fishin' out the meaningful from the absurd.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Osama’s dead. Cricket is mostly fixed. Noori’s back.

Noori's Reuniting concert at PACC Auditorium Karachi on 6th May 2011

Text & Photographs by: Insiya Syed

What is it about words that conjure all kinds of images? Really take you someplace other? And leave you there with nothing but a strange-shaped hole in your heart and scratches all over your soul. That is the power of a song. That is the power of he/she, who made that song. ‘Goray Rung Ka Zamana’; “Neend Aati Nahi”; “Tere Ishq Main Jo Bhi”; “Puraani Jeans”; “Aap Jaisa Koi”; “Mera Pyaar”; “Pal Do Pal” could possibly trace the glorious journey of popular music in Pakistan without even needing to specify who sang those words.

Music, more than movies or images or any other form of art is probably the one that really tug at your heartstrings with this familiarity of sorts. With different songs meaning different emotions that it had once managed to arouse in the listener. Sometimes even more to the listener than to the artist that recorded it. Everyone and their grandmother have memories attached to the hundreds of tracks that they grew up listening to. That just about everyone has an “our” song; the song that’s the OST of that first breakup which hurt the most; the song that remind you of the girl that dumped you; the track you sang-along to with your siblings in the car or your friends at a karaoke bar and so on. That while listening to some of the top-rated most-played songs on my iTunes, I often think if a performer ever gets tired of performing whereas the listener could listen to a record on repeat for days and weeks and sometimes even years (Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon released in 1973; Thriller by Michael Jackson released in 1982; Self titled Vital Signs 1 released in 1989 et al) – in a very sticky-humid auditorium, I think I may have found my answer. At least a few clues if nothing else.

Clue no. 1: Never perform in a hot and humid venue, it makes you sweat and unless you’re as hot as Federer, no body cares about your sweat.

Clue no. 2: Do not stay up all night long, the night before your show browsing facebook, blogging or worse: tweeting.

Clue no. 3: Do not tell the hundred people who showed up at your show and paid 800 bucks (seriously!) and I quote “The problem with this concert is that I am really tired because I have been up all night!”

Clue no. 4: That you don’t want to throw a party at your house – for the FIRST time in SEVEN years – and invite a diverse crowd with only one thing in common: you – because 30 minutes into the get together, you’d have to be mind-blowingly entertaining in order to keep the crowd, well… entertained and not leave them hot and sweaty. They’re not Federer either.

Clue no. 5: When you make a comeback, make a comeback.

Clue no. 5(a): When you title anything – a book, a picture, a song, a movie – think twice.

Clue no. 5(b): In case you end up calling it “a gig not to be missed” – make it a gig that shouldn’t have been missed instead of could’ve been missed.

Osama’s dead. Cricket is mostly fixed. And Noori’s back. And please don’t get me wrong because if push comes to shove – they’re the only band I’d cheerlead for. That the hundred of fans who have followed the news of the ‘surprise’ the Noori-brothers spoke of for days, are nothing less then ecstatic at the return of the original-four line-up from the "Suno Ke Main Hun Jawan" days of year-2003. That despite the sea of emotions that one could visibly feel between the four – Ali Hamza on Vocals and Rhythm Guitars, Ali Jafri on Bass, Ali Noor on Guitars and Vocals, Gumby on Drums – the whining and cribbing of being tired and emotional and just being tired got to one. That, in a nutshell: this was a great show that had a feel of a jam session – we’ve seen better though by Munchkins, several times, at the same venue even – but not worthy of a show that came seven years too late.

In the end, the best versions are the simplest ones. Sung with conviction, such as “Aarzoo”; “Bol”; “Aik Alif” – the songs nagging melodies shone bright that night and heart-rending lyrics were harrowing enough. Somehow on tracks such as a mash-up of “Tonight’s Gonna Be A Good Night & Gana No. 1” the buzz of enthusiasm was missing as did the confidence of coming together and the combined-potential of four of some of the bestest and in Gumby’s case, greatest musicians on the circuit. The possibility of taking the experience of having done so much even during the long hiatus – Coke Studio, Uth Records etc – and taking everything to a new level and leaving everyone breathless, and translating the emotions the band felt into the crowd that remained loyal, all these years – was missed with an absolute lack of excitement.

The band had moments – Noor asking Jafri how he feels, “Aap ko kaisa lug raha hai?” and Jafri repeating the same to him; of Noor trying effortlessly to bring the otherwise backbencher Gumby to say a few words in front of an audience that screamed his name throughout chanting for the infamous drum-solo; or “Manwa Re” dedicated to a very emotional - Mandana, almost if not entirely the fifth band member. The thought on my mind when I left the venue was hunger for more (and food!) and not that adrenaline rush after having witnessed something so amazing, considering I was at the bands very first ‘sponsored’ performance, their debut in Karachi – many years back and have almost religiously followed their journey since the sold-out M-Live ‘weeks’.

