Instep goes in depth to illustrate the versatile life of Shahi Hasan, perhaps the most elusive and overshadowed member of the pioneers of pop-rock in our country, Vital Signs. By Amar Ayaz
In any conversation about music and its origins in Pakistan, one band that would, or should, repeatedly be mentioned would have to be Vital Signs. As their name would suggest, they were the ‘vital signs’ of pop-rock in our country. It would be crazy not agree with that.
That said, any conversation we have about the band, its members and their present statuses, more often than not people mention #Junaid-Jamshed and his search for fulfillment in his faith. Obviously another name people would mention is that of #Coke-Studio genius #Rohail-Hyatt. But one name that continues to fly under the radar since the band mates went their own ways is that of Shahi Hasan.
Junaid, with his good looks and great vocals, was the bona fide front man for #Vital-Signs. While immensely talented, as is evident now, Rohail was the business savvy member, more likely borne out of necessity rather than choice considering how cutthroat the corporate side of this industry can be. Shahi got on with his business which was music, opting to stay out of the limelight. Even after they all went their separate ways, Shahi remained balanced, keeping grounded with the conservative ways of Junaid and liberal thoughts of Rohail.
To this day he himself chooses to stay out of the limelight, working behind the scenes on various artists’ albums. Out of the trio he has consistently immersed himself in some creative venture, be it musicianship, production or photography.
Though his roots are in playing guitar and bass, his creative acumen lured him towards newer pastures. After the trio disbanded in 1998, Shahzad, or Shahi as most know him, decided to focus on production and mastering albums for various bands and artists. He later re-discovered photography and also mentioned that he wouldn’t mind trying his hand at making music videos.
What follows is an in-depth discussion with Shahi about the three current passions of his life. Through our conversation we often digress onto other topics, a sign of men consumed by multiple things. However, the relevant material has been sifted, compiled and printed to display Shahi’s creative zeal.
Seated in a cozy basement, sipping tea, which seems to be offered to every journalist on every visit, it is clear that this basement belongs to a creative soul. A line of string instruments on one wall (amongst which is a sitar), and a studio set-up adjacent to it, the room has melody in every corner. State of the art recorders, mixers, computers, keyboard and screens, Shahi paints the picture of a man who eats, sleeps and breathes music.
Casually dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, he conveys a relaxed image, a paternal figure of sorts to various aspiring artists. Less rock-star and more of a sage, as deduced by the entirety of our conversation, Shahi tells the story of his musicianship and Vital Signs.
Born in 1967, Shahi grew up in the golden era of rock which was the ’70s. Growing up listening to traditional eastern and western music, Shahi soon developed an affinity for the guitar. “I remember asking my dad to buy me a guitar,” he utters with a reminiscent glow. Since there were no music shops during those days in Pakistan, Shahi recollects his father telling him that he would buy him a guitar “if he could find one in Pakisan.”
As fate would have it, he finally found a guitar when he was around 13 years old. Shahi met Rohail at a common friend’s place and they immediately hit it off. Little did they know that their budding friendship would eventually lead to etching their names into Pakistan’s musical history. Shahi remembers that Rohail had a guitar, which his mother had broken due to excessive playing. Shahi borrowed the instrument with the promise to fix it. He took the nylon string guitar home and assembled it with Elfy (super glue which was relatively new then).
“It was slightly warped but it was working and I didn’t have enough strings so I had to make do with the existing ones,” he recounts. He learned to play with the help of Rohail and they started to jam.
In college, after mixing a couple of gigs for Rohail’s band Progressions (based in Pindi); he went to one of their jam sessions where the bass player was missing. “It was the first time I picked up bass,” Shahi tells of when they asked him to fill in. It was then that he found out that he had a knack for the instrument.
“In my first year of FA I formed a band with some friends and class fellows… I asked Rohail also, so he joined the band as the most experienced member of all,” he tells of his first foray into the music biz.
Playing covers of Deep Purple, Eagles, Nazia and Zoheb and Led Zeppelin in the early ’80s, they made a name for themselves. Getting offers to play in Lahore excited Shahi and Rohail but their band mates weren’t as dedicated to music as them.
“We were confused as to what to do, so #Nusrat-Hussain, who was an ex band member of Rohail’s, came up and said there was a show at his friend’s restaurant,” he continued. Rohail and Shahi joined by Nusrat decided to play at this show in Islamabad. However there was one issue that needed to be resolved before they could do so.
Shahi tells of their dissatisfaction of distributing vocalist duties amidst themselves. To focus on their individual parts (guitar, keyboards, etc.) more they decided that they should conduct a search for a vocalist.
