Introducing Faisal Rafi

…and the Indus World Music project.

ln a studio tucked quietly and almost inconspicuously behind one of the busiest streets in Karachi, interesting music-related developments are taking place.

Once inside, I’m confronted by a large poster of Pooja Bhatt’s film, Paap, and not surprisingly so since the owner of this establishment has worked on a part of the soundtrack of the film. Also adorning the walls right before the control room are framed photographs of classical greats — all of whom contributed to the Indus World Music project which is partly what I’m here to talk about.

The control room has a visible ‘no smoking’ sign on it, as the studios have ‘silence please’ on their doors — ironic, since that the opposite happens in each room.

The only other person in the control room at the time of this interview is Jafar from the band Kaavish. He has a cold, but since the album is in the final phase of its recording, he’s here to work on it.

“Darth Vader,” is the initial response I get when I ask Faisal Rafi to introduce his voice into my recorder, before he breaks into (another) laugh. Faisal Rafi is a name one has heard numerous times, but never really saw as such at any industry-related event. Not surprisingly so, since he considers himself somewhat of an introvert when it comes to making social appearances.

In the comfort of his studio, his lair and territory if you may, he is at home. On first impression, he seems completely un-jaded by what one would simply call the occasional harshness of life, but on the other hand that could also be because perhaps he chooses not to be. He’s expressive to the point of waving his arms around and the sheer diversity of the expressions he makes seems to emphasise what he is trying to say throughout the conversation.

With Faisal having worked on several high-profile albums releasing this year, and with his studio fast growing into a haunt for local musicians to meet and work on even more music, one expects him to emerge from the relative obscurity that he’s shrouded in. Although he has had other projects to his credit — he used to own an event management company in the ’90s, worked with Rohail Hyatt in Pyramid Productions, worked with Rahat on the soundtrack of Paap and worked on projects for Channel [V] amongst other things — perhaps his most well-known project to date has been producing Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s second album, Charkha.

“I’ve worked with Rahat a lot besides Charkha,” Faisal points out when asked about the album. “I knew (his late uncle) Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan well as we did a lot of events for Channel [V]. Towards the end, I was involved with him on some live albums.”

So is that how he got acquainted with Rahat? “Yes. During that work Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan passed away. A dear friend of mine, Sajjad Perwani, had a company called Visible Changes where I used to work as an A&R (artists and repertoire) manager. Sajjad wanted to sign Rahat and financed the initial efforts of Munn Ki Lagan. Unfortunately, Sajjad passed away several years ago and Rahat and I have been friends ever since.”

So how did he move towards music production? “After Visible Changes folded up, I worked at Rohail’s company for several years and during that time Shahi (Shahzad Hasan) and I finalised Munn Ki Lagan and some other songs by Rahat. The songs were then picked by Mahesh and Pooja Bhatt for the film Paap.” On his return from India, Faisal ultimately decided to pursue music production.

“It was a good experience. That was a difficult time and as a Pakistani travelling to India, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. But things have changed a lot in the past four or five years,” says Faisal, adding, “Mahesh Bhatt is a very interesting person to be friends with and he has some crazy ideas.”

Off to a good start in Bollywood, I ask Faisal why he didn’t pursue it further. “Whatever I want to do, I want to do it in Pakistan. I want to help artistes here; I want my studio to be here. I want artistes to benefit from it because this is who we are. Pakistan is our identity, not India,” he responds firmly. “I would have had to compromise on the Pakistani sound and maybe also compromise on various other issues as well. I have a certain set of standards for music which I don’t compromise for anyone. Jafar is sitting here, he can vouch for that,” he motions towards Jafar who nods in response. “But I’m not averse to it,” he clarifies, “if a good opportunity presents itself where we can be true to ourselves, then yeah, why not?”

The Indus World Music is another project Faisal has been involved in along with Shahi. They’ve shared a common interest in qawwali and folk music (Faisal is quick to point out that he was encouraged by his wife, Nini, who “intensely listens to classical and semi-classical music”) and they would regularly attend events hosted by the All Pakistan Music Conference (APMC). At one such event, when Faisal and Shahi tried acquiring a couple of albums on display, they were told they couldn’t as they were only available to members. Realising that there was a great dearth of recorded material where the classical art form of music was concerned, and that the last big collection of classical music was recorded by EMI way back in the ’70s, they decided to work on a preservation project.

The project that seeks to document the work of some of this country’s classical greats required some serious investment. In came Noor Lodhi, a friend who introduced the duo to interested individuals in (where else but) America. With the help of a senior member of the APMC, Sharif Awan, they shortlisted artistes which includes the likes of Sajid Hussein, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan Gwalior, Ustad Shabir Hussain Jhari, Ustad Sattar Khan Tari among others — some of which are in a very advanced stage of age and might be recording for the last time. “This is a completely self-financed venture, and Shahi and I are volunteers. It’s purely done as a service to Pakistan. If I’m a part of this industry and I don’t do a service to it, who will?”

Faisal expects the project to be ready for worldwide release in December. What’s more is that not only are there audio recordings of the artistes involved, but also a documentary shot by Imran Babar.

Any concerns that people will compare it to Coke Studio, Jafar points out to Faisal. “There is absolutely no comparison, yaar. Coke Studio is a corporate project with commercial aristes whereas this is a self-financed one of absolutely pure classical music.”

Other than the Indus World Music project, what else can we expect from the studio in the future? “I’m working on around four or five albums right now which should be coming out this year. Kaavish and Karavan are some of them. Strings recorded their album here. We’re working with a couple of new artistes. Mariam Kizilbash and Nazia who used to be with Rushk are some of them.”

But the last time I checked, Nazia wasn’t interested in pursuing a career in music, I tell him. “That’s (the product of) my convincing power,” says Faisal with a smile before adding, “one of the very interesting things we’re doing is that Gumby and I are planning to do an album in which we’re recording around 10 to 11 tracks which will all feature different vocalists. I hope Jafar will also agree to be a part of it.” On second thought, he adds, “In fact, he doesn’t need to agree. Jafar will be a part of that album.”

With so many projects bound to keep Faisal in the limelight, is this the end of him maintaining a low personal profile? “No. I will continue to maintain a low profile as far as publicity is concerned. I’d like the number of artistes I’m working with to increase. But not sacrificing the privacy I enjoy so much.”

– Photography by Fayyaz Ahmed

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