Shafqat Amanat Ali: Creating his own legacy?

After releasing his debut album, Tabeer, Shafqat takes his first step as a solo act.

Let’s just get down to it: Shafqat Amanat Ali, perhaps one of the most well-known vocalists in Pakistan’s current pop industry, has finally released Tabeer, his debut solo album and his first body of work in some five odd years.

The last time I met Shafqat was sometime last year, during a photo shoot for an interview featured in Images. Back then he was taking a step towards establishing himself as a solo artiste. In that interview, he’d spoken about his highly-popularised break-up with Fuzon, the act that propelled him to stardom, and his late father (Amanat Ali Khan sahib) and brother (Asad Amanat Ali).

Back then the impression I got of him was that he seemed firmly footed in what he considered to be his identity as a person; which he closely associated to his family and gharana. Although he had yet to record an album, during that time he was in talks with Rohail Hyatt on recording two albums, one of which I was told by the latter was supposed to be a more spiritual. “Somehow that didn’t work out,” said Shafqat about his plans of working with Rohail.

But whatever happened? “Well, Coke Studio started — it popped up at the last minute,” he responded. “So I went to Shani (Zeeshan Haider), which was the right decision according to Rohail who said ‘Aacha hua yeh album uss ke pass chala gaya, mein banata to thora dark ho jata. Shafqat needed a bright album because it was his solo album after a long time’.” Shafqat didn’t seem to have any hang-ups about being bumped off by Rohail seemingly at the last minute, and was quite happy with the work he ended up doing with Shani instead.

At this point it must be mentioned that the person I met for this interview was very different from the one I had met at the afore-mentioned photo shoot. The Shafqat I had encountered then was somewhat talkative and willing to open up about his influences and perceptions on different subjects. The one I met later was extremely travel-weary and well, fasting…which was what I assumed contributed to his relative lack of energy.

He had just come back to Pakistan after releasing an album in India and the requisite tour. We were also surrounded by a TV crew hoping to shoot some behind-the-scenes footage of Shafqat-in-action right before he released his album locally, with Sania Saeed his manager coordinating the activities of everyone involved — mine included.

“In fact, we had to pull out a few songs and tracks from the album which were very dark and very sufiana. We thought we shouldn’t do it because that’s not sellable in India,” he said, talking in terms of commercial viability. Later on during the interview, Shafqat went on to say, “I don’t really think about the reaction I would get from people or my fans when composing music as what others think is not important to me. What is important is that I create music the way I want to.”

Both these statements come across as a bit of a contradiction.

He got up in the middle of the interview and showed me a bundle of Indian newspapers on the recent coverage he’d received in India. One of the papers carried an advertisement of Shafqat’s album covered in stamp ink. With a hint of a smile (and Sania carefully manoeuvring the cameraman’s attention towards the paper) he explained how the officials at an Indian airport were using the paper for the boarding card stamp. As Shafqat got his card stamped and began walking away, one of them realised who he was and called him back. Needless to say, Shafqat left with the newsprint as a souvenir. I was appropriately pointed out the stamp and the inscription on it.

Coming to the content of Tabeer, it is predominantly composed of spiritual songs, some of which are covers of several popular numbers (Khairiyan de Naal, Lal Meri Pat, etc). The overall content is very different from what one had seen Shafqat work on during his tenure with Fuzon. I wondered whether this was how Shafqat hoped to define his own sound. “It is not unintentional at all,” he responded to the varying personalities in his music. “Whatever I had composed for my previous band, after disbanding I had taken everything back with the idea of releasing it.” The move would have exploded the ex-band members into further controversy, and realising that Shafqat decided not to go ahead with it. “I have given something totally new to the listeners in this album.”

But what about the fate of the unreleased songs that he’d sung with Fuzon on what was then supposed to be their second album with him? Shafqat plans to release those songs, perhaps two or three per album, to balance them out with his newer material.

The album Tabeer is more about establishing his own identity. “These were the songs that I always thought I’d do someday, and when I was approached by the Indian record label Music Today, I thought I’d sing those songs.” An example is Khairiyan de Naal, his first single from the album. “It’s a borrowed line from Tufail Niazi’s folk song of the same name.” Even though he took the main chorus line from the original folk song, he wrote and composed the rest of the song around it.

Shafqat’s also sung Pagalpan inspired by Sindhi folk music for the album. “I had heard some folk songs in Shani’s studio and they had a beautiful melody. After making several curves and changes, I decided that we should have it in Urdu.”

But this isn’t where the covers end. Shafqat has also covered Rang Le, a very popular qawwali in the Amir Khusro kalam. When Shafqat and Music Today were through discussing the album, the latter sent him a bundle of papers containing the shairi that they wanted him to compose. “We couldn’t pick more than one because I didn’t want to make it into an Amir Khusrau album. So I picked Rang Le because it’s a very traditional track with a lot of romance in it. I thought we should compose it in a different way, ‘with a pinch of jazz’ (as mentioned on the album jacket). We tried it and the Indians just loved it.”

The Indian sensibility and proliferation in Pakistan’s pop music industry is increasingly becoming a norm. With the country unable to provide a healthy environment for full-time musicians to grow in, given the current state of affairs — we haven’t had proper, outdoor ticketed concerts (the bread and butter of most musicians) in almost two years — making it in India has literally become the Pakistani pop star’s dream.

Having said that, disappointingly so, most of the albums that have been released earlier this year, except for perhaps Ali Azmat’s Klashinfolk, have had a very strong, very dominant Indian pop music touch in their overall compositions. Our pop music has a very distinct, non-filmi sound and it is what sets us apart. But when our acts literally do more than just sell their souls across the border, one can only watch in bitter disappointment.

Thankfully though, none of the above can be said for the album Tabeer...and Shafqat agrees, “I recorded the entire album in Pakistan while they wanted me to record it in India. I refused and insisted that I’d record Tabeer here because Pakistani musicians and recordings had their own distinct sound. Whatever is released had to be prepared and made in Pakistan. That was my major concern,” Shafqat says resolutely.

Shafqat was nominated in the best lyricist category at this year’s The Musik Awards (TMAs) for the Fuzon song, Neend Na Aye Teray Bina. One had even heard rumours that Shafqat planned to sing the song and release it himself as well. When asked, Shafqat shook his head saying he had no intention of doing anything of the sort, and that if someone really wanted to hear his version of it they could look online since most of the second album that he recorded with Fuzon had been leaked on the Internet.

“Do you know how he wrote that song?” Sania said, adding that he asked for a piece of paper during a flight and scribbled some of the initial lyrics on it. The subsequent song was completed on bits and pieces of paper procured from flights, hotel rooms and what not. It turns out that Shafqat does this quite often in a fit of inspiration — he’ll write on anything that is readily available for him to translate his creative energy on to.

– Photography: Arif Mahmud/WhiteStar

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