PlanetBollywood.com writer Amanda Sodhi brings you an in-depth interview with the extremely talented singer, composer, lyricist and member of Call, Zulfiqar J. Khan, known to most as Xufli.
The music of Aao Wish Karein is out and you’ve composed 3 of the tracks in the OST. It’s the second time you’ve composed music for an Aftab movie.
Kuch Aisa and Reh Jaane Do were mostly finished before Aftab had wanted the songs. It was sort of a miracle how the situations in Aftab’s story matched perfectly with these songs. My earlier project with Aftab, Dhadke Jiya for Aaloo Chaat, was an accident of sorts. They had a situation that they had shot, and I had to write a song that could go perfectly well with the visuals. That was a pretty demanding task though, but even then, Aftab and the director Robby had complete faith in me, and it all turned out pretty well at the end.
Did you write the lyrics to the 2 songs also? It has some really beautiful lines like, "Hasnaa yehi hai toh, ronaa kyaa hotaa hai? Paanaa yehi hai toh, khonaa kyaa hotaa hai? Milnaa yehi hai toh, bichaddnaa kyaa hotaa hai? Gham bhi khushi ko yeh chupke se kehta hai, jaana yunhi thaa toh aanaa kyun hotaa hai?" and "Dekhaa toh abhi ek pal hi guzaraa thaa, par naa jaane kyun kuch aisaa lagaa thaa jaise sadiyaan ek pal mein saari, kuch hi baaton mein meri tumhari, beeti kuch aise bani humaari itni si thi bas apni kahaani, aise kuch tu milaa thaa."
Yes, all songs have been written by me. Not just these, I have written, sung and composed my earlier Bollywood projects, Laaree Choote (Ek Chalis Ki Last Local), Yeh Pal (Aasma) and Dhadke Jiya (Aaloo Chaat), as well. Aao Wish Karein actually marks the beginning of a solo career for me as well, so it becomes all the more special.
My songs in Aao Wish Karein are a product of the most emotional phase of my life. One can only write about things when one not only ponders about them, but makes an effort to feel them as well. Not a lot of people know, but Kuch Aisa was actually sung in one go. It wasn’t written with anything in mind, but love. I had thought of singing it again, but Aftab told me not to and he told me that the expression in the one-take was a very honest and real one. And perhaps, I also wanted this expression to be preserved and not redone.
Reh Jaane Do was completed over a course of two years. I couldn’t really complete it after starting initially. All lines in that song have been written for reasons that are too personal and emotional to be described here. But that’s the beauty of art. Something so personal gets depicted in a way where everyone is able to feel and relate to it.
The song actually got on air on the 28th of October, which happens to be my birthday. I remember my mother telling me your birthday gift is on air (smiles).
Before I forget, I’ve just got to ask you is why you spell your name Xulfi even though your name is Zulfiqar. I’ve been wondering about that for some time, so I suppose this is a good time to ask. (laughs)
I started writing my name like that a long time back! I was 15 then. Didn’t know what prompted me to do this, but I thought it sounded and looked cool. I was also gifted this shirt which had my name written on it, spelt as ‘Xulfi’. I had never thought of a career in music as such at that time, so the spellings were just a bit of fun then. But now, when I think of it, it actually helped me establish an identity in the industry, an identity that has a uniqueness about it.
And yes, I probably wouldn’t have spelled it this way if I had to make this decision today, I would have felt doing this would not be that cool (laughs). But I am happy I was teenager enough once upon a time to make this change (smiles).
Tell us a little bit about how you got into music…
My brother brought me a keyboard when I was 12. From then on, I haven’t stopped learning. And as I didn’t learn from anyone and mostly learned by intuition and observation, I didn’t develop someone else’s singing, writing or composing style. Actually, I am a pretty unorthodox musician and I don’t follow the techniques that are there as a standard for playing instruments or singing. In fact I don’t know most of these techniques. And I know that whatever I play or sing is not perfect, but it is ‘me’ and that’s what I love about it.
