.
In the age of throwaway pop music with vacuous lyrics, many of your tracks have a powerful message of peace and harmony— tell us about the ethos behind your songs?
Firstly, music that we are creating is inspired by nature that holds within it a message of peace and grace for each of us. The motion of rivers, singing of the birds, touch of wind, blow of leaves all teach us balance, harmony, patience and contentment. Secondly, I think it is high time to give a wake-up call to lost humanity. I belong to a place where the history of my land was more peaceful than the current scenario. Through the ages, its true people fought for their territory but they never killed people in the name of humanity or religion. If we look back at the history of Sindh, for example, which is older than the history of Pakistan as a nation, we will find how peaceful this land of Sufis once was. It was a place where the majority of people of one religion lived happily with various other minorities without any problem. Where only one religion was dominant and the religion I am talking about was the religion of humanity. But things are totally opposite here now, sadly. Every other month various mandirs are reported destroyed or burned by people from other religions. You can’t live or practice your faith openly, and at such a point I think that we need to open the eyes of our youth to what is happening; music is the way to convey this message of peace and humanity and that is part of our on-going mission as a band.
“Main Sufi Hoon” won best video of last year at the recent national Hum Awards as well as the track featuring on numerous ‘best of the year’ critic Top 10 lists. Tell us a bit about that single and whether you expected this kind of response to it…
“Main sufi hoon sarmasta, merah kaun pehchaane rasta” (“I am sufi and who knows my way”) is a sufi kalaam featuring The Sketches, Louis J. Pinto (Gumby), Faraz Anwar & Jono Manson; so a real collaborative track. The video, in particular, stands out as it fortuitously adheres to the principle of promoting Sufism in its strictest sense with originality and its concept. As far as the response is concerned we always try to give our best with everything we do and only deliver that we ‘feel’ and believe in; for this reason, we don’t worry much about the industry response, nominations or awards.
How will the forthcoming 2nd album be different from your debut?
To be very honest our first album Dastkari, even though very well received by the public, never inspired me much. I think as an effort and a journey it was an amazing experience. Where we stand today is all because of the commitment, hard work and determination that we rendered for several years before our debut album came to the market and that impresses me– but I don’t hesitate to confess that despite all our efforts we did make some mistakes and I think that’s not just with us as it happens to all beginners in the industry and even to seasoned professionals. That’s how life is and with each experience you learn and move on. Dastkari was somehow the glimpse of an impatient and excited youth. Where you run for producing more stuff rather than giving enough time to each subject or project; then you are quick and aggressive. And so I don’t find much of the mature work from our side on Dastkari. But our upcoming 2nd album is, in my opinion, a greater progression musically and most importantly it inspires and at the same time motivates me. We have actually spent quality time in terms of ideas as well as collaborations with many Pakistani as well as international artists. I think listeners will see a more mature, level-headed and sensible work this time. So yes it’s special for me and I am keeping my fingers crossed but with some degree of confidence, I hope.
You established a music ashram based in Jamshoro in Sindh, Lahooti Aashram, why did you set it up and what else can you tell us about it?
“Make music not war” is probably the best way to sum up Lahooti Music Aashram. It’s the first music school in Hyderabad/Jamshoro, Sindh. The idea behind the school is to provide the youth with a platform to learn different musical instruments, reviving and keeping alive the tradition of folk music and preserving and carrying forward the rich legacy of indigenous musicians and traditional musical instruments along with modern ones– and at the same time drawing our youth’s attention to their roots and identity. Though there have been many private guitar and piano tutors in Hyderabad and Jamshoro, this is the first formal institution to be established in the locale. The school offers a 36 hour learning module in keyboards, guitars, bass guitars and drums amongst western instruments and chung, boreendo, shehnai, danbooro, sarangi, narr, sitar, flute and dholak/tabla, along with other percussion instruments from closer to home. In addition to that, the Aashram also provides full recording studio facilities, scholarships, participation in exchange programs and internships for the most competent students.
What kinds of people currently attend Lahooti Aashram?
Music is for all and we don’t limit it to a particular age limit or type of person. So we keep our doors open for anyone who wants to relax, unwind and wants to escape from the noisy atmosphere of the city to a place that’s peaceful and immensely creative. Families like to come over to us on weekends to enjoy our Saturday night gigs (known as the Lahooti Live Sessions) and to get refreshed for their upcoming hectic week. We have students from different age groups enrolled for regular classes and we are even bringing musical summer camps for school kids.
Why do you think it’s important to keep the folk traditions alive?
