For many months I’ve been sitting on drafts of a piece about many seasons of Coke Studio leading up to Rohail’s return, Pepsi Battle of the Bands, and the evolution of Strings, Zohaib Kazi, and Ali Hamza as artists through it all. Given my current inability to estimate how many more seasons of Coke Studio must pass before I finish this piece, I am using the release of Ali Hamza’s solo single a few hours ago as a way to share parts of the piece about him.
When Noori was just about to release their first album in 2003, they needed a rhythm guitarist. Ali Hamza, frontman Ali Noor's brother, was on good terms with the rest of the band and knew how to play the songs. Why not him they asked? So from then on Hamza was Noori's second guitarist.
Another angle of this story is that Ali Hamza was meant to be the original vocalist while guitar prodigy Ali Noor would be behind him. Hamza dithered, and Ali Noor powered on. Ali Hamza’s talent was obvious through the many demos and bootleg recordings floating around the internet from his undergraduate years.
As with all band histories, what fraction of which story is true is and perhaps should remain a mystery. Either way, Hamza eventually makes it on to Noori’s first album.
Through Noori’s next few years the lineup of the band would change significantly. As the roving cast of musicians behind Ali Noor continued its procession, Hamza remained. When Mohammad Ali Jafri departed, Hamza took on the bass with a sort of natural affinity. Hamza helped with a few lyrics on the first album, but really Suno Ke Mein Hun Jawan was Ali Noor's baby. On Peeli Patti Aur Raja Jani Ki Gol Dunya, Hamza came further into his own. The band was just a three-piece now, so Hamza had more of a voice. But it wasn't just that there was more space for a voice, he had more of a voice to give.
Peeli Patti had a few songs that were totally Hamza, Meray Log leading them. Over time Meray Log has emerged a deeply emotional classic. Few Noori songs have touched people the same way. There is something about the simple aesthetic of the lyrics, and this sort of calmness to the melody that makes people feel at home. The song is about a people that have lost their way. It is a story of desolation and homelessness really, but Hamza's melody and vocal brings you with. It allows you to feel your desolation without feeling alone. On the album Meray Log has a powerful guitar solo, and a damn good vocal part that is totally Ali Noor. But it is Hamza's song.
When Noori first went to Coke Studio in 2009, Hamza announced his arrival. Jo Meray, another one of Hamza's songs from Peeli Patti, was redone to be more eastern and more joyful. On the album, Jo Meray is moody and slow. On Coke Studio it is a celebration. On Aik Alif, Noori collaborated with renowned folk singer Saeein Zahoor. It is arguably Noori's best recording. One can say this for many reasons: the vocals display immense range, the song has three distinct parts that are merged effortlessly, and the song really explained the power of Noori's musicianship and of rock in general to a whole new audience. But perhaps the greatest thing about the song was the bridge between rock and Pakistani folk, spiritually and aesthetically. There was no stark transition, no moment where the song stops being folk and starts being rock, or stops being rock and starts being folk. It is all folk and it is all rock. At the heart of it was this sort of understanding that developed between Saeein Zahoor and Noori, a common vision of what the song was to become. It was Ali Hamza that represented the band.
At some point around this time it was announced that Ali Hamza would compose the theme music to Coke Studio. Knowing then producer Rohail Hyatt's artistic style – he would think endlessly about set design, and graphics, and presentation – the theme song was a big deal. For some reason it never panned out, but Hyatt saw in Hamza what many had only begun to see. An ability to connect west to east, that represented the whole purpose of Coke Studio.
Post Coke Studio 2, the hope was that Noori had discovered this new element in their songwriting that they would take with them. A connection to the soil that had taken them to new heights without losing any of their audience. They returned for another season. This time they only performed Hamza's songs where Noor guest starred.
Noori's third album took a long time coming. Band members left, came back, left again. Doubt set in, old songs became haunting ghosts. Eventually the album came out in a feverish rush of recording. Hamza had important contributions, but perhaps one way to read it is as a traditional rock album by Ali Noor.
In 2016, Strings were in charge of Coke Studio, and wanted to broaden the number of voices that went into making Coke Studio. So they let go of some control, and asked a few artists to take over and help produce a set of songs each. They called them 'music directors'. In a sense the concept of music directors was similar to what happened in the early years of Coke Studio, when artists would come in and do a set of songs not just one – often bringing in compositions, detailed sketches of arrangements and structures, and a general aesthetic that Rohail then moulded into a cohesive whole. Anyway, back to 2016, Strings asked Noori to be one of these music directors. It was an understandable choice. Noori, in their way, had immense influence on audiences and musicians of the early 2000s. Strings themselves were big fans, and as they went between cities on their tours would often listen to Noori. Together, Noor and Hamza were immense songwriters and instrumentalists. And they brought a sort of power to their songs in Coke Studio. They were loud, in your face, had catchy choruses and really were meant for stadiums and not to be sung in a warehouse like they were being sung here in Coke Studio.
The one song that explains the state of Noori here is Par Chana. Par Chana is an old folk song, and a few years prior Hamza had done this rendition – just him and an acoustic guitar that was haunting. Powerful, just like Meray Log. It had that same feeling of rawness and connection to the soil. That recording has a cult following. Noori decided to bring that to Coke Studio. In a sense Noori could have done something simple here. Take a folk recording, add instrumental polish, use Hamza's clear connection to the material, and use the platform of Coke Studio to broadcast it all across the world. They did something different. They invited over another singer, added a rock opera to the song, a guitar solo, and Noor took it up and octave and belted his heart out.
Since then Noor and Hamza have spent some time making music separately. Noor continues to write rock anthems akin to the Noori template. Hamza did a concert series where the backing band was eastern percussion, a sitar, and sometimes a guitar and bass. He played his songs in a colorful kurta and a waistcoat, often with sneakers underneath. There was a bit of Noori in Hamza, but there's a lot more to Hamza.
In 2016, Hamza came back to Coke Studio as a director on his own. And this time the game was different. Hamza brought in three songs and they were it. They are based on vocal melodies loosely around scales from North Indian classical, have rhythms that sit naturally on a dholak, and lyrics that are soft, soulful, and earthened. But rock was not missing. The drums push the song forward just as the dholak leads. In Kaatay Na Katay a powerful guitar riffs structures the cacophony of eastern alaaps. Tinak Dhin sounds like it was written on an ik tara but is a totally a guitar song. Hamza had arrived.
In 2017, as Strings departed from Coke Studio, Coke turned to Noori. Ali Noor refused, saying that Coke Studio would not be able to handle the direction he would push them in. He was right. Hamza accepted.
There’s a lot to the story of Coke Studio 11, which is worth discussing separately. The direction was new and bold, as it needed to be. But perhaps not as bold as it had to be to let these ‘new guys’ in a sense, stake their claim. The suits were nervous, the cards were stacked against them, and one cover too many may have been the final nail.
This brings us to Hamza today. And it is interesting that Hamza today is sharing again the Hamza of his undergraduate years two decades ago. This recording is honest to the original bootleg, the same melody and a simple guitar riff remain. A sitar echoes the vocal melody, and some percussion is added. It’s almost underthought, a delightful contrast to the recording of Mujhay Roko on Noori’s third album, which was a demo that became too big that it was finally released overthought and a ghost version of itself. Maare Kakkya is so delightfully simple that Hamza doesn’t even bother to take off his cap before recording. Which in another time and another video may be a strange transgression. But here, it’s not so bad.