'Art Chose You Too': Talking Urdu Blues with Sameer Rahat
In conversation with the artist
Sameer Rahat has been an active member of the independent music scene for years now. Formerly a part of the progressive-rock Urdu band Joshish, he is also a music producer and film composer. But it’s his conception of the Urdu blues and his soulful renditions and interactive performances that catch all ears. With his debut album close to release, Rahat talks genre, ghazals, making music, the independent scene in India and more.
First off, what is Urdu blues?
Urdu blues, simply put, is blues music which is sung in Urdu. I compose poems and ghazals by classical and contemporary Urdu poets in the blues genre. Sometimes I write them too.
What drew you to the blues?
Blues music has always been around me since I was a child. My nana (grandfather) would listen to a lot of music on his record player and you could hear music being played daily in our home — from the morning right until we went to bed, except during afternoon naps!
There is a distinct influence of blues and jazz in a lot of old Indian film music, even in ghazals. In fact I recently heard one of my mother’s poems that she had composed and written in the early 80s, and it is entirely based on the blues pentatonic scale.
Last year she passed on all of my nana’s records and I discovered a lot of blues albums. Now that I’ve started writing songs in the genre, it has only made me grow fonder of this incredibly vast and beautiful musical space.
Longing and pain is a central element in both the forms of blues and the ghazal. Urdu as a language itself has so many different words for pain. Did you consciously decide on this union? What is your relationship with each?
The ghazal is a whole different world in itself, both as a form of writing and singing. In terms of having a theme, the ghazal covers many topics in each of its couplets or sher. On the other hand, the majority of blues songs will revolve around a certain idea or story. But they still go very well together.
Longing and pain is definitely central to both blues music and ghazal singing. The ghazal and the blues might feel like they are poles apart, but that is the beauty of this writing form, and the fluidity of blues music in the ways it comes together.
I have to find a melody and a vibe that caters to the couplets I’ve chosen. That is difficult.
When I write an Urdu-blues song, I usually pick two or three couplets from a ghazal that are similar in mood or theme; these become my verses. There are also times I sing entirely different themes within each song. I have done this in ‘Kya Lena’, one of my first Urdu-blues songs.
‘Kya Lena’ by Sameer Rahat
I didn’t consciously make this eccentric union at all. I have been surrounded by literature all my life, more so than any other household because my parents are writers. Although I only began reading intensively in my late teens, I was writing a lot of songs for my band.
But I never wrote ghazals. That requires another level of artistry if all the ghazal’s rules are to be followed.
I started writing nazms in my mid-twenties and I was still far away from attempting a ghazal. But I was always reading them and I started composing my favourite ones into blues.
After having made a couple of these adaptations, I decided to perform them to a small audience. Initially at house gigs to my friends and colleagues but as these sessions got popular, audience members told me that what I was doing was ‘Urdu-blues’. That is the genesis of the story and the best is yet to come.
Sameer Rahat performs ‘Hum Kaun Thae’ live in Mumbai
Somehow the blues is able to express the complexities of modern life today. The ghazal is also contemporary in the way it explores human beings, the heart and its motivations. And this is not modernity in opposition to something, but a complex lived existence of various elements. Urdu-blues in a way embodies this complex identity. There is also something in modernity that’s yearning for something lost, that isn't there. One can feel this in your rendition of Jaun Eliya’s ‘Hum Kaun Thae’ or your single ‘Gyaan’.
Urdu poetry has always grasped the complexities of life, from the time of the Mughals and their court poetry to today’s indie scene in India with open mics and intimate concerts. And blues music is not only contemporary but its history explores human beings, their emotions and revolutions. It is what has revolutionised this genre worldwide.
So one might experience Urdu-blues through the lens of a postcolonial identity, or a present day increasingly Hindutva reality, alluding to a language and culture that is sidelined, even attacked by various political forces.
Can you also tell us about your single and latest music video ‘Gyaan’?
‘Gyaan’ talks about a modern state that is supposed to be Indian democracy. The song is a simple take on how conveniently information and news is being spread about religion, the economy, war and politics to cater to certain agendas.
Gyaan simply means free wisdom, propaganda in this case. The music video has a central character that goes around the city distributing our country’s (and its leader’s) favourite drink — chai, with biscuits of gyaan to go with it for free. I decided to release this before the last election. Hopefully it will reach enough people before the next one.
