It would be the easiest thing in the world to link Meesha Shafi’s latest track, 'Mein' – which premiered in the final episode of Pepsi Battle of the Bands on Sunday – to her personal travails earlier this year.
After all, it is her first ‘viral’ song after she came forward with allegations of sexual harassment against industry colleague Ali Zafar and the subsequent gossip and vicious attacks she faced on social media.
And the number and its very pointed choreography in its live presentation seems to be a commentary on identity, about self-discovery and the inability of people to see beyond a façade.
But to make such a direct interpretation would be a disservice to Shafi and to the song itself, which almost explodes with the power of Shafi’s vocals, a hauntingly slow build up to a wall-of-sound feel and a drum break partly reminiscent of Phil Collins’ 'In the Air Tonight'. For one thing, the lyrics are purposefully elliptical, evading such easy pigeon-holing.
“Dil sang-o-khisht / Pighlay tau iss/ Gardish-e-ishq se” [Stone cold heart/ Can melt only/ With the circumambulations of this love] or “Dard-e-firaaq / Ghul ke yahaan / Ban jaaye aaj / Hawaa” [If only the pain of separation / Would dissolve here/ And turn to / Air] don’t really lend themselves to easy reading of meaning.
Nor does “Mein… raasta hoon / Har jaga hoon / La pataa hoon” [I…am the path / Everywhere / And lost]. Like the best art, the non-linear lyrics allow multiple interpretations and the most that can be said of them is that they are highly symbolic. What they do is allow the individual listener to impose their own understanding of them.
But the reason the lyrics — which could easily be taken as hokum in a lesser song — work is because the musical structure they are encased in is so hauntingly evocative. For this full credit must go to Shafi and her guitarist Shehryar Khattak (who co-composed the song) and Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan aka Xulfi (who produced it).
Note how the composition quietly builds — the initial part of the song uses only a muted percussive snare and spare guitar licks and gradually layers in the bass line, the slide guitar, the lushness of a violin and the melancholic gravitas of a cello. And that’s not to forget the Tibetan bowls or even the water effects you can hear if you listen closely. And then comes the perfectly timed drum break which ‘makes’ the track. But perhaps most importantly, as the song builds towards its crescendo, it uses the human voice — both Shafi’s and her back-up singers — purely as a musical instrument. To Xulfi’s credit, his arrangement and mixing never muddies the vocals, never allows the rising tide of instruments to overshadow the vocals.
This is particularly important because too often lost in the adulation of Shafi’s vocal power is the fact that her voice has matured remarkably and taken on a raw oomph reminiscent of Ila Arun or Rekha Bhardwaj. I was never a fan of her early work — 'Bijli Aaye Ya Na Aaye', for example, was flat singing in my estimation — but not only has her range grown, she has learnt to modulate and add nuance to her expression. We saw this in her later songs for Coke Studio such as 'Bholay Bhalay' and we see it here as well, even in the quietest parts of the song.
Although I prefer keeping an aural review separate from a review of a song’s video, in the case of 'Mein' it would be remiss to not also remark on the choreography of this performance. In many respects, this was not just a musical number, it was also a performance piece. And again full marks to Xulfi and to the theatrical performers from NAPA who pulled off the conceit with the masks with great aplomb.
Pakistani pop has had a chequered history and in recent years has gone through some difficult times. It’s biggest internal problem, however, has been an over-reliance on clichéd tropes of bubble-gum pop on the one hand and ‘sufi’ nationalism on the other, as the only things that 'work'. With Mein Meesha Shafi has shattered that consensus. She has brought introspective, singer-songwriter music to the fore. The direction she has taken — if she continues on it — may not always produce radio hits but it will add diversity and weight to the kind of original music being produced. Perhaps we can finally say that Pakistani pop has come of age.