Phir milein gey kabhi
Ajnabi ki tarha
Iss aas mein
Subha rakhi hai
[We will meet again someday
In this hope
Has kept morning close]
Faisal Kapadia sang the lyrics to the final song of this season’s Coke Studio (CS) and the words rang true, for the audience truly was meeting him again. Almost like a stranger.
It had been more than two years since the coronavirus pandemic had halted live musical performances and a year since Faisal had parted ways with fellow musician Bilal Maqsood, ending a whopping 32 years as part of the band Strings. Strings’ final goodbye, posted on social media, had been an emotional one for their fans, but it was now leading on to new avenues, new possibilities.
‘Phir milein gey kabhi …’ Faisal Kapadia’s deep baritone rang out. It was a familiar timbre, one that so many fans had grown up listening to, linked to songs of love and heartbreak, patriotism, anthems for the youth. It felt so good to hear that voice again, spinning out a new melody. The song topped the charts, not just in Pakistan but even on global digital music platforms.
What a great way to make a comeback. I had met Faisal Kapadia shortly after the song’s release and asked him if he had specifically planned to make a splash with his first musical performance on his own, without the Strings tagline? No, he told me.
Faisal Kapadia recently released his first song as a solo artist, after the disbanding of Strings. It reminded people of what they had missed for more than a year — his distinctive baritone voice. What brought him back to Coke Studio? Did he expect the song to be such a hit? And where does he go from here?
“I don’t really plan things out that way,” he said. “I have never planned out any song with the aim that it needs to be a hit. My criteria has always been that I need to like the song and it needs to connect with me. I am really thankful, though. This song marks the start of a new journey and people have liked it so much.”
It may be a new journey but, from what I can tell, Faisal is in no hurry to launch himself into it, full-throttle. The CS song has been a success but he doesn’t quite know what he’ll be doing next. He’s enjoying fans’ reactions to the song and, at the time of this interview, has flown in to Pakistan from his home in Dubai for a CS celebration, which showcased some of the season’s hits in the cinema.
He is wearing his signature bandana, paired with sunshades. His wife Seema, he tells me, plans out his wardrobe — I tell him that she does a great job.
“I don’t worry too much about the future,” Faisal says. “There was a long phase when both Bilal and I were raising our sons and Strings was our bread and butter. We needed a consistent lifestyle and income at that time. Now, our boys have grown up and are about to pave their own ways. It made the decision to end Strings more easy. Once things were over, I just thought that I would spend more time with my family and music wasn’t really on the cards. I had no plans.
“As Strings, we had managed to achieve so many milestones, from performing live all over the world to singing for international soundtracks to producing some of Coke Studio’s most successful seasons. I’m so proud that we lasted for as long as 32 years — there are very few bands, the world over, who manage to stay together for as long.
“Now, I was just willing to just go wherever life took me and, somehow, it took me to Coke Studio.”
The all-new CS experience
Faisal continues, “Xulfi [CS’ new curator and producer] called me and asked me to sing this song and, initially, I was confused. I think that he is a brilliant producer and composer but I wasn’t sure about how I would go about singing solo now that I was no longer part of a band that had been part of my identity for so many years.
“I got really excited when Xulfi told me that he wanted me to collaborate with Young Stunners. This was something that I had never done and which was not entirely my domain. I was going to be moving out of my comfort zone and experience something new and learn from it. I said, ‘Okay let’s do it’.
“Even the video has been shot in such a unique way, with a single camera shooting us while we walk through different passages. That was something new too.”
Did he not worry that this new experience may not be appreciated by audiences? CS songs have always borne the singular burden and blessing of being dissected by audiences. The ones that are a success become mega-hits — others are thrashed relentlessly on social media. As a once-music director of CS, Faisal is well-acquainted with this pressure. With Phir milein gey, he tells me, he didn’t worry at all.
“I’m 50 now and I’m now in this zone when I don’t obsess over a song being a hit. Also, I wasn’t the producer. I had the confidence that I was working with a team of experts who were the best in the business. I liked the song, which made me hope that people would like it too. It wasn’t something that I dwelt much on.”
Does he like the new rebooted format of this year’s CS?
“Yes, it’s truly a reinvention,” he observes, “and if this change hadn’t come about right now, it would have gradually become too late. Over the past two years, the coronavirus pandemic changed people’s perception of entertainment. Visuals have become very important, and there has been an upsurge of young talent with distinctive sounds of their own. Original releases have become more popular than covers.
“This year’s Coke Studio features so many young musicians, such as Hassan Raheem, Young Stunners and Abdullah Siddiqui. The times have changed completely. We’re back to the ’90s, when new musicians with new visions were surfacing.”
Is this also a time when musicians can only make a mark by moving out of their comfort zones and constantly experimenting? Phir milein gey, for instance, was an experiment of sorts, merging Faisal’s vocals with edgy rap music.
“Yes!” he agrees. “And I have learnt so much from these new musicians. I hope to keep learning more.”
