Years have passed since their iconic debut album rocked staid and straight-laced Pakistan. Now the Vital Signs are back with an offering for our times.
On the 14th of August 1987, from among a people exhausted by an oppressive and stifling dictatorship, rose four young men with one simple song that revitalised the dwindling hopes of a nation. Hailed as the ‘second national anthem’, Dil Dil Pakistan (DDP) gave the nation a new lease of life. While it was that very dictatorship that gave DDP unprecedented airtime, a year later the long-awaited spring of democracy followed. Pakistan’s vital signs were stabilised. Or so it seemed.
Twenty-five years later, those vital signs have virtually flat-lined. Democratically ruled yet lacking peace, security and justice, the nation has been pushed well past the brink of despair.
At this juncture, when we collectively stare into the abyss, Naya Pakistan, it seems, was destined to happen. It began as a casual reunion of old friends at Shahi Hasan’s studio, a bit of jamming over Salman Ahmed’s idea for this song, a common cause, a shared vision, and voila! The four prodigal members of the legendary pop musical band Vital Signs decided some Vital Junoon was required to give the nation hope through the medium they knew best — music. Thus was born Naya Pakistan — Inshallah.
Within 2 hours of its release on February 2013, it had clocked sixty thousand unique hit on the music sharing website Soundcloud. In twenty-four hours it had been googled 2.5 million times, with thousands sharing it on Facebook and Twitter. Despite having no Bollywood movie, TV channel or corporate sponsorship to support it, Naya Pakistan went viral in the true sense of the word.
Enthusiastic fans may call it the new national anthem, but Naya Pakistan is no Pak Sar Zameen, and it’s no DDP either. The latter is almost a part of Pakistani folklore, a timeless message to be handed down generation after generation.
Naya Pakistan is a metaphor for unity. In this polarised country, acceptance and tolerance for viewpoints other than one’s own is rare. At this point, these men have, while respecting each other’s values but maintaining their own, become part of a joint venture for a common cause. If they could peacefully set aside their ideological differences and work around them to unite for a common cause, why can’t the nation do the same? This underlying message is more powerful and important than the medium used to convey it.
The four men are no longer the young and the restless. Much has happened and much has changed. They have evolved. Their once youthful faces are now marked by laugh lines and crow’s feet. Their impulsiveness has been replaced by thoughtfulness. They have come of age.
But a few things have, luckily, remained the same. Like their idealism. Like their hope for better days for Pakistan. Like their sincerity and candidness.
Most importantly, their bond of friendship has not changed. As they sit together and share jokes about the days gone by, it’s clear that they are not mere celebrities or former band mates, but friends.
Here they talk about then and now, about the purana and naya Pakistan. And how they still believe that Aitebaar bhi aa hi jayega, chalo to sahee.
Salman Ahmed : In First Person
Photo: Chris Ramirez
“It was the spring of 1988. I was a medical student whose only dream was playing cricket for Pakistan. Our cricket team’s success was the only happiness I felt during General Zia’s oppressive military dictatorship. People back then mainly listened to pirated western songs or Bollywood music, and thought Pakistani music was uncool. I was made fun of for following my junoon of music and giving up a serious and noble profession like medicine.
Then Dil Dil happened. The success of Vital Signs coincided with a spectacular cultural and political revolution in the country. Democracy returned as a young 35 year old woman, Benazir Bhutto, became prime minister while Dil Dil Pakistan became the soundtrack to change.
If I compare Pakistan yesterday and today, this is what I see: The Pakistan of today has a robust, noisy press and a vibrant social media; back then, we only had a bureaucratic PTV and Radio Pakistan. Today, we have an Oscar winning woman; back then our women only dreamt of winning. Back then we had a corrupt, incompetent dictatorship, while today we have a corrupt, incompetent democracy. Back then, Nawaz Sharif was a chief minister who aspired to become a cricketer. Today a cricketer, Imran Khan, has the chance of becoming a prime minister. The Pakistan of today is attacked by killer US drones and dengue fever; back then there were Soviet Kalashnikovs & Vital-mania.
A lot has happened since then. My wife Samina and I are building model villages in Pakistan. I’ve been a UN goodwill ambassador for 10 years. I have had the good fortune to have recorded with international artists such as Peter Gabriel and Melissa Etheridge and have performed at the Nobel peace prize ceremony. I am also a music professor at Queens College in NY.
The world has not been able to rob me of my idealism. I am motivated to help bring change to Pakistan in the fields of culture, education, health and diplomacy. Pakistan’s wealth is its youth and women. I have had the support of three very strong women in my life: my grandmother Aziza, my mother Shahine and my wife Samina.
It is an amazing feeling recording this song with my four friends, almost as if the Divine power of “Kun Fa Ya Kun” brought us together. God is Great. He has shown me that no amount of money, fame or power can equal the blessing of having great friends.
It’s always darkest just before dawn. Hope is a game changer and this song provides hope for a revolutionary change. The new generation is starving for peace, love and happiness. I have deep faith that with sincere, honest leadership, Pakistan will develop into a first world nation in my life time and our children will see a Naya Pakistan, Inshallah!”
Junaid Jamshed : The more things change
Photo: Aania Shah
A conversation with Junaid Jamshed may be many things, but it’s never boring. The formerVital Signs frontman remains a charmer despite the obvious changes he has gone through. JJ, as he is popularly known, is easy to talk to and seems to be at peace despite an inner struggle.
