Starting off as a sound engineer, Faisal Rafi has come far. The co-producer of hit Rahat Fateh Ali Khan songs, 'Jiya Dhadak Dhadak Jaaye' and 'Mann ki Lagan', Faisal has worked with some of the most prolific musicians in the country including Junoon, Rohail Hyatt, Shahi Hasan, Gumby, Aamir Zaki… as well as the legendary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan among various others. speaks with Faisal Rafi about classical music versus pop, piracy, record labels, the India-Pakistan difference and why he decided to produce the debut album of the young musical group that is Kaavish…
Define good music?
I don't function on chords; whatever sounds right is good music. If there are four people in a room and they agree that what they just recorded sounds good, it's good. I feel mathematics has taken away from the art of music.
You also managed to rope in Channel V for a major concert in the late nineties. How did that happen?
Back in 95-96, I was doing sound for shows for music acts like Junoon, Vital Signs and the others. I had a company Stone Sound. During those days I met this guy Richard through Nizar Lalani; he was the Channel V representative in Dubai. Through Richard I met the General Manager of Channel V. We became friends and we thought of doing something in Pakistan. It was the Nawaz Sharif era… bura scene tha…
No long hair, no jeans…?
Exactly. That event was a success and a failure. It was a success because amidst that entire ban, finally something did happened. It was a failure because it was a financial loss. The loss didn't matter and our sponsors were willing to bear it. It was the first time such a big event was done in Pakistan.
This was the concert with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and…?
It was weird. It was Nusrat, Awaz, Najam and Aamir Zaki.
That's an interesting mix?
You think? It featured Aamir Zaki because I wanted to push him. He needed to get off his butt and do something. I guess it was an impulse action.
So you started off with a sound company and then you did this one-off event?
Yes. I had been doing sound and lighting anyway so I thought why not just organize a concert? I used all possible contacts to put this show together. We got permission from everywhere. I begged the then DC of Police who was a religious guy.
What happened to the sound company?
I was very tired of the company. Kabhi Karachi, kabhi Lahore – I was sick of it. I wanted to do something different. At that time, a friend of mine, Sajjad Panjwani – who is no longer alive – was running a company called Visible Changes. Everyone from Junoon to VS to Hadiqa – was signed up with him. When I decided to shut down my company, he asked me to work with him. I joined and incidentally the first album I worked on with Sajjad's company was a compilation of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's live music.
I had collected recordings of Nusrat's last few shows in Pakistan. We got permission from Nusrat's family and that was the first time that I worked with Shahi Hasan. Vital Signs had just disbanded and Shahi was setting up a studio. We decided to work with Rahat Fateh Ali Khan; he was young back then, 22 perhaps and he had a squeaky voice. Visible Changes financed the project and Shahi and I flew out to Lahore. We recorded some stuff at Shahi's studio and some at Mekaal's…
Yes. It was one of the earliest recordings at his studio, 'Mann Ki Lagan' as well as other numbers. Meanwhile, Sajjad was going through some financial difficulty so he decided to shutdown his company and moved to the US. Then Shahi wanted to work on some solo stuff. I needed security in my life. Rohail Hyatt was opening up Pyramid Productions. Rohail also needed security in the sense that he wanted a friend to come and work as head of his production department. I told him that I'll work 2-3 years for you and he thought that was fine. So I worked there for two years…
How was it working at Pyramid Productions?
It was a good experience. Rohail (Hyatt) is a good person to collaborate with. He's got ideas. He follows them up. He keeps quiet and does the work as opposed to just talking. He's a good friend also…
After Pyramid, what happened?
After two full years, I quit. I went back into music because that is the only thing I know. Shahi and I decided to work together again. We reopened some of Rahat's work and developed some new instrumentals and stuff. Rahat also got on my case and he wanted to do a full album.
So began Rahat Fateh Ali's Charkha…?
Ahan! We had a list of about twenty songs that we had recorded earlier. We short-listed ten of them. Shahi had just gotten married; he was busy with some work. I had to get the Rahat album done so then came Rohail. It worked out fine. You guys will hopefully hear Charkha soon.
Why did you guys go for an Indian record label for a release? Charkha was supposed to release six months ago but till now, it is not out.
