Going Kostal: Omran Shafique

A member of Co-Ven, frontman for the band Mauj, a guitarist for Ali Azmat, guest musician on Coke Studio (and part of the house band, a year later as well), and member of a musical collaboration known as Kostal. No, these aren’t a group of people, in fact, all of these musicians are actually one and the same; Omran Shafique.

When not playing music, Omran is laid-back and the epitome of comfort. Playing on stage, he is a beacon of raw musical energy, channeling it through his guitar. There’s absolutely no denying his musical talent, some of his fans have gone on to say he is the next Salman Ahmad, though musically they are worlds apart.

Omran, or Momo as he is called, started off with Mauj sometime in 2000 in Houston, Texas. In 2004, they released their first music video with Khushfehmi and soon after recorded an album which seems to be stuck in limbo. It’s a stigma that has attached itself with Omran, whose hard work is now buried somewhere in the annals of a record label company. “The point is that the label isn’t even telling me what the release status is, whether they will release it or not,” says Omran, “and that is incredibly frustrating.”

He refers to Mauj’s first album, Mauj in Technicolor, which so far has only seen the light of day on the internet through Amazon and iTunes, but has yet to see any form of release in Pakistan. “That’s the way it’ll be in the future,” says Omran, “more and more musicians will end up going through Amazon and iTunes, simply because it gives the control and the profit to musicians rather than record labels.” He quickly adds, “Being a musician in Pakistan is not about making money, you do it to make music and that’s about it.”

And that’s been the aim with Co-Ven, a true underground band that makes music for the sake of making music, and is in no way limited to Pakistan. But how does Omran balance his music between Mauj and Co-Ven? “I’m sort of an honorary member of the band, I don’t have to be there all the time, but when I do get the time, I’m always there.” Talking about Co-Ven’s new direction he said, “I’m loving the sound of the new songs they’ve been doing, and I hope to perform with them sometime soon.”

As if Co-Ven wasn’t enough, and the fact to deal and coordinate with a band in another city, Omran is now working hard on bringing Kostal, a band on another continent altogether, to our coast. Kostal began when Omran received an email from a producer/DJ in Texas who wanted to work with him. Omran replied and the two of them met up.

What followed was a small meeting where they decided that they should work together, but for Omran, Mauj was a priority. “I remember I was moving to Pakistan to try and get Mauj off of the ground,” he said.

Taha Malik (the producer/DJ) added, “And I was just about to get my set up off the ground, making my own personal studio. But once that was done, I started to work with other musicians to get Kostal off the ground.” These other musicians included the likes of Labh Janjua (Mundian Tuh Bachke-Punjabi MC feat Jay-Z), RDB, Punjabi Outlawz, Tehseen Javed, Sukhbir and others.

In 2005, they finally met up and recorded their first track together as Kostal. Jaan Jaye, which has also been made into a video recently (directed by Uns Mufti), was the result of that first recording. So what makes Kostal different from Mauj or even Co-Ven? “It’s more hip-hop based stuff, it has a very electronic sound,” says Taha. “I’d ask Omran to play a chord or he’d play me this progression and then I’d just mix it up.”

The experience for Omran was also surprising, “Normally, while recording music, I would play stuff and jam, but this was different. Whatever I played with Taha he’d just twist it around and place it in a different sequence entirely.” The resulting music is an elaborate mix of rock and hip hop, a genre of music unheard of locally thereby making it a breath of fresh air.

Once the song was recorded, Kostal finally took a form of its own. “We want to collaborate with everybody from around the world,” says Taha, and once they start listing down their recent collaborations one might think they already have done so. With collaborations with such diverse artistes such as Samy Elmousif, a French Morrocan rapper based in Canada; Shab Malih a Ra musician (a form of folk music mixed with Spanish, French, African-American and Arabic) and even the likes of Stereo Nation, whom they have recently worked with. “It was an exciting experience,” says Taha, “I mean, I was dancing to their music at weddings and now I’m working with him.” The track which will appear in a Gurinder Chadha film will bring Kostal to the global playground of musicians, one which has always been the goal of the band. “We want to work with as many different local and international musicians,” says Omran, “and that’s what Kostal is all about.”

The band is finishing up on their debut album and will most likely be released electronically, worldwide, through Amazon and iTunes later this year. Jaan Jaye’s music video has already been shot, and according to Omran and Taha it’s a video that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. “It was Uns’ concept and it’s just me and Taha acting like a bunch of rappers,” Omran said about the video.

