Spotlight Musician: Zohaib Kazi

The Melancholy Streets of Ismail’s City

by Asmara A. Malik

On paper, Zohaib Kazi’s musical journey seems fairly straightforward, even typical, of the majority of Pakistani musicians. Yet merely listening to his ephemeral songs once is enough to make you pause and re-evaluate that initial assumption. For one, he’s not creating the kind of banal pop that makes your rational brain shriek in horror. For another, his work has the kind of multi-layered allure that simultaneously pulls you in yet leaves you standing alone at the threshold of some darkly magical door.

With the impending release of his début project, Ismail Ka Urdu Shehr, Zohaib Kazi is set to make his decidedly distinctive mark upon Pakistan’s music industry.

Ismail Ka Urdu Shehr comprises an album and a novella centred around the central character, a scientist. Kazi envisions both as being part of the same over-arching story. When asked about the role these two components play, whether one is in fact the subset of the other, Kazi’s response is simple. “The album and novella have their own significant importance,” he explains. “The whole idea is as if a you had heard the album and then read the novella– you’d experience the sound-scape of the whole story, like watching a movie, with your subconscious grasping the emotions via the music.” He simplifies the analogy further: “Consider it 3D reading.”

Given the creative complexity such a project would naturally entail, Kazi admits “creating an intelligent balance hasn’t been easy.”  Resolving the essential dichotomy between the sung words and the written narrative was just one major hurdle he faced. “The most challenging part is the lyrics, where I have to ensure that they depict what’s happening in the corresponding chapter, in addition to being good songs in their own right which you would want to listen to even if you haven’t read the novella,” he says. “It’s for this reason that both have been delayed so long.”

Kazi describes the inspiration behind Ismail Ka Urdu Shehr as being a “disbelief in everything I knew,” when he spent hours online, watching documentaries about fields as varied as science, psychology, spirituality, religion, history and commerce. “I’m hungry for real information,” he explains. “Ismail ka Urdu Sheher is an amalgamation of all of that information. The whole idea behind writing this novella is to share information yet to communicate it in a ‘cool way’, similar to The Matrix, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings.”

Even with four songs from the album released as free downloads on his official site, Kazi’s completed vision remains a mysterious complexity. Awaz (The Last Radiowave), released in 2008, represents a stellar mix of rich vocals and bittersweet instrumentation. “If I ever end up making a movie out of Ismail…, that song would be the soundtrack for the theatrical trailer,” he says. “It is the most important chapter of the whole story as this is when contact is first made with Ismail.”

Awaz (The Last Radiowave) starts off with a sample of one of Stephen Hawking’s speeches extolling humanity to ‘spread out into space’. “We continue to use our planet’s resources for nukes to ensure certain countries remain super-powers and corporations get richer while the poor are told ‘Sorry, we don’t have resources for you’”, elaborates Kazi, “which is BS. We have plenty for everyone and if we don’t, then we should search for a ‘spare’ planet since this one might not last another century.”

The song mirror’s this downward spiral, starting off on a hopeful note then progressing to an almost-entreating duet between Samra Khan and Jaffer Ali Zaidi. It ends on as enigmatic a note as its beginning with two American newscasters joking about an alien signal being received by SETI ala Contact, while Khan’s haunting voice fades away in the background.

Awaz (The Last Radiowave) represents an interesting fusion of South Asian and Western sounds. Kazi says that the roots of this particular curiosity lie much further back then the creation of Ismail Ka Urdu Sher would lead you to believe.

“Even as an 8 year old, I wondered what would happen if someone tried fusing portions of eastern elements in a western format,” he muses. “I remember listening to Talvin Singh’s Anokha compilation and it just captivated me– it was futuristic yet it sounded local. It was exactly the kind of sound I had in mind.” His forays deeper into the genre led to his fascination with contemporary fusion artists such as Nitin Sawhney and Karsh Kale, “the Moby and Daft Punk of South Asian fusion genre.” Kazi also lists Deep Forest’s work and Peter Gabriel’s collaboration with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, as having had a significant impact on his musical sensibilities. “It sounds so impossible– it’s so cleanly done,” he enthuses.

