Rohail Hyatt: Still vital (Article)

It took a week to get an hour and a half of talk time with the man himself … Coke-Studio’s Rohail Hyatt.

Rohail Hayat

When I finally managed to set up a meeting I was told that, as a matter of policy, I couldn’t take any pictures. A little annoyed by this, I make my way to the office of Frequency Media Studio where I am to meet with this larger than life persona. And large he certainly is … as the studio’s door opens, a huge silhouette appears from behind a stack of giant monitors and sound mixers. It’s Rohail Hyatt and, in a pleasant surprise, he welcomes me very humbly.

Wearing a pair of shorts and a button-down shirt, Rohail sips on a bottle of juice as he speaks of a journey that began with the Vital Signs and has culminated in Coke Studio’s success. What’s next?

“I am on a journey of self discovery and every day is a new day for me,” says Rohail. “I feel like until I started producing the music that I wanted to, I was blind … and who knows, after some time I may realize that I’ve been deaf as well! It’s all a matter of getting closer to God.”

A Different drummer
In many ways, Rohail’s personal journey parallels the transformations that Pakistani music has gone through.

In the 1990s he could be seen playing the keyboard in the Vital Signs, a band of young, dashing and rebellious musicians wearing jeans and leather jackets. This was when the new breed of Pakistani pop had arrived on the scene, eager to change the world with a song. In his latest incarnation he is the uber-producer and musician-manager, the mastermind behind Coke studio – a concept that is redefining music production in Pakistan.

“I still make fun of the songs that we made when we were in Vital Signs,” says Rohail. They were funny and naive, and we never imagined that the songs would become so popular. When Atif came to Coke Studio he even told me that Vital Signs inspired him to come into the field of music. It was really nice of him to say that,” he adds.

Though he says it with a smile, I wonder if there is a hint of bitterness when he talks about the struggles of the past? Being a musician wasn’t easy in those days, he says. Aspiring musicians had to jump a lot of social hurdles and deal with financial woes just to get noticed, and even then, they weren’t guaranteed successful careers. However, he says he is glad for the difficult times and claims he doesn’t resent the newer breed that seems to be able to catapult themselves to fame with just a single video.

“The tools the so-called ‘one hit wonders’ use these days are available for everyone … anyone can compose a song and circulate it via the internet … but I don’t resent anyone,” he says. “Just because I had to face opposition from my family, travel on buses with my equipment, be broke for months on end and have one state-run channel to depend on in my time, it doesn’t mean everyone has to suffer.”

Rohail reserves his true contempt for those he sees as the villains of the music industry – the record labels. The musicians have evolved, he says, but the labels remain as they were – exploitative and unreasonable.

“People talk to me about the music industry and I ask them, what music industry are you talking about?” questions Rohail. “The one which is being run by a couple of draconian record labels? You would be surprised to know that after our first album, Vital Signs was broke because we didn’t get even a single penny as royalty from EMI Pakistan. Had Pepsi not come to our rescue; there would have been no more albums,” he says.

And that’s where Coke studio comes into the picture. According to Rohail, the whole concept of Coke Studio is that the artists, the audience and the brand all get something out of the experience.

“I went for Coke Studio because in the record label format only the middleman benefits, but if you do things the Coke Studio way, it’s a win-win situation for brand consumers and the artists as well … I knew I couldn’t pull off a win-win situation unless I was a millionaire, so I got Coke on board. This is the same thing Uth Records is doing and they are doing a great job too,” Rohail says.

Taking another swing at his favorite whipping boys, Rohail says that some artists couldn’t perform their own songs in Coke Studio because of issues with their record companies. But after Coke Studio was a hit, those same labels approached him asking for air time. “They say: you can get a No Objection Certificate from us and play our songs in your programme … I tell them we don’t need their songs.”

Moving away from production and record labels, I ask what Rohail thinks of the growing ‘politicization’ of music. Pausing to think for a moment, he replies that it’s just a trend, and while it may be pleasing or interesting, it will ultimately be short-lived.

“Everyone produces political music at some point in time, but it is limited to a certain period, not a whole lifetime. I mean, very few people know that our track “Mera Dil Nahin” was a very subtle socio-political commentary,” says Rohail. “I don’t remember what the actual statement was that we made in that song, but it was the time when Bush senior was in power and the Soviets had fled Afghanistan. It was Nawaz Sharif’s first term and we were depending too much on the Americans.” An interesting take on the song, because if you look at the video on Youtube (as I did), you will see band members dancing around in a jungle and, in the end, the band makes a snow man that Rohail ultimately crushes. If there was a message there, I think I probably didn’t get it.

Rohail also has his own take on how music is interpreted in our culture: “The maulanas today hate to believe that Islam was largely spread in the subcontinent by music. Qawwali played a huge role in this and it is through this method that our forefathers were converted,” he says. So where should local musicians look for inspiration? “We just need to find our musical influences,” he continues. “We might bring in the Ghazal from Turkey and Central Asia, and Sama from Persia… we are a melting point of cultures and above all we have forty four languages spoken in Pakistan so we might as well explore those.”

Whether you love or hate him, and whether you think Coke Studio is a corporate sell-out or the best thing to happen to Pakistani music in decades – there’s no denying that both have made an indelible mark on the scene.

Newcomers like Zeb and Haniya owe a great deal of their success to the platform Coke Studio provided, and even stalwarts like Saeen Zahoor and Arif Lohar found saw their careers soar to new heights after their admittedly stellar performances. These musicians and many more got a new identity and a new lease of life through Coke Studio and all this makes Rohail a a very proud producer indeed.

