Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan, Xulfi for the world of music
Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan - Xulfi, for the world of music Image Credit: Supplied

I listen to these songs on loop. They speak to me of the crossroads in my life, the heartache that is endless, my search for the meaning of my life, the constant tussle between the material and the spiritual, the laws of love—who is to be loved and how. “Tu Jhoom”, “Mehram” and “Pasoori” of Coke Studio Season 14. Songs that I love and grow to love a little more each time I hear them.

After months of listening to these songs, I knew I had to speak to the person behind the curation of these gorgeous, haunting melodies that for me add new meanings to the power, the inevitability of music: Zulfiqar Jabbar Khan, Xulfi for the world of music, one of Pakistan’s most renowned musicians, and producer and curator of Coke Studio Season 14.

During my conversations with Xulfi, the most noticeable thing is his almost tangible love for music, his commitment to his art, his pursuit of excellence in his craft. Xulfi lives and breathes music. And that makes his work special. Empathetic and responsive, he understands the world and its ruses, is endearingly humble, treats nuances of music as invaluable assets, laughs easily, his words glow when he talks music. Xulfi creates and curates stunning music. His decades-long work provides a fascinating backdrop to the splendid world of the thirteen songs of Coke Studio Season 14—each song a revelation, an old tale set in a landscape rarely seen, the traditional waltzing with the new, the classical humming the tunes of this decade, the stereotypes turned on their heads, the folklore high-fiving a global dynamic, art re-falling in love with art.

For Gulf News, I asked music composer and producer Xulfi a few questions:

Mehr Tarar: What is music for you—Xulfi the person, the man, the musician, the producer?

Xulfi: Music for me is how I keep discovering myself, how I keep living, how I keep making sense of everything around me. It’s also the language that I speak, through which I convey stories to everyone around me. Music has helped me discover the spirituality of a being, and its connection to the universe. It’s my life. I’ve always felt that music is one of the senses. In the grandest scheme of things, I would say art is one of the senses. We all possess it, it’s just that sometimes it’s locked, sometimes unlocked. You discover new layers, but you have to understand art as a sense; your subconsciousness has to understand art as a sense for that to happen.

When you entered Coke Studio, how did you visualize your music turning it into a platform that was different than how it had been utilized until season 13?

I’ve always believed that we need to tell stories to the world. Storytelling is an art form. I also believe that this art form will have a better opportunity to become a part of people’s lives, be more relatable, and penetrate further into people’s minds and hearts if it is intelligently accompanied with visuals. This belief was there before we had made even one song. So, we knew what we were going to do: tell stories. Each story with its own narrative, visuals, and world. And that’s what we ventured upon. Our ideology was simple: we wanted to unlock the power of relatability for people to experience these stories as their own, from the first song to the last, and connect to it.

Abida Parveen and Xulfi; Naseebo Lal and Xulfi; Xulfi; Ali Sethi, Shae Gill and Xulfi; Arooj Aftab, Asfar Hussain and Xulfi.

A couple of days ago, a woman I met at my gym made an interesting comment to me. That the way we finished the season with “Phir Milenge”, it was as if people knew it was ending, but they didn’t want it to end; that it was such a perfect ending they knew that was how it was supposed to be, how it should end. They were aware of it being the last song of the season. That shows that people are willing to hear, view and absorb new stories.

One important thing that we had ventured upon from the start was how to tackle stereotypes, how to break them. All of that is only possible through storytelling, which is taking help from sound and visuals for it to be properly propagated to people.

“Tu Jhoom”, Abida Parveen’s and Naseebo Lal’s beautiful rendition, is a song that to me effortlessly moves between a Sufi’s musing about a soul seeking answers within and outside written centuries ago and the angst and search for self in the twenty-first century. What is “Tu Jhoom” to you?

Surender. “Tu Jhoom” to me is surrender. It’s a surrender that I know I will keep understanding more and more as I move on and think about it. Isn’t it everyone’s story? It might have been someone’s story in the past. It might have been a story in the present. It might be a story in the future. But it is everybody’s story. To me life’s greatest awareness, the universe’s greatest awareness, opens to you only when you surrender. I feel one reason why “Tu Jhooom” was season 14’s first song was because of its transformative message. Literally the beginning of this season’s journey. It had to present the new vision in just its duration.