Your folk traditions are your identity and you can’t deny the basis of your existence. In order to prosper and survive you need to keep these values alive. The reason we are suffering mentally, physically, socially and economically is because we have forgotten the message of peace, tolerance, brotherhood and equality that derives from our folk traditions. Sindh is a land of a treasure in the form of its Sufis and their messages but sadly instead of using this wealth of culture some people are too busy deciding how to get rid of minorities, how to destroy its art and how to put a ban on subjects and objects that are directing towards change. When you kill your traditions or move your eyes from it you lose your authenticity towards your identity and its continuity.
Through The Sketches’ debut album, you’re credited with helping to re-boot “sufi rock” in Pakistan at the time of its release; a genre first popularised by Junoon in the late 90s. Would you agree with that statement?
I partially agree with this statement and partially disagree. Junoon emerged and was maintained as a rock band with Sufi poetry set to their music. Our current music also has significant folk roots and has therefore become much more diverse. However when we are asked to quote our musical inspirations, we always cite Junoon as one.
Which folk artists do you most admire?
Maee Dhaee has a magical voice and she keeps an amazing balance singing and playing dholak simultaneously. Fakir Zulfiqar plays the ancient boreendo instrument though he is not being financially supported by the government or any other means yet he plays it for the joy of his people.
Your first album was released on Fire Records, arguably for many years the biggest commercial music label in Pakistan; your recent singles have been self-released. Is there a trend for artists to release their own material these days and why do you think that is?
We released our debut with Fire Records because at that time we assumed that we needed a strong commercial backbone to get onto the television channels and media. Later on we realised that it probably was a mistake as our music isn’t commercial. So it wasn’t so much a trend for us rather than a deliberate decision based on our experience of certain things that ultimately influenced that decision.
iTunes launched in India in December 2012 but music piracy is still rampant in Pakistan (as it is in India too); what’s your view on illegal downloading?
Musicians spend time, effort and money on their work. What an audience views as a ‘final product’ on a download screen is the result of a huge sum of money spent on its production, mixing, collaborations and other necessary modes of release. So it’s natural that any musician wants to get some level of return paid in the form of legal downloading. People must appreciate a musician and listen to the music through proper means. However this scenario doesn’t fit for a country like Pakistan where television channels don’t always support artists and an artist has to find their own way of reaching out to an audience. In such conditions, getting a monetary return matters less than finding ways to get the music promoted. Musicians in such conditions seem to gain an audience to listen to their music and message without asking them to pay. I am not in favour of illegal downloading but due to a less supportive media structure in my country, I find it a better alternative in the current state.
If you were asked to produce a big commercial track for a Bollywood film; would you do it? What would be the motivator?
I would say YES for Bollywood and even for Hollywood! I believe in new experiences, observations, experiments and collaborations. I think music or musicians shouldn’t be limited to one country or industry. Keeping our own style and mode of message, we would definitely record where asked. As far as motivator behind this, I think making the music itself would be the motivator.
What is your favourite track of the last 2 years?
“Tu Mane Ya Na Mane” by Wadali Brothers (Coke Studio India) has been my most favourite track of the last two years or so. Currently “Laal Ishq” from Ramleela sung by Arijit Singh and also “Frames” from one of our collaborators Jono Manson’s new album Angels on the Other Side.
You are helping bring Sindhi music to a wider and also younger audience, but you also record in many other languages…
We have tracks in Sindhi, Saraiki, Punjabi, Urdu and even English. And I can safely say you don’t see such a range of languages as well as instruments from any other Pakistani band today. It’s important to say though, I never listen to music or any particular artist on the criteria of language alone. So there are many artists out there whom I admire but I can’t do injustice to my belief of counting music as a universal language and picking artists from one particular language.
You take a lot of time with your music videos– how are these conceptualised?
It’s all natural but also somewhat random. Like us, our music videos aren’t strategically planned but evolve naturally; and the same goes for our self-penned lyrics. Sometimes while sitting with my friends in the chilled morning of Jamshoro I feel captivated by the instinctive looks of nature and this suddenly brings some ideas to my mind and I, along with team, go with that. Other times we observe some heart touching moments and want to convey those to our audience in the form of music videos. So there is no proper answer for how we conceptualise; we just keep on encouraging and welcoming ideas as they come, inspired by almost anything or felt deep down in our hearts.
Tell us about the music industry in Pakistan today?
There is NO real music industry in Pakistan anymore. Most of the Pakistani television media are only money-making machines that aren’t at all interested in your work or projection of ideas or the need for any message to the audience– only what’s best for them or what will bring them more money and fame. I think artists too are partly responsible for this; many artists themselves have no vision instead they become puppets of what the media wants them to do. They have potential and the power of music yet they don’t use it for the good of the people. What we and a few other artists are doing is a self-based effort. It is highly supported and promoted by the internet and social media networks like Facebook or YouTube and that’s how we reach our followers.