“We have got so much talent in Pakistan that I can pull of ten seasons of Coke Studio on the trot, it is all a matter of deciding whether we explore our own roots further or explore our neighboring musical influences,” boasts a clearly pleased Rohail.

But surely it’s not all milk and honey and praise? What does he feel about the criticism and complaints?

“I have noticed one thing,” says Rohail. “A song will have 1,200 likes, but not 1,200 positive comments. People in Pakistan don’t praise achievement with an open heart, instead, they are way too critical. If I started to take feedback seriously, I’d end up defending one of my songs over the others.”

Success does have its drawbacks though. Rohail also says that people have now developed unrealistic expectations from Coke Studio. Referring to Asad Ahmad, the house band’s lead guitarist, he says: “People complain that Asad Bhai’s guitar didn’t have distortion; I say that if you want to listen to distortion, then go listen to Gilmore. It takes some guts to match up to someone like Abida Parveen, and all of that is way above a guitar’s distortion.”

Whether you attribute Coke Studio’s success to Rohail’s personality, his hard work, or the huge amount of money that is pumped into the project, it is obvious that Coke Studio has taken the nation by storm. With more bands and sponsors itching to get in on the action, and record companies getting the jitters it seems Rohail Hyatt has taken the pulse of the music industry…and all signs are still vital.

State and musical sensibility
Although he says that the state doesn’t totally ignore the arts, Rohail suggests that “the cultural ministry can play a better role by doing something more long-lasting than taking a group of selected musicians around the world and paying them to perform at embassies. They can do so much for the folk artists that we don’t even know about.”

“Ideally a guild or an artist’s union is the best solution but no one is honest enough and no one can tolerate someone else’s success. A union for voiceover artists was formed and according to that, everyone got a chance to do voiceovers at a standard but very decent rate, but a few days after that people started calling and asking for more voiceover projects than other artists for lesser pay… I think rest is self explanatory.”

Asad Ahmed – Guitarist
Ahmed has previously worked for bands like Vital Signs and Awaaz. Along with fellow musician Sameer Ahmed, in 1997 Ahmed formed one of the first alternative rock bands in Pakistan called Karavan.

Babar Ali Khanna – Eastern Percussionist
Khanna has traveled across the world to play for international bands like Rochdale-based Shola. When he returned to Pakistan, Khanna worked extensively in the Pakistani film industry. Now Khanna runs his own music academy in Lahore, where he teaches students the dholak.

Jaffer Ali Zaidi – Pianist
Jaffer Ali Zaidi has been playing the piano for more than twenty years. Besides playing for Coke Studio consistently since Season 2, Zaidi is also the lead singer and pianist of Kaavish.

Javed Iqbal – Violinist
Iqbal started his career as a professional musician playing the violin for film songs. He later secured a place as a musician on the “Alamgir Show” which aired on PTV. Here he worked with the likes of Fareeda Khannum, Iqbal Bano, Adnan Sami and Nayyara Noor. In 1984 Radio Pakistan advertised a vacancy for violinists; Iqbal auditioned and was selected. He has been working at Radio Pakistan ever since.

Louis J ‘Gumby’ Pinto – Drummer
Gumby, with his passion for drums, came to the attention of guitarist Amir Zaki when he was 14, started doing live gigs with him. He has been on the professional circuit for over 20 years, and Gumby’s portfolio includes bands like the Vital Signs,
Junoon and Strings to name a few.

Zoe Viccaji – Backing Vocalist
At 16, Viccaji joined an underground band called Ganda Banda, and sang covers at gigs. Zoe did not start showcasing her own compositions until later, when she teamed up with guitarist Shehzad Mukhtar. Her latest cover of “Mera Bichra Yaar” with Strings has gone viral on the internet.

Omran ‘Momo’ Shafique – Guitarist
In 2005, Shafique received an invitation he could not refuse: to come to Pakistan and play with the band co-VEN. It took him a year to uproot himself from Texas and move back. He has not regretted the decision. Popular for his work with co-VEN and his own band, Mauj, Shafique describes his affinity with the guitar as an “escape from the mundane”.

Rachel Viccaji – Backing Vocalist
She first sang on stage when she was 12 years old and began performing at concerts and musicals soon after, fronting underground bands like Rachel’s Plan B and The Big Cheese.
Her introduction to a wider audience came when she bagged the lead role in the musical Mamma Mia.

Raheel Manzar Paul – Percussionist
In 2003 Paul and four of his friends who often jammed together decided it was time to form a band. Wreckage quickly became popular within the underground music scene. One year later he joined the band Kaavish along with Jaafer and Muaz. Paul quit to join his family business after four years. He did not, however, quit music and continued as a freelance drummer, recording with Arieb Azhar and Aamir Zaki amongst others.

Sikandar Mufti – Percussionist
In 1993 Mufti played drums for an award-winning high-school jazz band ensemble in Louisiana, where he lived with his family for five years. After moving back to Lahore, Mufti joined the band co-VEN, a grunge band that he plays for till today, and The Trip, an underground classic-rock band. In 2007 he joined Mauj.

Kamran “Mannu” Zafar – Bassist
Zafar was offered a job in the backing band “Night People” and played with them for almost 10 years. Zafar first entered
Pakistan’s mainstream pop music scene in 2008, when he drew the attention of Ali Azmat who invited him to become a permanent band-member of his concert line-up.

Zulfiq ‘Shazee’ Ahmad Khan – Percussionist
Shazee has now been playing percussion for the past 17 years. He has been a member of a backing band called We-Five for 14 years. International tours have taken him to 22 countries.

Pictures of Above Mentioned Artists:

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 12th, 2011.


What Next?

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Submit Comment