It’s been over 20 years since Strings has been around, but if there’s any fatigue, they’re not showing it. At a recent press meet, the duo livened up the normally staid proceedings with an energetic, unplugged performance of two of their best-known songs: ‘Sar Ki Ye Pahar’ and ‘Duur’.
Strings burst onto the scene in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s as a four piece pop-rock band, formed in college. “When we started out, the dynamics in Pakistan and India were very similar,” recalls Faisal Kapadia, lead singer. There was one channel on television, owned by the government. “There was no room for pop music… people would only make private albums.” It was in 2000 that he says “everything changed”. Today, the four-piece original line-up is no longer around; it’s primarily Faisal Kapadia and Bilal Maqsood. “Now, too, things are going outside the idiot box,” he says.
Among fans, Strings are known for their mellow-to-peppy songs (think ‘Duur’ and ‘Anjaney’), typically with evocative lyrics. These are written by Bilal’s father, the well-known poet Anwar Maqsood. While composing a song, Bilal comes up with a basic melody and structure, which he discusses with his father. The elder Maqsood then writes the lyrics. “The message is ours, and he has the words,” explains Bilal. What are the other quirks that come with working with a close family member? Mostly benefits, according to Bilal. “Abu has been linked with media for the last 40 years: he was the person who gave us the initial push. A lot of people know Strings because of his fan following.”
Strings have been asked if they consider themselves a political band, or if they see any responsibility to take on such a role (given that they perform often in India). In the past, they’ve responded in the negative, but that’s beginning to change.
“We used to say that we want to stay away from politics. But given the last five years in Pakistan we couldn’t keep that up anymore,” says Bilal. “You wake up to news of bomb blasts, terrorist attacks.” This has, inevitably, trickled into their music as well. “The last couple of songs have all been politically charged – like ‘Beirut’, ‘Ab Khud Kuch Karna Padega’ and ‘Main To Dekhoonga’”. Even an upcoming song, to be released in December, is a tongue-in-cheek song that pokes fun at the “puppets” that India and Pakistan have become to the West, says Bilal. It is a collaboration with Indian Ocean.
One of the songs that won Strings worldwide attention was their track for the Spiderman 2 soundtrack, ‘Na Janey Kyun’, which was included in Asia releases of the OST. Are there other collaborations on the way? “We never plan things. As musicians, we should, nowadays,” admits Faisal. “But we primarily do our music for fun. Of course, it’s a profession, it gives us money to run a home, but we want to enjoy ourselves. Spiderman happens just once in your lifetime and you just hold on tightly to it!”
“If I had to compare, I’ll say music is going the textile industry way,” quips Bilal. “The music scene in Pakistan is so bad. It’s so difficult for musicians to survive.” But the rise of independent music culture in India gives them hope, he said.
Another reason for their bleak outlook on the future of independent music, especially in Pakistan, is that despite digital culture affecting musicians from lack of album sales, the internet hasn’t exactly become “a household thing”.
“Reaching the masses isn’t easy, unless you get into film,” reasons Faisal. “It’s tough for us to tell an aspiring musician to go for your dreams, pick up your guitar. It’s not easy to run a household through music.”
While the two countries may have followed slightly similar paths, independent music still hasn’t picked up in Pakistan, says Faisal. The plethora of festivals that seem to happen in India – Strings were themselves in town as part of the Seagrams 100 Pipers India Music Week – isn’t mirrored in Pakistan. “We’re still having problems because of the political situation in Pakistan currently. Things like security concerns and so on mean that not many performances are happening.”
Still, they are quick to acknowledge the role played by newer platforms like Coke Studio. “After 2007, it was only Coke Studio that gave acts like Arif Lohar, Meesha Shafi and Zeb and Haniya some support”.