Dawn, "Spotlight: From the rabab strings to stardom"

Dawn, "Spotlight: From the rabab strings to stardom"

Jun 30, 2014

“Khumariyaan is a derivative of the word khumaar (intoxication). The source could be anything — music, spiritualism, wine, love, drugs or even good food. We strive to have the same effect, if you will, with our music,” said the Peshawar-based band Khumariyaan. “And hence the name.”

The band has quietly and surely built a cult following in Pakistan. Their popularity extends well beyond their province, as they are regularly invited on tours to perform at colleges, music festivals and so on.

Soon, they will be travelling to the United States as a part of the State Department’s cultural diplomacy programme, Center Stage.

Through their music, which includes improvisations of well-known traditional Pashtun compositions from both Afghanistan and Pakistan, they seek to revive an interest in their cultural music and entertain audiences in the process. “We believe ours is a deeply meditative and intensely personal interpretation of traditional Pashtun music designed to relax and open new doors of realisation and understanding for our listeners,” said Khumariyaan.

Clearing the ‘haze’ around Khumariyaan — the most exciting thing to emerge from the Peshawar music scene yet!

“There is a lot of room for improvisation and creativity in our music,” they continued. “No two performances are ever alike. Our mood, the venue, audience, socio-cultural milieu and many other factors contribute to the uniqueness of each one of our performances.”

Farhan Bogra, Aamer Shafiq, Shiraz Khan, Sparlay Rawail, Photos: Shaharyar Khan

The band is composed of Farhan Bogra (rabab), Shiraz Khan (zerbaghali), Aamer Shafiq (rhythm guitars and vocals) and Sparley Rawail (also on guitars). Rawail teaches at the National College of Arts (NCA). Bogra works for the Institute for Preservation of Arts and Culture and Crafts (IPAC). Shafiq has a promising career in disaster management and the baby of the group, Khan, holds a full-time job and is also studying for a Master’s degree. “We stay busy and, consequently, out of trouble,” laughed the band.

Both Bogra and Khan play traditional Pashtun instruments that are deeply symbolic of their culture. Bogra plays a version of the rabab often referred to as ‘Kabuli’ rabab. He ended up in possession of one by accident. A friend bought a rabab, much to the displeasure of his father who did not approve of his son learning what he considered as an “old-fashioned instrument not appropriate for the scions of Pakistani bourgeoisie,” related the band. His friend eventually handed the rabab over to Bogra who then taught himself to play it.

The other ‘Pashtun’ instrument is the zerbaghali. It is similar to another African percussion instrument, the djembe. It’s shaped like a wine goblet and traditionally made out of clay. In recent times, the wooden version of the zerbaghali has gained popularity among musicians as well.

“There are people who do not like our liberal views and music. They would like to silence us. People who love our music and us far outnumber the haters. They keep us going.”

“We picked the instrument primarily for the richness of its sound,” said the band, “There was no other instrument in the region whose sound we found equally interesting. And we don’t think Shiraz Khan would have had it any other way. He is in love with it!”

The band’s occasional vocalist and permanent rhythm guitarist, Aamer Shafiq was a well-known musician in Peshawar before the band was formed. “He was known for his skills as a vocalist as well as a guitar player and, in his own opinion, for his good looks!” laughed the band members. Since most of the band’s music is instrumental, “Aamer’s focus has shifted to playing the rhythm guitar, although he continues to enjoy singing whenever he gets an opportunity to perform as a vocalist.”

Shafiq is not the only guitarist in the band. According to his band members, Sparley Rawail, who was the last to join the line up, plays his western stringed instrument with a lot of energy, passion and feeling. “He has an uncanny ability to improvise in unison with other band members,” they said. “He was responsible for introducing solo interludes of guitar in our songs and for skillfully incorporating the sound of ghungroos and the dhol in our music. His knowledge of music and musicology has helped develop the maturity of our music.”

When not rehearsing or performing, the band enjoys listening to music as diverse as Sigur Rós, Pink Floyd, Bahramji and Maneesh De Moor, Metallica, and Ludovico Einaudi. They are particularly fond of Hamayun Khan’s rabab-playing and Mohsen Chavoshi Hosseini’s (Iran) haunting vocals. “We admit to having a bias towards Afghan, Persian and Pakistani music but truthfully we enjoy music from many regions,” they said. “We are citizens of the world and listen to everything from all over the globe. Music that moves our spirit and soul is the one we all love.”

A tale of one city: Peshawar, in the band’s own words

“We are aware of Peshawar’s somewhat unfair reputation. Aamer was even once asked if people in Peshawar were ‘allowed’ to wear jeans!

“The truth is that the city is quite progressive and modern. It may not be as cosmopolitan as Karachi or as sophisticated as Lahore, but it is certainly not as behind-the-times as some believe. Musicians do face difficulties in Peshawar but their problems are similar to the ones they would face in other cities.

“It has not been difficult for us to make a name in music. We were born into educated and affluent families that encouraged our interest in music. We were never forced to depend on music to make a living. Had that been the case, life would have been tough. Financial independence has allowed us to pursue music the way we enjoy it, without making any compromises.

“There are people who do not like our liberal views and music. They would like to silence us. We get anonymous threats on a regular basis but that comes with the territory. People who love our music and us far outnumber the haters. They keep us going.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 29th, 2014