Saagar - Fuzon (2002)

Some time ago I came across a person who after hearing Fuzon's debut track "Ankhon Ke Saagar" on Satellite TV was so desperate to get an audio copy of it that she copied it off television. And then she made more copies of the song to fill a D-90 cassette and played the song over and over again. Ninety minutes of the same song played relentlessly. I thought her a little nuts to go so overboard and such junoonis often put one off the music they so fanatically praise (except when one is the fanatic: have you heard the new Andrew W K record? Awesome.). Yet after listening to "Ankhon Ke Saagar", I found its quality undeniable. The fanatic had said the music was timeless and the ache in the voice of the singer was heart-rending. She claimed that for listeners weaned on less emotive voices like Hadiqa's and Junaid Jamshed's, the warmth and expressiveness of Shafqat's voice will be a revelation. She was right.

All that thereafter remained to be seen was could the Fuzon boys manage to maintain this level of excellence over a full album.

One need not have worried; "Saagar", Fuzon's debut album is excellent. It is compositionally catchy, vocally soulful and musically fresh. Overall, it is a work of gifted musicians at the top of their game. Shallum Xavier (guitars) and Immu (keyboards) provide the sterling music and Shafqat Amanat Ali, scion (7th generation) of the renowned "Patyala Gharana" (Amanat Ali family), provides the divine voice.

The scheme for the music on the album is clear: As the band's name suggests this album deals with the fusion of various diverse musical elements. The band itself attempted to describe its constituents as 'Western U2 style pop with Eastern classical vocals.'

Shallum's guitars with loads of delay effects provide the U2 element in the mix, but Immu's keyboards actually take the sound in another direction. The soundscapes Fuzon creates are in fact different from the ones constructed by Eno/Lanois/Flood with Edge for U2 with the addition of the keyboards. Locally, the Mekaal Hassan Band (MHB) have already done what Fuzon attempt here, to use Eastern classical vocal in a Western music context, but Fuzon better them by keeping their creations accessible. Fuzon's remarkable album is not only fresh but is also accessible; the MHB album unfortunately has been under works for ages and his songs have never been as accessible. Mekaal may say that commercialism is a base trait and so he does not aspire to it (wonder what about his appearance on the Pepsi battle of the Bands, then?) but that is another debate. One thing is for certain: fusion music is rarely as accessible or fun as on "Saagar".

Track after track is spectacular and is loaded with fresh musical ideas: "Tere Bina" starts with breezy sounding guitars and one expects it to be a little pop confection. But then Shafqat's soulful singing comes in to give it depth. Halfway into the song, it goes into chant-along choruses and then moves into full blooded gospel. A resounding song. "Madhbanti" starts with tinkling pianos and then gets really heavy with heavy metal guitars, throbbing bass and high octane vocals. The joy in "Deewane" is infectious. "Malhaar" is explosive and shows off the musical chops of the musicians. "Madhbanti" shows off the beauty in Shafqat's voice. It is a high point of the album (on par with "Ankhon ke Saagar") as it is sparely orchestrated and lets the music breathe a lot more than other songs. It is all the more affective and moving as a consequence of this.

Some of the numbers on the album however do not work all that well. Curiously, it is the more commercial numbers that rankle and not the more experimental ones. "Ankhian", a Punjabi number (by the numbers) is not convincing enough. It, however, obviously works for the band as it, according to Shafqat, is going to be the next single with a video being done by Jami. The choice is understandable as the song is active and powerful. Its energy recommends it but next to the other more soulful and stately numbers on the album it pales by comparison.

"Pyar Na Raha" is not ambient, but rock/pop and detrimentally strays away from the band's template. For that reason it is possibly the weakest track on offer. "Doorian" shows the limits of Shafqat's vocals. The vocals sound a little forced all throughout and one keeps waiting for Shafqat to shift to a lower register.

All the songs, even the lesser ones, show that this is a band that knows their music. Shallum has played with the cream of Pakistani music (lately with Najam Shiraz) and along with Immu on keyboards is considered one of the premier musicians in the country. Shafqat came into Fuzon almost by accident as he explained recently. Apparently he was in Karachi working on a solo album: while trying to work in a pop direction, he found that he himself was not satisfied with the results. Immu, in whose studio he was recording, also seemed to agree with him. Once the two got talking, they found common ground and Immu told Shafqat of the duo he was thinking of forming with Shallum. Lo and behold, Shafqat was roped into Fuzon and the first song they wrote was "Ankhon ke Saagar". The rest is history. The song was a massive hit and thereafter things quickly fell into place. Within a year of their formation the album was ready.

