They made a quiet appearance sometime several years ago and slipped out of the limelight without much fuss either. Those who were aware of their presence labelled their work as a product of genius and could not understand why it failed to create a bang back then. More like a project between two creative individuals, Rushk’s album Sawal — although a relatively unique piece of work where Pakistani music is concerned — went unnoticed by many after its initial launch several years ago.
Post-recording the album, the Rushk duo, Ziyyad Gulzaar and Uns Mufti were up against record companies trying to sell the concept of their music to company executives to no avail. Eventually, the album found a release in India and managed to achieve moderate success; but it did not create much of an Impact in the Pakistani market.
Those familiar with Rushk’s music blamed the album’s lack of popularity to inadequate marketing by their record label. The fact that their first ever music video —Behti Naar, directed by Saqib Malik — had been banned after receiving several months of airplay did not help things either.
Ziyyad’s portfolio as a musician includes playing for Milestones and Ali Haider before working with Ali Azmat on his solo album, Social Circus. Uns, on the other other hand, set up Rola, a ‘creative house’, which ironically ended up producing another piece of art that subsequently got banned: Joey’s Mein Nahin Hoon music video. Rushk recently relaunched their album Sawal under the BMN record label. Images decided to have a heart-to-heart with the Rushkies (a term coined by lensman Amean J) about their music, the story behind their initial album launch, what they are up to right now and where they think they are headed.
At first glance, Uns Mufi and Ziyyad Gulzaar seem like an unlikely pair: Uns is well-built, with extremely tousled hair and an eyebrow piercing, whereas Ziyyad has a very neat-looking appearance, sharp inquisitive eyes, greying hair and a moustache. During the interview, they ended up completing each other’s sentences in almost perfect synchrony.
It has been several years since Sawal’s initial launch, so why relaunch it? “This is where we were and we’ve moved on. The only reason we re-released is to show people or give them a point of reference that this is where we moved on from,” Uns says. “The first one has songs that amaze me even now. There are so many things that we think about when we listen to the album now. It’s a good thing because when you move beyond something, you start understanding it, deconstructing it, constructing it again in a certain way.”
So will there be a second album? “Of course. That’s why we’re sitting here,” says an apparently exasperated Uns. “In the first album, we were just getting the hang of things, but right now we’re at a point where we think we can do better.”
“It’s difficult to play this sort of music,” adds Ziyyad, talking about potential Rushk-gigs, “We have to actually think about a way to do it live. It has to be presented differently.”
“See, it’s an illusion that we’ve created. We want to hopefully, come out with an audio-visual, like a completely visual structure as well because it’s not just about him and myself,” explains Uns. “When you put producers up on stage, I guess they’ll be good at doing the music right. It has to be more than just about five guys playing in a band, because it’s not a band; it’s an idea.”
Ziyyad adds, “It’s not just about playing music and singing, which is what everyone does. We can go and play the whole album for the sake of playing the whole album, but we want it to be ‘experienced’.”
“The illusion has to be complete,” punches out Uns confidently.
There is no one way to categorise Rushk music. The closest would be to call it electronic. Uns is of the opinion, however, that “essentially, it is pop music. It’s got a pop structure in the way it’s written. The only thing is that it is subverted and it sounds like dirty pop. But it is pop and it will have grunge in there among other things. We’re at a point where things might just come out of that pop cycle. We might just be something better and bigger. There is a possibility”.
“It’s been four or five years and we’ve started listening to different kinds of music,” says Ziyyad.
All of the songs in the album have been sung by Nazia Zuberi; yet she is not mentioned anywhere as a part of the band. What is the story behind that? “The arrangement with Nazia was that we will give her everything from the melody, to the words, the music; and she would practice her heart out, come back to the studio, jam there and record the vocals,” said Uns. “There was always a clear understanding among us because Nazia couldn’t commit to us. This is not what she wanted to do.” Uns further elaborated on how Rushk plans to incorporate different vocalists to sing their songs in their ‘audio-visual’ gigs.
Moving on, one wonders what they thought of the ban on their Behti Naar video. Conceptually brilliant but rendered in a somewhat grainy, home-produced manner, the video explores different facets of our society and selves: internal conflicts, oppression leading to rebellion, women empowerment, male submission and sexuality. Bold in it’s content and a little ahead of it’s time, Behti Naar also found Ayesha Toor (Uns’s wife) handcuffed in the beginning of the video as if haunted by internal conflicts and bound by societal rules. The handcuffs come off in the end and so does Ayesha’s hair, which is completely shorn off, possibly as a sign of liberation.
“We didn’t intend on being banned,” says Uns. “Obviously there was somebody going through the video, completely understanding it or at least relating to it somehow. I know for a fact that there are lots of people who have downloaded the video off certain sites. It is a good video to have because you can always come back to it and find something. You can find multiple interpretations. We want to move to a point where Rushk songs are open to interpretation. Right now, I feel like we’re standing at a point where everything is spelled out and you need to hold back a little.”
Rushk’s second video, Khuahish, also starring Ayesha and directed by Amean J, focuses on the war on Iraq. It begins by showing a person entering a plain white room from a blizzard raging outside. He goes through the motions of striking a match and proceeds to meticulously wear white gloves and a white mask, somehow rendering an eerily chilling effect.
