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Defiant Harmony: Pakistan’s Rock Pioneer Bridges Eastern Classical Melody, Western Harmony, and Rock Drive

posted Aug 12, 2015, 5:42 AM by Vu Nguyen
When they told pioneering guitarist Mekaal Hasan, the first Pakistani to attend Berklee, in jazz harmony class that you shouldn’t add certain notes to certain modes, he immediately wanted to do just that. When Eastern classical musicians in Lahore told him a certain jazz-inflected chord sounded wrong, he added an entire section to a song, just to highlight it.

That defiant, exploratory spirit animates the Mekaal Hasan Band. The group unites Eastern classical and Northern Subcontinental music concepts with Western jazz harmony and unflinching rock drive. Reframing centuries-old Sufi and Punjabi court poetry as smoldering, growling rock anthems, the band does the impossible: They honor tradition and often neglected traditional musicianship, while blowing open its sound and meaning.

The band’s very lineup challenges constrictive norms and notions. It’s a rare confluence of artists from very different backgrounds, coming together in a culturally and politically fraught scene, in a country ambivalent about music and its role in society. Hasan collaborates closely and on equal terms with bansuri (bamboo flute) master Papu Ahsan, who hails from one of Lahore’s gharana (traditional music families), a move that few pop and rock musicians in Pakistan make. He invited a Bengali singer from Kolkata, the clarion-voiced Sharmistha Chatterjee, to sing lyrics written from a female perspective, exclusively by males--despite the contentious standoff between their homelands.

“I love that there is this dialogue one can develop through songwriting between our tradition and from the sounds I always leaned towards as a musician. As a songwriting ensemble, we draw on jazz, classical, and rock chops where needed, while trying to avoid some of the self-indulgence that has plagued East-West fusion attempts in the past,” notes Hasan. “My challenge is to take a traditional form and see if I could write tunes and songs in the styles of the music I admired and grew up on. The rest came naturally.”

On the band’s first North American tour, on the heels of their latest release Andholan and a lauded spot at SXSW, the Indo-Pakistani group will bring their Punjabi prog-rock to Toronto, Minneapolis, Bloomington IN, New York, and other US cities in August and early September.
 

If Hasan is a bit of a firebrand, a musical hybridizer, he comes by it naturally. Hasan grew up in a progressive, highly educated family, between two faiths, the son of a Muslim father and Christian mother. He was raised on jazz modes, listening to Miles and Cannonball Adderley from his father’s extensive (and rare for Pakistan at the time) collection of jazz records, meeting the major jazz players who came through Lahore. His family home was always filled with music and musicians, and in a country of anemic music education, his parents actively encouraged Hasan’s obsession with piano and guitar lessons.

But after Berklee, when Hasan found himself at loose ends as a highly trained musician with few obvious opportunities, he decided to teach himself studio engineering. With his parents’ support, he built one of the few high-quality studios in Pakistan, modeled on Squid Hell in Boston. “Music school isn’t where you learn about music. I was sitting in Lahore figuring it out on my own. For years, I tried to duplicate what I heard on the records I liked,” be it Weather Report, Journey, or Kate Bush. “I ended up learning how to record Desi instruments, adapting drum techniques and experimented with micing positions, with adding distortion to flutes.”

One of Eastern Classical music’s most flexible and charismatic instruments, the flute’s wide range and sinuous quality appeal to Hasan, yet he longed to hear what he had heard on rock vocals, the grit and buzz to balance the sweetness. Papu navigates both effortlessly, and inspires many of the licks, flourishes, and runs that characterize MHB’s sound. He and Hasan double lines with startling precision, without losing the spark and drive that make rock hit hard.

Their musical partnership is a rare one. Traditional musicians like Papu may have chops that stun, but they are most frequently hired for drab session work, often under regrettably disrespectful conditions. When Hasan saw Papu giving a lackadaisical singer a piece of his mind for unprofessional behavior, Hasan knew he had found someone worth collaborating with. “I saw this going on between this superstar and a working musician. Most are so desperate to work, they would never dare do that,” explains Hasan. “I immediately thought that this is the kind of guy I should be working with. We started hanging out and ever since then, I’ve been a huge fan.” It’s a fertile friendship that defies class barriers.

Together, Hasan and Papu have crafted songs with powerful classical or traditional underpinnings, but always with a twist. “Kinarey” merges two versions of the same piece, the first taught to aspiring young musicians, from two different gharanas or families. A song may use a section in a particular raga, with its emphasized degrees or notes, only to morph into a Western mode, with its concomitant chordal resonances--and different tonal centers. Hasan toys with these contrasts and tensions, creating multi-section songs that rival prog rock at its wildest. (“Bheem,” “Ghunghat”)

Hasan’s hybrid sound and stellar playing caught the ear of drummer Pete Lockett (Peter Gabriel, Bjork, Amy Winehouse, AR Rahman), and their work together launched Hasan’s breakout EMI/Virgin release, Sampooran. Hasan has since released numerous albums, and won awards, a large fanbase, and critical acclaim.

But after years of struggling to find gigs in a country with a highly restricted and restrictive scene, Hasan looked to Pakistan’s neighbor to the south, India. It was an economically and culturally obvious move--but one wracked with political conflict. The result of the move was strikingly harmonious, showing how much musicians on both sides of the border had to share. After hearing Chatterjee, herself a product of a jazz-loving musical family with wide-ranging influences, Hasan knew he’d found the new voice for his compositions. “I wanted to hear a female voice, to bring out the more feminine sounds and elements of the music,” notes Hasan. One of the first standing ensembles of Indian and Pakistani musicians in decades was born.

“While much is made of the often acrimonious relationship between the two countries politically, not enough is done to explore the many wonderful things we can build upon together,” reflects Hasan. “Through our shared history of music, we can create art that is relevant to and worthy of the kind of creative outpouring which celebrates our cultural vantage points. The fact that we have hundreds of years of shared musical and artistic history is in of itself a treasure trove to be delved in deeply as partners in art and culture.”

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