At 17, I started playing the drums, and at 20, my interest became the guitar. The first full song that I sang was Laaree Chootee, which happened around two and a half years back! So it’s been a pretty diverse journey.
Call has been using the Internet really effectively to promote it’s music. For example, you guys released the music video of Hum Se Hai Yeh Zamaanaa on your Web site…
With the youth of the world using the net as much as they do now, it’s impossible to neglect this medium as a way of marketing your music. We operate a blog on our website too where all the band members write and tell what they have been up to individually and as a band. It’s a necessity now I suppose to make maximum use of the medium that the internet is. And the thing is that if you do not release your stuff officially on the site, then one way or the other, people will rip the video off the TV channel and put it on Youtube, so its better everything is more official and branded by the band’s own website. Besides, Hum Se Hai Ye Zamaana was a tribute to the sport we love i.e. cricket. So releasing it for all the fans and the cricket lovers to download and see over and over again, played a big part in us connecting to the audience in a new way. The audience can now relate their favorite sport with the band! And that’s actually great!
A lot of Pakistani artists have embraced the concept of rock and soft rock really well, perhaps much earlier than the Hindi music industry. What is it about rock music that you think is so appealing to Pakistani artists and audiences?
Because it’s different from all the music Pakistan has heard over the years. When one has heard enough of one thing, he would want to have a different taste. That’s exactly what has happened. But for any kind of music that one does, it is imperative that it’s packaged impressively. Rock is an attitude. If rock is embraced properly, it will show in the artist’s writing and his music. If we see the way rock has evolved, it’s a lifestyle too. It’s not just the use of the distorted guitar and some loud drums, but the way it’s presented in words. There were loads of topics that weren’t really written about until rock came. Rock gave the freedom. The freedom to write about what you would want to write about and to sing in your own way. In a nutshell, it gave you the freedom to be you. That’s why the youth associates with it so strongly, as it’s them they can see in the rock stars of today.
I need to add here that everyone who sings the way he would want to sing wouldn’t become a rock star. But at least, it begins an opportunity to become one. That’s how a lot of international artists are there where they are, by relishing that opportunity.
Has Call ever faced censorship issues in Pakistan, whether it be regarding the lyrics or music videos?
We haven’t faced any as such. But yes, the media often avoids controversial topics. It happens in every country. Anything that is beyond ‘mainstream’ doesn’t get a lot of airtime. And that’s understandable too. In these times, people want to feel fresher and lighter by the entertainment they can see and hear on TV and radio. There is already too much tension in the air, and in our lives too.
People want to hear stuff that’s easy on the mind, with a melody that is singable. That’s why most of the most famous artists/bands in the world are mainstream musicians and not very alternative in their approach to songwriting.
Are there any singers you’d like to collaborate with?
Many! AR Rahman, Linkin Park and Euphoria top the list though. Would love to work with Farhan Akhtar as well. I have been his fan since he directed Dil Chahta Hai.
What are some of your favorite songs to listen to?
They keep on changing. Nowadays, they are Kuch Na Kaho and Tum Se Mil Ke by R.D. Burman, Unwell by Matchbox 20, Tu Mera Dil by Nusrat Fateh Ali, Linkin Park’s New Divide and Chris Daughtry’s What About Now.
What I really admire about the songs by Pakistani artists/bands, whether it be by Call, Atif Aslam, Jal, or Junoon is that a lot of thought is put into the lyrics. Tell us a bit about how you approach lyrics writing.
I would rather say that I do not plan and sit to write lyrics. If I am ready and by that I mean, if I am feeling the way I need to feel to write about a certain idea, and no other worldly thought is bugging me, then the lyrics will come themselves if one has a knack of writing poetry.
But yes, I have always made sure that I am not reinventing the wheel. One needs to have a basket full of thoughts somewhere in the head in order to add freshness to whatever he is writing. Sometimes, people forget that being simple doesn’t mean ordinary. Being simple rather implies to redefining ordinary in your own special way where people can still understand it.
Is there an advantage to composing music and writing the lyrics on your own—does it offer more artistic freedom? Do you compose and write lyrics simultaneously? Or, do you compose first and then write lyrics?
