Profile: Omran Shafique

Water, the eternal shape shifter; it can, with a powerful surge submerge millions and carry people along with its current to different destinations. It can pour down a parched throat taking the shape of the dry walls, and with its cool encompassing hand satisfy the tetchiest person. Omran Shafique is the shape-shifter. He embodies the characteristic of water that, with each person, project and composition, his element manifests with a different shade.

He is the fluid that binds and separates the oil from the water and emerges with one band that produces two different sounds. If Omran is Mauj and plays for Co-VEN and the Co-VEN boys play in Mauj, then where do they draw the line or is a line too restrictive a form to apply to something as transient as music? It seems restrictions are not something that imbues Omran’s philosophy for music. Before delving further into Omran, however, the Co-VEN and Mauj confusion should be put to rest.

Mauj originated in Houston with Omran and Mohson Atif (bassist) in 2000. When they transported the initial sound to Pakistan and piqued Babar Sheikh’s interest in creating a video, their plan became to record an entire album and eventually, shift to Pakistan. In the summer of 2004 when the video of "Khushfehmi" was released, the feedback convinced Omran that they should record an entire album, and then move to Pakistan.

Parallel to Mauj, Omran had been in touch with the Co-VEN band members and occasionally the boys would rendezvous to make music while they were out of Pakistan pursuing different degrees. When Hamza Jafri, the lead singer of Co-VEN suggested that Omran’s move to Pakistan would be timely as all of the Co-VEN boys were also returning, Omran decided to follow their lead and returned to Pakistan approximately a year back. Atif decided it would be difficult to leave his work and shift with his family to Pakistan. With Atif not returning and Dennis Harvey, the drummer permanently in America, Mauj had been shaved down to literally the bare essentials: Omran.

According to Omran, at this crossroad it only made sense to incorporate the Co-VEN musicians into Mauj as he was already spending hours working with them. Since the musicians were not limited by lack of skill or versatility they decided to work on both bands simultaneously.

Omran catapults through his music career with the multipurpose energy that creativity requires. Co-VEN and Mauj have two very distinct sounds and prior to these bands Omran worked simultaneously with other very diverse sounds. His first week into university in College Station, Texas, Omran employed his own method of settling in: with the purchase of his own guitar and an amplifier. The second most obvious step was to join a band — which he did. He claims that at each concert it would rain so badly that the band originally called Bob (because the band members couldn’t come up with a proper name), changed its name to Drench. A progressive-rock band, Omran still feels that these musicians were “amazingly talented and it would still be hard to keep up with them,” however, progressive-rock was a genre that Omran felt he wasn’t cut out for even though he recorded an album with them. At the same time, while still in Houston, Omran was with a rock band by the name of OPRE. With sequenced drums and bass, this band did not do well with their album and Omran walked out with Atif, who was their bassist in the last six months, and came up with Mauj.

While the Mauj album was being recorded, the producer Taha Malik, also based in the U.S., asked Omran if there was any music that he had created but was not using for any other project — Omran did. Taha liked what he heard and henceforth Omran was a part of Koastal, Taha’s hip hop project.

From progressive rock to desi music to hip hop requires great shifts in attention, direction of energy and personal flow. The recurrent theme of water, from Drench, to Mauj (waves) to Koastal, underlines Omran’s seemingly innate ability to metamorphose his form for the art — the shape shifter that waves his magical guitar and emerges anew.

This amorphous quality seems to be inherent for Omran who picked up on how music worked just by listening to it and watching his eldest brother Hisham play. Omran at 33 is 11 years younger than him. He says since he was the youngest he would only be allowed to sit silently while his elder brothers would play or practise, never actually allowed to touch the instruments. And like all younger siblings, he took the opportunity when he thought his brother was asleep. Once, Omran fiddled with the acoustic guitar only to find out his brother was awake enough to issue an order: either learn how to play or never touch the guitar again. Obviously considering the wide variety of music Omran masters, we know which way the brother’s verdict fell.

Considering Guns N’Roses to be a seminal band, and listening to one brother cover Indian songs and the legendary Shaiki, and another brother’s Sex Pistols and Black Sabbath collections, Omran decidedly pays homage to the philosophy of ‘leave no stone unturned’. Performing live with Pakistani rock-icon Ali Azmat, on his previous album "Social Circus", Omran dabbled with effects on his guitar whereas he considers himself a plug-and-play musician. Playing on Ali’s new album "Klashinfolk" with drumming-maestro Gumby and veteran bassist Manoo, has been a new high for Omran. The creative process with Ali was so organic and involving all that he feels Ali’s status as a rock-star is more than deserving. The new album was recorded with Mekaal Hasan in Digital Fidelity Studios, Lahore.

Mekaal Hasan, himself a very controversial figure in the contemporary music industry, is always hard to comment on. Omran’s experience with Mekaal, however, candidly brings forth what most people forget to mention while claiming accolades for albums that he has produced. “Working with Mekaal in the studio can be stressful even painful”, he says, “however, the end result is always something great”. Appreciating Mekaal’s professional attitude, he comments that musicians who want to work with Mekaal will now do their homework before going in. In Omran’s words Mekaal has “forced people to raise their game” which is a good thing for Pakistan.

The beauty of the energy that music creates is that it is boundless. As Omran said, “It’s the same seven scale that each musician picks out notes from”. Commenting on the global debate of inspiration crossing over to accused plagiarism, Omran thinks when most musicians play a four by four beat it is possible for them to run into familiar compositions. Considering the wide variety of music Omran plays and the numerous influences he had growing up with his brothers, it seems he underplays the rip-off phenomenon compared to his Pakistani contemporaries as his music seems to have no glaring similarities to those he considers his influences or icons.

Omran has worked hard to reach this point in life. As a left-handed guitarist, it took him years to master the right-handed guitar, which he knew would be a bigger advantage in a primarily right-handed world! He has given years of consistency to reach this point of seemingly effortless playing while fluidly moving in between different projects. Now he wants to stay in Pakistan so that he can be a part of the change: the rush of fresh water that flushes out the dead weight and gives life to new forms.

Halima Mansoor
September, 2007
Dawn, Pakistan