One of the defining moments of musician and producer Zulfiqar ‘Xulfi’ Jabbar Khan’s life came when he slipped and fell in college, resulting in a slipped disk and a bulge in his back that had him bedridden for months.
It was the year 2000 and he was 19-years-old. “I’m telling you this because this is the basis of who I am,” he says. Until that moment, life had been going pretty well for him — consistently studious and as head of the music society at FAST-NU (National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences) and finally meeting like-minded people who shared his passion for the arts, he felt he was on track to fulfilling his dreams.
Unable to really move or do anything, the one thing he asked for was to have his computer moved close to him. There was some music software on it. If he couldn’t get up and physically play an instrument, he was going to do so on the computer.
“In those two months of being bedridden, I created a whole instrumental album,” he relates. “It was called The Lifeless Journey and I called myself Silence. Because silence was all that I could experience.” He’s grateful for even that experience now: it was the first step that nudged him into music recording and production.
It was in Fast-NU where he met and formed Paradigm with Fawad Khan, Hassaan Khalid, Sajjad Khan and Waqar Khan. According to Xulfi, he first met Fawad when the latter came to audition to perform at a college welcome party. The song that he sang was One by U2. It was also Fawad that came up with the name Paradigm for their band. Once they started performing outside their campus, they got noticed by another band, Entity. Or rather Ahmed Ali Butt, who was their vocalist and frontman.
“I’ve seen you guys perform,” Butt said to Xulfi, “Does this guy [Fawad] want to act?” “That’s how Fawad and Ahmed met and Jutt and Bond happened,” says Xulfi. “And in a way [the roots of] EP happened. At one point, Ahmed Ali Butt said ‘Let’s make a song together.’ We sat together and made Humein Aazma.”
Sometime in 2002, Xulfi saw an ad calling for auditions for the first ever Pepsi Battle of the Bands (BOTB). Without telling any of his bandmates, he cut the Humein Aazma track as well as The Lifeless Journey and sent it in. He wasn’t really expecting a call back, but he got one two days later, from Rohail Hyatt himself. There was a catch: both songs had been accepted and he would have to choose which one to go to with — Humein Aazma or his own solo track. He chose his band’s.
“My life changed after that,” he relates. “That’s when we decided to get together and join the bands — Entity and Paradigm — into EP.
“Aaroh won the battle, but we got a contract to record our album. We went to Mekaal Hasan to produce it. And there I got into the second phase of my passion for music production. A lot of the times when we were recording the music, we were engineering the sounds as well. I was noticing how different instruments are miked, effects on the vocals etc. The journey of [my foray into] music production had started.”
After he graduated, he asked his parents to let him consider a career in music for one year, to see if he could make it. The first thing he did was set up a very basic studio in his mother’s clinic that was attached to the main house. “It was a chhota tareen (the tiniest) studio, but the first album that I recorded was Jal’s 'Aadat',” he says. “It was at a time when Atif and Gohar had separated and Atif was recording his album in Islamabad. So, we had to come up with an album as quickly as possible, as Jal.
“We didn’t have studio speakers, we miked some things in the bedroom. Mixed some of the music using headphones. There were so many things that could’ve stopped us, but we had to do it.
“I didn’t stop after that. The studio kept getting bigger. Jal was a new band at the time. I found my true calling as a producer into figuring out how to unlock the potential of a young artist. I was young as well but this is what I was used to doing [as head of the music society in FAST-NU]. So, in a way, Nescafe Basement was an idea I’ve been living with for a long time.”
Indeed, Nescafe Basement, which first went on air in 2012, as a programme was solely focused on introducing and nurturing new talent from across Pakistan. Four seasons old, Basement has remained consistent in its mission to introduce “new blood, new sounds, new energy” into the Pakistani pop-rock music scene.
Zindabad, the drummers’ anthem
Earlier this year, on March 23, Xulfi’s band Call released a powerful anthem simply titled 'Zindabad'. It features 40 drummers from across Pakistan that are playing together and chant 'Zindabad' in unison. Full of powerhouse performances, the song was full of energy and the video was visually captivating.
“I wanted to bring the drum community together,” says Xulfi. “There are the senior drummers: Gumby, Allan Smith, Fifu, Kenny, Bilawal Lahooti [relatively, a newcomer] and then there is nine-year-old Fahad who’s a drum student and he’s blind. There is a six-year-old girl who’s also a drum student. I wanted to show the power of collaboration to everyone in the country.” Zindabad also features a number of women drummers including Mishal Faheem as well.
“To be in beat, in rhythm, it’s magical. It’s beautiful. It’s the perfect marriage between your mind and [upper and lower] body,” he adds. But Xulfi’s love for percussions started when he was quite young.