“We looked around and then we thought of Junaid, who was in a mediocre band and he was the best part about the band, he was a very good singer and a lot chicks use to dig him also,” Shahi tells with a smirk sneaking up on his face. They played the show with Junaid as their vocalist for the first time and the new partnership bore instant fruit. “The show lasted till 3am because people wouldn’t leave, which was unheard of in Islamabad, where people packed up at 10,” he reminisces with a chuckle.
After news spread of their success, they got offered a show to open for a band called String Fellows. A few days before the show the promoter asked the foursome what their band name was. Immersed in their music, it hadn’t dawned on them yet to name their collective. “We discussed various names, and my sister, who had just gone to medical college, told me this term of how you check the vital signs of life in a person,” Shahi relays on the origin of a name that was about to become a household one.
“So we decided yeah, why not name it #Vital-Signs, like the vital signs of pop.” A fitting name considering there are four standard medical vital signs of life, similar to the foursome that made up their crew. Performing better than the main act that night, eliciting chants of “Vital Signs, Vital Signs” from the audience, marked their ascendancy.
They soon got a sponsor and decided not to play private shows for weddings or New Year’s Eve as their aim was to play for true music aficionados rather than demanding adults wanting them to play dance numbers, whose priorities are to socialize rather than enjoy music. “By limiting our exposure we ended up doing well, focusing on musicianship and quality,” Shahi says, adding that money wasn’t their main incentive. “We have had many offers of ridiculous amounts of money, but we always turned them down… the music always came first, the friendship always came first.”
After gaining recognition, around 1985 they got offered a music video, by Rana Kanwal who was a producer at PTV. There was a competition for whoever made the best video and the winner would play on all the networks across Pakistan. “So she called up and said, I have this poem of Parveen Shakir, can you guys compose this for a video?”
In a time when Zia-Ul-Haq was masquerading as a democratically elected president, denouncing “western ideals” such as jeans and music, the video naturally got appreciated as it was out of the ordinary. It was however what this experience led to that affected the band. At the recording of ‘Chehra Mera Tha’ is when they met their soon to be lyricist.
“While we were recording this there was a gentleman sitting in the corner watching us,” Shahi recalls with much enthusiasm. “The next day we got a call and this gentleman says ‘I am Shoaib Mansoor, a director from PTV, would you be interested in doing a national song?’ so we recorded ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’.”
“What Shoaib did was he created something teenagers could relate to rather than the standard studio video,” Shahi speaks of Shoaib’s expertise.
The rest as they say is history. Vital Signs shot to fame, and even though the fourth member of the band kept changing (primarily between #Nusrat-Hussain and #Salman-Ahmad), Shahi, Rohail and Junaid kept the core.
Leading up to their last couple of years Shahi managed to produce an assortment of artists which paved a way for him into production.
The Passionate Producer
Putting aside his bass and spending more time behind the mixer and recorder, producing and mastering some renowned albums, Shahi’s years of knowledge are serving him well at present.
“Music is my passion,” he says with a glimmer in his eyes expressing sincerity. “It’s what comes naturally to me, I can’t really think of doing something else.” His music know-how is largely evident in the work that he has done on artists’ albums, but most notably in the hit single from #Rahat-Fateh-Ali-Khan, ‘Mann Ki Lagan’, which was featured in Paap, an Indian film, for which he also did the score. “I finished the score in five days, they sort of came in at the eleventh hour.”
“That was partly Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s composition, partly Rahat’s and partly mine,” he says of ‘Mann Ki Lagan’. For the track Shahi used minimal sound, as Eastern music is usually based on two chords, justifying it by stating that he always believes, “less is more and more can never be enough.” This is largely true in old Jazz records such as Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, where by using less noise the album ends up telling a trance-like, hypnotic story in just its music. Similarly Rahat’s vocals blend in as an instrument with his drums and guitar.
Shahi claims that out of all the artists he worked with, he got the most joy working with Rahat Fateh. “He was creative, a perfectionist in his pitch, tone and delivery, wanting to get it right every time, which in turn also made him patient,” he reflects.
Shahi also recalls working with Atif and being astonished at his vocal range stating, “I did not have to tune it. It was perfect the way it was, and that is illustrated by his success.” He was respectful and very professional according to Shahi. He has even worked with artists from across the border, most notably Devika, for whom he produced an entire album, ‘Saari Raat‘.
