Life, the universe and Rohail Hyatt

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(Published in Aurora, September-October 2009 issue)

By Jahanzaib Haque

Where to begin talking about Pakistan’s leading music producer, Rohail Hyatt?

Rohail Hyatt

From pop star fame in Vital Signs, to one-time CEO of Pyramid Productions; from writing the musical score for Shoaib Mansoor’s film Khuda Ke Liye, to producing names like Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and of course, creating the musical phenomenon that is Coke Studio; Hyatt is an enigma – and I am duly warned that he is ‘media shy’.

But as I sit back in Hyatt’s studio surrounded by flat screen monitors, recording equipment, musical instruments and organic trinkets, I am greeted with warmth, courtesy and the odd sensation of visiting an old friend.

I cannot help asking Hyatt the clichéd stuff first – I want to know all about Vital Signs.

“In terms of exposure, I owe everything to Vital Signs,” says Hyatt.

“Signs wasn’t just a musical venture for me; it was also a business venture. I was sort of the manager because unlike the others, I had kids and someone had to take responsibility! That experience has since taught me to keep an eye on business.”

Marriage to his wife Umber (his “unsung hero”) and dropping out of high school to pursue a musical career meant having to learn how to balance creative aspirations with life’s everyday realities from an early age. However, when it comes to youthful rebellion, Hyatt was second to none:

“I hated academics. I was an absolute drop out. The institution and the methodology totally strip you of creative thinking. They don’t want to provoke thought, and if you question them, they fail you. I completely rebelled against that.”

However, the skyrocketing success of Vital Signs left the young rebel struggling.

“I should have been the last person to be associated with fame… I needed privacy back in my life and I consciously try to stay away from fame.”

It is here that Hyatt reveals his gripe with the media. Having been at the receiving end of heavy criticism for Vital Signs’ fourth album and seen elements of his personal life enter the limelight, Hyatt found himself demoralised to the point of abandoning the project.

“People should understand the power of the pen. You can destroy careers permanently just by using it.”

Falling off the musical bandwagon, Hyatt then set up Pyramid Productions and for a number of years inhabited a world of, “boardrooms, corporate lifestyles and landing the next client.”

While such an experience gave Hyatt a keen understanding of advertising, a restless period of soul searching saw him reject the philosophy of monetary gain in order to pursue music once more – despite the high risk of failure.

It is here that the tragic state of Pakistan’s artists and the music industry at large truly hits home. With a dearth of record labels and massive music piracy mafias, Hyatt sees little scope for struggling musicians:

“Apart from the few top notch acts who sign up with the major brands, entry level artists are all surviving on their parents. There aren’t even concerts anymore. How are these guys going to go to earn anything?”

Refusing to call Pakistan’s music scene a real industry, Hyatt believes positive steps can either be implemented at the top (including establishing intellectual property rights, proper contracts, more record labels, government controls over piracy, etc.) or through grassroots level investment.

But who is going to provide money to the starving artists at the bottom? Would a brand or a record label be interested in investing in a nobody? Hyatt shakes his head:

“Brands understandably want to exploit music for marketing purposes, but their strategy of milking the top leaves a hollow substance below. They fail to understand that if they feed something, five to 10 years down the line they can milk it in a much bigger way.”

This discussion about grassroots change in music leads us to Coke Studio. Hyatt applauds Coca-Cola’s willingness to take a risk and avoid clichéd formulas (it might have been a game show!) in order to make these free-for-all jam sessions a hit.

Coke Studio is a natural experience. It is not contrived. In the studio, it’s the same experience for the tea boy as it is for the top acts. All inhibitions are dropped,” says Hyatt, by way of explaining Coke Studio’s mass appeal.

“The idea is to go back to our roots. Our heritage goes back thousands of years, but when you ask people about our culture, for some it stops at 1947; for some the goras destroyed it; for others there was no culture before the Muslim invasion. Actually, we come from a place where music was a language before the spoken word came into being and there is a hint of this in Coke Studio, and the public is taking to it.”

Hyatt’s eyes light up as he narrates his ambitious (if not impossible) hopes and dreams for the project.

“I want to destroy the social divides within our society through music. To have in the same house the parents, the children and the servants enjoying the same show together. How rare is that? A song from the dehat is presented in such a way that yuppie burgers are loving it. You can see that something much deeper is happening.”

I ask Hyatt if he sees himself doing similar projects 10 years down the line. He laughs and says no, probably not. He is hoping to “unlearn” and journey towards a “finer tuning”, and he believes the influence of eastern classical music will take him forward musically and spiritually.

“The more tuned you are, the greater the spiritual journey… I’m off my journey right now (due to Coke Studio) because you have to come down and slowly work your way back up if you want to take others with you.”

As I grapple with the concept of music driving spirituality, I ask Hyatt if this has any bearing on a future solo album.

“No one will be interested in such an album,” he replies as he tries to explain from where his creative inspiration comes.

“At the higher plane, ideas flow. It’s a lonely place which few understand and which I don’t understand myself… You are physically here but you are actually in tune with a totally different set of rules… but you can’t stay there forever, you have to come back and begin all over again.”

I find myself confused yet oddly at home in such abstractions. Perhaps this feeling is rooted in Hyatt’s ability to connect the sacred with the mundane and actually deliver tangible results in the form of his projects.

And his parting words on music leave me just as mystified and enlightened:

“We are the evolved consciousness of the Universe, and art and art form is the creative aspect of creation itself. It reveals to us the design and purpose of the Universe.”

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2 thoughts on “Life, the universe and Rohail Hyatt

    Sandeep said:
    November 26, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    I have been following Rohail’s work very avidly. I think he lives on a different planet. Heard on of his numbers from Coke Studio – Season 6 (Abhogi Kannada composition) – that’s musical integration and collaborative experimentation at its best. I am very keen to have a collection of all of Rohai’s compositions. He is a legend – God bless him!!

    Randhir Raghavan said:
    December 26, 2013 at 1:07 am

    Hi Rohail. I just heard ” Paimona” and “Manzil-e-sufi”. We wouldnt have known Zeb, Haniya or Sanam, but for you. You are doing a great job promoting the right talent. This is sheer music. Thank you….

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