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  • Writer's pictureThe Sound Cafe

Rivayat: The Working-Class Voices of Pakistan’s Living Musical Tradition

By Stevie Connor.

How a Lahori rock star invited working-class musicians into his studio - and helped them capture some of the best music the world has never heard.

Rivayat (Urdu for "tradition") is a unique music series that presents a range of traditional and local talent from various corners of Pakistan: well-established artists as well as international collaborations. The first single in the series is "Chamba Kitni Dur"performed by Manwa Sisters, a trio of sisters hailing from Faisalabad. The single is now available on all online music platforms including Spotify and YouTube, and new tracks will drop every week. Each track is accompanied by a video showing the artists in action on the Mekaal Hasan Band YouTube channel.

Created by music producer, rock guitarist, and all-round musical firebrand Mekaal Hasan, Rivayat discovers local talent whose commitment to traditional music spans generations and whose families have kept the flame alive for roots-based music in Pakistan. Mekaal's objective with Rivayat was to record the most deserving musicians that he has known over his own 30-year professional music career.

From Qawwali parties to post-colonial brass bands to village folk trios, the series' artists will change the way the world hears Pakistan. Featured are musicians from areas in and around Lahore extending into Shahdara Town, Kasowal, Pakpattan, Begun Kot, Faisalabad, and more. Through meticulous recordings and international collaborations, it aims to weave the frayed threads of Pakistani musical tradition back into everyday life.

"I wanted to restore a voice to these musicians and let them tell their story in their own words. I decided that they should choose the songs and the arrangements," explains Hasan, an unorthodox choice for recording folk and traditional music in Pakistan. "We wanted to make the creative process democratic, driven by the artists. All the artists who came in, we said, you give us the songs you want to perform, try to pick something that someone from your family wrote. We wanted to invest in the music and musicians, nothing else."

Rivayat coalesced during the worldwide COVID-19 shutdown. For performing musicians everywhere, it spelled distress. For working-class musicians in Pakistan with no other professional options and no state support, it meant disaster. This was not lost on Mekaal. Unlike many of his cosmopolitan rock and pop peers, Hasan had worked with traditional musicians for decades as teachers and fellow performers. His response to the general panic and helplessness of 2020 was to try and give back.

"When the pandemic hit, the first thing I thought was, 'What's going to happen to these artists who only can live by performing live?'" Mekaal recalls. "They have a huge disadvantage. They don't speak English. Many aren't on social media or YouTube."

They were, however, still making music. Mekaal invited them to record with him. At first, travel was impossible, so Mekaal stuck to musicians from around his hometown of Lahore, inviting them to join him for sessions. These sessions focused on capturing the acoustic sound of each artist or group without overdubs. Some tracks Mekaal sent to musician friends across the globe, from the US to Russia, and asked them to add their own touches. Yet most of Rivayat's music is what you'd hear animating a shrine festival, enlivening a wedding, or drifting from a window down a small street in Lahore.

"The performances you hear on Rivayat are all recorded in one take, harking back to an era of capturing music in the most natural way, without resorting to any 'fixes' via manipulation of pitch or rhythm." Think classic jazz recordings, which capture a band together, not as isolated tracks. "This was a conscious artistic decision, one the artists were excited about. It differs from the highly produced approach many take when they create some recorded version of this music," Hasan explains. "At the same time, we made full use of the best audio tech, to make the performances feel as alive and fresh as they do in person."

Traditional music isn't unheard of in Pakistani pop culture. It's influenced the songs heard on every popular program sponsored by massive international brands, the TV extravaganzas that have launched many a major Pakistani pop star. Yet the music's torchbearers have no say in what's done with their family inheritance. Little consideration is given to the people who have nurtured and passed down this repertoire; the producers and performers hail from a different, far more privileged social class.

Mekaal notes they don't see their working-class artist as peers or take them seriously as artists: "I don't know of many people from my background who expressed an interest in this music and the people who make it. Everyone happily takes songs from their legacy and gets a rich kid to come and sing it," he reflects. "There's a huge gap between the people making the music and the people performing it and benefiting from it."

Reaching out through to Lahore's musician community yielded a wealth of incredible moments in the studio. One of the first came when they recorded qawwal Shahzad Ali Khan, the powerhouse voice that drives "Tobah," a galloping secular ode to love's disappointments). Shahzad brought his dozen-strong chorus into the studio--then quickly turned Mekaal on to everyone else in his extensive network. Each participating artist would make recommendations on whom to record next.

"It is essential that traditional artists get representation on musical platforms and that their contributions are presented in the most authentic manner possible," Shahzad explains. "I brought the music I felt most connected to and that I have invested my life in nurturing and developing. This includes both music created over centuries as well as what current artists are creating, the new works in our traditional forms."

None of this music is static, a relic trapped in time; Rivayat is a creative, not ethnographic project.

Though many of Rivayat's artists keep traditions that extend back to the Mughal courts, their music has evolved. Some traditions spring from more recent times, emerging in the crucible of the British colonial era--only to become something else entirely. One example is the music of Jaffar Hussain, a longtime police officer who leads a large brass band and who is one of the only professional clarinet players in Pakistan ("Raag Pahari Mishermail Thumri").

Hasan was able to support several other performers of rare and underappreciated traditional or classical instruments. Sarangi player Zoheb Hassan is one of only three players of his bowed instrument in the country, and the only one in Lahore. He has faced challenges due to physical disability and ongoing discrimination from landlords suspicious of musicians. Yet he can make his grandfather's century-old sarangi sing. Hasan also worked with several talented female performers, whose position as musicians is particularly fraught and precarious.

"It's the need of the hour to have a program like Rivayat, that presents authentic musicianship and musical tradition unfettered in expression, open to all traditional artists, be they instrumentalists or singers," notes Rivayat musician Shujaat Ali Khan ("Ranjha").

"Rivayat allows listeners a way to access hidden gems culled from a land which has a rich and vibrant folklore," say Fiza and Hasnain Haider, siblings who sing on "Ghunghat Olay." "Together, we created a positive creative environment. It encouraged us to present our craft without constraints to creation and expression." Lovers of South Asian roots music and new fans alike will hear it in every track.


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