In the first few seconds of the song, interestingly, it starts with might seem like the old Coke Studio vibe—when Naseebo ji is singing it’s semi-dark all around, but when the Tu Jhoom Tu Jhoom happens, it all lights up. You see the new world, the cinematic movement, the moving emotion, and then it beautifully shifts to Abida ji. It was the beginning of our journey, not just mine but everyone who was involved in this season’s Coke Studio—from the sonic to the art to the management team. We were all together in the song. This song made us feel in unison, it made us heal in unison. I remember the day when it was being recorded and shot, it was a day like none other. We could all sense what was happening. It was magical. It will always be magical, inshaAllah.

Not easy to express what a song means to me, what its narrative means to me, what “Tu Jhoom” means to me. I speak a great deal, but this is one thing that I don’t have the words to explain.

And then there is the way people have understood “Tu Jhoom”, making it a part of their lives. The way people have healed and understood their own selves listening to it, “Tu Jhoom” is theirs now. And when it becomes theirs, their narrative is as truthful as mine. I just hope and wish that this song keeps on healing, keeps on helping.

(Coke Studio Season 14 “Tu Jhoom” credits: Curator, producer: Xulfi; Song concept: Xulfi; Lyricist: Adnan Dhool; Composer: Xulfi; Music Arrangement: Xulfi, Abdullah Siddiqui; Video Director: Zeeshan Parwez; Production Designer: Beenish Umar; Art Director: Harris Khatri; Stylist: Mariam Sarwar)

In Asfar Hussain’s and Arooj Aftab’s “Mehram”, the lyrics, melody and visuals conjure a haunting tale of once-in-a-lifetime love, togetherness that despite being essential is transient, loss that cuts like a jagged knife, and heartache that becomes a constant reminder of what was. How did “Mehram” become that story?

Everything stems from an experience, imagination that makes you feel, believe. We as artists think our sensitivities are our superpowers. When we create art, art is always created out of those sensitivities. I don’t feel there is any other way. “Mehram” is no exception. It’s a creation of sensitivity. It stems from real experiences; it stems from the acceptance of those experiences.

The story for “Mehram” began when we knew that there had to be a song, a narrative, which understood or expressed heartbreak. In not just a deeper manner but in a way where there is a sort of acceptance, but also a kind of longing. We wanted it to be a conversation, which isn’t about one person or one sentiment. It’s about both the people in a relationship, what they feel today, what they felt during their connection.

When we had this idea, the only person who I thought could give it words and be one part of that equation was Asfar Hussain. I’m an admirer of his voice, and the way he puts his emotions in words. I asked him to meet me. We talked about various narratives, we heard so many songs that day. Those conversations on the topic of heartbreak made both of us cry (laughs). We cried a lot, to the point we were silent. When something begins from such a real space, from such a place of sensitivity that it really hits you, you know it is within you. You realize that the universe is telling you that your sensitivities and emotions want to help you so put it in words

The greatest challenge was Asfar writing it from his perspective, and then writing from the other standpoint, which in Arooj Aftab’s voice became her perspective. After our meeting, Asfar returned to Chitral, his hometown. We had many more conversations. Asfar kept on writing, adding little things, new ideas. We kept discussing narratives. One day, very late at night, he texted me: “Tu mehram na raha mera”. He sang it and sent it again. I knew this was it, and he knew this was it. We had found the narrative. Mehram is such a beautiful word. [Coke Studio Season 14 press release explains, “Asfar uses the word “mehram” in its truest sense: a person that you trust completely.”]

After that we needed one more voice to complete the narrative. Arooj Aftab [the Grammy-winning Pakistani American artist] was the singer who we thought would be perfect for our vision for “Mehram”. In fact, Abdullah Siddiqi, my associate music producer, was certain, from the beginning, that Arooj could truly be the voice to tell the story with Asfar. I got in touch with Arooj, I played the song for her. Her reaction was so beautiful. She said, “Sab royain gaye iss ko sunn ke (everyone will cry listening to it).”

When we reached the middle part of “Mehram”, we were thinking what its narrative should be. I wrote some lines. It was not easy for me to add something to the narrative Asfar had started. His writing is very poetic. It was a process of learning for me too. I wrote these lines to take the story forward: Main sun raha tha, sabhi, tu sun saka na, kabhi; Lafzon ki barishon mein, uljhi sab khwahishon mein, dil ka makaa’n na raha.

All of it came about in constant discussions, voice notes, messages, and phone calls with Asfar. So much of that happened with Arooj as well.