Although now that even Kostal is seeing some sort of finality, what about Omran himself? According to the musician, he is on the fence as to whether he stays in Pakistan or relocates back to Houston. It all depends on the fact whether or not he still enjoys being a musician. “It’s just so different now. I’m finding myself picking up the guitar for reasons other than just playing music and having fun.” Granted, extra frustration must come from an album which he worked on so hard to release, and is now stuck nowhere. “I’m actually sick of the album, I’ve heard it so many times,” he says, which is naturally true. Omran isn’t the kind of musician that sticks around with one kind of sound for long. It would seem that the status of the album is no deterrent for Omran who already has started to work on another Mauj album. “I have about five demos ready and waiting,” he said. “I just need to take some time out for this and start work on it. And naturally, we want to be doing more shows.”

More seems to be a key word with Omran. Whatever the format, whatever the band, he is continuously looking forward to making more music. And although an unreleased album might be an anchor of frustration for him, Omran’s not the kind of musician that is deterred by such an anchor. In fact, more than anything, it’s given him more and more opportunities as a musician. Let’s just hope he sticks around in Pakistan and continues to explore more music opportunities, so that his audience has a chance to see and hear him.

Hadiqa: The Sky's The Limit

Hadiqa Kiyani’s latest album, Aasmaan, is aptly titled. If you think about it, the sky’s really the limit as far as she’s concerned simply because of the amount of distance she has covered musically in her career.

Her music may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but then again, how many Pakistani female musicians have actually performed abroad and alongside international artistes, won accolades, and have had a consistent career for the past 14 years?

Her first album Raaz was released in 1995 to much fanfare but she was quickly shrouded under the shadow of the late Nazia Hasan, who herself had only just stopped singing two years prior. Kiyani persevered and went on to appear on TV channels abroad, work with the likes of Bally Sagoo and appear on stage with stars such as Lisa Stansfield, Wet Wet Wet, Michael Learns to Rock, All 4 One and The Brand New Heavies.

All this and just after releasing her first album. Two more albums followed; Roshni and Rung, and during this time she also appeared on television and billboards across the country. Soon one saw her performing for international dignitaries at political and social conferences. She was also part of a rather interesting collaboration with guitarist Aamir Zaki in the form of an album titled Rough Cut. The English album for Hadiqa was yet another avenue of diversity since the singer has already sung in numerous dialects and languages.

Putting things into perspective, it would seem that her career is one of many firsts and no matter what happens, as bands break up and musicians come and go, Hadiqa has been a constant musical presence in the country and abroad.

That constant presence now takes the form of a fourth album, Aasmaan, albeit six years later. British producer JKD and Ifran Kiyani, her brother, act as producers for it. They establish a myriad of sounds, a dash of dance, a spatter of rhythm and blues, all added up to the distinctly eastern voice of Hadiqa herself with which she sings in Urdu, Punjabi, Hindko, Pushto and many other dialects. Thanks to her past experiences in the West, she can carefully blend that same voice from eastern to western effortlessly. Take Az Chashme Saqi for instance, a distinctly eastern poem penned by Allama Iqbal moulded by Hadiqa in song and a vocal performance.

There are good songs and there are songs that prove she can sing, and the same is the case with Sajna Sajna. The song proves that she can but knowing Hadiqa, we know she can do better. Sohnya features rapper Nas-T, whose sporadic interruptions make you wish Hadiqa had left him out. Nevertheless, Hadiqa is not one to shy away from experimentation which this track clearly does with it delving in funk and rap.

Tuk Tuk is a bouncy, tongue-in-cheek track all about being silly. The song will surely be a crowd-pleaser at live performances. Zara Zara shows indications of too much tinkering. It has diverse beats which rollercoaster through to being wired and techno, but it still sounds much better than its own remix which was clearly unnecessary. Baqir Abbas brings in his powerful and resonating flute on Wanjhli and Hadiqa brings her own singing up a notch to meet Abbas. Together on this track, the two of them take the album on another level. On Jab Se Tum, producer Irfan Kiyani joins in for a duet and the result is a sweet little number that also shines through the rest of the songs in the album. Could it be that Hadiqa sings best when she sings with others? These last two tracks are a clear indication of that.

This is Hadiqa’s first foray into the music scene in almost six years. Other than this, she has been around in terms of concerts and as brand spokesperson. Aasmaan is probably the most drastic image change for Hadiqa so far, and she’s taken on these changes throughout the course of her career on each of her albums.

Much like the changing of her image, her sound changes too, as this album shows that being away from making music for so long has scattered her direction on this album. It seems like she wants to go all over the place rather than concentrate on one direction or sound.

Perhaps this is yet another experiment by Hadiqa, who has crossed borders all her musical life. First by being a female musician in a predominantly male musician dominated industry and being a constant presence in it, then by performing abroad with musicians over the world and now by crossing borders within her own musical world where the sky is perhaps not the limit.