Inside Nescafe Basement: Usman Sheikh's journey to music took him from Saudi Arabia to Aag
There were days when as teens we'd be lugging heavy schoolbags around, trying to complete mountain loads of homework before our exams. At that stage, many of us would, at the back of our minds, be nurturing a tiny little dream of, one day, watching ourselves on TV or listening to our voices on the radio.
Some would try to achieve this dream through stage performances at school or maybe ‘performing’ in front of a mirror at home. While many would later be forced to let go of their dreams for ‘well-paid opportunities’, others would stick to what they believed they were cut out to for, or in some cases even juggle both.
Some talented boys and girls we recently caught up with were struggling, aspiring musicians till Nescafe Basement – now running in its fourth season – fell into their laps. Their videos running on TV, their pictures in newspapers and magazines, their interviews on radio made these musicians no less than stars. Facebook friend requests, marriage proposals, fan page ‘likes’, it was all happening all of a sudden.
In a six-part series examining the lives of these young musicians, we explore what brought them here — and what's next.
Sheikh returned to Pakistan after graduating from the UK around four years ago. He spent his early years in Saudi Arabia.
“Since coming here, I’ve only been into music. I had founded a band called Aag with my older brother, which was kind of a summer project for me; it has been around longer than Basement. We were doing very well, but couldn’t give much time as we were both studying. When I came back in 2012, we released a lot of singles before Basement happened.”
Though not from a traditionally musical family, all his family members are passionate about music. He says his parents both have “beautiful voices”.
“As kids – when I was around three-years-old -- we used to travel and play some good Pakistani music such as Vital Signs, Junoon, Awaz. All four siblings were like a barber shop quartet: my eldest sister would sing the main melody as she was the eldest, the rest were harmony. That’s when my love for singing began. One of my sisters plays piano, the other drums and my brother the guitar, which was why I started learning it too. And from there my brother and I took it the other level and created Aag.”
Sheikh realised he wanted to be a musician when he was seven, when one of his sisters brought home the Tom Hanks-starrer That Thing You Do about a band and their rise to fame.
“My brother and I are self-taught musicians, but the first person to buy a guitar in our family was my eldest sister. She didn’t play it but my brother and I did. We just started by playing whatever was in our heads instead of covers; we started making music before covering tracks. The only piece of instruction we had was a booklet with a cassette my dad got from Saudi Arabia.”
Sheikh says retaining members is tricky; three of his band members moved on, quit music, grew beards. “I don’t think these things have anything to do with each other; this is in life and that is you in relation to your creator, both unrelated things. Why relate them?”
He grew up listening to the weirdest music, he says. “I grew up singing boy bands like Take That, N’Sync and Boyzone. Apart from this, I listened to all sorts of music people would assign to alternative lifestyles. Justin Timberlake did a lot of different stuff. Then I moved on to heavier music, punk pop in 2001: Blink 182, Green Day, Sum 41. That’s what took me to heavier side of music such as Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth, Slayer, which is still one of my most favourite bands. They have been virtuosos; so many iterations to them.”
Local music featured in his life more during the childhood. He considers guitarist Faraz Anwar a big part of Pakistani music; people don’t realise he’s been around since the 90s.
With his brother into the visual aspect of music, the duo have been directing music videos, done some commercial work and run a fully functioning recording facility/production house. “I have always thought of expanding in the same field, but never changing. Like expanding to movies. We have directed three of our videos ourselves that were shown all over TV back then and did very well. We did a lot of interviews, gigs, and then went on a hiatus from the band in 2013, the same year Basement happened for me.”
While both still remain the core members of their band, Aag, Sheikh says retaining members is tricky; three of his band members moved on, quit music, grew beards. “I don’t think these things have anything to do with each other; this is in life and that is your relation with your creator, both unrelated things. Why relate them?”
He’s been lucky to have the entire family dabbling in music in some form, hence this was never an obstacle or hindrance, as is the came with many aspiring musicians.
“The only obstacle was where we lived in Riyadh. There was hardly any musical equipment around. Getting guitars, drum kits and practicing them in our house created a lot of noise. We were a nuisance to a lot of people there. Also, I’d like stress that the country Saudi Arabia was never a problem for us, the height of hindrances there were the same as they would have been if I were playing loud in Los Angeles.”
As for joining Nescafe Basement: "Xulfi said he was planning the second season of Basement and would love me to be part of it. I was like ‘where do I sign’? The rest is history,” says Usman.
For Sheikh, Basement happened by accident and he was lucky he didn’t really have to go through the daunting auditions. He was in his recording studio playing a Joe Satriani track with a drum track he had got off the internet. His brother entered and told him how good it sounded and that they should record it and put it up on their band’s Youtube channel. It ended up in the mobile phone of a mutual friend with Basement creator Xulfi, who listened to it and called up Sheikh.
“When Xulfi bhai called, I immediately recognised the voice from ‘Dharkay Jiya’. He said he saw my video and thought it was really amazing. He said he was planning the second season of Basement and would love me to be part of it. I was like ‘where do I sign’? The rest is history.”
Having been part of Basement since season 2, he’s played the guitar, bass, keyboard, piano and sung vocals too. Being a Basement veteran, Sheikh is now the associate music producer there. The show has also featured two of his original songs, ‘Phir Se’ in the year he joined and next year ‘Do Pal’.
“I was nervous going into Basement. I’ve always wanted to make music, had makeshift bands, but this was the first time I was going into a situation where I didn’t have control. I barely knew anyone, but relationships cultivated. The nervousness went away in a day or two because we all had such great chemistry playing music together, we liked each other and each other’s talent.”
Sheikh says he’s received “overwhelming” feedback on his performances with Basement, which has now reached globally. “I never heard an idea of the scope of Pakistani music. All us musicians are about taking the next step. Whatever original material they make needs to be supported and listened to for which we need more infrastructure. People have tried to provide monetisation like a few websites, which is a good starting point.”
About the current music scene, Sheikh says there’s been a “drought-like situation” since the past five years. A strange saturation has turned into stagnation of ideas. Music is being released, but not noticed or monetised much.
“We will have to take music forward, the younger lot. A good thing about Basement is that it’s the only opportunity young people have of being noticed.
Outside of Basement, not many knew Usman Sheikh does something; it’s made a big difference. There need to be more platforms like this.”
It’s been a very hectic two years for Sheikh, he says. Now he wants to apply some energy to his original material, revive his band, collaborate with other artists. He has a fan base that seeks new stuff.
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