The show was held on the ground floor of the Old Palace Cinema Building in Metropole Square
The show was held on the ground floor of the Old Palace Cinema Building in Metropole Square

Karachi Community Radio (KCR), an online musical platform, curated an event featuring the Karachi Jazz Band at Work Hall this Saturday.

The event was called Jazz in the Metropole, implying a nostalgia for the 1950s. The decade saw Karachi’s Metropole Hotel and its surrounding area (now called Metropole Square) become a center for Karachi’s musical culture. The show was held on the ground floor of the Old Palace Cinema Building in Metropole Square, in the parking lot of which Dizzy Gillespie, world-famous jazz trumpeter, once performed.

What a cool shot of the venue captured by Dara Shikoh!
What a cool shot of the venue captured by Dara Shikoh!

Daniyal Ahmed, co-founder at KCR, corrects any assumptions of nostalgia one may have. “The show was not a nostalgic show. We wanted to induce the nostalgic and then reject it.” It was, in Ahmed’s words, “very much about the now” – society and musical culture as they are occurring and changing in the present.

Out with the old, in with the new

Karachi Community Radio (KCR) curates performances by young musicians that operate in Karachi’s musical subculture. Performances are livestreamed on KCR’s Facebook page, making them available to remote audiences. In the livestream, visuals and lighting are played in tandem to the audio. This establishes a mood for the stream.

Jahanzeb Safder, the brains behind KCR’s livestreaming technology, and Ahmed think of KCR as an “audiovisual intervention in Karachi’s musical culture”.

Safder was incubated in the fourth batch of cohorts at The Nest i/o in 2016. He worked on developing the technology that is used to stream KCR’s performances. The technology is still being developed and tweaked. KCR is “a demo of how that technology can be used socially and culturally,” explains Daniyal. The aim is to explore how technology can drive musical growth.

KCR's aim is to explore how technology can drive musical growth
KCR's aim is to explore how technology can drive musical growth

Until recently, performances were filmed without audiences. The platform’s last three shows, including Jazz in the Metropole, have been filmed in front of a live audience. As with their livestreams, Jazz in the Metropole was also curated to set a certain tone – inducing nostalgia in the audience and then firmly planting them in the present.

This was, perhaps, evident even before the show started. The show’s event branding was an animated banner with flashing text and bold, block face lettering. The event was paperless. To reserve a ticket, one was to message one of the organizers. E-tickets with QR codes were emailed to recipients using the ticketing platform Eventbrite. During the run-up to the show, KCR sent polite emails to attendees with reminders, event guidelines and directions to the venue.

At the entrance, one was required to produce their e-ticket. The QR code was scanned on a volunteer’s phone, its information uploaded onto an app. The lobby of the building has a high ceiling with a grand staircase attached to one wall, leading to an upper floor. It’s easy to imagine it as the ground floor lobby of a cinema building, once thronged with moviegoing crowds lining up to buy tickets and popcorn.

That night, however, it was lit by green and blue lights. In the center of the lobby stood a wood and steel installation, designed and made by Changez Basir of Carpenter Designs. Edged spikes made of coconut wood were set on the ground. Conical steel frames rose from these wooden spikes, looking like icicles in the blue light.

The installation by Changez Bashir
The installation by Changez Bashir

Basir explains that, for him, the aim was to utilise the “wonderful space” that he had been given to create for. He took six days to think about what he wanted to do and started his creative process with the material he wanted to use – coco timber and 90kg of steel.

“I thought about it,” he says about the form of his installation, “but I can’t share that thought process because it’s hard to understand it myself … it’s independent (of the theme of jazz) but it still fits in.”

And he’s right. Being welcomed by the structure – an installation of modern art created by a young artist -- set a modern ambience for the venue and brought our attention to Karachi’s art as it is today. Further in, one entered the performance space that was similarly lit in neon blue and pink. There was floor seating for the audience, facing a performance area set on floor level and, behind the performers, a wall-high window overlooking Quaid-e-Azam House and Club Road.

The Karachi Jazz Band features Arsalan Pareyal on guitar, Jamal Yousuf on keyboards and Daniyal Riaz on the saxophone. For this gig, they had invited Waqas Gulab to join them on percussions. He was playing the tabla, along with a cajon and a darbuka.

