Producer, singer-songwriter, composer, guitarist, lyricist and collaborator, Ahsan Bari, talks to Instep about Guzarish (his debut EP), the future of Sounds of Kolachi and developing a sustainable ecosystem for music at large.
“Daydreams and nightmares, why are you here?”
Ahsan Bari is just getting out of a meeting prior to this interview. Another meeting is lined up post-interview. Even the outbreak of Covid-19 has not stopped him from looking at the future of the music ecosystem and how it can be taken forward. He also has a great deal of music in the pipeline (more on that later).
But right now, Bari is the focus of this interview for Guzarish, his first debut EP. Produced by Ahsan Bari Music and Salt Arts, it was dropped amidst the Covid-19 outbreak, when the pandemic was at its peak. There was a reason why it was timed in such a way.
The original EP had different ethos but with coronavirus, the musician changed the idea even as he continued to collaborate with a host of creative(s) for it.
The obvious question: with the existence of Sounds of Kolachi (SOK), which Ahsan Bari leads from the front, and a second album coming, why did Bari feel the need to drop a solo EP also? After all, SOK is several years old now and has a built-in following that could be tapped into.
“There is a lot of music and SOK is one dimension,” he begins, in this video interview “My own music exposure is vast; my musical training is extensive. I have studied and practiced various genres of music for a longtime and all of it is so much that it couldn’t fit within the SOK sonic landscape.”
In other words, Bari was not willing to make a khichri. It’s also because, as he explains it, SOK has a specific sound and direction and he knows how that direction will evolve. And he is unwilling to tinker with the SOK journey and make it his own starship record. He’d rather continue with it as a band that works together in harmony. In fact, on the upcoming second album, other members of the group are now taking compositional duties as well.
“I’ve made a lot of contacts and friends globally who have their own cultures. I want to collaborate with them and all of that does not fit in SOK.”
Bari agrees that while the first SOK album, Ilham, came and went without making a much more prominent mark than it should have, he notes that it was due to lack of music videos from the band and it was instinctual at that moment. However, he notes, “I don’t want the first album to die so before the second SOK album is released, at least two music videos from Ilham will be released.”
“In December, not only will the tracking of the second SOK album begin but we will do proper marketing and make promotional efforts as much as we can and what is within our capacity. The aim is to release the second SOK album by March, 2021”
Bari notes that a band truly comes into its own after making at least three albums and having a strong body of work. Therefore, both Ahsan Bari as a solo artist and as member of SOK wants to release multiple LPs/EPs. He notes instead of complaining, having a body of work is more important.
Guzarish was always meant to be dramatically different from SOK. “I have explored a kind of spiritual side in SOK,” he shares. “It was upfront while the music was rock-oriented, almost delving into prog-rock. On Guzarish, the sonic landscape is very minimalist; the focus is on themes and what is being said lyrically.”
Another huge difference between the EP and SOK is that the former is not focused on musical instruments. “There are almost no solos in the album.”
Even the song on which the fabulous Omran Shafique is featured, you will not hear him shredding the neck of an electric guitar (that has its own appeal). As Bari explains, “Guzarish has a meditative, introspective soul.”
“The EP was originally conceived before the lockdown. As soon as the lockdown was put in place, the first expression that emerged was a downer. To counter it, I spoke to Raania and Salt Arts, and the EP was etched out. It was clear that it was something we needed to do because the alternative was falling into an even darker abyss. It was obvious that nothing else would be happening, initially, when Covid-19 became a reality.”
“The other reason is that people listen to us (as artists), embrace what we do and our stance goes out to them. And the stance we wanted to put out was that this is a time for meditation and introspection. In the song, ‘Khamoshi’ from Guzarish, there is a line that says after the night, the morning light will come. And we wanted to remind people that the sun will shine; this is how nature works.”
The idea was not only to uplift people but more than that, it was to create something meditative and with it, a mindset that listeners could resonate with.
“This is my first EP; you will see a lot of work coming from Ahsan Bari Music in form of collaborative singles that I plan to create by working with multiple artist(s).”
From working on a record with Mai Dhai to a project with Fareed Ayaz, Abu Mohammad Qawwal and Brothers to collaborating with artists from outside Pakistan and shifting the spotlight on local artists - there is a lot Bari has on his mind.
For example, it includes working with Bangladeshi artist, Sheikh Dina and Frida Neri from Italy – both of whom have visited Pakistan.
