A Romance in Three Acts
Films in our part of the world are known for running long. In all films there is a central romance. And in the films made in South Asia, this romance is held together by music. This essay is about music held together by romance. A story ultimately of an enduring friendship that became the canonical sound of Pakistani pop. This friendship and their filmi rock became the ambassadors of the this nation’s music industry, and arguably the most successful band in the country’s history.
Yesterday, this film reached its epilogue.
“میرے یار ایسے نہ لوٹو میرے من کا قرار”
Four friends in the late 80s were asked to perform at a Government College of Commerce farewell function. It went well enough, that they decided to give their band a name. And so Faisal Kapadia, Bilal Maqsood, Rafiq Wazir and Karim Basheerbhoy became Strings.
Soon they were auditioning for TV shows. They appeared on Youth Central, Dhanak, and then the real gamechanger: Music Channel. Strings were suddenly part of a wave of college bands that emerged with the arrival of democracy in the late eighties. The six songs they performed on Music Channel earned them a record deal from EMI. At EMI’s studios the band recorded an album on an 8 track, of which only 7 worked. Their first cassette tape sold 20,000 copies in a week. On the cover, the four boys in a suit and the band’s name styled to be written in lipstick.
Strings’ first two eponymous albums are a mix of electric guitars, synths, and programmed drums. This is the classic sound of Pakistani pop from this time – hopeful boys without actual studio spaces. There is however, behind those optimistic guitar riffs, and shrill synths and unrelenting electronic drums, a promise of heartfelt songwriting.
But promise was an unsustainable way to build a life. Ahmer Naqvi writes:
There were degrees and jobs; there were family businesses to be taken over; there was a plane ticket to the United States; there was a girl that liked collecting seashells who kept receiving marriage proposals from everyone except for one of the boys at that table. They all knew it was time to call time on the band, even though no one quite wanted to.
So they decided to make a music video, one final act before saying goodbye. Shot on one of Karachi’s beaches a few days later, that music video had a scene with sea shells imposed in the background via a green screen.
The song was called Sar Kiye Yeh Pahar – it remains one of the most influential pop songs in Pakistani history.
“دور سے کوئی آے، کہیں چپکے سے وہ دل میں سما جائے، ساجنا”
“We slowly realised that as we kept going further apart, Strings kept getting bigger” Faisal Kapadia told Ahmer Naqvi. Sar Kiye had become a hit. And seemingly unbeknownst to the band, was being played all the time at clubs in India. Now that they had disbanded, requests for them to perform wouldn’t stop.
The haunting specter of Sar Kiye, and a career that could have been, gnawed at Faisal and Bilal. The two had reunited at a media company a few years after shooting Sar Kiye. Eventually, Bilal could relent no longer. He brought an early skeleton of a song and played it to Faisal. Faisal, floored, knew that this was the song they could build it all around again. The song: Duur.
This gave way to a return album, amidst the buoyancy of the early 2000s music scene. The foursome now remained a duo, just Faisal and Bilal. The revived Strings sound retained the wonderful trippiness of the original, but added finesse and production quality that was understated and larger-than-life at the same time. Sar Kiye was rereleased, this time sounding even better.
This aesthetic made it into the band’s videos – a collaboration with director Jami – ordinary and yet other-worldly all at once. Duur is in some sense, a soundtrack to the pop music scene around it. It looks back at the heritage of seventies and eighties pop – of Alamgir, Nazia & Zoheb, even the Vital Signs. The expansive sonic quality in the effects-laden guitar, an analogy for the sense of possibility in the surrounding pop scene.
2003’s Dhaani built on this legacy. It is less trippy, but it is also the sound of a more established band. Duur and Dhaani’s aesthetic is underpinned by the continued lyrical contribution of Anwar Maqsood. The sound of Dhaani also opened the band up to Bollywood, and to strong relationships with musicians and audiences across the border. Soon after Dhaani, Najanay Kyun became the official track for Spider-Man’s release in South Asia. Then the band recorded Zinda, and Akhri Alvida. It was during this time that the band’s relationships with Indian acts Euphoria and Indian Ocean flourished as well, in addition to stars such as Hariharan that were featured on the albums themselves.