Danial Riaz (saxophone), Waqas Gulab (tabla and percussion)
Danial Riaz (saxophone), Waqas Gulab (tabla and percussion)

When the band took the stage, it became clear that their set was meant to be experimental. They played classic jazz standards and bossa nova tunes ('Black Orpheus' by Luiz Bonfa and 'How Insensitive' by Antonio Carlos Jobim) infused with tabla solos and jugalbandi type sections.

Pareyal explained that the band hopes to bring swing music to Karachi. “We’re bringing pop tunes from the 80s and 90s and playing them in a jazz context … just to see how things change when you play the same melody in a different context.” To illustrate this, they played Vital Signs’s ballad 'Aitebar' as a swing melody, a rendition that had the audience singing along.

The next song on the set list was 'Jaijaiwanti Blues' – an original composition based on the Jaijaiwanti raag. Pareyal explained that the song came into being one day when him and Gulab were listening to the raag and realized that, “there was some blues in it”.

In the future, Karachi Jazz Band, hopes to refine its fusion of classical raags with jazz structures. Having studied music and ethnomusicology at NAPA and the Butler School of Music in Austin, Texas, Pareyal explains they’ve come to realise that classical music and jazz are both based in improvisation within specific structures. Structural similarities allow for fusion between the two.

Community and collaboration fuel KCR

The band ended their set with the Pat Metheny Group’s 'Facing West'. On the crowd’s request, they played an encore number, in which Ahmed joined in with his bansuri. The star of the show, apart from the band itself, was perhaps Muhammad Saifullah, the show’s sound engineer. The sound was exemplary and there were no embarrassing soundcheck holdups. Whether you were sitting inside the performance area or taking a smoke break outside, the sound was crisp, each instrument held its own and, at the same time, blended in with the whole.

If you were watching the show at home, on the livestream, the sound was similarly good. Saifullah was mixing live for two acoustic environments – the performance room with the live audience, as well as the live stream.

By the end of the evening, any nostalgia that the name of the event might have induced had, in Ahmed’s words, been ‘rejected’. This was managed through deliberate curation of the show’s various elements. For Ahmed and Safder, each show, “has to be an artistic production”. Before each show, Ahmed and Safder work together to conceptualize the character of the show – “what we are going to talk about, whether we are going to have a sociopolitical or cultural commentary.”

Some very cool visual courtesy of Jahanzeb Safder
Some very cool visual courtesy of Jahanzeb Safder

The show is then put together through collaboration with the art community. “We are a community radio,” explains Ahmed, “we work with a community of musicians and artists. Collaboration is an important aspect.” KCR’s aim is to sidestep commercial market forces and find new musicians and talent and then work with them to produce them in a way that they look good, according to Ahmed. At the same time, “it’s about giving the artist complete freedom. We want [artists] who we know do experimental stuff. When they do a KCR show, we tell them be as experimental as you want to be.”

Collaboration is an important aspect of KCR
Collaboration is an important aspect of KCR

This spirit of collaboration and experimentation was clearly evident in Jazz in the Metropole. For Basir, the installation was a welcome change from the commissioned furniture he works on regularly, an opportunity to explore new forms. “I’ve been playing [music] with Safder since we were 11 so I understand his aesthetic of putting a place together. I trust his work. He equally trusted me to do my work as well and we fit together like that, working independently and creating something in the end together,” he says.

The Karachi Jazz Band, similarly, was encouraged to bring a tabla player on for the performance, giving them room for experimentation. The event was executed in collaboration with two young entrepreneurs Ahmed Mehanti of Work Hall and Fahad Moten of SÒL.

SÒL made waves at Karachi Eat this year with their Butter Beer. They catered Jazz at the Metropole and left audience members feeling satisfied with their slow roasted brisket, quiches, tiramisus and variety of hors d’oeuvres.

The space has been refurbished with modern fixtures and glass cubicles and is maintained by Work Hall, a startup that is looking to evolve the idea of working spaces. Mehanti lends the space to small companies that cowork in the space and share its rent. With Work Hall, he hopes to create an office culture where smaller business can share working space and, in doing so, collaborate and support one another.

KCR’s community spirit was evident even in the little details of its operations. Product designer Talha Sami was manning the front gate, checking passes. Six Eyes Collective’s Mariam and Safwan Subzwari were scanning tickets at the entrance. Musician and photographer Dara Shikoh Channa had volunteered his photography skills for the day. All young artists in Karachi’s subculture – the community that Karachi Community Radio aims to bring together.

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