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Old 10-08-2006, 01:07 AM
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Arrow Zeejah Fazli, Sarmad Ghafoor n Khurram Waqar Live in Islamabad

Bands of brothers

His Bigness

Fasi Zaka

This is the most schmaltzy article title I have ever coined. At least something good came out of that lousy mini-series Spielberg produced with the ham actor David Shwimmer playing the lead.

But it's a true reflection of the way things are in Islamabad. There is a really strong DIY scene (or "underground" if you will) here.

Frankly, as a chronicler of music events here I have done extremely poorly because I have made it to very few gigs. But luckily I happen to know quite a few of the players, rather serendipitously, who make things happen here.

It's quite low key amongst the musicians themselves, though some of the bands do have a rather vindictive streak when it comes to their peers, but by and large the music scene is characterized by laid back slacker culture and an almost Mughal-era respect for "senior" musicians, whatever that means. Generally that total ultra-competitive spirit of the musician that is trying to make it big is absent, partly because some of the bands have no ambitions greater than to be small live acts.

There are really two hall marks of music in Islamabad that frequent it with regularity. The first is the Sweat Leaf City Jams, a kind of rolling event where bands get together to jam at convenient locations. It's non-profit and there to give people a chance to play in front of their peers and an adoring audience of die hards of the bands and their friends.

The other is the cafe Civil Junction. It's owned by a fan of rock music and has made available its upper deck for bands to jam and hold small gigs. Though ever since Corduroy have dissipated, it doesn't have the same level of activity.

But speaking of elders, Islamabad has three guitar players most look up to. They are Zeejah Fazli, Sarmad Ghafoor and Khurram Waqar.

Sarmad plays for Rungg, Khurram Waqar for Knumb and Zeejah does solo work (though he once played for Lahu). The event was called G3 (it comes from a tour that Satriani, Vai and Eric Johnson did together), a rather unnecessarily ambitious name for what turned out to be a warm and extremely likeable event.

It was held at Planet X in a small hall they had. The organization was simple, each of the three guitarists would play some instrumental covers and originals and they would eventually jam together on stage in the end.
The seating in the hall was qawwali style, the flooring was covered in white cloth and there were takyas (large stuffed pillows) to rest on. Of course this was a pain for me, each one of my ass cheeks would fall asleep until I rolled myself to rest on the other. What's worse was people lighting up, ad if I had ever seen a serious fire hazard this place was it.

The concert started off with Sarmad Ghafoor's original composition and then he played a brilliant Dream Theatre number. His backing band was a laptop, but that doesn't mean it was guitar karaoke. An extremely gifted player he was probably the most popular with the audience. Sarmad's playing is melodic and it can sear as the instrumental goes on. For a while he was a frail monolith with only movement of his hands over the fret board. But as he went on you could see he was coming into the "feel" element as his face began to reflect the sounds his guitar sang. The one thing I have to credit Sarmad is that he doesn't do any of those face contortions that guitarists do when playing; is it the pain of music or an inopportune and imminent end to constipation on stage?

Next up came Khurram Waqar with his band Knumb sans singer. He immediately asked the crowd to give Sarmad a big hand. Sadly because of my single sex schooling I always chuckle at stuff like that.

Khurram started playing and the strobe kicked in. I have Knumb's material before and though I enjoyed it I found it got repetitive after a while. The sub-continental influences in their metal are interesting, but too much of it turns me off because of the feeling of deja vu in some of their pieces.
They only played originals that night, and I have to say they put on an incredible song set that showed to me a totally different side of their oeuvre. Their piece 'Fearless for a Day' was one of the most interesting compositions I had heard in some time. It was a great melodic departure from their previous material. They played some incredibly funky pieces, a great one that had muting and harmonics (which I think is one of the most incredible sounds a guitar can produce). Their original 'Six' was great, especially when their rhythm guitarist Shehryar Ghayas did some surprise vocals, in effect he inadvertently stole the band's thunder with some great showmanship.

When their set ended I wished Sarmad could have also had the opportunity to play with a full ensemble band, it would have made his excellent set even better.

At one point the drummer for Khurram Waqar, Wasim, jokingly called one of his friends in the audience a "kutta"; the mike picked it up with full resonance. Khurram Waqar just looked politely to the audience and said "No abusive language tonight please". Incredulously (and hilariously) someone in the back muttered "This is rock 'n' roll?"

Last up was Zeejah. He was the only one I hadn't heard before. He opened with the theme to Pulp Fiction, which was refreshingly popular and less pedantic than the seriousness of everything preceding his set. His original 'Jinnah Avenue' had a great bass line and drum hook. He went on to play Russian classical guitar pieces.

And in the end it came to the only time in the whole evening where things weren't so hot, which was in some ways supposed to be the highlight of the evening, the threesome's jam.

All played well, but they took turns playing which really didn't build on the music each was doing. In part, one could also see that all were treading a fine line of respect for one another, trying not to hog the space for solo work that the others would provide rhythm to.

Maybe my expectations were too high at that point because here were three very different players, one a melodic master, a heavy metal influenced player and the last a straight rock 'n' roller. But the playing came out to be turns for each to play on their strengths, not fuse into an exciting and spontaneous sound. At that point the drummer Fifu shone as he kept up dexterously with all the guitarists.

The intimacy of the gathering was made even sweeter when the show ended and the organizer turned out to be a fan who wanted to see the three play together.

That's a small city for you. It has bands of brothers (regrets that even repeating the title doesn't make it sound less schmaltzy).

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