They’re lucky though, what with positive memories of their formative years and nothing very extraordinary happening in the music scene as such – save from a new season of Coke Studio launching on May 22nd (Still can’t get over the mega-disappointing comeback of Entity Paradigm on the last season! Another sign of a bleak music industry!).

In Hamza’s words, “There’s a Murphy’s Law and then there is a Noori Law. If something is supposed to go wrong. It does with Noori.” It certainly did and one can’t really pinpoint why exactly. It’s almost like one cannot really explain that awkward-silence. It’s just… awkward and the only saving grace could be someone saving the day. The performance will soon slide into a past tense with a new record that’s probably in the making – apparently they have some classic ‘Noori’ songs that have already been penned and close-few await the release of those, that will supposedly change the face of the industry in general and the four in particular.

Boys, we were saddened by the departure, let us fall off the couch with the arrival. You’ve done it before.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Raw Magnetic Fields

Text & Photographs by Insiya Syed

Lately, the only pickup line that would work on me is: let’s go take photographs! I’d press ‘attending’ at the drop of a hat on the facebook-invite; charge my batteries and start marking ‘X’ on the table-calendar.

And there’s any number of reasons for the excitement: looking forward to anything that involves getting out of routine; the opportunity to document a space; meeting ‘locals’; making conversation; and, of course, building my own personal relationship with the space and those that inhabit it.

Sometimes its simply because of the thrill of marking a ‘pin’ on the map of Pakistan/Karachi: the cost effectiveness of the whole deal, as well as living the experience, after being at-it as a photographer (cant wait when I can call myself a photojournalist – my parents think I am not sober or mature enough to label myself that, yet!) – taking photographs is so charming and
still works on me after all these years. Throw in the fact that what really turns on my camera is when I am prohibited to take a photograph or just simply not allowed to click one.

A photographer’s haven – with subjects that vary from scraps of hazardous material to a 7-year old girl who refused to let me shoot her portrait, and a meager 50km away from Karachi, Gadani was once described as the world’s largest ship-breaking yard. Fast forward the reel to now: it’s nothing less or more than a final resting ground for grandeur, that was – or a backyard with ships thrown around like toys that were once advertised for all things exotic.

Although the remote town has got little to boast now, unceremoniously overlooking an ugly dump of static rusty iron – it still has a beautiful landscape with a resounding OST of the gushing Arabian sea.

First Published in The Friday Times - March 18-24, 2011 - Vol. XXIII, No. 05

Sunday, July 30, 2006

The Awards Have Spoken (unedited)

By: Insiya Syed

Yes, it's that time of year again.

Time for the various award shows to clutter up our Television sets. And time again for us to ask the infamous question: Who judges these awards, and why weren't they fired last year? This year the award season began with the 3rd Indus Music Awards and was followed soon by the 13th PTV Awards. Both the shows aired on the respective channels on the same night. Ironically, that very night- The Musik Awards [TMA] 2006 were being staged in Karachi. Post-awards observation includes: too many awards and not enough stars; we have to remember that the Grammy's and Oscars are decided by not a jury but by music and film professionals numbering in the thousands; in our part of the world: the respective channel's jury and owners do the do. Which anyone with a sane mind would find absurd. As the famous saying goes, "Out of 5 billion, twelve decide I am guilty and they call that justice". The last laugh: we have no more than a hundred "legal" releases in the year and have more award ceremonies than England!

Having sat, earlier, through the very first ceremony that ARY networks had organized, all three hours of it showed from the beginning that TMA 2006 would be a very different awards show. Umar Amanullah [Creative Director / Head of Events] was responsible for the entire look and feel and the perception of the Awards - starting from the name TMA & the Award/Trophy Design to the whole theme, the set, the flow - it looked classy and spoke volumes about the amount of effort put into it since April.

TMA showed the difference. In the main, this was a rather tasteful, restrained affair. A bit long as it started a full four 4 hours past its scheduled time; a bit disorganized as the VIPs seated in the front were without a projector screen; a bit lost as it missed out on some major categories as that of the best singer/vocalist and best music journalist; a bit racist by offering the fashion brigade business class tickets while musicians flew economy class; a bit sad that some major contestants were missed out such as Mekaal Hasan from the best producer and Fahad Khan and Salman Albert from the best drummer categories. Despite all these shortcomings it accomplished its mission — showing off the best in contemporary popular music, with several touching tributes to the music that was.

