It was a cool night in Islamabad when the concert took place. The stage wasn’t too big, and had three sets of lights trained on it.
For that particular set, the lights — which could be programmed to display several different colours — were all tuned to emit bright white light and all of these were focused on the point where the vocalist was meant to stand.
A good looking young man with a modern take on the Sunehray Din haircut hesitantly walked up to the spotlight, and screwed his eyes as he looked out into the intimate crowd. People began screaming his name and yelling hysterically, which almost seemed to make him wince.
“Umm… kaafi awkward scene hai, yeh.”
He almost seemed apologetic for not being the sort of rockstar who laps up such applause, and so having delivered that one line, he launched into his first song, holding his guitar like someone would hold a rifle, but without the attendant bravado and machismo.
And yet, despite his visible discomfort, this was exactly why the small crowd was so enamoured with Shajie. His stage persona captured the sense of vulnerability and unpretentious honesty that made his songs so unique, and so it was refreshing to see the artist come across exactly how his fans had conceived of him.
That concert, which took place earlier this year, was where Shajie debuted a new song — “Hockey/Karachi” — one which he released online a few weeks later. Straight from its opening riff and the first strains of the almost-whispered vocals, the song establishes itself with the trademark style that Shajie has come to represent.
When I called him to speak about the song, I began by asking him how the song came about. His response was tentative at first, as he wasn’t sure how to articulate his intentions without falling into any clichés. Eventually, he said how
“I wanted to write something about Karachi, and the different perspectives on has of the city. I used to love going to Karachi when I was a kid and was growing up in Islamabad. But when I grew older and began living there, all the violence and inequality made this relationship bitter. I began realising how the city feels like a sort of a mirage, where all the bright lights and big buildings disguise how living there can be a very stressful experience.
The song itself arose when I saw a young, poor kid playing with a hockey stick. I had a clichéd reaction I suppose, and I wondered keh us bachay ka kya scene hoga? The thing is people born into this city often don’t realise that life does n’t have to be this way — it doesn’t have to be so difficult and stressful. And that’s something which is true whether you are rich or poor.”
In an age where many musicians, particularly those from Karachi’s burgeoning and eclectic underground scene, are seeking to deconstruct and redefine how they sound, Shajie’s songs can appear to be very simple. Yet it is this approach by him and a few other bands which are actively recreating the modern Urdu pop song. One of the hallmarks of Shajie’s songs is how the lyrics are written in achingly simple words that are decidedly surreal. Take these lyrics from Hockey/Karachi:
“Ek haath mein gaind
Doosray mein Hockey (hockey)
Ek ankh hai bandh
Doosray mein haathi (haathi)
Hum samajh gaye, ek doosray se
Hum samajh gaye, ek doosray se
Larna hai ab baqi
Saray hain jazbat.”
“A ball in one hand
A hockey (stick) in the other
One eye which is closed
An elephant in the other
We’ve understood, from one another
Only the fight is left to fight now
Everyone is dramatic.”
[Translation by author]
I asked Shajie about the lyrics, and his approach towards having them so simple and yet magical with the choice of symbols he brings up. After much ‘aww-shucks’ humbleness, he admitted that he often felt it was difficult for him to write something in Urdu he would be proud of.
“If you start explaining things literally, it doesn’t work and if you try and use the same old tired words [associated with pop music] that doesn’t work either. So I try to find different words and phrases — it wouldn’t feel right saying stuff like ‘dil ka dard’ to express what I am trying to say. And then there are some words which have been designated to, or completely associated with some people. You yourself feel weird using them so you want to use other words, other symbols and styles.”
The tired and stale nature of lyrics in Urdu pop was something that several people had remarked upon over the last few years. Much of the exciting new music emerging from the country was in either English or regional languages (Punjabi and Pashto foremost) and vocal-free postrock and electronica had also come into vogue. There was an era, which lasted roughly from Junoon and Vital Signs till Noori, when lyrics with ‘raat jaga’ ‘mei na soya’ ‘dil roya’ etc would still sound fresh, but that should have ended a while ago. Instead, for the longest time it seemed that those making pop songs in Urdu seemed to be at a creative dead end.
It is in that context that Shajie’s stripped-down, absurdist songs herald a remarkable innovation. Perhaps his best song, and certainly the most popular one, is Battakhain, where the listener goes from softly chuckling one moment to being surprised by the ferocity of despair in the next.
But while the lyrics have the sort of awkward yet kooky aesthetic one would most readily associate with Wes Anderson films, the structure, melody and arrangements of Shajie’s songs can appear deceptively similar. Yet rather than appearing derivative, they seem as part of a canon being made by an auteur. Like Wes Anderson’s films (again), they all seem to have very similar sensibilities, but it is the details and the subtle nuances which make them unique.
This realisation occurred to me when I was listening to Shajie extol the virtues of his band members, Nadir Shehzad Khan and Ali Suhail. Both of these musicians are personal friends of Shajie, but are also landmark figures in the Karachi underground scene. Nadir fronts the cult band Sikandar Ka Mandar, which includes the lineup of Ali Suhail’s band Jumbo Jutt. Ali has also released a critically acclaimed solo album called “Words from Boxes”.
When Shajie kept stressing their importance in the making of each of his songs, my first thought was that this might just be his inherent humility, something which comes across whether he is on-stage or speaking to you in person. Yet a more considered listen to the songs reveals that the efforts of Nadir and Ali merit more praise and attention. Each of the four songs is delectably layered, with subtle changes in the atmospherics of the songs. They also incorporate sounds like the quacking of ducks and the bleating of bus horns, and yet none of these ever become gimmicks. Instead, they serve are clever accents to the songs’ moods and tone.
“I think whatever sound we have achieved is because of Nadir and Ali — they think about it a lot more than I do. It eventually ends up taking several months for us to release a song. I come up with a riff and concept, but then the most time is taken trying to make it into a song. It gets difficult to explain everything in one go, and I am only able to do it when I am free and clear headed because that’s when I can enjoy the process. With Hockey/Karachi, the song was originally a little different — you can find a version of it we played in the City FM89 sessions which was different from this version. Sometimes a song grows on you and so certain things change, but there never is any particular pattern that we follow.”
And that is why Shajie is one of the most important, and likely to be influential, musicians in Pakstani today. Both his approach to lyrics as well as the discrete, intelligent music they are set to have shown a way forward for Urdu pop in Pakistan.
If you haven’t heard him yet, its about time you do so.
Originally published at www.hipinpakistan.com on April 24, 2014.