In a way Duur and Dhaani are soundtracks for imaginary films. And because it is so easy to imagine ourselves in them, perhaps these songs became soundtracks for the lives of everyone that listened to them.
Around the release of Dhaani, Strings put out compilation albums around two songs that have become synonymous with Pakistani cricket: Tu Hai Kahan, and Hai Koi Hum Jaisa. Both albums included reworks of the band’s songs from the first two albums, setting the precedent for the band’s later work to revive old songs in corporate music shows.
Even early on, Strings were hesitant to commit to a particular mood that would brand them. Their first album had “a different song for everyone with different tastes” according to Bilal. “All the other bands on the scene have a different style of music. The Barbarians are hard rock, Vital Signs are soft rock-pop and the Live Wires play slow, romantic songs. We have a touch of pop, rock and romantic in our music.” Over time, the band would dabble in many genres. A touch of pop here, some rock there. But what became the defining aspect of their music was romance. This was romance not just for another person, but a broader mystery and excitement, a search for something bigger than everyday life. In the bonds across the border, in the nods to eastern music, the cameos of film stars in their music videos, Strings’ music is somehow removed from the events of real life. In the Musharraf years and then after, Strings’ remained separated from politics and largely avoided the controversy and tabloidity of other artists. In this journey they became the chivalrous ambassadors of Pakistani pop.
By 2008, Strings were undisputedly, one of the country’s premier pop acts. This gave them the confidence from which to experiment. Building on their Bollywood work, Strings explored an edgier guitar sound on the album Koi Aanay Wala Hai, co-produced by actor John Abraham. However, instead of freeing the band, like lukewarm response to the album and the changing economics of the music industry held the band back form recording another full-length album for many years after. This second act, despite delivering the highest point of Strings’ career to this point and arguably even after, ended in an impasse about how Strings would embrace the challenge of moving their sound forward.
“بجھ رہی ہے شام ابھی، جل رہیں ہیں خواب کئی”
In 1990, soon after Ghazanfar Ali had given them one of their first breaks on Music Channel, Herald asked Strings how they felt about their musical ability:
Herald: How do you rate yourselves as musicians compared to other Pakistanis playing similar instruments?
Maqsood: I rate myself as average. We are all average musicians.
Karim: I think the arrangement is the most important thing in music.
Maqsood: Our arrangements are very good.
It was on this self-awareness, and on the skill of arrangement, that Strings would construct their last decade. In strict musical terms, arrangement refers to the act of adapting a composition to a particular set of instruments. Broadly it refers to how a band might be constructed, who plays what, and what resulting mood is transferred on to a song.
While Strings’ held back on recording further studio work, their live output became a different beast. Powered by the inclusion of drummer Aahad Nayani, the Strings live act had the energy and experimentation that their studio work may have been criticized for lacking. Along with guitarist Adeel Ali and later bassist Bradley D’Souza, Strings pushed forward a live act driven by sharp corporate partnership.
When Strings’ long-time collaborator Jami made his silver screen debut with Moor, in 2015, he asked Strings to do the soundtrack. This is arguably Strings’ best work – a gloriously brave take on eastern vocals, layered guitars and flowing melodies. It is as much a Strings album as any that they release under their own name. Moor’s soundtrack was brightened by the diversity of its voices and contributors, all of whom eventually made their way onto Coke Studio after Strings took the producers’ seat starting in its seventh year.