While never being able to achieve its over-the-top, younger, and hipper feel- the definitely crasser rival, Indus Music [now MTV Pakistan in the making] has suffered in recent years with an identity crisis. It always tried to juggle its role as the "official" arbiter of authentically good music while being so "fashionable" at its music award ceremonies that it misses out handing the right awards to the right people. At most levels- TMA was everything that Indus Music Awards wished to be.

The process was simple and fuss free. The categories were decided by the channel and all the applicable list of nominees were sent to the Jury. This contained an average of 10 to 12 possible nominees per category. The Jury gave points to all the nominees and out of these, 5 top scoring nominations per category was short listed by the auditors and hence they became the final 5 nominees.

The Jury decided the winners for 14 of the Jury Awards Categories, while the viewers of The Musik decided the winners of the 7 Most Wanted Viewers Choice Categories via SMS, website polls and IVR. These sealed results for all categories whether Jury or Viewers Choice, were delivered in sealed envelopes to the Auditors which were then compiled, sealed and sent to ARY directly before the Awards began. So no one except the Auditors knew who had won! That makes TMA the first awards in Pakistan to be audited. The channel did what it's supposed to do: merely facilitate the awards as the actual winners are determined by the Jury and the viewers.

What also made TMA the most credible music awards this season was its jury that boasted of names such as: Pakistan's top music composer Arshad Mahmud, former Vital Sign Shehzad 'Shahi' Hasan, Nayyara Noor, the very versatile Anwar Maqsood, style guru Tariq Amin, music journalist Nadeem Farooq Paracha, and ace director Asad-ul-Haq.

You can also tell a lot about an awards show by judging its hosts. I certainly was looking forward to watching some new faces taking on the stage at the TMA. And even though there were no major surprises the three duos - Hassan Shehryar Yasin aka HSY with Meesha Shafi, Aijaz Aslam & Sonya Khan and the young and hip VJs Faraz with Natasha - did a rather good job at introducing the categories and calling on the presenters.

An exhilarating opening performance by Ali Azmat ("Main Chala") accompanied by 10 models and a few clowns on-stage was more than just a perfect beginning to any music show.

Ali Azmat fans are not the brooding lot who like to analyze performance or set list. Azmat fans don't filter their Azmat experience through anything. That would just dilute it, stupid. Keep it simple: "brilliant", "great", "awesome", "whoo!" is about as polysyllabic as it gets. Little did anyone predict that a few hours later these few hundred people would be walking out of the venue with the exact same words coming out of their mouth just thousand times more intense!

Whereas in Pakistan, award ceremonies are mainly to socialize, world-over they are held to recognize the efforts of on-screen and behind the scene people who brought about a change or simply provided entertainment. The 'Best Pop Song' 'Pyaar To Hona Hee Hay' by Suroor pulled the biggest upset, nudging out the most popular songs 'Zinda' by Strings and 'Saali' by Shehzad Roy. The next award went to Shiraz Uppal's 'Saiyan Wai' for the 'Best Bhangra Song' and although his lovely track 'Jhuki Jhuki' was a hit earlier this year, the award should have rightfully been given to Raheem Shah's 'Ishq' which was by far a more rocking tune. Noori's slight chances of winning an award that night died when Ali Azmat walked away with the 'Best Rock Song' for 'Na Re Na'. By the end of the show Ali had bagged the 'Best Lyricist' for the same song [co-written with Sabir Zafar], 'Best Music Producer' and 'Best Album' of the night. 'Na Re Na' was also one song too lucky and got Saquib Malik his 'Most Wanted Video' award!

The more obvious winners of the night were Gumby for 'Best Drummer', Sajjad Ali for 'Best Live Act - Artist', The Mekaal Hasan Band for the 'Best Live Act - Band', Atif Aslam and Annie for the 'Best Male' and 'Best Female' of 2006 respectively. However, the category for the 'Best Guitarist' seemed slightly flawed to me that night. The nominees included Aamir Zaki who has not released an album in over a decade and his last commercial work is the song 'Iss Baar Milo' by Hadiqa Kiyani where he's been featured as a bass player and not a lead guitarist. A more sensible nomination should have been that of 'Sufi' Salman Ahmed who released his debut solo effort 'Infinity' earlier this year. The award was thankfully accepted by Shallum Xavier who literally ran to receive it from the gorgeous Amena Haq and Ammar Belal.

Further on, a few felt that Abbas Ali Khan should have received the award for 'Best Ballad' for his beautiful track 'Sun Re' instead of the actual recipient CALL for 'Sab Bhula Ke'. It was also most shocking to see CALL win the 'Most Wanted Band' category whereas the other nominees included the most deserving bands such as Noori, Strings, Fuzon and The Mekaal Hasan Band. The least said about this particular result- the better. The Awards also acknowledged the next generation of superstars and honored Kaavish with the 'Best Rising Star' award. Here's hoping that they'd now stick around for at least one album. Having already received the Pride of Performance more than once, Arshad Mahmud was given the TMA for 'Outstanding Contribution to Music' in recognition of his distinguished services to music and the music business.

