The second coming of Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan (instep)

Amanat Ali Khan

The man who blazed his way through Pakistani pop with Saagar is back with a new album, Tabeer. From classical novelty to phenomenon, Shafqat has made his mark. In this interview Shafqat speaks on finally making the leap as a solo singer, the important of infrastructure for the music industry, making it big in Bollywood and a lot more…

By Maheen Sabeeh

It was in 2002 when Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan escalated to unprecedented success with his then-band Fuzon and the beautiful album Saagar.

Fast forward to 2008 and it sees the return of the majestic singer once again. But this time, it’s his solo album, Tabeer, and Shafqat is calling all the shots.

As we meet for an interview at the Arts Council in Karachi – where Shafqat has been rehearsing with his live band before flying off to India – it’s clear that he is a busy man.

Shafqat sits down with me, just chatting about the humid weather, only to be called back and throws an apologetic look before taking one final stab at a tune.

Even though the gap between Tabeer and Saagar is of a few years, Shafqat has managed to stay in the spotlight. Singing for Karan Johar’s magnum opus Kabhie Alvida Naa Kehna in 2006 put Shafqat firmly on the Indian map. And since then it has been an upward spiral for him.

This really is the second coming of Shafqat Amanat Ali Khan and for him it is a lifelong dream that has come true on his own terms and in its own time.

In this interview with Instep, Shafqat reveals the feeling behind Tabeer, the importance of Bollywood, the India-Pakistan difference and why digital music is the order of the day…

Instep: This is your first album in over five years. And this time, you’re a solo artist and there is no Fuzon. Saagar was a smash hit, critically and commercially. Tabeer has a lot of expectations behind it. How are you feeling? Nervous?

Shafqat Amanat Ali: Whenever I work on an album, I’m least bothered about its success. I don’t think about whether it’ll be a hit or otherwise.

My major concern is that people should like it and they should respect my work. My concern is not to get popular. I don’t want to be only popular. I also want my work to be respected.

Instep: How did Tabeer happen?

SAA: It wasn’t even my idea. It was in fact Music Today (Indian record label). Our initial briefings led me to believe that they were looking for a Sufi album.

I realized at that time that the Sufi music one hears of from India is not original. I told them that you think that if you mix guitars with tabla, its Sufi music. However, Sufi music is made of kalaam. Baba Bullay Shah, Baba Farid, Shah Hussain and Amir Khusro wrote kalaams. We pick up their kalaams and compose it in a very traditional way. That is original Sufi music. When I discussed this with Music Today, they were very excited.

They asked me to make something but I declined. I asked that we first sign a contract and get the legal procedures taken care of. When we were done with everything, I made them a demo and they liked it. The work on the album began. Somewhere down the line, the music started becoming very mellow but we still wanted it to be Sufi so we added folk to it.

Tabeer started out as a Sufi but as we progressed it wasn’t completely Sufi. It has folk as well as fusion. It’s a variety of genres.

Instep: You were also supposed to work on an album with Rohail Hyatt. What happened to that?

SAA: Both Tabeer and another album were being done with Rohail Hyatt. Once I’m done with the promotion of Tabeer, then I’ll work with Rohail on another album that I had composed back in Fuzon days.
As for Tabeer, he was onboard but then Coke Studio happened. He got busy with that and he said Shafqat, I won’t be able to do this.

Instep: Despite album releases from big guns of the music industry like Ali Azmat, Strings, Atif Aslam and Jal, there are hardly any music shows. Musicians tend to appear more on television and those shows are often on DAT (digital audio tape)…

SAA: There are many reasons. Firstly, it’s the security situation. If someone invests in a concert and a bomb blast happens and 100 people die, then what? I’m not saying that concerts are a target but the fear is everywhere. No one will invest in such a scenario.

Secondly, people are financially and economically very weak. People who are facing problems in paying electricity bills and feeding their families, they don’t have 1000 rupees to spend on a concert ticket. You can listen to songs in your car or on the radio and in your house anytime. Concerts have gate crashers and security problems.

Thirdly, TV channels don’t pay the artists. They say that we are recording but they are selling their time. They are getting ads and are paid for it. If artists are not being paid, they won’t live shows for free on air.

Instep: You escalated to fame in India with Kabhie Alvida Naa Kehna’s ‘Mitwa’. How did that come about?

SAA: It was very simple. The very first time I spoke to Shankar (Mahadevan), it was on the phone since he was leaving for USA and he couldn’t come and a journalist was also there. He said to me, ‘Shafqat, I’m a huge fan’. We exchanged a few words.

He heard Saagar on the radio and asked around about me. Then one day Ehsaan called me. They were in Goa and said that they wanted to do a song with me.

I had gotten offers to sing for Indian films prior to KANK but either I refused or would ask an amount that producers wouldn’t agree to.

When Ehsan called I said I’ll do it without knowing whether it’s a film or their own album. It was then that I found out about KANK. They told me that someone from Dharma Productions would call. Anyway, then Karan Johar called and said: “I’m a great fan and I listen to your album in my car and I love it. And I want you to come and sing a song for us”. And that was that.

