Digital Fidelity Studios
Editor’s note: this is a guest post from friend of the show, Shahan Shahid. Please consider donating to the campaign mentioned below.
A TV show very close to my heart, The OA, makes a compelling argument about the transcendental power of actions performed and words said with the perfect feeling, at the perfect time. There are 8 seconds starting at 0:15 in a Mekaal Hasan Band recording*† from 2002's Battle of the Bands of a cover of ‘Sanu Ik Pal Chain Na Aave’ that embody this; these are just a handful of lilting, blue guitar chords but they showcase Mekaal's intense understanding of the ghazal's words and emotion—of wailing in longing. It's a moment so perfect, played with such feeling, that it would have certainly made even Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the original credit for this composition, smile from the heavens.
As news of Mekaal’s Digital Fidelity Studios burning to ashes came to light, numerous artists have been quick to attribute their genesis to it as well as credit it for adding generously to the Pakistani pop music canon. I agree with this sentiment wholeheartedly but add that Mekaal’s own work with the Mekaal Hasan Band is reason enough for the band’s homebase to be rebuilt—and for all of us to play our part in doing so.
In the Mekaal Hasan Band, Pakistani music has a rare act whose work is simultaneously intricate; excellent in its combined talent; faithful to the emotion of the words being sung all the while remaining accessible and catchy**. Introduced to the band as a teen through television, it continues to dawn on me years later the depth of what the Mekaal Hasan Band gave us over the airwaves—high art disguised as pop music.
‘Jhok Ranjhan’ is a great example. The work sounds, when the words dictate, like an angry call to action—“naal meray koi challay”—and like a valorous march when no one heeds the call—“jaana pya taan kallay”. A stunning moment in the track is at 2:43 where Shah Hussain’s name is mentioned and the track enters a brief jhol—a groove—that alludes to the dhamaal, an act tied inextricably to Shah Hussain’s being and a living vehicle for his remembrance.
The concept of movement in the band’s work is fascinating to explore. In 'Jhok Ranjhan', where movement is the message, a metronomic hitting of the cymbals serves as the base the rest of the track builds on. In 'Sajan', Bulleh Shah’s desire for the peaceful movement of time in another’s company till perpetuity is interpreted by frequently picking strings at a time (as at 0:44 and 0:49)—“kyunkar aakhan chadd we areya?”
'Sajan', as a piece in itself too deserves deeper exploration. On the internet exists a recording of Javed Bashir and Akbar Ali singing the same kalaam for Apna Channel. The result is catchy and a testament to both singer’s talent though the composition approaches the kalaam as a celebration, a dhamaal. Mekaal Hasan Band’s interpretation, richer, more faithful, weaves in not just the symbols of time—as above—but also of the serenity of union, and at once, through its somber outlook, its precarity—“ik din jaan se chadd we areya.”
While the Band’s last studio album dates to 2017, recordings from live shows give us a glimpse into what awaits us. There is a qawwali-inspired album in the works, some tracks from which were played by the band in 2015   and in 2016 which will, without a doubt, only further cement the band’s unparalleled stature and appeal.
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*Luckily, I was able to download an HQ version of this cover and place it in my Dropbox. Here's a grainy YouTube alternate.
†The guitar solo starting at 1:28 builds on the same chords and carries similarly immense emotional appeal.
**As a thought experiment, try thinking about another band or act that features all three in similar simultaneity.