The most surprising nomination of the evening was that of Ali Noor as the 'Best Producer' for his second album that was actually produced by Mekaal Hasan at the Digital Fidelity Studios. When asked how he felt about it Mekaal said, "I was nominated! Only my name was Ali Noor!". He thinks he'd never be able to own the record for the simple reason that Noor didn't give him credit for it. Some of the surprising winners included Sameer Ahmed for 'Best Bassist' instead of the more applaudable Khalid Khan; Imran Momina aka Immu losing out to the extremely under-rated Shuja Haider for the 'Best Keyboardist'; 'Leeway' by Corduroy winning the 'Most Wanted English Track' instead of the very celebrated 'Free Style Dive' by the Sajid & Zeeshan duo; and 'Mahiya' winning the 'Most Wanted Song' 2006. The most under-rated song of the evening happened to be the most classic song to have come out of the music industry in terms of melody, arrangement, production, lyrics and so on- 'Zinda' by Strings. And when this song lost to 'Mahiya' by Annie- that's not even bubblegum pop, this writer felt like sulking in a corner somewhere. The audience was however treated to a live rendition of the song by Strings straight after winning the Motorola Icon Award of the night.

TMA was a good, solid show. The producers just pushed the music. The awards almost seemed to be an afterthought to showing performers. With a performance each by Ali Azmat [Main Chala], Annie [Mahiya], Haroon Rashid [Jiya Jaey], Strings [Zinda], AaroH [Raag Neela], Shazia Manzoor, and The Mekaal Hasan Band [Jhok Ranjhan]. Thus it was almost a lengthy concert with an award presentation and acceptance slipped in here and there. Generally speaking, that worked.

The second last performance of the night was one of the two reasons that the audience didn't realize the amount of time they spent waiting for the awards to begin and walked out as happily as they had walked in!

The rather humongous stage was ready to rock to the TMA Band comprising Shallum Xavier on lead guitars, Gumby on drums, and Immu on keyboards and Khalid on bass guitar. Together these four performers had created a unique blend of sound composed by Shallum. The theme of the awards that was running all through the nominees and the show was being staged for the very first time. The true musicianship of these 4 over-the-top musicians came forward as the band played how every act should play at every show: live and with a passion that would translate itself to the audience with no words required. After a small break the band was to come back on for the grand finale!

Though first, it was now time to honor a lifetime of classic contributions to the field of music- the recipient of TMA's Lifetime Achievement Award was a man who infused new blood in the music of mid-70s. At a time when people thought that after Ahmed Rushdie, Akhlaque Ahmed, Runa Laila and the likes they will breathe in a world without music - Alamgir dawned a new hope at just that point in time. Alamgir's teary-eyed speech was one of the night's more touching moments. After the standing ovation the TMA band came on stage again and for the first time in 15 years, Alamgir was set to belt out a few of his classic songs with four of the most rocking musicians on the scene today.

Where Ali Azmat's audience was rapturously seduced by the monosyllabic simplicity of it all, Alamgir took his audience to places greater than great, more awesome than awesome and whoo-er than whoo with a rakish ruffle of his tousled head and a few off beat clicks of his fingers. His performance was a wake-up call in Ali Azmat's face that he hadn't performed on stage in 15 years, that he was old now and looked it but that he was still the King of Pop! As all such shows are guaranteed to have at least one incredibly strange moment each year - the kind of moment that is talked about for years – Alamgir's performance was that moment!

By the time the reverie starts to dissipate, he'll have left the stage, leaving hundreds of sated fans inexplicably humming 'Keh Dai Na' at the exit, 'Albela Rahi' on their way to the after-party and 'Daikha Na Tha' for the next thousand years. Ladies and gentlemen, the awards have spoken. And Alamgir has landed.

First Published in DAWN, Images - Sunday, July 31, 2006.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Everything I do

Post-interview: myself alongside Bryan Adams.

By: Insiya Syed

Obviously excited at the thought of getting to meet Bryan Adams for a one-to-one for the very first time, my RJ friends from CityFM89 and I waited outside the diplomat room at the hotel where the interviews were being conducted. We realized that we’d probably be the last to talk to him as everyone from the foreign press to the local TV channels were getting a maximum of five minutes with him. Eventually, we were the only ones to have gotten a full 13-minute long session. To put it simply, it was our shining moment.

Bryan Adams was in Pakistan on the invitation of Shehzad Roy and his Zindagi Trust to perform at a charity concert, Rock for a Cause, the proceeds of which are to go towards the building and/or rebuilding of 20 schools in the quake-ravaged northern areas of Pakistan.

