Ali Noor on the state of the music industry and the madness that means producing an album these days
Live music is all but dead in Pakistan. And by live music, we don�t mean the corporate sponsored shows that pass for �concerts� these days, where the audience claps sedately to music they�re being forced to listen to because they managed to score a free pass off a friend. It�s been a while since a real concert took place; you know the sort � characterized by sweaty, frenzied crowds, insane shenanigans on stage and a state of collective euphoria that marks the proceedings.
Before security concerns induced us into a state of paranoid retreat from public spaces � before sponsors lost interest and before music just stopped being produced � the lucky ones amongst us got a taste of the likes of Vital Signs, Junoon, Strings, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Noori live in concert; these are memories that are still cherished by die-hard music fans.
While the Pepsi Unplugged session held in Lahore last weekend was too contained and too exclusive to be called a concert, it was a step towards reclaiming live music spaces in Pakistan. Organized by Hassan Rizvi of BodyBeat, Karachi, the Lahore event followed on the heels of five successful showcases in Karachi over the past years in an effort that Rizvi describes as �giving artists the freedom to perform and give back to the music industry free from commercial constraints or sponsor-dictates.�
That the Lahore series (more such events are planned in the future) kicked off with a Noori showcase is apt � for perhaps no other band encapsulates the struggle for survival that characterizes the current state of the music industry better than the duo of brothers, Ali Hamza and Ali Noor. Wildly popular from the day they first launched the rock band in 1996, Noori captured the imagination of a generation that desperately needed cool new rock stars to look up to. The fact that their music was socially relevant and at times politically charged helped them become icons but their rise to the top has been marked by numerous hiatuses and the occasional traitorous (to die-hard Noori fans at least) diversion of producing corporate-sponsored songs.
Back in the limelight after an absence of a decade, the band is all set to give its eager listeners a taste of the true Noori sound. Their new album Begum Gul Bakaoli Sarfrosh (BGBS) releases on September 30 and dramatic though it may sound, its success or failure could very well decide the future of the music industry.
�I�m afraid we are the last of the old guard, call us the Last of the Mohicans,� Ali Noor spoke to Instep. �The music industry doesn�t exist at the moment. No one is making music and the way things look at the moment, no one is going to in the near future either.� In this bleak scenario, BGBS has the potential to be the beacon of hope for struggling musicians and artists if it ends up doing well.
The process of producing the new album has involved blood, sweat and tears. �It�s been nothing short of a feat,� confesses Ali Noor. �We literally had to start a f**king movement to get this album out! Do you know that CD manufacturing plants have closed down in Pakistan?�
Is he apprehensive about its commercial success? �I�ve never made music for money and the day I start thinking that way, I�ll probably stop making music. As far as the reaction to the album is concerned, I feel that when you go through so much trouble to make something, people do end up noticing. I�m hopeful that they will want to hear what we have to say.
�Today, deciding to buy a CD is a very active decision,� he continues. �It�s not something one needs to do anymore, because you can always hear the music online, but it�s something that one wants to do to support their favourite band. You are choosing to be part of the music industry when you invest in a CD.� The onus of breathing new life into the industry hence lies as much with the listener as with the artist, says Ali.
�There�s a third player in the scenario as well and that is unquestionably the role of corporate entities. While sponsors were always an important cog in the wheel that ran the system, they have never been as visible as they are now. Ventures like Nescafe Basement and Coke Studio provide a much-needed platform to local musicians.
�Agreed, but I feel that these shows are at best curators of music,� stresses Ali. �They commission music but they cannot create artists. The problem that the industry is facing at the moment is not the lack of a platform, it�s the absence of material. No one is making music anymore. The first stage in the life of an artist is to create his art. You have to go through that process of creation and pursuit of art yourself, free of outside influences. Coke Studio can be the second stage in an artist�s life, once they have 8 to 10 original songs to their credit. It cannot be the first step.�
With years of making original music under their belt, it�s safe to say that Noori is well past that first stage and hence, free to experiment with projects that broaden their scope. One such venture has been their work on the recently released rom-com Karachi Se Lahore, for which the brothers served as music directors along with Shiraz Uppal. �It was an interesting experience, but again it was commissioned work. In a film, the art is being done by the director and everyone else just adds to his vision. The biggest thing I learned from my experience of doing Karachi Se Lahore was the realization after all these years why India has been incapable of producing great artists. Their music industry is tied to their films and when you have to work within a specific context, it stifles your freedom as an artist. LataMangeshkar may be a fantastic singer but she will never be a Madonna or a Katy Perry. Film music is great, but we need music first.�
Which brings us back to their upcoming album, another thematic offering in the same vein as their 2005 release Peeli Patti Aur Raja Jaani Ki Gol Duniya. �It�s an evolved sound and it gives voice to the emotional dysfunctionality that we see around us these days. The past ten years have seen us mature as people and as artists so we are saying it better than we did in the past.�
As for working on an album that weaves together a tale, �it�s suicidal!� laughs Ali. �That�s why it took us ten years to come out with it. Despite the hardship, this is the only way I know to say what I want. Having been exposed to tremendous amounts of prose in my life � whether it is Urdu, English or Russian literature � I�m driven more by stories than by poetry. Think of the album as a collection of short stories.�Noori fans are eagerly waiting to devour this new chapter.