The synergy that arises out of these like-minded advanced musicians clearly shows up in the music. However, to their credit, Fuzon do not limit their songs to just advanced self-indulgent instrumental interaction and key and time signature changes a la the Mekaal Hassan Band. Shallum and Immu's solo spots are restrained and function to serve the song. To their credit, they also manage to stop short of being cynically calculated and commercial. Writing accessible songs seems to have been a consideration for Fuzon and they quite achieve their aim with integrity intact.

While fusion generally tends to be inaccessible, there is a huge commercial cross-over appeal to Fuzon's music. Even their take on ragas while informed makes them accessible to a whole new generation weaned on pop-music. "Khamaj" is based around Raag Khamaj, "Malhaar" is in Malhaar, etc. All of this is there for the connosieurs to enjoy. But one can still move along to these songs without any knowledge of desi classical music and enjoy the rhythm and the beat.

The production on the album as expected is spectacular. It is crisp, clean and dynamically spacious. Immu and Shallum have mastered the art of studio and Immu in particular deserves credit for it as the album was recorded at his studio. Furthermore, it appears that most of the songs were recorded live and that gives quite a coherent and organic sound to the album. The only thing that bothered me on the production end was that the drums sounded a tad too synthetic.

The one significant flaw in the album lies in the lyrics. As with most Pakistani albums, the lyrics are commonplace. It is only through reiteration and passionate singing by Shafqat that these lyrics rise past passable. The conviction, fire and passion in the singing are the songs' saving grace, sort of the way Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan used to be able to breathe life into deadweight words. Consider the words to Fuzon's "Nadania": 'Na kar nadaniyaan/ hum pe na kar tu mehrbaniyaan/ In main kuch dum nahin/ hum ne suni hain yeh kahaniyaan.'

After such amateurish nursery rhyming, I was waiting for a 'janiyaan' and 'haiwaaniyan' in there too. Thankfully they did not arrive. They did however sing of 'Raaste pyaar ke' and rhymed it with 'Chalna hai sub kuch haar ke.' After album upon album of kid rhymes one wonders when our singers will learn?

Shafqat seems cultured enough to know of Ghalib and other writers of note. "Nadania" is a whole long way down from that and should not have found its way lyrically onto the album. The titles of the songs alone indicate their by and large lyrically uninspired nature. "Ankhon ke Saagar", "Tere Bina", "Doorian", "Pyar Na Raha", "Deewane", Nadania", "Ankhian", "Baatain", etc. There has to be more to women and music than ankhein (three times) and zulfain. I know there is; most Pakistani artists [sic] don't seem to. On this count, Fuzon too is limited.

John Mall helped out on "Pyar Na Raha". The song as with most of his work is novel but still retains an awkward edge. One appreciates that he is trying to say something new: that the love and lovers one finds these days are far removed from the legendary ones of the past. But listen to the song and one finds the lyrical expression awkward, sort of the way another one of his songs "Achay Dost" on Hadiqa's "Rung" was fresh, but a bit awkward sounding in Urdu. By being a little more selective with their lyrics, Fuzon can be truly great. As things stand they get a lot closer to greatness than most.

Having said that one must also note that if they are really great, it certainly does not show from the packaging of the album. Admittedly, high flowing words are used by Ali Tim on the album sleeve to pat them on the back, but often the text lapses with errors into self-parody. Consider the text: Shafqat is referred to as '...a studio artist of first water' (order?); It is said that Shafqat's 'commitment to pop is classical-pop at its dreamiest' and he 'tempts the aural senses to linger.' Immu is 'a charismatic keyboard exponent' whose 'immaculate and unparalleled keyboard manouevres... impart euphoric essence to this 24 karat album.' Ali Tim describes the album as a 'dissaying [sic] array of sound,' (dizzying?) of 'eleven richly melodic tracks (which) envelope diverse stories.' I have liked most of Ali Tim's work in the past, but he is clearly not on the ball here. Moreover, if the band expect to go international, as clearly mentioned by Shafqat recently, the presentation of the album needs to be improved. Karavan have set the high-mark for presentation with a lavish booklet; Fuzon needed to match the same.

The lack of a lyrics sheet is also a bother. I asked Shafqat about it and he explained that people had started pirating their songs so much that they had to rush production and ended up not waiting for a proper booklet to be put together. This is hardly a convincing enough reason as the band took a year to write the songs. It is only that value for money is not given to the punter purchasing the album on this account. Speaking of value for money, it is also unfortunate that the band choose to place another not-too-different version of "Ankhon Ke Saagar" (guitar mix) on the album. While the said song may be the centerpiece of the album, the song is used for the second time as nothing more than a filler.

These few reservations notwithstanding, this album is unreservedly recommended. Do not be put off by the hype and mad fans. This album has great crossover appeal and may well make Fuzon international. For now, consider them the best upcoming band around and listen in.

Mohammad A. Qayyum
The News International, Pakistan