Yet, beneath the casual demeanour, Junaid is guarded around the media. Hawk-like, we wait for him to slip or err, and scrutinize everything right from his family life and business to his inner dilemmas. Of all the former band mates his transformation has been the most sweeping, and the one most people still can’t seem to come to grips with. “He was ours! Such a good-looking man! Such a soulful voice! Why can’t he be the person he was?” This is a common refrain from many of his long-time fans, but Junaid feels he is still the same person, as are Shahi, Salman or Nusrat. But he admits his focus and lifestyle have changed. “Meri zindigi abb woh naheen rahi,” he says.
While he is a part of this venture, he just sung a couple of lines at the beginning of the song without any musical accompaniments. That’s a point he would not compromise on, and made his feeling clear politely but firmly. As Salman said in a recent interview, “Junaid did not break his vow [to not get back into music]”. Yet, as critics of the song also agree, his vocals set the pace and are, perhaps, the best part of Naya Pakistan, in addition to Salman’s electrifying guitar solo.
“Why do I get the feeling that people want me to start singing again?” is Junaid’s question, one that has an obvious answer. However, his decision of renouncing music is almost a decade old and still remains strong.
He chuckles with Shahi the way only old friends can, and Junaid, in that moment, seems to have turned the clock back two decades. “We were all yaars. We still are”
“Junaid is the most level headed out of all of us,” says Shahi. But Junaid interjects, saying, “Shahi is the coolest. He’s the anchor of the band. I am not as moody but I am impulsive.”
He goes on to say, “I miss the thumbs up from Rohail and Shahi when I record now. I crave their feedback. We were friends first and band mates later. That’s why, even when we stopped making music together, the friendship never ended.” He expresses his wish that Rohail could have been part of the project too. He and Shahi both confirm that this song was an unplanned venture, and Coke Studio keeps Rohail very busy.
When it comes to Pakistan, his optimism is tempered by realism. “Things will get better for Pakistan. But if each one us doesn’t do our bit, it’s not just the country that will suffer … the ‘I’, the individual, will suffer. We have to go beyond the psyche of selfishness and narcissism and must think of collective benefit. We have gotten so much from this country. It is time to give back.”
Shahzad Hasan : People use Inshallah for all the wrong purposes. This song uses it for the right ones.
Photo: Aania Shah
The startling green eyes, the signature cap perched on his head, the soft voice. Shahzad Hasan aka Shahi takes time to warm up. But once he does, he talks passionately, and makes perfect sense.
“We didn’t do this song for personal fame. We did this because as educated Pakistanis it’s our responsibility to spread positivity,” he says. “My, Rohail and Junaid’s fathers are from the armed forces. Love for this country is instilled in us. My father fought two wars and was injured in them. But it’s sad that as a nation, we no longer feel that Pakistanis are a family and there is a sense of disconnect. We do not know our own neighbours. It’s time to stop criticising each other. Each Pakistani is part of a larger machine … each one of us is important.”
Shahi always stays in the background. “Because I love what I do. Junaid was always the front man. And I loved his being the front man because he was best suited for it. There was no jealousy because when you love somebody, you are only happy when that person is in the front,” says the diehard friend.
”We, the Vital Signs, never wanted to be in the limelight without each other. I think Allah gave us that success because we were not selfish,” says Shahi and goes on to praise Junaid in that same unselfish spirit. “They say a singer is at his best as he ages. Junaid’s voice has a lot more body now. He sang in an era when voices could not be technically altered in a studio, and he was still very good,” comments Shahi.
A patriot to the core, Shahi feels that, “Pakistan ka wohi ho ga jo hum is ka karain gay. It’s time to give back to the country. This country has given me an identity. Sadly, an entire generation of children growing up in affluent backgrounds and elite schools are growing up with an inferiority complex, thinking that our country is less than others. The country is a mess? Clean it up!”
Nusrat Hussain : Flight to a better Pakistan
Photo: Aania Shah
For high-flying Nusrat Hussain, music isn’t just a medium, it’s a lifelong passion. “Music is not a passing phase for me. I can never be detached from it.”
This airline pilot has to juggle his two loves: music and flying, while also working on his second album. His first album, ‘Amrit’, was released in early 1990s.
“I have been working on my album ‘Kaho’ all this time. I had gone to Shahi to get some final work done on it, and ended up doing Naya Pakistan!” says Nusrat who has worked as a pilot for more than 20 years and is currently based in the Middle East.
“It felt as if we were never away for this long after all; such has been our bond that it felt like coming home,” he says.
An idealist like his friends, Nusrat echoes Salman’s sentiments as he compares the Pakistan of yesterday and today: “Pakistan was under a morbid dictatorship with little freedom of expression. Now we are free but facing a multitude of other problems like terrorism, corruption, sectarianism, the energy crisis, and inflation,” he says. “And last but not the least, brain drain,” he adds, commenting on the ongoing exodus that is the direct result of the chaos prevailing in Pakistan.
“I have always been politically aware and had the desire to bring about a change in society through my music,” says the ex-Vital Signs key board player-cum-guitarist-cum vocalist.
“I dream of a better world … a better Pakistan. Sadly, at times, like everyone else, I feel I am losing hope. With time, I have grown more practical and pragmatic, but the response that this song has generated shows how desperately we need a change in Pakistan,” ” But that has not taken away his desire to give back to Pakistan. “I am even more geared up to do something for my country.”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, March 10th, 2013.
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