For Pakistani music listeners, the name Vital Signs means a lot more than you can ever imagine. This boy band of the mid-late 80s was a trend setter. For the first time in Pakistan's local pop scene, a group of talented, educated, and good looking guys came together to give audiences not just amazing music but also dazzling, high energy live performances.
Shehzad Hassan - popularly known as Shahi - was the guitarist, who mustered probably a few million female fans just by being there and quietly playing some excellent guitar notes. But looks weren't the extent of his talent, as with the other band members; Shahi was an excellent guitarist and composer, whose talent has given us many memorable songs and performances.
We caught up with Shahi, to talk a bit about the past, but mostly catch up on what he is doing now. We learned that this man truly speaks volumes through his work, as you will find from his interview, where he talks about the upcoming Classical Music of Pakistan project and a lot more.
It’s been ages since we saw you perform as part of the legendary Vital Signs. What have you been doing all these years?
Yes I know it has been a long time, since I performed with the vital Signs. The Last concert we performed together was in the year 2002, in Dubai. As we all know Vital Signs was never officially over and I would not like to bore you with the details.
With Vital Signs I always had my own recording studio, which myself and Rohail had setup at his residence in Rawalpindi, where we recorded the 3rd and the 4th albums of the Vital Signs as well.
Now I have my own studio in Karachi where I have been producing various artists, namely Strings, Junoon, Ali Azmat, Rushk, Najam Sheraz, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to name a few. I have also done scores of music including for a couple of Indian Movies, etc. etc. In short I have been not doing much else but music.
What are you working on these days? Any special projects you would like to share with our readers??
Currently I am working on quite a few things. One is an album of Devika, a very talented artist from USA (originally from India). She is a very good personal friend and a brilliant singer so we are making an album collectively, which has some of my own compositions and some Raag based Bandahes, and some from Noor Lodhi who is a brilliant composer, all sung by Devika.
Secondly and most importantly I am working on a very significant project probably in the history of classical music of Pakistan; important not because I am working on it but rather the timings of the project and the sheer scale of it.
As we all know, classical music in Pakistan is drawing close to its end. In most of the Gharanas (families) the Masters/Ustaads who have the knowledge are the last of their generations and with not many young apprentices. With their demise the thousands of years old art form will be dying out and I am talking literally.
Just to clear out the misunderstandings amongst the misled majority, classical music is no just Ghazal, folk and thumri’s. It is Dhrpad, khayal based of pure raag as it has been performed for hundreds of years. It is coming to a very sad end here in our country. So we need a collective effort to rejuvenate and revive the soft peaceful moodiness of Raags into our tension filled lives to calm us down.
Imagine the times when there were no music players and no TV. The only way to hear music was for someone had to sing it to you or you had to sing yourself. That’s the era of intellect and resourcefulness I am talking about, when every individual was brought up as an artist and a refined thinker.
This realization came to me when I was at the APMC (All Pakistan Music Conference) in Karachi in 2006. The entrance to the venue was kept deliberately free, absolutely no cover charge, as the APMC organization (run by a few dedicated good men and women, who at least on their own not just love this kind of music but are doing something to promote it, and are all volunteers) wants to promote the art.
The conference was for 3 days, and all 3 days I noticed that the audiences came in great numbers. Most of them were your so called refined and rich uncles and aunties, clad in their loads of jewelry, saris, kurta pajama, and shawls; in their royal “sawaries” (rides) in the shape of official cars or 4X4s. Some were kids who were there as Mekaal Hasan Band was also featured to attract the kids (poor guy had to face humility among his audiences as everyone except the kids started to leave). They all praised the artists with their wah wahs, Subhaan Allah’s and any meaningful chants shouts they could manage, but the most disturbing of all facts was that the moment the show was over they all left without even taking notice if any of the artists had a ride back home. I remember when we used to see out favorite band, we used to go and stand in queue for hours just to get a good seat closer to the stage.
That’s probably one of the reasons for coming of the end of classical music here as we are not doing anything to promote, publicize this music, and why would we? As this form of music is one of the most refine arts in the world, you need to have the refinement to really understand it; yet where is the brain of my country? Saali kab manay gee? Billo kab ghar ayee gee? And their new generations are branching out in different forms of music or totally leaving it to find alternative means of living.
How did you take the idea to fruition?
Last year I presented this idea to my best friend, Noor (Shonu) who lives in California, to some how document this knowledge and preserve whatever is left behind. Shonu has been my best friends for past 15 years. He developed it in to a project for the preservation of classical music of Pakistan and told me he knew who would help us out in this. So Shonu introduced me to Mr. Asim Abdullah who wanted to know what we were working on. We presented Mr. Asim with our plans who understood the situation I mentioned above and he agreed on helping us, as he is already promoting and preserving the cultural heritage of Asia not just in art but also in the preservation of ancient civilizations. I am very thankful to Mr. Asim for his thoughtfulness and it makes me proud to know that he is a Pakistani who, though living in the west has not lost the ideology and the patriotism our fore fathers made this country upon. He also made me realize that it is up to all of us to make the effort on individual basis to achieve our goals and that’s what an alive nation is where every individual dose something to make a difference.