Instep: Is Bollywood a necessary evil for Pakistani musicians to survive in the Indian market?

SAA: I’m not sure about others but it’s different in my case. I’ve never let them (Indians) walk all over me. I’ve never done anything that’s not up to the mark. If I think it’s not respectful I don’t do it. I had five offers earlier and I refused them. They were not big banners and they didn’t have anything to offer me.

Even for KANK, when I heard its Dharma Productions and Shah Rukh Khan’s name, I didn’t change my price. I charge what I charge. I will fly business class, I will stay three days and I’ll stay at the Marriott.
The point is that if you don’t lose your identity and keep a certain self esteem, I don’t think anyone can cheat you or do any wrong. India is a very big market no doubt but we can’t rely on it 100 percent. We have our own viewer ship here in Pakistan. If we get famous from here, people will respect us abroad. Tomorrow if they stop giving me work, what will I do? They don’t owe me anything. When their own singers have stopped working in Indian films, then who are we? And it’s not like I’m a very big singer that without me their industry won’t work. Today they picked my song ‘Mitwa’ and made it a hit. Tomorrow they’ll use someone else’s song and that’ll become a hit. So whatever work you do in India, you should do it while protecting your self respect and ego.

Instep: Pakistani music scene lacks an infrastructure. In comparison India is supposedly better…
SAA: The industry is better but it has its flaws. For example, in India if you want to sing, you have to have a certificate from all the music labels. If anyone is organizing a show, they need to have a certificate from a label that we’re singing your song. They pay them royalty.

Instep: The links between music and the Internet have increased tremendously in the last few years. Locally most new and old albums by Pakistani musicians are available for free downloading. What is your take on it?

SAA: One can put teasers on the Internet – I’m talking about local music websites – but not full albums. Be loyal to your country and your artists. Why can’t they do a deal with the artist? Just put teasers and maybe one complete song. Anyone can put up anything on YouTube. It seems that one has to shake hands with the people of YouTube as well as others and collaborate with all of them. Piracy can’t be contained completely but there are ways to deal with it.

Instep: You recently sang on the Ramchand Pakistani soundtrack. How was that experience?

SAA: It was a great experience. Debajyoti Mishra (of Raincoat fame) is a really nice guy.

He told me later that he said to Mehreen that he would do the OST only if I was involved. Mehreen called me and told me there’s this guy, he’s done Raincoat’s music and I really like the music. I thought why not? If anyone makes a Pakistani film I’ll always say yes without any hesitation because it high time we support our industry.

Instep: What did you think of Ramchand Pakistani as a film?

SAA: It’s a great film. Mehreen took a big step and the effort is huge. I think it’s a very well made film.

Instep: Are you working on any new Bollywood tunes?

SAA: There are four films coming out, one is Mumbai Cutting, then Zindagi Tere Naam, that’s a duet with Sunidhi Chuahan. There is Hello, which stars Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif. I’m doing one song in Nagesh Kukunoor’s Aashaeyin which features John Abraham.

Instep: Is it true that you’re working with AR Rahman?

SAA: There’s a guy in Pakistan and he’s friends with someone in Delhi. They are planning something and A.R.Rahman sahib is doing that project. If that project works out then, we’ll be working together. We’re still in talks so let’s see.

Instep: Coming from the Patiala gharana with generations of classical knowledge behind you, has it been difficult to dabble in modern forms of music such as pop?

SAA: My father sang ghazals which were experimental but successful. Asad bhai also sang pop once but decided to stick with traditional music. I think that people who say expect me to sing only ghazals… I tend to ignore them. One shouldn’t be too rigid about any form of music.

Instep: How important is training for singers?

SAA: You know recently a company has launched this software which tunes your vocals when you sing live. So in this age of technology, singers have lots of options. But should the electricity ever go out, one will be in trouble. I think training is important because it proves that you are honest with your work. There’s a saying in Punjabi, jes ko milta hai khanay ko, us ka juta jata hai kamanay ko.
Singers come and go. Today one is a hit, tomorrow someone else will take that spot. If you think of singers like Mehdi Hassan Sahib or Farida Khanum ji, Ustaad Fateh Ali Khan sahib, they are remembered as legends even today.

Training is hugely important in the long run.

Instep: What do you think of Fuzon’s new singer, Rameez Mukhtar?

SAA: I wouldn’t like to comment on Fuzon. I’ll only say that he’s good.

Instep: Are there any concerts in the pipeline?

SAA: Definitely. We’re shaking hands with a few other organizations as well. So let’s see how it goes. We’re planning shows on our own in Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi and maybe a few other cities.

Instep: On a final note, what is your live act like?

SAA: Right now we have 9 people. I started with a five member band, but then I realized that the sound in the album is different when it’s live. The money that I earn from one show is split nine ways now but I’m willing to do because I don’t want to compromise on the sound.





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