‘We’re far from the shallow now’
Singer, songwriter, composer and producer, Ahsan Bari, is not only focused on his own music or that of his band, Sounds of Kolachi. To him, preserving the national treasure of music - the indigenous folk music that lives in the heart of Pakistan’s rural communities - is just as important. To do this, the idea of developing Ahsan Bari Music had begun to formulate in Ahsan Bari’s mind since early last year. But now, it has taken a much more cohesive and formal shape.
From working on a record with Mai Dhai to a project with Fareed Ayaz, Abu Mohammad Qawwal and Brothers to collaborating with artists from outside Pakistan and shifting the spotlight on local artists - there is a lot Bari has on his mind. “Janoobi Khargosh, Takatak and other contemporary bands” need to be promoted in a manner that their music goes out to the country and beyond. “It shouldn’t be relegated to the same 200 people who follow these acts.”
To do more, he is also learning about music publishing rights, and how to tie up with those who can take this music to every nook and corner of the country.
The colours of his heart
From the way he talks, it is obvious that Bari has great love and reverence for the folk music this country has to offer. As he sees it, the contribution to South Asian music legacy looks like India alone is representative and I have no problem with India. However, Pakistan has a lot to contribute. I believe a great deal of the South Asian music legacy is also Pakistani. It will not be the contemporary acts necessary but the folk music that resides in villages and the streets that will help in this realization.”
A great example for the musician is Mai Dhai. Though she has been involved with a number of high profile projects including Coke Studio and an Asim Raza film to name two, Mai Dhai’s work is not archived by and large. Two or three songs don’t maketh an archive.
“What the government should be doing is being done by one Saif Samejo, who is archiving as much music he can by funding it through his own pocket and presenting it to people via Lahooti Live Sessions.”
The fortunate news is Ahsan Bari is willing to play his part.
“I am working on a on a Mai Dhai album [that often takes him to Umerkot, Sindh] and on a very special project with Fareed Ayaz Qawwal and Brothers.”
It is often said that post-Coke Studio, Fareed Ayaz and troupe have moved away from classical qawwali to commercial material. “Fareed Ayaz Qawwal are, in my opinion, the only authentic qawwals who are taking forward the tradition of qawwali worldwide. They belong to Qawwal Bacchon Ka Gharana (founded by Amir Khusrau) that has survived for 800 years and is still going on through them. And they have so much material; we want to bring that out. What Fareed Ayaz is looking forward to is bringing the material that has been in his mind and the base will be authentic qawwali. He is the household name for authentic qawwali.”
Where does Mai Dhai fit in? She has her own story. So, will it be a single here, a single there, or a much more comprehensive body of work? And this applies to other folk artists and instrumentalists as well.
“There is a hierarchy, a system and the content can only come when your producers collaborate with other artists. Because they are not producers; all they have is content. You need someone who can bring all this together. Right now, your major producers in the country are not interested in indigenous music. And they are not realizing that this is the music that will put Pakistan on the global music map.”
Contemporary Pakistani music, he feels, represents a very small side of the overall music culture the country has to offer. “The plan for Ahsan Bari Music for the next five years is research that we have so many indigenous artists that we could make a record after another.”
Coming back to Mai Dhai: “Material with Mai Dhai will start coming out in December/January onwards. I’m interested in bringing Mai Dhai as a brand in itself. I have stayed in her house; I have spent nights talking to her. Her son often translates since we don’t speak the same language. And I told him to not translate. I will understand what she is saying. Her story is incredible. At the age of 70, she is something else. I think she needs to come out as someone who is representative of Pakistani music. Her passion is so strong that she calls me three times a month just to find out what is happening and when will we make music? I want that persona to come out and I want to do some collaborations that are between her and foreign artists. Another plan is that she travels around the world like a Mai Dhai Tour.”
Ahsan is clear that he doesn’t necessarily have to be the one who travels with her; there are other artists, like Shahid Rehman – who are talented but not prolific enough – to carry it forward with her. “I want to develop an ecosystem. Not everything can be done by Ahsan Bari but Ahsan Bari Music commissions arrangers, other musicians who can do this. Maybe I’ll get someone new to travel with her.”
“I am not interested in doing everything myself,” he says on a parting note. “I’d rather develop an ecosystem where collaborations can happen with local and foreign artists and newer talent comes forward.”
From the way he speaks, it must be acknowledged that he is choosing to be an optimist and look at the glass half-full rather than half-empty. In his perspective lies his greatest triumph.