The first time I met Shiraz Uppal was on the late great television program "Ready Ho TV." While his debut video "Deewana" had passed me by, he had just managed to release his first album, "Tu Hai Meri," in 2001, after many years of incubation. He was so excited about it that he was almost giddy. In fact, the impression I have of him was that he was just too earnest: it made him seem less sure of himself. Plus, there was the fact that he touted his connections with A. R. Rehman a fair bit. That was a tad off–putting, if not unbelievable. Did he really sing on "Shakalaka Baby" as he claimed? Nevertheless, his album was quite pleasant. The title song was almost memorable.
A few years later, one was pleasantly surprised when his single "Tera Te Mera" from the second album was a smash and made his second album ("Tera Te Mera" in 2003) sell well. From rank outsider he seemed to move closer to the mainstream.
That is about to change now. The latest single off his just released album "Jhuki Jhuki" has left me gobsmacked. With a startlingly effective video by the always excellent Umar Anwar, the song and the video have each marked Shiraz as an artist who has matured. Which other artist can one name who has appeared in his own video and let someone else mostly sing and shine in the spotlight. It appears that after threatening to do so for years now, Shiraz Uppal is about to come good and take his place among the A–list of local musicians. Some of the new songs by Shiraz are quite good; one song on the album is very unappealing, and some are so-so; but a couple of songs are brilliant. The first single and title track "Jhuki Jhuki" is certainly memorable. The song is unique in its soulfulness. The interaction between the instruments is also impressive.
As Shiraz went about the studio playing new songs for me, I noted how comfortable he was doing so. In the past, one has tended to think of him as a singer. The interview and more than that his way around the studio and his songs revealed that he is in fact a musician, composer and actually quite an effective producer as well. He certainly knew his way around the computer and his studio. For a while, we talked software and his awareness of the same was very impressive. A. R. Rehman apparently, he told me, uses Logic Pro Audio. "It is only available on Macs though, so not much use to us in Pakistan," Shiraz comments. "I was even tempted on getting a Mac from abroad, but there is no support for it here in Pakistan, so I did not get one." During the interview I noticed a battered but really sweet sounding acoustic guitar lying in the corner. As I strummed it, he told me it was the first musical gift from his father. "He wasn't initially that much into my being into music. But after I finished my MBA, he brought me this all the way over from the States. He was in the Army and found it quite a bit embarrassing carrying it all the way through Customs and all."
In fact, Shiraz has been singing since 1991 when his father was posted in Multan. Thereafter when they moved to Lahore, he even tried his hand at a metal band. In all he appears certainly to have paid his dues. Mixed with his musical activities, his job profile makes an interesting reading: With an MBA from Pak Aims in hand, he first joined Citibank and then Askari Commercial as a banker but all the time kept feeling that music was his real forte. Lastly, post 9/11, he joined the Lahore American School as a music teacher. "It was as much an education for me. When I joined, I did not know how to read music and some of the other western classical aspects of it. I taught myself there as well, so it was quite good. The students were excellent too." Ultimately though, he found his concert schedule (incidentally he is the one musician who I have heard who is satisfied with the money one makes from music and concerts) was interfering with the job and vice versa and made the decision to leave. He quit and turned a professional as a musician. He has not regretted it ever since.
A. R. Rehman features a lot in Shiraz's conversations. Initially, I too have been an A. R. Rehman fan and previously felt that Shiraz name–dropped A. R. Rehman too much. Now that I have listened to the musical similarities (more on the new album) and seen how inspired he seems to be, the mention is less cringeworthy. In fact, his ability to break down A. R. Rehman seems to make his compositions as strong and as inspired as they are. I found out that he has worked with him. In 2000, he went to USA and he met his 'Guru', A. R. Rahman. He had to sweet talk and beg his way into an audience.
Apparently, Rehman liked his voice a lot and offered him to sing on "Shakalaka Baby," which he did. I put to him the whole song is sung by a woman and the only male voice one hears is the many voices in the chorus. He stated that he sang the outro lines. He also added that recently for Bombay Dreams he was even offered to sing "Chaiya Chaiya" in English but it never came to be.