He was 16 when he went into the garage and experimented on his brother’s drum kit with a simple 4x4 beat. “I had a band called Prozac [during A-Levels or FSC days] in which I was the drummer,” he laughs. “Don’t be surprised but Ali Zafar was the vocalist and Jimmy Attre was the keyboard player. A friend of mine, Ahsan, used to play the guitars on it.” They covered songs like 'November Rain', 'Summer of ’69' etc. Xulfi may not have played as a drummer again, but his love for percussions rages on.
“If you notice my style of guitar playing, it’s very percussive,” he adds. “In recent times, Call has started doing more drum jams in their performances as well. It’s a very tribal and impactful music experience. We did a drum jam for Jilawatan’s performance in BOTB-2 too.”
Hum Zalmi, the cricket anthem
Each year, prominent artists from the industry are invited to create songs for the Pakistan Super League — for individual teams as well as the title song of the tournament. While some anthems have been quite hummable, but also forgettable, none have managed to reach an iconic status — a song that symbolises the unique spirit, culture and ethos of the team that it’s representing — that is until Hum Zalmi came out earlier this year.
“The anthem couldn’t be something that didn’t represent Peshawar or youth,” says Xulfi. “Zalmi means youth. Yes, Zalmi is an international sports team which is rooted in the Pashtun culture. But the origins needed to be clear.”
In the manner of 'Zindabad', 'Hum Zalmi' is a powerful chant given to the team’s fans in the song. Xulfi describes how they incorporated the rhythm of the attan dance and tried to marry it with a more traditional rock rhythm. As for the main stringed instrument, it had to be the rabab. Enter, the Leo Twins, whom Xulfi had featured in one of the seasons of Basement.
Call, the band, broken and reunited
The band Call was originally formed in 1994. It disbanded soon after and re-formed in 2002. Xulfi joined the line-up in 2005 and has remained a part of it ever since. In 2012, Xulfi announced that the longtime lead vocalist Junaid Khan has left Call and that Mustafa Zahid from Roxen would be replacing him. How did Junaid’s exit affect the band? “You know when Junaid left the band, obviously it was a big setback,” says Xulfi. “I’ve been a part of a breakup before in EP [in 2007]. I know why bands break up.”
“It did affect the band. Call is Junaid, Xulfi and Sultan [Raja]. Mustafa is a dear friend of mine and he did a fab job in our concerts. Kamal tha who bhi [He was also excellent]. We didn’t record anything but there are a few live videos.”
But in 2015, Junaid reunited with Call. How did that happen? “Over a phone call,” laughs Xulfi. “We said ‘let’s meet’ and, that’s it, all three of us were back together again. We’ve performed, toured, been friends together for so many years. That’s more powerful. Our bond is now stronger than it was before. We are completely transparent with each other about anything and everything related to the band.”
Is there a concern that Junaid’s acting commitments may take him away from music again?
“Junaid Khan is a musician first and then an actor,” responds Xulfi. “Many people think of Junaid as just the front man or vocalist of Call, but he’s the guy who wrote 'Sab Bhula Ke'. He’s the guy who made the riff that you hear in 'Jilawatan'. He made most of the melodies in the Jilawatan album. It’s a special talent. Not everyone can do it so effortlessly the way Junaid can do it. For someone like that, music can never be a second priority.”
Into the future
With Pepsi Battle of the Bands launching its new season, the first thing you’ll see is the show’s promo, which has been produced by Xulfi. Last year’s promo included Fawad Khan, Atif Aslam and Meesha Shafi and was produced by Xulfi as well. This year sees the inclusion of Strings into the show. “I’ve redone one of their songs, I’m pretty excited about it,” says Xulfi. “They loved it too, which is an honour. You’ll see how it all comes together.”
Strings isn’t the only band he’s excited about in the upcoming season of BOTB-3. “I curated [and produced] Meesha’s performance that will come in the later episodes,” relates Xulfi. “It’s a beautiful song that Meesha and Sherry Khattak have composed. I’ve directed the visual aspect of it, which I’m looking forward to. That theatrical aspect, where different art forms fuse together will be on display.”
His band Call will also be releasing a song next month. “It’s called Rung Do,” says Xulfi. “We made it a long time ago. [The video] is a collaboration among all of the videographers of Pakistan. I’d like to keep the concept a surprise though, uss mein maza aaye ga [it’ll be fun that way].
“There is also a song that we made one and a half years ago. We’ve almost recorded it. The plan was to release that first but 'Hum Zalmi' happened and then 'Zindabad' happened. Thora sa time lag gaya hai [it’s taken a bit of time] but this is a song very close to us. It’s going to be released very early next year.”
What is it exactly? “It’s called Zaalim,” says Xulfi. “And it’s dedicated to all the zaalims of the world — the people who suppress and oppress others and abuse their power.”
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, July 8th, 2018