I have composed on lyrics written by other people. In fact two of my brothers write and I have made songs out of their words. But yes, when you can write yourself, then somehow, you know exactly how the song’s atmosphere should be musically. So yes, it is an advantage as the song might sound more convincing in depicting a certain idea if both things are done by one person.
Writing and composing happen in their own time and way. For instance, I had the melody for Laaree Chootee in my head and the lyrics came afterwards. But, for Dhadke Jiya, I had written the words for the chorus, but didn’t have a melody, and that I made afterwards.
Tell us about your experience at concerts.
Nothing beats the fun at the concerts! I try to enjoy every moment on stage as the feeling that people relate to your music and sing along is a brilliant one! And most importantly, interacting with your fans, and making them feel important is as important as giving a kick-ass performance! One has to know that these are the people who havemade us who we are. If they stop listening to us, we’ll be nothing. It’s important to keep our feet on the ground! I love my fans, so I love every moment of the concert!
A lot of Pakistani artists, including Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Omer Inayat, Adnan Sami, Atif Aslam, Mustafa Zahid, and Kamran Ahmed have been getting projects in Bollywood. Music by Pakistani artists is available at many music shops in India and even the Khuda Ke Liye OST got a great response. Compositions by Strings, Jal and your band Call have been appreciated by Indian audiences. However, do you think Pakistani artists will be inviting Indian artists to also come over and collaborate with them?
India has the infrastructure to incorporate a foreign artist in their industry. They have a system running for quite some time now. However, in Pakistan, mostly it’s pretty disjointed at the moment. Peace plays a big part in things becoming smoother as well. I hope there is more peace in my country than there is now so that people can live without any fear. And probably after that, we can think about things like inviting artists from other countries for events etc.
How hard is it to break into Bollywood as a composer?
Bollywood is such a big industry that breaking into it as a composer cannot be easy for any new comer. I was lucky enough that all the movie production houses I have worked with gave me the freedom to compose, write and record everything myself and send the final product over. You have to be fortunate enough to get the first chance, and then when you have it, you have to work your heart off to avail that chance and make it count.
Tell us a bit about how you got offers to compose for Bollywood films…Did it require a lot of going back and forth between Lahore and Mumbai?
Laaree Chootee happened when the team of Ek Chaalees wanted a promotional song for their movie. I got a five minute briefing of the movie from my brother Khurram who is a very good friend of Sajid Maklai from HOM Records. The music of the movie was being released by HOM. Anyhow, in a matter of a day, I got around to write a bit of the song. The moment I had heard the story line, the line that started roaming around in my head was ‘kismet ka khel hai saara’. After that, I seriously don’t remember how I ended up completing the lyrics apart from the fact that my brother Danish recommended incorporating the word “Laaree” in the song. Laaree’s chorus’s melody had been in my head for a long time. I actually made it while I was walking on the treadmill in a gym. I thought it’s nice and recorded it in my cell phone at that very instant. So when the chance came, I got around refining it to make it catchier, and that’s how laree chootee came along. And yes, I had two meetings with Sunjay Khanduri, the movie’s director in Mumbai. It’s often better to get a brief face to face as you get a better idea of what exactly the director is aiming for in the song.
Yeh Pal happened the night Laaree Chootee got released. I got a phone call from Shubashish Mukherjee congratulating me on the release and signing me up for a song for his production ‘Aasma’.
Dhadke Jiya came about when I got in contact with Aftab through my friend Ankur Tewari. Kuch Aisa and Reh Jaane Do had happened much before Dharkay Jiya was made and got in the picture. I haven’t met Aftab in person as yet, but I am hoping that will happen soon!
Some people have complained that Call’s Bollywood compositions are too mainstream…what’s your response to that?
