Raahi is a new Karachi rock-band that deserves attention just on the merits of its personnel. It comprises Louis John Pinto aka Gumby (associated with Coke Studio, Ali Azmat, Uth Records, Noori, Vital Signs, Junoon), Omran Shafique (Coke Studio, Mauj, Kostal, Co-ven), Sameer Ahmed Bakhtiari (Karavan, Azal). Also joining the old timers is Ahsan Bari, a NAPA graduate that has caught some eyes with work on Sounds of Kolachi1 and Cornetto Music Icons.

The band has two songs out at the moment, Dil Ka Raahi (which hit Vimeo a couple of months ago), and Aasman Ki Oor (which released just last week). An album is apparently on the way in a couple of months. The music is definitely interesting, as is how the band presents itself. Given the nature of collaboration, the band’s PR is noticeably understated,2 and this suits the music rather well.

The first thing that hit me about the music was how surprisingly ‘pop’ it was. Not in the sense of being upbeat and boppy, but rather how well-rounded the songs were and how smooth they were to listen to. This isn’t per se a bad thing, but I was expecting something more experimental. Gumby has said that he recruited Omran by saying they had been making music for other people for long enough, and it was time they made the music they wanted. I just assumed they wanted something edgier.3

Once you get past that hurdle however the music is unique still. Gumby’s playing is unsurprisingly intricate and subtle, Sameer plays a gentle rock-bass, Omran softens his Mauj style and Ahsan’s vocals round off the sound with a defining eastern swirl.

Dil Ka Raahi has a charming coffee-house aesthetic. It is mellow, but not sad – slow but with an obvious movement. Gumby’s percussions are minimalist, limited to the edge of a snare drum and a hand drum. Sameer plays acoustic bass, while Omran plays acoustic and then accents it with a glass slide. Ahsan’s vocals are intricate, but not in your face. The singing is more Amanat Ali than Junaid Jamshed, in that it is technically excellent but its primary quality is not the sheer power and recognizability of the voice. Most of Pakistani pop’s renowned vocalists have fallen into the latter bucket: Junaid, Ali Azmat, Atif Aslam, Ali Noor. The comparison here is similar to the difference between Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Hussain Buksh Gullu – one a vocal powerhouse, the other a quiet maestro. The vocal style is fundamentally different to warrant a different assessment. Ahsan’s vocal quality makes complete sense in this band’s accompaniment.

The lyrics are ambiguous – I read them as oscillating between finding love and self-discovery. Perhaps that is intentional to point to the related nature of the two. But the lyrics neither seem to attempt to say something a pop song hasn’t said before, neither leave you with the impression that they have. But they are pleasing still, and decidedly do not fall into the trap of being comically simplistic as they attempt to say too much (ala Noori). Like the band itself, they are understated and not the worse for it.

Aasman Ki Oor takes the tempo and the distortion up a notch. Gumby moves to a full drum kit, Sameer picks up an electric bass guitar and Omran plays with a characteristically pop-rock electric guitar sound. Ahsan’s vocals keep up with the energy in the sound and in the lyrics (the words here are about energy, needing to get up and move, as far as I can tell). And in this song more than the first, the vocals clearly paint Ahsan as an eastern-trained vocalist fronting a western-style rock band. This aesthetic is also not new, but is presented in a manner more refined. You can’t credit Raahi with inventing a style here, but they’ve picked up one that we know and practiced it tastefully.

Junoon’s legacy has given the eastern vocal a great prominence in the east-meets-west Pakistani rock style. The recent trend to make the eastern influence a little more subtle is definitely refreshing. And it is what makes this music decidedly Pakistani in its lineage and aesthetic. A plain-old pop vocal would have made this just urdu soft rock, but the eastern training of Ahsan’s vocal (and presumably the eastern influences that have affected Gumby and Omran’s work in Coke Studio) make the whole aesthetic original.

It is good that an album is in the works, because this isn’t really a collection of singles. It is more the kind of music you leave on in the background as it quietly makes the day a bit more pleasant. But it is not the sort of music you find yourself obsessed with and playing on repeat. At least I don’t.

In some sense the band’s position is analogized by their lyrics. Sufficiently obscure to be saying a lot, or nothing much at all; familiar enough to a pop sensibility; but pretty nonetheless.

  1. I did some brief digging on Sounds of Kolachi, that Ahsan describes as an amalgamation of many different genres. That’s a pretty good description really, and it sounds almost like eastern lyrical and musical content playing with frameworks of jazz, pop and folk. Definitely interesting. 
  2. Though I have to say their description of themselves on Facebook: “The Real Sound of Music” is a little strange. I want to write this down as a PR firm folly but I have no evidence to indicate the merits of this theory. 
  3. In their defense the band call their work a ‘straightforward, mainstream’ sound. Not what I was expecting, but still welcome.