The steep price of the tickets did little to deter his local fans and the concert that followed later in the day was an event attended by a 15,000-strong audience, most of them young men and women who had come all the way to the far-off venue to hear their favourite singer belt out one hit after another.

The first question I put forth to Bryan Adams was when he started songwriting and what were his inspirations. “I started writing when I was about 16 and I got my first songs together properly when I was about 18,” said Adams. Talking about his inspirations further, he continued, “They were a mixture of heavy rock and included singers and songwriters. There was everyone from Jackson Brown and Paul Simon to Led Zeppelin.”

According to Bryan Adams whose solo career began in 1978 when he began writing songs with former Prism member Jim Vallance, a typical Adams song is likely to be about “some twisted relationship”, and that’s not due to his good songwriting ability but because as he modestly called himself “a good observer.” This led us to my next question about his love for photography which is another means for him to observe. “The process of songwriting or any other creative process is interesting to me because it’s really about creating something from nothing. And I find that very interesting.”

Intrigued and wanting to know about his favourite photograph or someone he’d like to capture, the humorous side of his personality surfaced as he wittily said: “Besides you? I don’t know.” His efforts to raise funds for breast cancer patients by selling his photographs are known to all and sundry and have touched many a heartstrings. He once took a picture of the Queen of England which was used on a Canadian postage stamp.

Bryan says he’d love to play Let’s Make it a Night to Remember when asked to name a song he’d like to dedicate to Queen Elizabeth on the radio. And if he ever gets a chance to be reborn as a woman, he’d chose Uma Thurman in two seconds flat.

There are many international celebrities who share Bryan’s nationality such as Keanu Reeves, Pamela Anderson, Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette and Shania Twain, to name a few. So what is the one thing that sets Adams apart from the others? “I didn’t drink enough water as a child. I don’t know. I don’t think we can ever say that two people are the same. They are all unique and different and I guess the only thing that would separate me from them would be my extensive tours.”

Given the chance, “as an advocator to non-violence” Adams feels that he’d not be able to beat any pop star in a fight. When asked about his guilty-pleasure in music and that one band he’d never admit listening to, Bryan didn’t have an answer. As an extra effort the Backstreet Boys, NSync and Spice Girls are mentioned but to no avail.

Bryan is usually found listening to blues at home. Talking about good taste in music, the most incredible Pink Floyd album Wall was brought to Germany in 1990 where Bryan Adams played with an all-star cast under the supervision of Roger Waters. He’s considered to be one of the bigger fans of Pink Floyd and had a bit to say about the record and the band itself. “There isn’t really a favourite track of that album because it’s the whole body of work that makes it interesting. I did it because Waters phoned me personally and asked me to do it. And be a part of the concert at a time when the wall had come down in Berlin made sense. It was a very fascinating evening.”

He also spoke about his debut all-time classic disco single from 1978, Let Me Take You Dancing on which he sounds like Michael Jackson. As the producer decided to speed up the track, word has it that Adams is embarrassed to put the track on any compilation.

With our time up and everyone running late for the concert, we walked out together. People were ready to take pictures with him and as we made our way to the exit, I saw girls running after Bryan Adams to get just one more autograph.

First Published in DAWN, Images - Sunday, February 05, 2006.

Press matters

By: Insiya Syed

January 29, 2006. The press is waiting patiently. Photographers are making sure that back-up batteries are in place. Two young girls are waiting with bouquets in their hands. The father of one tells me excitedly: “She was only 30 days old when she first attended a Bryan Adams concert.”

The crowd packed inside the hall at a local hotel for the press conference is abuzz with the anticipation of witnessing a special moment in music history. Also seated in the front row was Mariola, the lady who had made it all possible. Soon after, dressed in a crisp white shirt, dark shades in place, and two steps ahead of Shehzad Roy, Bryan Adams arrives to loud cheers from a crowd that had been waiting patiently for well over an hour to catch a glimpse of the Canadian rocker.

It was a scene that hadn’t been witnessed in a while as photographers, cameramen, the local and foreign press went wild taking pictures and odd shout-outs like “What’s up?” filled the room with laughter and smiles all around.

With an audience consisting of fans and journalists, and sporting buttons screaming ‘I Rock for a Cause’, the mood was upbeat. The question-and-answer session began right after a few speeches from the sponsors as Adams chose not to make a speech. Instantly, it became obvious that most of the people were there just to get an autograph, a picture or to be able to look at an internationally acclaimed rock star this up-close and personal.

Although by the end of the conference as well as the concert it became obvious that this was definitely not a once in a lifetime opportunity and that more bands and musicians would follow in Adams’ footsteps soon.

