The buzz in the room is quite infectious; the artists feed off each other’s energies amid the thrashing of the snare, excited strumming and high-pitched vocal practice. They have been jamming for six hours straight, for days at a stretch. The paint on the walls of their new retreat, located in the basement of an educational institution in Lahore, is fresh. The woodwork is buffed up and so is the approach of the captain of the ship, Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan.
It has been a long month for the team behind Nescafe Basement, as it prepares for the music show’s fourth edition. About halfway through their preparations, the musicians are ready with seven tracks that will be part of the new season.
Zulfiqar, commonly known as Xulfi, visited schools and colleges in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad to handpick his musicians. However, most of the recruitments have been made through online auditions. This resulted in the formation of a diverse group which has representation from Quetta, Rawalpindi and even as far as Chitral in the north. Xulfi has every reason to be proud. “People from different backgrounds have come together to create music. Some common ground is always there but the idea is to take the artists out of their comfort zones and push their limits. “Citing evidence to support his idea, Xulfi says, “For instance, one has grown up listening to qawwali only and another listened to nothing but Nirvana. Make them play together and you’ll hear something you’ve never heard before. That is the essence of Nescafe Basement.”
However, Xulfi’s song-making methods do not derive from his legacy. “I think of a certain idea for a song but as we start working on it, my structure evolves because all our artists bring their own ideas in. I don’t dictate anything because that’s not the spirit of jamming.”
Ever since it surfaced in 2012, the show has grown from strength to strength, with its artists going on to make their own bands and studios. “My vision is to create the future of Pakistani music.” Xulfi’s concept does resonate with his understudies, who have flown in from all over the country, hopeful of making a career out of their passion.
Bilawal Lahooti is a session drummer who has featured with acts like Call and Roxen. He has been part of the show since it was two. When asked if he thinks he can ever draw steady monetary benefits from music, he says, “I already am,” with a glint of pride in his eyes. “With each season we are improving as we understand what the audiences want to hear, keeping our flavour intact simultaneously. Think of it as an artful sandwich of the two,” he says. Before he was roped in for the project, Bilawal had a band with his friends, called Overdose. Since then, many of his original band mates have joined him at Xulfi’s observatory. Currently, he also runs Neon, a recording studio, where Bayaan recorded their latest single, Farda.
Sharoon Leo and Haroon Leo are twin musicians who hail from Rawalpindi. The former plays the violin while the latter is a guitarist and the two have also been part of the show since its second season. Having honed their skills at Nescafe Basement, the twins formed their own band and recently attended the 10th International Music Festival Sharq Taronalari in Samarkand, Uzbekistan where they won third prize. “With the Nescafe Basement name attached to ours, people give us whatever money we ask for. We are looking to release an album and are quite positive about the future,” Haroon says.
Tabla player Asif Ali is a new addition to the Nescafe Basement family. A student of his featured on the show’s third season and recommended him to Xulfi who got Ali on board. He introduces himself, “I can play the tabla and also sing. I just won an award at the All Pakistan Music Conference. My dream is to play around the world and show my versatility as a singer-musician.”
Published in The Express Tribune, December 12th, 2015.