Can you 'make it' as a musician in Pakistan? As little as a decade ago the answer to this question would probably been a resounding 'no.'
Things have changed drastically in the past few years as platforms like Nescafe Basement have popped up, giving young musicians a chance to connect with experienced mentors to hone their craft. Even then, it isn't always smooth sailing.
In our series on Nescafe Basement's young stars, we take a look at what Pakistan's new, raw talent has to say about the process of finding one's voice as an artist.
Nineteen-year-old Saniya is an A’ Level student based in Islamabad hoping to major in media studies. She's also studying psychology. She joined Basement this season as a bassist and vocalist and was part of the all-girls band that made waves with the cover of John Newman’s ‘Love Me Again’.
Saniya doesn’t belong to a musical family as do some of her Basement fellows, but she says she got her from her mother, maternal grandma and sister who all sing beautifully. She’s been singing for so long that she doesn’t remember when she started.
She was in the fourth grade when she realised music was her true calling. This was during the days when teachers would ask students what they wanted to become once they grew up. “I was the odd one out who said I wanted to be a musician and people would laugh at me saying ‘ye kaisay musician banay gi?’ I talked to my dad and said I want to go study music. But he wasn’t too keen and still isn’t. He says it’s ok as long as it's a hobby and doesn’t go too far.”
“I started playing the guitar in fifth grade, when I was eleven. I got a teacher for a few days but did the rest myself through YouTube. My sisters used to listen to Linkin Park back then and we found new music every time and thought, why don’t we play this on the guitar? My sister was interested in getting an electric guitar but she got an acoustic, so I got an electric one, but learnt on the acoustic because it helps with basics. We took classes together.”
Five months later, Saniya realised she'd got the hang of the instrument and could sing and play simultaneously.
Then came a point when Saniya had second thoughts about taking up music professionally. “When I think practically and about my dad, I rethink my decision. That’s why I’m doing majors in media because I really like media and film production. But hopefully I’ll stay in touch with music somehow.”
Saniya never really auditioned for Basement even though she wanted to because she thought she might not get permission. But then she later found out they were making an all-girls track and were looking for instrument players and singers.
“I knew the lead singer. When she asked me if I could play the bass at Basement, I completely lost it. It was 2am and I couldn’t sleep all night. It took a lot to convince my dad, but it happened. Later I sent my recording of popular songs on the bass. My friend showed it to Xulfi who only listened to the first five seconds and said he wanted me in.”
Saniya has had no formal training in singing. She listened to and practiced songs that were challenging, like songs by Sia and Demi Lovato. Same with the guitar.
“My mom is really supportive and she talks to dad about everything because I’ve had so many opportunities to perform but I used to, and still do, give them up because I wouldn’t get permission. When I did try to get permission earlier, it got worse and my father would say ‘ab tum is mein lag gayi ho’. So I keep the important ones and leave the rest,” confesses Saniya.
Basement may be Saniya’s big break but she has faced crowds before while performing at Model United Nations or Olympiads. She also opened for Sahara UK in tenth grade about two or three years ago at a school concert.
“I get nervous at first but when I see people liking it my performance I keep going," she says of her experiences onstage. "I really like and enjoy performing, especially when the crowd is involved and likes what you do. It’s an amazing feeling. From then on Basement happened and I’ve been performing wherever the girls go.”
Saniya mostly listens to alternative rock. The mainstream singers she listens to are the ones with strong vocals, and her inspirations are Sia and Demi Lovato. She also lends an ear sometimes to indie, pop and desi music.
“I like singing strong vocals. If I listen to heavy metal bands, they have different vocals that I don’t enjoy singing, but if I do sing them I turn them into my own rendition of slow or fast. Everyone has different vocal capabilities. I’ve always wanted to be like Sia,” she says.
As far as the local music scene goes, Saniya only listens to Coke Studio and Basement. “That’s the fun part. Earlier when I’d be travelling with my mom I’d put on Basement and say they’re so awesome, and the next thing I knew I was there myself. It was really cool.”
Basement was a great experience for Saniya. She says she made some really good friends, learnt so much more about vocals, how to harmonise, learnt how to play the ukulele, how to control vocals, music production, video recording. For a media student, she was in a daze and said she loved every bit of it.
“The most nervous I felt was when I went for the first jam session. I wouldn’t even play properly; I was shaking. Xulfi bhai made me relax. But during recording, I was completely fine. Then it felt like home; everyone is so nice to you.”
Like all her Basement fellows, Saniya has received great feedback from everywhere. She’s been bombarded with messages and calls by family members and relatives and even random people. She’s got more likes on her Facebook page and her school even presented her with a shield.
“Everyone had a positive view [of Nescafe Basement]. Even my dad liked it! At first in the video he said ‘Saniya ziada nazar nahi aa rahi’ but towards the end I had more shots so then he was like ‘ab theek hai’.”
‘Love Me Again’ got a lot of appraise. Ali Zafar shared it and so did the original singer John Newman. Allan Smith messaged her saying she did an amazing job.
“I’m going off to university to the UK soon. So let’s see what happens then. I’m not going to stop music for sure," says Saniya. "I have a few opportunities that I can’t talk about right now and I will try to avail those as much as I can. I’ll be doing covers till then. When I come back, if I get performances I’ll take them up.”
Being at a crucial stage in one’s academic life, the balance isn’t a piece of cake. “Before Basement I had set a goal of where I wanted to go with my studies and that’s equally important to me, so I balance it easily. Right now I have exams going on and then have performances coming up so I’m trying to divide my time.”
For Saniya, it’s all about striking the right balance.