As we continued with the interview and listening to the new songs, I noted that "Mann Ja Ve" is an obvious single. It is a possible hit with obvious wave–arms–in–the–air moments. Initially, I did not like an intrusive quick chant bit in middle, but by song end I saw its commercial appeal. I suggested that he could make it the next video. Shiraz has other plans: after the last few ballad–y, earthy videos he has decided to try something more upmarket. The track of choice for this attempt is the mid–eastern tinged "Saiyyan Ve," an up–tempo song worked on with Shaani. It is catchy and has a nice beat. The video and treatment of Shiraz therein ought to be interesting. One wonders if he will do a Rahim Shah "Ishq" (a better song, unintentionally comic treatment) and make the jump to a dancing entertainer. Shiraz has already undergone an image makeover. It could have been a distraction and even had the possibility of being something worse. Yet to Shiraz's credit, he manages to pull it off convincingly: he has certainly cleaned up well. "Just being a bit more professional," he commented.
Musically, similarly, Shiraz seems to be trying to broaden himself: A little bit of club music has been attempted with a club remix of "Tak Yaara" on the album. The bhangra version for the same is, however, better. Perhaps there is a lesson there: that he is not as yet convincing outside melodic and bhangra numbers. Or perhaps a little bit of perseverance shall make it all the more convincing.
Kaami, Shiraz's main guitarist is certainly going to be big. His playing is a revelation in its tastefulness and skill: it is jazzy when needed but sounds effortless and inspired at most times. His technique and more than that his expressiveness and ability to meld in distinct eastern influence as well marks him as a guitarist to watch. Baqir the other outstanding musician on album, on flutes, is consistently excellent. Most other instruments were played or sequenced by Shiraz himself.
Shiraz told me that he did music for a local telefilm by Javed Fazil. He told me that the attendant soundtrack was actually locally released recently without much ado and disappeared without note. Listening to one of the songs ("Milnay Ko"), one thought it did not merit this fate. In fact, two of the songs from the soundtrack, both duets, one with Shabnam Majeed ("Milnay Ko") and one with Fariha Parvez ("Pyaar Ka Din") have found their way onto "Jhuki Jhuki." Since male-female duets are so much of a rarity in the desi pop scene, these two would have been all the more welcome for simply being duets. But beyond that, "Milney Ko" is a fairly nice song.
"Pyaar Ka Din," on the other hand, is completely different: it is a movie song apparently set on a Valentine's Day celebration between a hero and heroine. It starts bluesily with blues based torch singing and attendant sax riffs, but then it turns into something beyond belief. The chorus switches to English with Fareeha and Shiraz drawling: "It's Valentine's Daaaaayyyy, Lovers Daaaay," badly enough to curdle blood. I wondered why Shiraz put it on the album (probably as filler). I also wondered that while Lollywood could do a lot worse than coming knocking at his door – his music certainly has a lot of cinematic possibilities – is that a fate we want to wish upon Shiraz Uppal?
In the middle of the patriotic "Hum Charon Humdum," when some lines concerning shahadat came up, he paused to mention "My father was a shaheed so these lines affect me more." His quiet earnestness made it an uneasy moment. Like you feel when someone you don't know that well tells you something really personal. "Erm. He was in the services?" I asked."Yes. He died in an air crash ferrying Shahbaz Sharif. It happened nearby." Shiraz's lack of airs all the way through the interview was most impressive.
He is by most accounts one of the nicest persons one will meet in the business. He certainly gives off that vibe, more of a family man and calmer than most stars or want–to–be–stars. That coupled with another one of his true assets, his voice, make him all the more compelling. His voice is one of the nicest around. It is not as explosive (Ali Azmat) or as skilled (Shafqat Amanat Ali) as many others, but there is something about its timbre that is appealing. His is one of the rarer voices which are more appealing when less active. For example in the verses to "Jhuki Jhuki," he just sounds better than most singers by not doing a lot. In the choruses once the singing is more active and vigorous the voice loses its appeal somewhat.
Contrary to someone like Atif or Ali Noor whose choruses are stronger, Shiraz's singing in the verses was excellent and more convincing. Nevertheless, when it all comes together for him, as it does in most songs on his new album, Shiraz Uppal is consistently excellent. Overall, the evident passion and commitment to his work is what is impressive about Shiraz. The time and effort Shiraz has invested in his music is remarkable. How far he and his compositions have developed has been a revelation. His melodies are what best recommends him and are his strength. In view of all this there is little to deny now, that Shiraz Uppal who has skirted the boundaries of the mainstream in the past is with his latest album deservedly ready to stake a claim to wider acclaim.Mohammad A. Qayyum