It happened. It was a different kind of healing. Probably the healing so many of us need. I feel that sometimes when your tears fall or you have goosebumps, there is something of the future connected to it. Maybe time is like that. Everything has already happened. Perhaps it’s a message from the future that makes us cry sometimes, and we don’t understand the reason. We get goosebumps, and we don’t understand why that happened. So that was “Mehram”.

Every song, “Mehram” too, will always be something magical, something special, something people can relate to. The deep involvement of artists who express and perform particular emotions is essential to create real narratives, tell real stories.

(Coke Studio Season 14 “Mehram” credits: Curator, producer: Xulfi; Song narrative: Asfar Hussain, Xulfi; Composer: Asfar Hussain, Xulfi; Lyricist: Asfar Hussain; Additional lyrics: Xulfi; Music Arrangement, production: Abdullah Siddiqui, Xulfi, Arooj Aftab)

“Pasoori” is an international hit. Did you, Ali Sethi, Shae Gill, and the rest of the team have any foreshadowing of how “Pasoori” as a song of forbidden, long-distance, frustrating, agonized romance had the magic to be a global anthem of love, longing, sense of not belonging, sameness of existence, and universality of emotions simply on the power of its music?

In the process of creating, we nurtured every song of season 14. Every part, every word, every sonic moment, every transition, every beginning, every end. When you nurture something, the love that you put in the narrative and the details, the conversations you have with the people involved in the creation of a song, you send real, honest, positive energies into the universe. The universe responds. When your aim is to create something that could reside in people’s hearts, and is universally relatable, and you are praised for it because you tried to do all those things, your need to remember that the real purpose was just to speak the truth, be honest. That resonates with people on different levels as they understand and absorb it in their own way, making that narrative their own. That is the work of the conscious mind.

But the subconscious mind understands more. It is always travelling. With the love that you put in the process and nurturing of a song, the subconscious mind becomes more connected to the universe. It knows it. It feels it. And when that happens, you don’t even understand what has happened. You just feel that this song is that part of you now that you can’t disconnect with.

Pasoori team
Pasoori team Image Credit: Supplied

As with all the other songs, this was the process when we were making “Pasoori”. When it was happening, I let my sensitivities carve my journey. The first time Ali Sethi played some verses and the chorus on a piano, I was elated (laughs). I told him right away that people wouldn’t know what hit them. “Pasoori” had that energy, sentiment, honesty. During the process of creating “Pasoori”, all of us put our hearts in it.

A part of our vision for season 14 was to enter the global charts. It was something I spoke about, and my team had the same view: that in this time of global connectivity, it shouldn’t take a miracle to reach the global charts. We just had to conceive, perceive, and execute intelligently, and with a lot of heart and honesty. You have a vision you follow that vision. It is a cohesive vision to which everyone contributes. Magic happens without anyone knowing. It’s how the universe is planning it.

Sethi and I had countless conversations on “Pasoori”—on lyrical, musical, and visual narratives, chordal structures, every tiny detail. Those conversations continued with Kamal Khan, Hashim Ali, Abdullah Siddiqui, and Sherry Khattak. Long, honest conversations to brew and nurture the ideology and the sentiment of what “Pasoori” would be.

The idea is not to make a song thinking it would be a big hit. The idea is to speak the truth and to make it relatable. People will only relate to a song if it is something beautifully honest. Then you have to leave it to the universe. In a conversation with Sethi, I said that “Pasoori” had a global charting capability. But we thought beyond that. We kept on speaking the truth through the sonic, the visual, every moment of the song. That is how you create songs, narratives, ideas—do your honest best for it to be relatable to people.

People remember words, lines, melody structures. People remember visuals, moments they feel are their own. When you are creating a song, you have this opportunity to talk to people, to have a real conversation. The way I perceive Coke Studio, it is the language we speak to the world. The language of art from Pakistan.

(Coke Studio Season 14 “Pasoori” credits: Curator, producer: Xulfi; Narrative: Ali Sethi; Composer Ali Sethi, Xulfi; Lyricist: Ali Sethi, Fazal Abbas; Music arrangement Abdullah Siddiqui, Sherry Khattak; Music producer: Abdullah Siddiqui, Xulfi; Cinematographer: Ahsan Raza; Production designer: Hashim Ali; Art director: Hashim Ali; Wardrobe stylist: Fatima Butt; Makeup artist for portrait faces: Saima Rashid Bargfrede)