We went with Sa Re Ga Ma (it was HMV back then) because they financed the whole thing. Yahan tau sab kuch karney key baad deal hoti hain. But now the album is releasing in Pakistan through Fire Records. The label is part of the biggest media group in Pakistan; it's not a shady operation being carried out of a shop in Rainbow Centre. I guess both labels are waiting for the right time. Sa Re Ga Ma is going through some changes so I guess that maybe a reason. It will be out soon though.
You don't have any complaints with your local record label. In the industry, many are always complaining that record labels steal musical rights, they don't pay.
The music industry should stop moaning and groaning. It is a developing industry so work and let it develop. Whatever we asked for, we were paid. So why should I complain? People need to look at the bigger picture.
But what about young talent. Record labels don't invest in them…?
Yes, I agree. And if those young musicians end up using pirated software I would still say okay, they had no choice. But you can't point fingers, key ji hamarey music key rights nahin hai. The software that is being used by our musical acts here is pirated. 90 per cent of software used for music production in Pakistan is illegal. Indian movies as well as films from around the world are pirated. Apne rights ho magar piracy karni hai. It is hypocritical. You can scan every single piece of equipment here and see for yourself. I bought all this equipment legally. Those who know the cost are stunned. I'll buy one movie instead of 20 but I'll buy it legally. So the point is, yes there are problems. But we are still developing as an industry. Let it develop then scream and shout. And hey, if that young talent walks through my door, I will produce their music too.
Under what circumstances would you allow yourself to work with a young musical act?
I am working with Kaavish. I will work with others as well. It's not just a question of singing in the right note. I would like to work with people who come in my studio and nail it. Those will be people who will think beyond being on the telly. Music is not part time. Let's take the West as an example. People like Jimmy Page, Robert Plant – they have dedicated their entire lives to music. It's not a hobby.
Where do you stand on Association of Music Professionals of Pakistan (AMPP)?
AMPP is the need of the hour. Musicians as a whole need this form of representation. But it doesn't just mean five of our senior pop musicians. It should also include musicians from our folk and classical side. They sell far more than our pop/rock acts. Everyone found out about AMPP. It was in the papers and it made a lot of noise. But here's the thing. There are musicians who have been doing music long before any of our commercial pop/rock artists were even born and everyone has ripped them off over and over again. These classical greats are our seniors. Just because they are classical, it doesn't mean they aren't musicians. So, they should be a part of this too. If they have Ustad Fateh Ali from Patiala and Ustad Fateh Ali from Gwalior, it will benefit not just these Ustads but AMPP too. If Ustad Fateh Ali of Gawalior comes out and speaks about how necessary AMPP is, it will get noticed. People will be like, 'achaa, yaar music ki association bangayi hai'. I don't know why those people aren't being involved or haven't been approached! Innho ney approach kis ko kiya hai? Six people will gather and that's it. It has to involve EVERYONE.
Look at the world. Anywhere in the world, America or Europe – they may hate each other but if the music industry is going through a problem, musicians will unite. I'm working on both sides – pop as well as classical. I'm at a unique position and I get to listen to both sides of the story. On the pop side, people do make money. In comparison to the classical musicians, they are better off. They have billboards and record deals and they do get money for their album. Have you seen any Ustad on a billboard? Those guys have far bigger problems than our pop musicians. Main kya boloon? Classical musicians are our treasure.
You've been to India. How does it work there?
India is a successful entertainment industry. It's second only to Hollywood. And by virtue of their film industry, there is a massive market in India. Even though music is a huge part of our history, we deny it. In India, music is a part of their religion and culture and they embrace it. It's been like this for hundreds of years and they have produced exceptional singers, artists. Let's not deny that. That said, there is a lot of respect for music and musicians. People look up to you. In Pakistan, by and large, people look down on you. So, India is a very attractive market.
In terms of creativity, our music is definitely better. Because of the lack of a proper flourishing film industry, our music is not bastardised. 90 per cent of all music in India now is related to their film industry. The film industry dictates the kind of music that is being put out in the market. Here you can make anything you want. Everyone including their pop artists wants to make it in films. All our musicians who go to India also go through Bollywood. Who other than Junoon has been able to sell albums without going into films? Junoon was the only one.