To the question put forth by a young lady representing a children’s weekly if he would have come to Pakistan to play had there been no calamity, Adams was most spontaneous when he replied with a smile, “Of course.”

Bryan was here to play a benefit concert for Shehzad Roy’s Zindagi Trust in an effort to raise funds for schools in Pakistan’s earthquake-affected areas. And it was only natural for someone to ask if he was charging the organizers for the performance. “Aren’t we already clear on this being a charity concert,” cross-questioned Bryan, taking a diplomatic route.

As he left the press conference, the audience said goodbye to the man they were to see perform the same night, the man that many among the audience had grown up listening to.

First Published in DAWN, Images - Sunday, February 05, 2006.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

A revival of aesthetics

The All Pakistan Music Conference is my constant 'high-factor' every year since 2004. This year the review published in Images had Abbu's name in it. I am a proud daughter! Another reason for blogging this article is due to my inability to write a review of the event myself. I feel very strongly that I'd never be able to do justice to the conference. It's beautiful and that's all I know. Thank you to the organizers and a big round of applause for making it all possible. - Insiya.

By: Sumera S. Naqvi

The third annual festival of the All Pakistan Music Conference-Karachi (APMC) ended on a jubilant note last week. It was heartening to note that the arts and the aesthetics of our culture are beckoning (or should one say reawakening) to the call of enlightened moderation.

One shouldn’t mince words in stating that the APMC takes the credit of doing the needful in this regard. For one thing, this writer witnessed the young people in the audience observing the etiquettes listed at the flap of the invitation card quite amicably, like not to clap or talk during a performance, etc, especially on Saturday when they waited in large numbers for the Mekaal Hasan Band.

For them listening to the classical performances lined up before the band must have been an alien experience. Though classical is enjoyed by a select few who have a taste for it, it is regrettable that the arts have been behind censors for a long time. “We have tried to revive the culture of classical music,” says Jamil Syed, the APMC chairman, “and judging by the number of people attending the event this year, I think we have been successful.” A tradition that one hopes will grow still further.

Acknowledging the effort made to pay due respect to the treasure trove of singers and instrumentalists who have kept the classical tradition alive,the APMC has brought us maestros like Ustad Hamid Ali, Ustad Zafar Ali Khan, Niaz Ahmed (Pride of Performance award recipient), Akhlaq Hussain (sitar nawaz), Mehnaz Begum, Nafees Ahmad Khan (sitar nawaz), Ustad Salamat Ali, Ustad Naseeruddin Saami, Ashraf Sharif Khan (sitar nawaz) and Ustad Abdul Sattar Tari (tabla nawaz).

Accompanied by the impeccable Ustad Abdul Sattar Tari, Ustad Hamid Ali performed the most delightful of renditions and the finale item on the first day, Pyar nahin hae sur se jiss ko, with heavenly control over his voice. Although the latter acknowledged that he was performing with Ustad Tari after a long time, the duo seemed to gel quite well while presenting a memorable performance. Ustad Tari played the tabla with bewitching charm, making it enliven the rendition sung by Ustad Hamid Ali. Now living in the US from where he flew in, Ustad Tari is the student of the Mian Shaukat Hussain and one of the most gifted tabla players today. His solo performance the following night was one of the most enthralling experiences as some people in the audience were seen wiping away tears as Ustad Tari played the tabla with his magical fingers.

It was also a pleasure to listen to Ustad Raza Ali Khan from India, and Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan from Lahore on the third and last day of the festival, both illustrious classical performers that the subcontinent has produced. On the first day, Ashraf Sharif Khan (sitar nawaz), who came from Germany, was another delight to hear. With Ustad Tari on the tabla, he presented raag Jai Jaiwanti, playing from a gradual enthral and working up to an elation that could also be noticed by the expression on the performer’s face as he reached an inexplicable state of euphoria. But then so did all in the audience when they heard Ikhlaq Hussain (sitar nawaz), inspired by Ravi Shankar, playing in Poorya Kalyan on the second day.

Amir Khusro’s Chhaap tilak sab chheen reminds one of Mehnaz Begum. Though it seemed she wasn’t putting up the best of performance, Gham-i-dil sunane ko ji chahata hai was an instant hit and also provided a refreshing break from the heavy classical performances on the night of Jan 20.

On all the three days of the festival held at the Hindu Gymkhana this year, the APMC constantly made a laudable effort to encourage the younger and budding lot of singers and instrument players by having them perform at the beginning of each day’s performance. The winners of the ISEO competition performed beautifully and showed tremendous potential and commitment to becoming great singers. Bazicha-i-atfal in raag Jonpuri was nice, though we seem to be hooked on Jagjit Singh’s version of the same.