Upon entering the room, we are confronted with a hooded prisoner-of-war with little tickers — that became immensely popular during the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre — playing across the screen. The hood is taken off to reveal a rather intimidating-looking Ayesha, who very causally asks: “Ab tumhe kya chahiye is bachay kuchey jeewan se?” Very much in-your-face when it comes to relaying the message, the shot of the supposed torturer wearing his gloves tends to haunt the viewer later on.
What is the story behind the video of Behti Naar?
SM: When I first heard the song, I thought it was zara hat-kay and found out who was responsible for it. Uns and I have common acquaintances and I wanted to do a video for it. I sat down with the band and we discussed what they wanted and gave them several concepts. They wanted a video that was a little off-beat. Also, they did not want to be featured in it.
It was an in-house affair really. Tariq (Amin) and Fariha (Altaf) are really good friends of mine and since the singer (Nazia Zuberi) had gotten married and moved aay, we cast Aisha, the woman in the video, who is Uns’s wife. The songs were hat-kay and so was the video.
What do you think of the video now?
SM: I love it (the video). It’s one of my favourites and I still believe it’s very fresh even after four or five years of being released. It’s a little hat-kay because Rushk’s music is a little hat-kay.
How do you feel about the ban on Behti Naar?
SM: It wasn’t banned. A lot of people are under that impression but it wasn’t banned. Indus Music loved the video and it was on top of their charts (than). After several months of playing it they got a phone call from some higher authority who said the material was objectionable and so they took it off air but it wasn’t banned.
It’s still played now and then on other channels.
What were you thinking?
AJ: A simple idea: the unfortunate invasions of the US forces.
Why the use the concept that u did?
AJ: The Khuahish video was extremely inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s way of shooting films. A photographers point of view, where the camera doesn’t move, instead the movement of the subject is carefullyorchestrated within the frame.
Was it the first video that you made? How was it?
AJ: I had done other video based projects in the past, but this was the first and the only music video I have done so far. it was a great experience and would like to do more story telling if I find music that will inspire me to do so’. Plus I had a fantastic team to work with, Sonya Battla did the costumes, and creative team at Nabila’s did
the look that I wanted, so surely I achieved all what I wanted from the video.
Coming back to the Rushkies, with a relatively good album and two off-the-centre music videos, why release it in India? “Shahi (Shehzad Hasan) who was a part of the post-production was also part of a company in India, based out of San Francisco, so he arranged it. They also played the video in India and had a marketing plan for it which I thought was really extensive”, said Uns.
But did it work? “It did what it could. BMG shut down a year after its release. Not only did they shut down, they just walked out, exited India. Right now, BMG is collaborating with Sony in India”, replied Uns. “At that time, they (BMG) were doing it with Crescendo”, added Ziyyad, “but the problem in India is, that their Bollywood music has completely…”
One would think this album would be perfectly suitable for the Indian-Bollywood market? “I sent it to Pooja Butt and her husband and they were like, ‘you didn’t release it properly’”, replied Ziyyad.
We wanted to release it properly”, said Ziyyad talking about the re-release, “I mean, we did it on tape, it was something which stuck to us, and we had to get it off our backs. Now it’s off”
“It’s not just that”, said Uns decisively, “we want to work. We want to get to work. The only way we are going to get to work is when we know the album is out in the market and whether or not people hate us or love us. We need to gauge the response in order to make a commitment for another album”.
With a market fast being saturated by new albums by even-newer artistes and so-called musicians, a need for a piece of music that stands out is direly felt. Rushk’s music may not have a direct mass appeal but it does stand out, in a good way. The idea of an audio-visual performance, given the current-embryonic stage of live music in Pakistan, seems slightly far-fetched but not entirely impossible. With videos that go beyond the cheesy entertainment factor and address issues that have long been ignored, Rushk is like a pill embedded in a chocolate bar: good for you and somewhat easy to digest.
Sawal can easily come across as a pseudo-soundtrack. With sound effects ranging from telephone bells and radio-buzz, to a match being struck, all the songs in the album aim to create an ambience before moving on to what they really are about.
Embodying a dark melancholic, almost-romantic sound, Sawal is a major change from the confused head-banging and bhangra music that one is normally faced with when it comes to local pop music.
Nazia Zuberi hasn’t varied from more than just a couple of notes while singing, which makes the vocals a little monotonous after a while, which is somewhat disappointing, specially when confronted with the fact that she is a trained classical singer and has the capacity to hit riskier notes than the ones she has in the album.
We are faced with a duet between Ali Haider and Nazia in the track Rahen. A step away from the bubblegum-pop sound that Ali Haider has restricted himself to, it comes as somewhat of a pleasant surprise to observe that he has the versatility to sing songs from a different genre of music and pull it off well. Nazia continues to sing in monotones in this song.
Behti Naar by far dominates the album as the best track. Questioning on personal and societal identity, with a conceptually brilliant video, Behti Naar is one song that deserves to be put on play-back mode. Overall, the songs in the album tend to produce a haunting effect.
The plus points in the album are the unique sound that is Rushk, the beautifully composed lyrics, the endless questions that reflect on the inside and the very coherent way in which each syllable of each word has been rendered very coherently.
The downside can easily be that it threatens to become monotonous and that it’s not the kind of music most listeners would find very appealing. It’s the kind that needs to grow on oneself before one can begin to comprehend the content. Realising that, Sawal can prove to be an album one can listen to now and years later and not be tired of it.
Note: text in blue was edited out in the article that was published.
(Saqib Malik’s photo was courtesy of Rewaj)
— Photography by Amean J