I may be biased because I was a great Junoon fan but fact is that they sold in India without being in Bollywood. Even NFAK got major recognition after he teamed up with Javed Akhtar for 'Afreen Afreen'. And I feel that that venture in India was nothing compared to what he has done before – his qawwalis. Whatever success I've had minus the event management activity has been because of films. Manish Makhija, a very old friend of mine is married to Pooja Bhatt. He had some recordings of some work Shahi Hasan and I had done years ago. Pooja heard it and Munna calls me in 2003 and says, 'Yaar deal hogayi' and I was like, 'what deal?' He asked me and Shahi to come to India. We got a small briefing, came back, did the song and the background score as well. The film (Paap) failed but the song made it. 'Mann Ki Lagan' was a huge hit. So, the point is no one other than Junoon has been able to make it to India just on the merit of their music. Rahat has made it in India now. He's singing in quite a few films. Even after Charkha releases, he will always be associated to those two songs.
You agree that venturing in Bollywood is the way to sell in India?
Yes. Now, their business side works. It is definitely steps ahead of us.
Their record label industry is supposedly miles ahead?
Yea, they are. I have worked with a few of them such, as Sony, HMV, which is Sa Re Ga Ma now, and I have no complaints. To this day, I get royalties off music I did years ago. Musically, India is not ahead of us. Many times, it's not that our music is bad that it doesn't make it to Bollywood but…
It is too good?
Yes! Look at us. Tell me if I'm wrong but Pakistan is a flourishing music market. It is an Islamic country that is just coming out of one Martial Law and perhaps going into another. It's descending into chaos, and yet, music is doing extremely well here. It just goes to show how musical we are as a nation. We are in denial of our own musical heritage. This is the difference between India and us. We deny our musical heritage.
You are fan of Junoon, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Doors... How did you end up doing classical music?
Whatever interaction I had with Nusrat Fateh Ali – doing sound for his shows – it was a start. Farid Ayaz introduced me to Ustad Naseeruddin Sami and a variety of classical music. My wife, Nini is a classical music enthusiast. She would listen to Pink Floyd but also to Ravi Shankar. She introduced me to a variety of classical music, instrumentals, sitar and tabla etc. She took me to APMC a couple of years ago and that is how it began. Then my interaction with Shahi – he has been into interesting music that general people aren't – also was an influence. So that is the music I'm inclined to do. The commercial thing keeps happening on the side but classical music is my main focus.
When you say commercial work, you mean jingles?
No man. Are you mad! (laughs) No no jingles.
Where does the finance come from to run this studio then?
Shahi does sessions here. So that type of work keeps on going on here. That work comes my way, especially from Shahi so that this studio keeps running.
Other than Kaavish's upcoming album and Charkha, which you co-produced, what projects are you working on?
There is Drums of the Indus. It's not drums alone. Its various elements taken from all the music that's played along the Indus. It's gathering music. Because drums are played were people gather. I'm the producer but various people are playing on it and helping out. Abbas Premjee, Gumby, Shahi Hasan among various others are involved. This album will have vocals as well. Some will be from the classical side and some from the pop/rock industry. There will be some instrumentals but it will be in song format. And not because its requirement but because the idea is to get it across a wide audience which includes the youth, there will be a house-dance version of this album along with the CD. It will take another six months to a year before it releases but a lot of work has been done.
Then there is a compilation album with Shahi Hasan. It is being done with a company in America. It will be an archival project that will eventually come out in the market. We've been recorded since December with every Ustad from Fateh Ali Khan to Mubarak Ali Khan. It needs to be done because we may not hear many of these classical greats again. A year of research has gone into this project. I went to India and got hundreds of recordings from India. It will be good. I'm research fanatic but on the technical side, he put a lot of effort into this. This project is very important. It was in the '70s that EMI did a compilation album of this sort. And after that, now it will be done.
At the APMC you were ticked off by the announcement that no recording of more than 5 minutes was allowed of Shubha Mudgal.
Shubha's a great artist, I meant no disrespect to her but she was junior compared to the others who performed that night. Un ke rights nahin hain? Shubha Mudgal ko record na karo kyunki woh India sey aayi hai but....
What about the rest of them?
There can't be rights on culture. How can you copyrights kalams or raags that have been around for centuries? You can't.
You recorded her?
Yes. It's been sent to APMC.
Is Shubha Mudgal on it?
Yes, she's on it whether she likes it or not! If she's not on it, we'll put it on the net. (Laughs)