The Karachi Chapter of the APMC has made a place for itself in the hearts of classical and serious music connoisseurs as the number of people attending the performances for the past two years has been growing constantly. A friend from Lahore recalled how people would bring things to eat from home and sit casually on the grass to listen to the performers. This year, however, it was quite encouraging to see people sitting through the night to listen to the singers and instrumentalists, though many believe that the audience in Karachi appears elitist and unlike the one in Lahore. “Music is instinctive,” says Jamil Syed, “I wouldn’t categorize it as elitist.”
Classical music culture has certainly evolved and as people attend the APMC festivals, the elitist tag will hopefully wash away with time.

First Published in DAWN, Images - Sunday, January 29, 2006.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

For the chocolate crazy and coffee mad

Lattétude has become the new buzz word with coffee lovers who also have a sweet tooth for deep dark chocolate...

By: Insiya Syed

It had to happen. After years of watching coffee bars proliferate elsewhere and having no shops locally devoted solely to this brew you may now take a sigh of relief. And take a walk down Zamzama Boulevard to see the streets sprinkled with coffee joints cum restaurants almost exactly alternating between each other. There's Dunkin', Roasters, Chatter-Box, and Espresso etcetera.

While stopping for a Limca or ice cream are still popular in their own ways, the new coffee bars have expanded on these concepts: these coffeehouses are the new hangouts. They're the perfect places to see or be seen, to strike up friendly conversations with strangers, or, conversely, to lose oneself in writing, reading or watching the world go by. They have also added to Karachi's evening scene by becoming showcases for local talent with regular open-mic sessions at Caffeine and small irregular gigs at Dunkin'.

Costa Coffee, the trendy British cafe chain, and Lattétude are located within blocks of one another and dare I say they are geographically the closest competition! Being an international chain Costa managed a hi-fi launch with foreign guests' et al. However, having visited Costa a few times I can safely say: a) its very expensive, b) offers the finest 'Frescato' money can buy, c) the prawn sandwich made me sick and lastly the 'no-smoking zone' depresses me! Chances are you'd not see me there anytime soon.

It was time to move further down the lane... Lattétude is probably the closest to the "coffee house" image. They have an edge over the existing and upcoming coffee houses in the city as they certainly strike it big with a perfect balance of almost everything that one should look for in a coffee house. It's the perfect size that's large enough to accommodate a decent number of people without seeming overcrowded and just small enough to maintain an inviting, cozy and relaxed ambiance. Lattétude offers quite the opposite of conveying a feeling of shabbiness with couches that lend a sense of "home" to the joint. And the wooden interior and the red cushioned wall behind our table played into the shop's hip-ness. There were four of us and we were hungry. And the two hours proved that we had gone to the right place.

The menu, though not extensive, was comforting. In addition to mouth watering starters, sandwiches, deserts, it offered a decent selection ranging from smoothies and energy drinks to lattés and iced drinks. Keeping the nation's growing fondness for espresso-based drinks in mind, Lattétude offers two separate varieties: Hot Coffees (available from 90 rupees for a regular Espresso to 135 rupees for a Mochaccino) and Cold Coffees (starting from 135 rupees for an Iced Latte to 165 rupees for a Traditional Cold Coffee). Oh and if you prefer your coffee hot, do yourself a favor and stop reading the menu beyond the Hazelnut Cappuccino. For those who are chilled out the Frappucino is a must have, an exciting combination of ice blended coffee with whipped cream, this will become your returning factor.

Among the starters they offer the tried, tested and loved French Fries (75 rupees for a plate), the mouth-watering Lemon & Herb Calamari, Onion Rings, Mozzarella Sticks, the divine and scrumptious Jacket Potato etcetera. I've tried a few and frankly endorse them all equally.

I also seem to have learnt that it pays to get a recommendation from the people behind the counter. Usually, the chances of you enjoying the meal are better if you choose something that at least one other person in the world enjoys! As I ordered my Beef with Dijon Mustard Sandwich I was unintentionally hoping to get a sandwich as yummy as the one I had at Espresso. It wasn't as good and surely the recipe could be worked upon but it wasn't precisely bad either. Served with generous portion of French Fries, and Greek Salad (or Potato Wedges) the garnish of all the three sandwiches that we ordered was the exact same. And though it isn't a major put off, it just comes across as a negative on the chef's part. I take my garnish very seriously!

Those with a sweet tooth must inhale the Waffle, Chocolate Mint Cake & Chocolate Orange Cake. As Lattétude 'exclusives', both the cakes are bound to be immensely favored by the chocolate crazy crowds. The deserts are sanely priced with 175 rupees for a reasonably large slice of Rich Chocolate Fudge Cake to 225 rupees for Chocolate Mint Cake.