Call in Pakistan is inclined more towards hard rock, so it’s quite different from Call in India. These are two different markets. Even the kind of rock that works in India is what I would rather call Safe Rock. It’s not very heavy lyrics or music vise. So we work in a different manner for catering to these two different kinds of audiences. But the truth is that our pop singles are a bigger hit than the rock ones in our concerts even. Yes, the headbangers would not like the pop sound, but I have grown up listening to all kinds of music and It’s very difficult for someone like me to suppress myself in order to do just one kind of music. I am a free soul like everyone else is, and have a right to make the music I feel like making. Besides, you have to feel like Bollywood to cater to Bollywood. Even if you want to stand out, first you need to understand what a certain market would want and like to hear.
This particular project though, as I mentioned before, is a solo endeavor.
What are some similarities and differences you have noticed in Indian and Pakistani music and/or the approach to music composition?
Most of us in Pakistan have grown up listening to Indian film music. Bollywood, like it or not, is in our blood. Your actors are more famous than our actors in Pakistan. And then we were one country once, so similarities are bound to exist. Culturally, both countries have given to and taken from each other, which is actually great. Having the same language is a big similarity.
One very big difference is that music in India is mostly Bollywood music. That’s what people there listen to the most. Sometimes, it does feel that a lot of effort is going into playing it safe and very, very mainstream, with very few musical elements used that can be termed as a little experimental. But that’s what Bollywood is. In Pakistan, we haven’t had any formal training, most of us i.e. Singing, and playing an instrument were hobbies to begin with, so we didn’t really learn the ‘sur ka utar charhao’ so we have our own way of going about it. Even when it’s not pitch perfect, it’s different. And nowadays, the audience’s trend is more towards different textures of voices than towards the regular trained voice. But I do believe that one should be able enough to be ‘sureela’ while maintaining the texture of his voice.
Similarly, when most people could listen to was Bollywood even in Pakistan, there was a huge vacuum that existed for us Pakistani artists. So when the rock revolution came, the youth had an alternative to listen to, an alternative that they could relate to more easily than they could with Bollywood. I think that this trend has seeped through to Bollywood as well, with movies like Rock On and now London Dreams showcasing that. From Farhan Akhtar to Salman Khan and Ajay Devgan, everyone wants to play the rock star.
You play the guitar and the keyboard—any advice for people about how to choose the perfect guitar?
And the drums too! (smiles) I will want to advise people to learn the drums! Our subcontinent has a lot of guitarists, but very few drummers! But if you still want to buy a guitar, then if you can then take a guitarist with you when you are going to buy one because otherwise, the details are a bit technical. Still, I would try explaining a bit about the acoustic guitar. First off, the edges of the guitar’s fretboard should be smooth and not sharp. All components that have to be glued onto the guitar (bridge etc) should be glued properly. The tuning heads shouldn’t be very loose so that the guitar remains in tune after you are done tuning. Very importantly, strings should be at a ”comfortable enough to play” distance from the fretboard. Sometimes, the distance is too much and it becomes a hassle to play. Make sure that no fret on the fretboard buzzes. The technical person at the guitar shop should intonate your guitar for you. Intonate would mean that every note on the fretboard is true to what it should be mathematically.
What else is Call up to these days?
We are planning to release our album “Dhoom” in Pakistan in January 2010. It’s dominantly rock. Concerts are few and far between nowadays, but we are lucky enough to have our November and December booked with concerts.
Some people have been complaining that there is a lot of gap between compositions you release. Do you ever feel the pressure to start releasing songs more frequently?
Yes, satisfying the listeners is a difficult task! They always want more! But I believe, we are a more active band than our competitors. We have released quite a few singles in the last year or so and those include, Dharkay Jiya, Yeh Pal, Ho Jaane De, Humse He Ye Zamaana, all of which have thankfully been hits!
Anything else you’d like to tell our PlanetBollywood.com readers?
Thanks for reading through the interview, and thanks for the admiration! This is the first interview since my site www.xulfi.com has been up. It has been two days only actually! Do visit the site to keep in touch with my latest and past projects and please do comment! I would make sure that I can answer most of your comments and questions. And as I am a very fond blogger, I would make sure that I keep you guys updated!
It’s been awesome interviewing you, Xulfi!
My pleasure, Amanda!
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