However, focusing on the local scene, he has also played a part in producing all of Strings’ first three albums which fared well; their most recent one taking a slight drop as compared to its Shahi produced predecessors. Another artist he has produced is #Ali-Azmat, in particular Ali’s first solo venture Social Circus. Shahi illustrates how he tried to add a third dimension to the album, “there is more stuff happening, not just straight up drum, bass and vocals”.
We deviate from the topic hereabouts to discuss the importance of analog recording as opposed to digital. While the topic is close to my heart as well, Shahi’s knowledge on the matter reaffirms many a rock-star’s faith in analog recording (more often used in earlier productions of LPs and records). Clearly he has meticulously studied the art in detail as he spews forth ample information on recording techniques and equipment.
In older times Shahi says that we needed better musicians due to the lack of technology. These days with present technology someone who cannot even carry a tune can be made to sound like a superstar. However, the most elaborate and anticipated project that he has worked on, and is slated for release once post production wraps up, is Indus World Music – Essential Raag. Working closely with Faisal Rafi, which Shahi has done countless times before, Indus World Music will highlight the Essential Raag of Pakistan.
“This is the main project I am working on now… It has 10 CDs and two DVDs, accompanied by some literature,” Shahi enthusiastically states. “I recorded about 40 plus artists.” These artists are little known outside die-hard folk music and qawwali admirers, and the limited exposure also means a limited income.
“We want to create some sort of an income for these artists who do not get the recognition they deserve,” he boldly reaffirms, adding that this is like a service to Pakistan as being part of this industry. With the help of the Tehzeeb Foundation and All Pakistan Music Conference (APMC), this project is being dubbed as one of the biggest of its kind by an international audience.
Accompanied with a documentary by Imran Babar, a talented documentary filmmaker, Indus World Music, if marketed and promoted diligently, can gain international recognition for rooted classical music and culture. It will also make available material that is in abundance but sadly neglected.
The project is more than just music as it will also have visual and aesthetic treats for enthusiasts and keen listeners. Visuals too are not an alien concept to Shahi, who has recently renewed his affair with the camera.
The Lyrical Photographer
Unlike playing music or refining it as producer, Shahi’s renewed love for photography is not something he tends to make into a profession.
“Anything that becomes a profession becomes a bit boring at times, like music, because there are times when you have to do music when you don’t want to and make a kind of music you don’t want to,” Shahi muses.
“Photography for me is a much needed break, a hobby of sorts,” he elaborates while showing me his camera and pictures.
Evidently taking pictures is not an entirely alien concept to this multi-faceted musician. “My dad was into photography, as a passionate photographer and I remember as a kid he used to buy all these expensive lenses and cameras and then he would tell me stuff, teach me how to do things,” he remembers fondly.
“So I absorbed that, tried my hand at it a little too, but I never bought a serious camera till about a few years ago – back then I didn’t have the time to do it, so last year I bought one of the top line cameras and got back into it,” he says showing his collection of photographs to date.
“My friends who are photographers also teach different aspects,” he conveys to me before I could ask how he plans to move forward with his new love. Not one for remaining idle, Shahi also shares that he might “want to try making a video at the same time, for a friend.”
Much can be said about Shahi’s photography. As it is said ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, we’d rather show you these pictures and let those thousand words be your own.
– Shahi’s portrait by Fayyaz Ahmed
Fun facts about Shahi Hasan
– Apart from his acumen for technology and fine arts, Shahi also makes a mean omelet. While discussing food Shahi disclosed his love for barbecue and chicken karhai, which is also in the assortment of dishes he can concoct.
– Building on his love for photography, he recently ventured into moving images in the form of a music video. Combining his two natural gifts of making music and taking pictures, Shahi has made a video for the song ‘Mai Ne’ performed by Arieb Azhar (a talented musician and good friend of Shahi’s) for a TV serial Woh Chaar.
– While he has an eclectic taste in music, his recent production and compilation of eastern raags and tunes has him listening to classical melodies of late. He generally favors classical music whether eastern or western, citing Malika Pukhraj and Pink Floyd as his favorites. He also grew up listening to the Beatles, thanks to his father.
– One can tell that Shahi has good taste in film, just as he does in music. His all-time favorite includes The Usual Suspects, a classic in many books and minds. The more recently released Martin Scorsese venture, The Departed also made an impression on him.
– Out of all the concerts and gigs he has performed with Vital Signs his two favorite shows have been events to remember in his life. One was a Shaukat Khanum charity fundraiser (a favor for his much respected friend Imran Khan) in the States under the Washington Monument, which attracted a large crowd. The other was a concert at our very own, National Stadium, where due to extenuating circumstances the crowd exceeded the amount of tickets sold, making it one of the largest audiences they had seen up to that point.