Which two of your own tracks are you most proud of?
We recently released a social message single and made it available as a free download; the track is called “Meena”. A video promoting female education as well as highlighting terrible situations prevailing in the form of ghost schools (these are schools on paper, but really are sometimes only enclosures to keep animals– or spaces for the locally powerful) and ghost teachers (teachers drawing salaries in different parts of Sindh province without discharging their duties in real schools). The second track I’d pick is “Mandh” which we performed on Coke Studio Season 4. It’s a waai by Shah Latif with the message of honesty and true desire to find or achieve your beloved. Being performed on Pakistan’s largest and most acclaimed television show, working under the best music producer and a gentle man Rohail Hyatt (the show’s producer) and featured among well-known artists of the country makes it a very proud track for us.
You are very vocal on social issues; do you think it’s important famous artists take a stand on important issues?
I believer it’s not only important for artists but also every individual working in whatever field to utilise their strengths and take a stand on important issues. Music is our power and being a musician standing for and defending what’s right is our responsibility. There are times when we are actually threatened for doing so but we don’t give up. But that’s not the case with all artists except a few. Sadly, the majority of artists in Pakistan are fearful. All they want to do is generate a good impression, so they don’t often speak out against the bad prevailing in our society. We care less about the response; we do what we feel is right.
You appeared on Coke Studio Season 4; what was that experience like?
Coke Studio Season 4 was the most amazing, challenging and proud experience for us. This musically powerful stage is the dream of any musician and we got to live that dream for real. The entire experience remains full of learning and we were energetic to see the spirit of the entire atmosphere that’s created in the show. Things were really tremendous in the creative process and the entire crew was easy to get along with. Rohail Hyatt is a multi-talented individual. He makes things easier to understand and his work and outcome represent himself as a person. His presence, appreciation and way of making things enabled us to give the best performance possible from ourselves. It’s probably fair to say that it was our performance on Coke Studio led us to a much bigger level of recognition nationally, as well as internationally—especially since the programme had a large following outside of Pakistan. We’ll always remember it as a turning point for The Sketches.
How did you decide which song to perform on the show? And was this solely your decision or the show’s producer?
We recorded “Kabhi” (from the album Dastkari), “Nind Nashe Vich” (which we later shot a full promotional video for to support tourism in Sindh), “Mandh” plus another couple of songs; in the end Rohail chose which of our performances would be broadcast.
What did you think of the Indian version of Coke Studio? How do you think it differed to the original Pakistani one?
Both are equally great. The Indian Coke Studio sounds better technically including that they also have a very vast range of music compared to us. But it would be harder to say which one is better; both have their own charm and both are the biggest stages for any artist to perform on in their respective countries.
How important is image to an artist these days?
There were days when I used to be conscious about what clothes to wear, what shades to pick but later on these things became senseless to me. I think every individual is unique and must present himself as real as he is. The only image that matters is being yourself.
You, the band and Lahooti Aashram have recently had a lot of publicity in the national press in Pakistan; how does that feel?
Yes, there are a few journalists in print media who love music, understand our initiatives and appreciate as well as promote us through their writing. Express Tribune Pakistan and Dawn are two who highly respected publications that possess few such journalists and have given us such exposure.
You’re often quoted in the press as saying music was the best way to combat religious extremism; tell us a bit more about that…
Art comes from identity and music is pure art; where poetry and dance are its expressions. Objects, bodies, elements, feelings are messages that are interpreted and conveyed to people through art. Things that people can’t understand can be explained well through these forms. As poetry, dance, feelings that touch a human soul more gently and help them to bring piece within. Religious norms always try to destroy these expressions or harm them or cut them down to a possible extent. By manipulating people’s minds and terming it as ‘haram’ which actually takes people back into darkness. If you eliminate art or its expression, you will turn towards darkness because music is a natural food for the soul that each individual needs. So I strongly believe in using the means that can strengthen people and I believe that music has such a power. I think what speeches can’t do, music can. And religious extremism thought toward any form of art or any other social issue in society can be fought through music.
Finally, do you have any plans to perform in the UK?
I would like to play in every part of the world. So whenever the UK invites me over, we will surely come over and perform.
Dastkari is available on CD in the UK via Hi-Tech Music. Select previous singles & tracks are available to download directly from the artist’s official Soundcloud. Forthcoming album taster ‘Jogi’ and all future official singles will be available to purchase worldwide from iTunes.