KARACHI: One cannot disregard the view that Coke Studio more than anything else, is an accumulation of spectacles. Fashionably dressed artists wearing sunglasses indoors, top-of-the-line instruments, suave hairdos, superhero t-shirts, all smiles; it is the arguably the best visual and aural representation of the troubled world of Pakistani music.
However, that is not all there is to this show, which has become so ingrained in our popular culture. Many of those who make its product sound so rich are hardly ever noticed. The spotlight seldom shines on them as they toil in the darkness, unhonoured and unsung. Violin maestro Javed Iqbal, or Uncle Jay, is one such individual.
When Rohail Hyatt was done experimenting with the first-ever season, the response gave him confidence to handpick more people for the next edition. In his youth he had seen Iqbal play live with Nayyara Noor. He called him up and the convincing hardly took any time. Seven years later, apart from the soft drink itself, Iqbal has been the show’s only constant.
If you go around asking for Uncle Jay at Radio Pakistan’s Lahore station, his second home, you will meet with a bemused response. In his city of birth, the country’s top violinist is called Javed Lovely by his friends. “These Coke Studio kids in Karachi gave me this name. They started calling me Uncle Jay and the name just stuck,” he told The Express Tribune.
Iqbal was born to Mehr Din, a singer from the Rubabi gharana who was famously called Bhai Chela Patialay Wala. The gharana has produced music directors such as Lata Mangeshkar’s mentor Master Ghulam Haider, Rasheed Attre, A Hameed and Amjad Bobby.
By the time Iqbal was seven, he had made up his mind to learn this instrument whose silky tone layered the music blaring from his father’s radio. Himself a proponent of Eastern classical, Mehr Din did not mind his son’s choice. He was okay, as long as the instrument produced music. “He bought me my first violin when I was seven. It costed him Rs35,” Iqbal recollected.
With no one to formally instruct him with possibly one of the most difficult instruments to master, Iqbal would record Mozart and Beethoven and play them again and again, breaking down the symphonies and taking notes using a few guide books.
“I would then play and replay them myself. It takes at least eight to nine years to understand the language your instrument communicates in. Like the sarod and sarangi, a violin also does not have a fretted neck, adding to the difficulty,” he added.
In his own words, he was never an outgoing boy. “I had no friends. All I had in this world was the violin my father had bought me,” he said. As a late teen, Iqbal practiced under the tutelage of Ustad Talib Hussain and Ustad Jafar.
When Mehr Din retired from Radio Pakistan, he was not entitled to a pension. “They had not started paying pensions to musicians back then,” Iqbal said. The vocalist had married twice; Iqbal is second in the line of four brothers and three sisters from his second wife. Mehr Din’s eldest son, a cello player, had left for France, only to return home in a coffin.
The young Iqbal was now responsible for running the household. “I used to sell pethay ke laddu at Masti Gate during the day. That would give me 8 anna. In the evening, I would work at a workshop making mehndi cones and save another 8 anna.” After his one-rupee-a-day work schedule, Iqbal would practice in the night.
“My father had placed a clay pot that would collect dew drops. He would get me to play difficult compositions that had a lot of chord shifting again and again and then make me dip my fingers in that ice cold water,” Iqbal said.
At that time, Pakistani film music composers had a predilection for orchestras. “I think the year was 1974 when I played at EMI’s office. Music directors had orchestral bands called A, B, C and D. I was selected to play with them.”
This gave Iqbal a chance to play with top directors such as Nisar Bazmi and Sohail Rana. “These two and their Indian counterpart RD Burman … they were the one who started using Eastern and Western tinges of the same colour.”
In 1984, radio announced a vacancy and 14 violinists, including Iqbal, turned up for the audition. Seeing so many others, his hopes had already dampened. “The film industry was doing very badly so those who used to play for different music directors, arrived to test their luck.”
Radio Pakistan director general, renowned broadcaster Saleem Gillani, was in attendance. Eighth to play that day, he was soon informed about his selection. “I have been part of this institution ever since.” Apart from playing the violin, he has also been arranging music for radio.
The receding hairline and ageing shoulders clearly tell he is to retire soon. “Everything that I have today is because of Radio Pakistan,” the Grade-19 officer said.
The broken violin
The 35-rupee violin accompanied him everywhere. With the passing years, wear and tear was only natural. “Once I was visiting my murshid (guide) who spotted my violin and asked one of his followers in Germany to send one immediately.”
Strange it might sound, Iqbal doesn’t remember buying a violin for himself. “So I began using that one. I loved it a lot.” This is the same instrument he used for most of the tracks from the Hyatt era of Coke Studio.
During one of the practice sessions, Hyatt had mistakenly dropped on the floor the violin which was placed on a sofa. The damage wasn’t a lot but it embarrassed the producer so much that he immediately ordered one from the US. “When the recordings ended, he asked me to keep it. Personally, I would have never been able to buy this electric violin that costs around 3-4 lacs,” he mentioned.
After the departure of Hyatt, whom Iqbal holds in high regard, the violinist’s role changed. Bilal Maqsood and Faisal Kapadia were in favour of a more orchestral sound. Iqbal obliged. Today he manages the strings section, writes its music and leads it.
When asked to identify any differences in the approach of Hyatt and Strings, Iqbal was reluctant. “Both are great. I am an artist. I will work for anyone who hires me,” he justified.
To the songwriting process at Coke Studio, Iqbal’s input is integral. “I am treated with a lot of respect. They consult with me and I correct them where necessary. Once my bits are finalised, I write them down,” he said. “When Atif was making this song, he said, ‘Uncle can you give me a heartwarming intro?’. When Sajjad Ali was doing Kirkir Kirkir, he asked me play something funky and I did.”
Asked how long will Coke Studio remain relevant, Iqbal quickly said, “For as long as it runs. It combines Eastern and Western music beautifully. Its sound is both classical and modern. People will always appreciate it.”
Over the years, Iqbal has also accompanied people such as Noor, Ghulam Ali Khan, Tina Sani and countless others on stage. As someone who has played alongside two different generations of Pakistani singers and musicians, he can spot what sets the two apart.
“You have to understand that the basic is all classical. A trained singer will have no difficulty in singing what an untrained one would.” In his view, artists such as Atif Aslam and Ali Zafar are anomalies. “They are gifted in a way many are not,” he said.