In February 2015, the Mekaal Hasan Band (MHB) was at the center of a musical discord—within a week, it was nominated and then disqualified for the Global Indian Music Awards. The Pakistani publication Dawn, reported Hasan commenting, “We didn’t ask for a nomination in the first place and given that they deemed us worthy enough to be nominated, disqualifying now doesn’t really make sense to me. The album was not recorded solely in Pakistan, rather half of the work was done in India.”

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The band is currently on tour in the United States and has an interesting profile—it is Indian and Pakistani, comprising Hasan (guitar) and Muhammad Ahsan Papu (flute) from Pakistan; Sharmishtha Chatterjee (vocals), Gino Banks (drums; yes, son of Louis Banks), and Sheldon D’Silva (bass) from India.

Hasan is driven by the Indian and Pakistani relationship: not by the conflict, but by its potential; saying, “The fact that we have hundreds of years of shared musical and artistic history is in and of itself a treasure trove to be delved in deeply as partners in art and culture. While much is made of the often acrimonious relationship between the two countries politically, not enough is done to explore the many wonderful things we can build upon together.”

Hasan himself seems to epitomize the prefix “inter:” He is an inter-faith product- of a Muslim father and Christian mother; plays inter-genre music (Sufi and rock); works with inter-tradition musicians (classical and jazz); is inspired by inter-ethos poetry (spiritual and modern) and of-course founded an inter-geo band. The latest album, Andholan—meaning “organized protest” in Hindi—is aptly named for what the band represents.

A listen to the album drives home this aspect: “Kinarey” is semi-classical but philosophical, with Chatterjee starting off in wonderfully clear-toned vocals, Papu’s flute providing soulful accompaniment. “Ghungat” on the other hand, stays true to rebellious rock, strong on the guitar, bass, drums and the vocals highlighting the conflict in the lyrics—“Your slave is being auctioned free, Come my love and rescue me, No longer can I perch elsewhere?”

Champkalli” fuses classical vocal with a rock score. “Sayon” has playful guitaring and lighter-toned vocals, that belie some deep lyrics “I drank the cup of poison, without a thought of benefit or loss. I desired this grief, this pain.”

But the highlight is the track “Malkauns,” where its namesake raga has never before, to my knowledge, been rendered as in Andholan, in a heavy metal avatar. The interplay between drums, bass, guitar is particularly interesting juxtaposed as it is between soft fluting and strident vocals.

Chatterjee’s singing holds every number together, but the interesting fact is that until 2014, for over a decade, the band was all-male. She remembers, “Mekaal Hasan called me one day and asked if I would like to sing for his band. I loved MHB’s music ever since I heard it. The Indian classical element in the music paired with the languages and poetries was something I found fascinating and I knew in the process I’ll grow as an artist.”

Growing up in Kolkata, Chatterjee has had some rigorous training, “I learnt Indian classical from my guru Pandit K.C. Lahiri. He was basically a violinist and also taught instruments like sarod and sitar. So my vocal training was rather experimental and very different from the rest. He taught me raag Yaman for 10 years and said if you manage to learn one raag properly, you can sing or pick up anything in the world.” Her musicality took on new dimensions when she came to Mumbai in 2005 and started singing in Bollywood and advertising projects.

Chatterjee’s earliest recollection of the Indian and Pakistani conflict was while watching a cricket match as a child. Today, she aspires to be a better musician and human by banding with Indian and Pakistani musicians. “This is a myth-breaking band with a female singer in a rock band, an Indian singer in a Pakistani Band … all sorts of man-made differences that engulf human minds. Music truly has no boundaries and barriers.”

Andholan comes after a five year hiatus for the Mekaal Hasan Band, which has seen some artist turn-over. Proof of its persuasive music and compelling message is in the fact that it was selected as part of South By South West’s (SXSW) first ever lineup representing Pakistan, earlier this year. (SXSW is a well-established, premier conference for music, independent films, and emerging technologies held every year in Austin, TX.) Interestingly, the Pakistani showcase was sponsored by the Islamabad-based Foundation for Arts Culture and Education (FACE), a U.S. State Department-funded organization countering violent fundamentalism with cultural exchange.

Please visit their facebook page for news and dates and venues for their September tour (https://www.facebook.com/mekaalhasanband). The music is available on iTunes.
Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.

Priya Das is an enthusiastic follower of world music and avidly tracks intersecting points between folk, classical, jazz and other genres.

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