Urban Pakistani Musicians Jam With a Rural Folk Singer and Create Something Beautiful for the Internet

A growing number of mainstream and indie musicians around the world choose to release their songs on social media first to connect with fans and generate revenue in new and unique ways.

But in Pakistan, where YouTube has been blocked for close to two years, and a popular music band's Facebook page was recently also blocked, it may seem peculiar that a new production house chose to release their very first music video for free on social media.

Yet, that is exactly what the people behind the video linked above did.

The collaboration between Mai Dhai, a rural Sindhi folk singer in Pakistan's south, with some talented young urban musicians in the country's northeast was released last week on Facebook and Vimeo. So far it has been shared more than 1,600 times on Facebook, played more than 3,000 times on SoundCloud and more than 1,600 times on Vimeo. Their effort generated hundreds of comments. Meher Faruki wrote on Facebook:

What a beautiful creation! So many great sounds! And whoever put the video together….love their spirit of fun.

Mustufa Pervez Khan wrote:

Can't understand a word but still sounds bloody awesome

Adrian David Emmanuel wrote:

Beautiful Jazz interpretation and fusion with local dialect and music Proud to have such musicians here in Pakistan Amazing stuff guys

The company that put it together – Piphany Productions – is a start-up and “Sarak Sarak” is their first fully mastered track with a video for the Internet. Danish Khawaja, co-founder of Piphany and one of the guitarists in the video, flew from Lahore to Sindh to convince Mai Dhai, the folk singer, to fly over to Lahore and do the collaboration. Pakistan's Institute for Preservation of Arts and Culture (IPAC) writes about Mai in a Facebook post:

Mai Dhai is a traditional Manganiyar singer and dhol player from the Thar desert region. The Manganiyars are a caste of Muslim musicians who traditionally performed for the kings of Rajasthan in the Subcontinent. Over the years, their patrons have shifted from Kings to anyone who can offer them a meal. Their repertoire ranges from ballads about the kings to Sufi songs written by various mystics. They also sing songs for various occasions like birth, marriage, rains, feasts etc.

The rawness of the folk and the complexity of classical music is what makes their music so special.

The song is in Marwari, which was known as the language of the desert of the Subcontinent. The lyrics and their English translations can be found here.

East meets west music collaboration in Pakistan is as old as the country, but this phenomena went mainstream in 2008 when Coke Studio, a Pakistani TV series that records and airs studio collaborations for TV and online audiences, became wildly popular. Pakistani blogger Taha Kehar called the series a “Blessing in Disguise” that helped revive the Pakistani music industry and preserve folk tradition, as well.

Global Voices spoke to Tabish Habib, creative director at Piphany Productions and the producer for the video, to learn about their music and their choice to release it for free on the Internet.

Global Voices (GV): Tell us more about the collaboration. How did a rural Sindhi folk artist end up collaborating with two urban underground musicians?

Tabish Habib (TH): The collaboration came to life last summer, in I think maybe July or August. Danish had travelled with his brother-in-law Mohammed Ali (also a producer on this project) a native of the village Tando Jam in Sindh where they planned on spending the Summer. It was there that Danish received word about a folk singer named Mai Dhai from a village called Umerkot and proceeded to seek her out and jam with her. Danish was blown away by her voice and convinced her to fly down to Lahore and record a track with him in a proper studio environment. I think we spent a total of maybe 24 hours in the studio but we managed to record two tracks, the second of which we plan on releasing soon.

GV: Were you surprised by the response that you got online? Or is this exactly the kind of collaboration that Pakistan's net savvy youth craves?

TH: I think the speed at which the video got around was surprising but we did anticipate a good response. When talented people from different walks of life come together to make music, one can only expect a good response.

GV: Does Mai Dhai even know what the Internet is? Has anyone told her she's become famous on the Internet?

TH: Mai lives in Umerkot with her son and I doubt she has any idea what the Internet is. They have one cell phone at their home which has no Internet capability.

GV: Tell us more about the song she is singing. What's the message behind it?

TH: The song is a folk tale about a conversation a little girl is having with her Mamo (uncle). She is basically asking for his help and attention both financially and emotionally. She wants him to fix her broken shoe and buy her jewellery. It's a very innocent and cute sort of narrative. I don't know if there is a message behind it but you can see the lyrics with translation in the description in the Vimeo link.

GV: What about the musicians in the band – how long have they been playing music?

TH: The musicians in the band play sessions for various commercially successful artists, so I don't know if I would call them underground specifically. But they all have they're own musical passion projects which get little attention from the media and have managed to develop their own niche following. Danish Khawaja plays for Poor Rich Boy, who are currently touring the States right now with the State department. Zain Ali plays bass for Zeb & Haniya and has his own progressive Jazz band Red Blood Cat. Kami Paul plays sessions for almost everyone in the Pakistan music industry, from Noori to Mekaal Hasan band, he's quite a house hold name. Sameer Ahmed is another veteran and plays bass for coVEN and Jimmy Khan & the big Ears. They are all a very talented bunch. The tabla player in the video is Moharram and is actually Mai's son. He was also acting as translator during the whole recording process because Mai doesn't speak a word of Urdu. The harmonium player, Jamal is also part of Mai's folk act. A big thank you to Mekaal Hasan for letting us record at Digital Fidelity Studio.  None of this would have been possible without his help. 

GV: Why did you choose to release the song for free online instead of releasing a CD that people could buy in the market?

TH: We went around asking a few people to fund the idea but nobody showed us any interest. The commercial music industry in Pakistan likes to play it safe. Nobody wants to try anything new or creative and it was for that reason that we planned to release it online through social media, we had a very strong hunch that it would be received well, while we were composing the track. So we decided to fund the whole project ourselves. In retrospect we're very glad we did.

GV: Tell us about the urban underground music scene in Pakistan. How do these musicians release their music for the wider audience?

TH: Facebook, SoundCloud, Vimeo, social media is honestly your best bet. Musicians in Pakistan have to act as their own agents and managers. A bunch of indie-artists and musicians in Karachi started Lussun TV to promote themselves through online webisodes and in Lahore you have the independent recording label True Brew Records which provides a platform for underground artists and a venue for live shows but apart from that the scene is very dismal. Hopefully the success of the track will encourage people to promote more creatively diverse musical projects.

Anushe Noor Fahim contributed to this post.


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