The first time I ever heard about the café was through an email flyer that I received from my sister who lives in USA! All hail the power of the World Wide Web! The good folks at Lattétude don't seem to rely on advertising, promotions, or other marketing strategies. Instead, the company is counting on word-of-mouth and their main advertising medium seems to be the cafe itself.

At most days from 12 noon till late into the night, it's not at all uncommon to see folks stuffing down food at one table, reading a newspaper while nursing a mug of hot chocolate at the next, and sitting in front of a laptop dead to the world at the next.

Similar to other young industries that grow rapidly, the gourmet coffee business is going through a shakeout. But stronger operators will survive and thrive after the shakeout runs its course. And it seems that along with Espresso and Roasters, Lattetude will win the race of time too.

6th Commercial Lane
Zamzama Boulevard
DHA Phase V, Karachi

First published: Instep, News on Sunday, Sunday 15 January 2006, The News International, Jang Group of Newspapers, Karachi, Pakistan.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Social Circus - the review.

Artist: Ali Azmat
Album: Social Circus
Reviewed by: Insiya Syed

Ali was always the star power of Junoon no matter how hard Salman tried - everything from ripping off Hendrix, lending his tired vocals to getting into documentary making. That it was Ali who attracted countless teenage girls to their shows was no handicap either. Also, the fact that they got through for this long and stuck together during controversies of the dirtiest kind is nothing short of a miracle for close friends and foes.

Well, finally the year 2005 finds Ali Azmat trying to bail out of Junoon and seeking his fortune elsewhere. Social Circus has launched Ali Azmat who still happens to be ‘one’ of the, if not ‘the’ hottest bachelors at 35. This record is a key indicator of Ali’s future life, and an affirmation that Junoon will only last for as long as they can mange to cash in on their past glorious years till Parvaaz (2000), that is.

In what was to become a typically informal, rambling approach and a statement-of-sort – Social Circus revealed that if the concept was somewhat shaky, the music was rock solid at most places. Initial reviews were mixed though and Ali didn’t exceed all expectations and the overall sound is stating the obvious that Junoon was primarily Ali in more ways than one.

First things first – Ali Azmat and Ziyyad Gulzar (Rushk) get on like a house on fire. Another remarkable aspect of Social Circus is the transformation it prompted in Ali’s music. His songs are forcefully sung, flawlessly phrased and with a precise diction that foreshadowed his later theatrically.

The music had its force but at odd places it seems more restrained and strategic, although that may be due to a long recording process. Issues always seem to pop-up with the final product when musicians don’t have a focused recording style. Going back and forth works for some but not always and keeping an album with you for too long also means going back into studio and making unnecessary changes. Eventually albums do get leaked on the Internet, which ultimately kill the album sales and the initial hype before and after the release. Case in point: Noori’s ‘Suno Kay Main Hoon Jawan’ and ‘Social Circus’ itself.

The first single off of Social Circus, Deewana, was issued in April, it was sad to notice that it barely entered the charts. Some blamed the chic classic visuals of the video directed by Jami whereas some thought Ali isn’t over the top in this one. It’s on tracks such as ‘Main Challa’ that synthesizers have taken over to an extent that the live sound has virtually disappeared which would definitely affect the live performance because Ali Azmat is no Radiohead. Overall, where arrangement and production met was in the albums unprecedented use of dynamics, and canny deployment of the different personae of the various musicians featured on the album – including gems such as Ziyyad Gulzar, Allan Smith, Sameer Ahmed and newbie Murtaza (KV). The result is a testament to Ali’s musicianship and production skills but the sort that’ll take time to grow on people and for them to be able to appreciate it.

All concerned hit a personal best in ‘Na Re Na,’ in many ways the most admirable song Ali wrote, in which one individual’s conflicted inner world is laid bare in a manner so selfless that it becomes a universe statement of the human condition. Never has Ali Azmat’s mastery of dynamics – from guitars to the soaring harmonies – been put to better use, or Ali’s bare fisted fearlessness sounded more appropriate.

The record, though ambitious, needed every one of its 61 minutes to flesh out the amorphous storyline. It was reviled by some and adored by others, but the albums success must be measured by the quality of the 11 songs it contained. Social Circus included at least five classics. Deewana, Mungagan, Na Re Na, Mein, and Teri Perchaian can all stand alone without context. Whether it’s the best record Ali Azmat ever made is debatable.

End note: there’s one very important thing that’s got to be settled. The group as a whole has got to realize that Junoon can not be the same group as they used to be. They never ever will be. Junoon’s great sin would not be breaking up. It would be that they didn’t stop sooner and return earlier. They needed the break. We didn’t need the disappointment.

Ali’s album is everything a debut solo album or even Junoon albums should be like. And surely that’s a bargain.

First published in Fashion Avenue Quarterly (FAQ). Issue 2. Summer 2005.