We planned to record at least 50 of the significant artists from this region (Pakistan) who are mostly in their old age and at their prime, some of them are so old that this just might be the last recording they would ever do. So this recording holds a lot of significance. For this reason I needed very good quality studio, so collectively the team invested in some very high quality equipment, mics etc. Just very basic stuff but high quality. There are still areas where we can improve to be absolutely world class. All this just for once to record this music the way it should be, as most of the recordings of classical music in Pakistan are simply pathetic.
4. How much progress have you made thus far and how are you planning to release this compilation of classical music?
I am already through 80% of my recordings. We are also making a documentary on classical music and this project, which will be shown across channels in many countries including Pakistan and USA. We plan to release this compilation in the form of a boxset featuring the likes of Usttad Nasir-ud-din Sami, Ustaad Fateh Ali Khan (Patiyalla), Ustaad Bashir Khan (Tabla), Ashraf Shreef Khan (Sitaar), Ustaad Hussain Bakash Guloo, Asad Kizilbash (Sarood), and Ustaad Fateh Ali Khan (Hyderabad) just to name a very few. This box set will contain 10 CDs, one audio surround sound DVD, and a video documentary, besides the information and details of the artists and their performances. Once a friend of mine mentioned that it takes a lifetime to sing or play the way our classical artists do, so imagine how expensive each one of these artists are!
Vital Signs was one of the most influential bands of its time – you guys literally changed the whole local pop scene in Pakistan. In retrospect, what kind of feeling does it evoke when you think about your music days?
Well this question I feel is a little irrelevant as it’s been over 20 years since I started playing the Guitar. I have done about 800 shows and still I feel I have just started doing what I do. There are so many new avenues in this country besides pop which we neglect due to our short sightedness and are totally unexplored. There has never been a stagnant day for me as far as music is concerned. I don’t know to be honest I did never wonder, but sometimes I do miss playing live shows, as I am mostly in my studio. But just for the sake of the question I think it was what we did then, now is what I do now. Am I making sense?
You were always reputed to be a quiet person, yet you were centre-stage with one of the most popular pop acts. How did that bode for you?
I am still a quiet person as I feel when and where I can listen and observe I can learn more and if I speak too much I will make a fool of myself. I actually never stopped to think this way, as it all was happening and we were riding the waves, it was never planned and there were no popularity criteria or a yardstick. But to be honest it does work in your favor, as people tend to take you seriously….so we must have made good music then, I guess. I think we did, thanks to involvement of the likes of Shoaib Mansoor for the beautiful and timeless lyrics he wrote to say the least.
Was the break-up of Vital Signs because of Junaid Jamshed’s religiosity or were there some other reasons?
Not at all; it was long before that we stopped releasing music as Vital Signs. But the fact is, whenever we get together we still make music, compose songs; it’s just that people don’t get to hear them as they are in the privacy of our studios and they may never be released. We are all still the best of friends and we will remain so; just that all of us are busy working on our own projects and we get little time to do anything else.
There is an unfinished fifth album that Vital Signs never released – do you think it will ever surface for your fans to listen to?
There is no 5th album of the Signs, to clear out any misunderstandings and rumors, but we have so much unreleased material that there can be at least 4 more (laughs)
Switching gears, how do you feel about the bands that are on the top of the charts these days – who do you like the best and why?
These days, especially after Junoon’s departure from music, there are hardly any bands or solo artists who are making good albums. By good albums I mean that each and every song of the album has to be good and meticulously made, not just one decent song. At least that’s what we used to do then and now. That’s why they are coming and going so fast.
I like Ali Azmat as he has developed into a really good composer now; I heard some of the compositions of his 2nd solo album and they were really nice. Besides that I like Strings but then again their music is not my type.
What I am trying to say is that people are making music too consciously. A piece of art is naturally inspired, not consciously. It has become a business. Even when with the Vital Signs when we made a song too consciously or for a sponsor it always flopped. Jeetaingay, Guzray Zamany Walli etc. are some examples. For me the 4th album starts after that (laughs).
It happens when you are insecure of losing to competition. Sorry folks, no offense but the truth hurts.
How do you feel about the way that media and music have grown in Pakistan? Any reservations about the direction in which the music industry is going?
It feels good to see good things happening in our media, most of all freedom, but the channel owners should pay much attention to the content, as it’s not the quantity but the quality that matters.
What are some of the areas in which you would like to see Pakistani media grow?
Good Question. Presentation should be better. As an artist I refrain from giving interviews especially on TV not because I am stuck up, but because their presentation is very flawed. Starting from basics like the set, the lights, they don’t know how to present someone who could be an achiever. They need to do proper research in the featured artist’s career and personality and ask proper and informative questions based on the research. If they can’t make them look their stature at least don’t make them look bad. I remember there was a certain program on a channel where they were profiling a certain legendary actress and the host, in his stupidity, was asking really dumb questions and just the way he was sitting showed that he actually did not know who she was, hence no respect. Disappointing!
Also they should stop exploiting the female sex in every ad and drama and come up with a better story. And please STOP copying STAR PLUS and other Indian plays!!
Any message for your fans reading this interview on Mag4you.com?
Yes, rise above it all, through the pollution of the rotten society, there is better air to breathe.