Rahat at Baqsa Studios in Mumbai
You are also a music producer and film composer — do these allow for the creative freedoms that you might get from your individual side projects? How does each inform your experience of music?
Yes, I’m primarily a film music composer and I produce music in my studio in Bombay. It is called Baqsa Studios. I also write lyrics for other composers and musicians. I enjoy juggling all of these and I’ve finally found myself getting back on stage and performing for people. That quenches my soul.
I started performing with my band at the age of 16 and that is how I got into this profession. Later on film music entered the picture and became a big part of my life. I’m glad for that because music production has really helped me shape my songwriting and the scale of production in my indie project. So in my upcoming debut album I have not compromised on the quality of the sound, sonically and in terms of its overall production. I also recently contributed to the production of Parvaaz’s newly released album Kun.
In terms of getting creative freedom as a film composer and music producer, one has to remember that someone is telling their story with the help of your skillset as an artist. You have to become a part of the narrative and add to the sole voice of the story, but one that is not really yours.
One can interpret the ‘independent’ in independent music in various ways: it is set apart from the force that is Bollywood music; the language of independent music, which is largely English; the niche audiences; societal norms that consider music as an unconventional field to pursue…
But then we also see the ‘mainstream’ playing out within this field: the dearth of female instrumentals is striking, for example. In that sense, what role can independent music play to challenge the status quo? Does its mere existence do that? How can the independent music scene push boundaries and raise difficult questions, seeing it is already placed in a unique position? Is the independent music scene playing it safe, seeing the enormous creative freedoms it does enjoy by virtue of being ‘independent’?
What do you think is ‘independent’ in the independent music scene?
The ‘independent’ music scene in India is still young and it is ageing slowly in spite of the emergence of the internet and social media. There are several reasons for this: one is the Goliath that is the Indian film industry. There are still few people listening to the David of the music industry. Thankfully that is changing slowly and just like the tale, the underdog will shine through in the end.
Of late we also see the two joining hands and collaborating. Indie artists are getting their music synced in films, ‘Gully Boy’ being the latest example of that.
In terms of language, I think we have really come a long way. English is no longer the language of the indie scene. If you look at the country’s top bands right now, they sing or even rap in Urdu and other Indian languages. There are artists such as Harpreet Singh, Osho Jain, Advaita, Swarathma, Avial, Indian Ocean, Joshish and Parvaaz, to name a few.
In terms of the involvement of women in the Indie scene, I can see it improving, though it still is marginal as far as the male-female ratio is concerned.
The existence of the indie scene is a beautiful blessing. I think indie musicians are aware of the power of their voice; their conscience is alive otherwise they wouldn’t be pursuing this in the first place. The degree to which they want to raise their voice and what matters to them may differ.
I want to talk about human emotions, relations, love and freedom. What happens in my country, to the environment, and to people around the world also deeply affects me and so, I will time and again, keep making songs like ‘Gyaan’. I will keep sending a message, a wake up call to whoever listens to my music and hope that it might ignite something in them one day.
What advice would you give a young musician trying to enter what is now becoming a competitive and flourishing music scene?
I would ask all the young musicians out there to be patient. It will take time, sometimes longer than your favourite band told you. Keep at it. Practice. Read books. It will change your life and the art you are pursuing.
You will not have regular eight to ten hour workdays; they will be longer, because you enjoy what you do and you chose this.
Art chose you too. So please take care of your health, exercise or meditate. Collaborate with people you love and look up to, who have more experience than you. Let them guide you, there is no shame in learning from others. And be humble, please be humble.
Sameer Rahat’s latest single ‘Gyaan’
What can we look forward to in your upcoming debut album and when are you looking to release it?
My debut solo album should be out in December. It contains songs I wrote a decade ago, even a poem I wrote last month. It has been a long journey of contemplation and learning about myself, and life around me.
The album is essentially about relationships and people post their separation. It has eight tracks and it is not an Urdu-blues album but a well-produced singer-songwriter album. All the songs are original compositions and it will also feature my adaptation of Jaun Elia’s ‘Hum Kaun Thae’, which has received a lot of love in my concerts lately.
The album has been under production for three months and it is co-produced by Mir Kashif Iqbal from Parvaaz among various other collaborations. I would love to talk about it at length once it is out and I hope we do that soon.