Interview: It’s hard to write love songs in Pak, Says Strings

What began as a quartet of long-haired college students in Karachi in 1988, split four years later and faded in to Indipop oblivion.

The haunting strains of their infectious Sar kiye yeh pahar – their biggest hit till date – however had kept their magic alive when they made a smashing comeback a decade ago with Duur. But for Faisal Kapadia and Bilal Maqsud, famously known as Strings, writing angst-ridden socio-political songs has happened only now with fresh hits such as Ab Khud Kuch Karna Padega and Main Toh Dekhoonga.

The duo, down in Mumbai to record music for Sanjay Gupta’s Shootout at Wadala, open up to Mumbai Mirror:


Strings in Mumbai with John and Sanjay for Shootout at Wadala

How has the situation in Pakistan been to music? Conducive or too grim?
The way things are in Pakistan, we just cannot write love songs, which we would write earlier. A musician always expresses about issues that are around him and that is what we are now doing. For the last three years, it has been too serious a mood for any entertainment.

In fact, it is not a priority anymore. Few and far concerts happen, but the venues have changed. What used to be staged in open grounds under the clear blue sky has now shifted to small college venues with a limited crowd.
There is so much to worry about that nobody wants to listen to anything happy. As a musician, you don’t feel like doing much music either.

How did you switch from happy-go-lucky numbers to serious music? Did you see it coming?
Actually, 20 years back, when we started our career as excited 17-year-old college boys, we never thought we would ever write serious socio-political songs. Back then, it was all about having fun. But now if you are not politically inclined in Pakistan, you are deaf, dumb and blind. Day in day out, you see and hear about suicide bombings and killings. Obviously it has affected our music. Any Pakistani will identify with those feelings. As musicians, we have a chance to express it.

Is it more satisfying to make music about real issues?
Sure. You feel good that you are trying to say things that you mean. You are not bullshitting around. You are being honest in giving a message. For us, this shift came sometime in 2007 when on TV, we saw Beirut being shelled and Pakistan was already bleeding with terror strikes. Though we named this song Beirut, it is basically an anti-war song. It goes – Kyon ja rahein hain, kis liye ja rahein hain, kuch bhi nahi pata…bas ja rahein hain. But this shift wasn’t deliberate, it just happened.

Looking back at your musical journey, what was the turning point?
Definitely Sar kiye yeh pahar. We were naïve then, just having fun and before we knew it, the song was a roaring success.

How different has the experience of composing film music been?
It is much more challenging, but it is a lot of fun too. As artistes, you push yourselves out of your comfort zone when you make music for a film. When you make your own music, you make it for yourself and you know the pulse of your fans. But scoring for films means you must satisfy the actors, the producer, the director and the audience whilst retaining the sanctity of your sound and genre.

Why did you disappear from Bollywood after achieving success with Zinda and Shootout at Lokhandwala?
We didn’t do any movie after that not because we didn’t want to, but because as a pop rock band, it is a difficult balance to achieve. We wanted to attain a fine balance of making pop and Bollywood music. And then 26/11 happened. Everything went into a standstill for almost a year.

Those were tough times that delayed our plans by a year and a half. But it is great to be back now.

A couple of days back, Sanjay called us and asked us to be here. Knowing Sanjay, we didn’t ask any questions. We trust in his vision as much as he trusts our music.

Can you elaborate on how 26/11 altered the course of your plans?
It affected us very deeply. We had a show in Pune on November 29. On the night of November 26, I was packing up my bags when Bilal asked me to turn on the TV.

We were shocked. You know, India and especially Bombay was home to us as we would come down so often. We knew every place, every corner. It was just as if it was happening in Karachi. We didn’t do the show. We just didn’t feel like it.

The organisers had their own issues as they had set up everything. It was very sad for us as we were very attached to this city. For six-eight months, it was very difficult to get a visa. Also, it was tough for the organisers to get consent to allow a Pakistani band to perform. With such tension and grief in the atmosphere, we too didn’t want to hit the stage.

Also, it really hurt us because we rely more on concerts. Singers such as Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Atif Aslam could still record songs for Bollywood from Dubai over internet.

Do you see Pakistan’s worsening situation getting any better soon?
Pakistan, currently, is unfortunately in a space where nothing is right. Sometimes, it happens to us too where everything goes wrong. Pakistan is going through that. We are grappling with inflation, joblessness and it is very difficult for people to fulfill their basic daily requirements.

If you follow the news, in the last two years, Pakistan has been constantly hit by terrorist strikes, suicide bombings and drone attacks. But we are trying to be calm and optimistic with the hope that when there is a downside, there is always an upside. That is what the whole nation is being positive about.

When you perform live, do you find any difference between a Mumbai crowd and a Karachi crowd?
People who come to our concerts are mostly familiar with our music. So their reactions are very similar. Moreover, the desi crowd is the same across the world; be it Mumbai, Dubai, Karachi or elsewhere.

What do you mean by ‘desi crowd’?
By desi, we mean Pakistanis and Indians (smiles).






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