Strings’ enduring legacy
This is a typically humble response. He may have chalked out one of Pakistani music’s most abiding musical legacies, have a colossal fan following and — with the bandana firmly in place — epitomise a rockstar, but Faisal Kapadia has always come off as very down to earth.
A case in point is when I ask him how he managed finances once Strings broke up. The band had still been riding high last year, attracting sponsors and getting offered work, when Bilal and Faisal decided that it was time to quit.
I remember talking to him shortly after he and Bilal had shaken the internet with an Instagram post that announced their disbanding, and he had told me that the two of them had wanted to end on a positive note rather than risk becoming forgettable. It was a wise decision, but it also surely must have hampered their respective cash flows. How did he manage post-Strings’ break-up?
“My boys have grown up now so there was less pressure to keep earning a certain amount,” he points out. “And also, personally, I have always had very simple needs. I still drive the same car that I have had since 2006. And for eight years, while living in Dubai, I didn’t have a car. If I needed to go anywhere, I would just call a cab.
“I’m very happy surfing through Netflix for entertainment and I don’t even like expensive food. I do like pizza but, even then, I try to avail a buy-one-get-one-free deal!” he laughs.
We revert to talking about how Strings had ended. There had been rumours that the show Velo Sound Station had been the final straw, indicating that both Bilal and Faisal needed to go their separate ways. The band had still been intact when it had been announced that Bilal Maqsood alone would be directing the show.
“Strings was approached for that project but I didn’t want to do it for personal reasons,” he says. “The band was still there, although our work had more or less halted because of Covid-19. Then, a few months later, during a time when the coronavirus pandemic was at bay, both Bilal and I were performing for a Women’s Day event and we decided that the band needed to end.
“It was something that we had contemplated many times before but, this time, we decided to go ahead with it. Everything has to end one day and we didn’t want to linger on to a point where we would just fade away.”
The days following the announcement were surreal ones for both him and Bilal. I remember Faisal telling me that it felt as if he had lost the roof above his head. Strings’ fans were just as distressed, posting heartbroken comments on social media and remembering their favourite Strings’ songs.
“The immense love that we received was such a blessing,” agrees Faisal. “Usually musicians only get remembered with such enthusiasm once they have passed away and they are never able to see it for themselves. Otherwise, maybe if one of us had died, the other one would have experienced the fans’ reaction.
“To date, people still ask me why Strings broke up. I’m glad that they do. It shows their love for us,” he smiles.
The solo path
People will also probably always ask him to sing his hit Strings’ songs. “Of course,” he agrees. “The music that Bilal and I released as Strings is all we have. In fact, I just performed solo for the first time at the Dubai Expo, and I sang many of my Strings songs.”
The concert in Dubai merged together the musical talents of three nations, with Euphoria from India, James and Nagar Baul from Bangladesh and Faisal representing Pakistan sharing the stage together. Did he get a rush coming on stage after so long?
“I felt a bit nervous as well as excited. I was going to be performing after two years and stepping out as a solo artist for the first time,” he admits.
“Two of my former Strings band members, guitarist Adeel Ali and keyboardist Haider Ali were also on stage with me, which made things more familiar. And I was performing with Euphoria, a band that we have known for years. Palash Sen, the band’s lead vocalist, is an old friend. I sang some of my own songs and, then, we also all sang songs together. It was a concert which gave out a message of peace and how music knows no boundaries.”
That may be true but there are barbed boundaries separating India and Pakistan. Hasn’t Faisal ever received backlash for his close friendships with Indian artists? His Instagram page, for instance, shows him hanging out in Dubai with notable Indian artists such as Hariharan, Sonu Nigam and Javed Jafri.
“No,” he says, “there was a time during the coronavirus pandemic when the Indian government placed a restriction on artists from India and Pakistan having live discussions on social media. Otherwise, there hasn’t ever been any backlash.”
Also part of Faisal’s new journey is his role as brand ambassador to Special Olympics Pakistan (SOP). In fact, a day prior to my interview with him, he had been attending an event for the organisation and had sung so much that his voice was now hoarse. How was he going to be helping out the SOP?
“It’s a cause that I have been associated with before, when I was part of Strings. Two years ago, we released a song called Tum Aasman Ho for them. Now, when actress Sarwat Gillani, who is also a brand ambassador, sent me a message asking if I wanted to come on board, I immediately agreed. I felt that this was my time to give back.
“The SOP is very committed to creating a feeling of inclusivity amongst children and adults with disabilities. Once children begin training with the SOP and succeeding, it helps build their confidence. And confidence is everything in life. I’m going to be helping out the organisation however I can — by building awareness, talking to people about what SOP has achieved, attending events, maybe even having concerts and creating songs for them!”
Will we be hearing a song for the SOP soon? Or any song, a new single, sung by Faisal Kapadia?
“Not at the moment,” he says.
Characteristically, Faisal is simply going with the flow, letting life take him to new musical domains and experiences. His solo act, though, is off to a great start. We’re waiting for more.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, May 8th, 2022