Another artist Kazi cites as a major influence is Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. When asked about what he finds inspiring in his music, he replies, “I love the way he arranges a track: the broad sound-scapes, the low drone pads– it is very much on the lines of the kind of work I do. They’re grand examples of good production. If I was a professor teaching music production, I would use his tracks as examples.”

Certainly, Reznor’s inky piano notes seem to have informed aspects of Raat Bazaar. Released in 2009 and featuring the vocals of Nida Anam, the song is a gun-metal-blue study of the desolate sorrow of loss.

“Raat Bazaar is like the last chapter of a story, a goodbye song to a loved one,” he says. Even though is just over two minutes long, it’s last notes leave you with  a sense of something still left unsaid.  “It sounds incomplete because it is,” he explains. “The whole reason for this song is to create the sad yet brave feeling of that particular chapter hence the husky vocals as if someone’s speaking in a low volume in a melodic way. Aren’t sweet goodbye’s usually incomplete?” The song is set to feature prominently in Kazi’s follow-up to Ismail Ka Urdu Sher. “The complete song would be the first track of the sequel of Ismail…,” he confirms.

In it’s razor-sharp production and tonal clarity, the song also calls to mind the work A. R. Rahman. “I collect all the cool elements of all good music and try to incorporate them in my work,” he says. “Mr. Rahman is definitely someone from whose music I have a lot of influence from. ”

Both Raat Bazaar and Awaaz are also notable for showcasing very imagery-laden poetry in their lyrics. Kazi exlpains his method thus: “There is no one method. Sometimes, I’ll write a song in a couple of hours and sometimes it takes months! My usual way to write something like Raat Bazaar is writing while playing the chord progression but with something like Awaaz, I’d make the basic groove and have it play on repeat while I’d lie down with a notepad.”

Ismail Ka Urdu Shehr–Zohaib Kazi
Raat Bazaar feat. Nida Anam
Maan Lo feat. Naad e Ali & Zara Madani
Awaz feat. Samra Khan and Jaffer Zaidi

Bijuri, Kazi’s latest release from the album, represents an interesting tonal shift from the rest of the songs heard so far. With Devika Chawla’s powerful vocals and a thrumming, thunder-in-the-Monsoon background, Bijuri is more blatantly powerful than the songs heard so far. To Kazi, that is half his aim achieved already.

“Its good if it sounds different from the rest of my work,” he says while explaining the collaborative process with Devaki Chawla for Bijuri. “It was our brainchild to do something so east in such an electronic-Radiohead-Reznor-ish manner”.

With another Coke Studio season lined up under his belt, Kazi’s musical prowess is only expanding. “I’m not handling the creative angles of Coke Studio,” he clarifies. “That’s Rohail and only him. I operate more as a point man to the producer. My job is to get things done, in time and in the most efficient way possible!”

With his experience from Coke Studio, Pakistan’s most successful cross-genre musical collaboration, Kazi’s artistic aims have only gotten higher. “It’s definitely been one of the best musical experiences of my life,” he says, “I learned that discipline leads to infinite possibilities even within Pakistan.”

Applying that lesson to his own collaborative efforts has definitely given an extra edge to his work. “For collaborative projects, I don’t try imposing myself or own too much of the product, it should be a perfect balance,” he says. “As a producer, I should have the capability to sound different every time but not too different.”

Bijuri‘s inception and execution are just as remarkable as the response the song has received so far. Quite a trick for a song whose creators have never met, to date,  in the real world. Not that that’s the only thing that makes the song interesting.

“I love the power of the internet!” Kazi enthuses, “It’s the beauty of our generation. Devaki and I spent hours discussing Bijuri online. It took a lot of Skype hours to came up with the song and even more gigabytes of data exchanges to make the video happen!”

With it’s dark suspense and much fewer of the bright moments that punctuate the rest of the songs, Bijuri is perfectly poised as an enticing come-on to old fans and a captivating hook for newer South Asian audiences.

Given Zohaib Kazi’s vision and drive, it’s hard to see how Ismail Ka Urdu Shehr will be anything less than ground-breaking in terms of its content and execution. No matter what the outcome, this particular soundscape promises to be an unforgettable experience.