When Rohail Hyatt first departed from Coke Studio, the show he had created, replacing him was no easy matter. The only people really capable of holding the country’s most coveted musical appointment respectably were ones that could bring the industry together. Strings were the only answer. They brought two things that led them immense credibility: a confident, grounded aesthetic, and relationships with the industry that broadened the scope of voices seen on Coke Studio. The steadiness that seemed to dull the impact of the band’s studio albums was critical to their new role at warmly stitching the Pakistani music industry to networks inside and across the globe. It is no coincidence, that it is during this time that Coke Studio resolved controversial battles with record labels, brought in an influx of guest producers, involved pop artists previously left out by the Coke machine, and became ‘Sound of the Nation’.
In a way, while Strings’ generosity opened up Coke Studio and provided necessary visibility for so many pillars of the Pakistani music industry, especially producers of film and TV music, it also left them vulnerable to criticism that they had diluted the essence of Coke Studio. Eventually, the paranoia of the marketing team at Coke, bitterness from other artists, and perhaps undue social media frenzy over this work left Strings exhausted at their departure from the series.
Since then, a number of singles and their final studio album 30, marking 3 decades in the industry, are a swan song to the band’s career itself. I often like to joke that 30 sounds more like Dhaani than Dhaani, and this is by design. Because 30 is about the charm, the excitement, the color of Dhaani – of how a music scene with no industrial infrastructure to speak of made two ‘average’ musicians stars across technological and business paradigms, across borders, and across eras.
In the last year, separated by a pandemic and the Arabian Sea, Bilal and Faisal parted ways on a musical project for the first time. Bilal put together Velo Sound Station solo, but even then, Faisal joined for one last song. In all this time they had not even really been interviewed separately. But it’s easy to forget how long a partnership this was. Most partnerships of any kind, let alone bands, last three decades. Desires of life, the energy to continue in an unforgiving industry, and taste can waver between colleagues. It seems despite it all, that their friendship remains unwavering.
One could ask why the band had to call it at all. They had been on extended hiatus before, they could lie low again. But as long as the Strings name lived on, Bilal, Faisal and everyone they had built around the industry would continue to be weighed down by the legacy of Strings. Every new project could just go to Strings, and take on that particular sound. And with that the opportunity for a new creative avenue for the band members, or new opportunity for other people. This film could have run too long, but this band is not one to let go of opportunity.
“The story of Strings is a story of understanding limitations”, argues Ahmer Naqvi. In a way, Strings’ early breakup, their hiatus, and then the safe and broadly-pleasing nature of their sound can make it appear that Strings are unadventurous and dull. But I hesitate to write the band off as unimaginative. Instead, I am forced to look at them as acts that treasure the following they’ve received and consider it too precious to let down.
Ahmer praises Strings for being incredibly prudent with the business of music. When making Sar Kiye Strings reached out to MTV Asia, and with Duur they reached out to producers not just in Pakistan but India as well. I think it is in fact this impulse of finding and holding on to opportunity that defines the band.
Early on, torn apart by the everyday of life, the band saw their contemporaries become stars while having to watch from the outside. When they finally found their way back in, they had more faith in their music and found the right collaborators to propel themselves. Yet despite it all, it seems that the warmth the band received was still staggering to them, and the fear of losing it has made them hold on to the romance that characterizes their music. At the beginning, they might have been pining for girls, but the love their songs received was larger than just teenage romances. The romance, the nostalgia, was so much bigger.
At the core of any romance is an escapism from everyday life. You can escape in two ways. By going somewhere alien and fantastical, or by taking everyone you love to a place they already seem to know. Strings preferred the latter, and whether you find that heartwarming or disappointing may say more about you than the band. I just find it hard to see how a partnership that lasts 33 years without inherent tension, one that takes optimistic upstarts and ends with them as kings, and one full of adaptation and renewal is anything but romantic.
Herald: Are you saying that, given time, your music will find acceptance in, say, Chichawatni?
Maqsood: Not now, but perhaps in 20 years or so. There may be two people who appreciate the music, then it becomes five. That way it spreads. It will take a lot of time in Pakistan. When the music spreads, I hope the Strings are remembered as pioneers.
This and more information in this great archival piece at Herald.
It’s worth reading Ahmer Naqvi’s piece on Sar Kiye in full.