“Don’t go softly into that good night / Old age should burn and rave at the end of the day.”
Pakistan has had many gifts to offer its people: supreme gift of shedding (12 hours during the monsoon season), rising economic tide and no love lost for the performing arts, among other virtues. Anyone who sought to make a living from music was alone. Now imagine the situation just 20 years ago. Before YouTube and bedroom producers and pre-Coke Studio ambitions.
Setting up a studio was even harder back then. But one man refused to pass up his talent or that of contemporaries he encountered – even today.
The man is Mekaal Hasan (of the Mekaal Hasan group) and the studio referred to is Digital Fidelity Studios. I once called it Digital Infidelity Studio as shorthand for DFS and Mekaal suggested a factual change, but not before I had a good laugh. The studio is Mekaal Hasan personified.
Apart from spearheading the legendary music group, when the chapter on contemporary Pakistani music is written, it would simply be incomplete without Mekaal Hasan’s DFS.
Why are we talking about DFS? Digital Fidelity Studios, owned by Mekaal Hasan and located at Waris Road in Lahore, caught fire after an electronic malfunction set the place on fire and reduced everything to rubble last week. The music industry, recognizing its value, has called on people to contribute to a GoFundMe campaign launched by Mekaal, with artists such as Fawad Khan and Ali Azmat rallying fans to contribute.
Pakistani music revolves around Coke Studio (a national cola-produced music platform) and other skewed releases backed by other brands, but Mekaal Hasan-owned Digital Fidelity Studios has never sought to attract cola brands. It was, however, about making a bigger and much more meaningful contribution to the music. To pay the bills, he has corporate clients. But that’s to power DFS.
The two chapters of music are as different as day and night. If Coke Studio is a platform for musicians to showcase their music to a national audience, in many ways DFS has a much more compelling story than the show.
Even comparing DFS to Coke Studio would be a great injustice since the studio came to a pre-Coke Studio era in the mid-90s.
Digital Fidelity Studios is the reason Co-VEN’s 1997 cult classic Not in Your World was born. It set the tone for what was to come. It may be easier to set up your own studio, but in the 90s, that’s not how you made records. What solo musicians lacked, we found at DFS with its regularly updated audio production tools by Mekaal Hasan. Some of this equipment is so expensive or hard to find that DFS was at the heart of Pakistan’s music industry.
When DFS was created in 1995 by Mekaal Hasan, even the producer could not have imagined the records it would produce or the artists who would pass through its doors. From the mid-90s to the 2000s, the form of Pakistani music was the resounding power of DFS as a studio and Mekaal Hasan’s ability to play a variety of roles.
CoVEN’s Not in Your World (1997) was followed by Junoon’s Parwaaz (1999 – and later, Ishq), Jadoo (2001) by Ali Haider, Abstract Point of View (2001) by Faraz Anwar, Irtiqa (2003) by Entity Paradigm [EP], Suno Ke Mei Hun Jawan (2003) by Noori, Peeli Patti Aur Raja Jani Ki Gol Duniya (2005) by Noori, Volume I & II (2007) by CoVEN, Apna Muqaam Paida Kar (2007) by Various Artists (National Sufi Council ), Boondh (2007) by Jal, Chup (2008) by Zeb and Haniya, Qawwali Volume 1 (2010) by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Let’s Pretend (2011) by Fables of Cantt. Qawwali Volume 2 (2012) by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, We Are Your Friends (2014) by Poor Rich Boy, Elham (2017) by Sounds of Kolachi and Tales from the Punjab (2020) by Shez Raja.
An anecdote that I still remember years ago was during an interview, Zeb Bangash talked about how Mekaal Hasan was the strongest force that pushed them to make the record. As Zeb told me, without the efforts of Mekaal Hasan, there would be no Chup today and maybe or not we would have had the years of Zeb and Haniya as a duo. This same duo has inspired a large number of female artists. And Mekaal did everything by pushing Zeb and Haniya to pursue their album and providing his facility to do so. Imagine no ‘Paimona’ on Coke Studio or an album called Chup?
“The scope of work ranges from live Qawalli recordings and Sufi rock records to folk and traditional roots-based music.”
Besides the personal anecdotes, there is the work, founder of the country’s growth in the music department. Not in Your World by CoVEN was released in 1997, but it sparked a time when DFS was involved with glorious records and production value. I shared an anecdote with Hamza Jafri from Co-VEN about having a car accident (uninjured) because a friend and I were saying that (a) this album is not Pakistani (I knew it and he didn’t) and (b) there’s no way it was Ali Noor singing that first CoVEN EP (I knew it was Ali Noor). Hamza laughed and noted that he hoped no one had been hurt before laughing at himself. That was before the DFS tragedy struck.
Since Co-VEN’s Not In Your World, Digital Fidelity Studios has opened up to artists of all persuasions and lent a space where different sounds, innovation were welcome.
The crushing shadow of DFS will exist as long as we listen to music from the mid-90s to around the last week.
Engulfed in fire, as the shock wore off, we can watch DFS and trace our own musical history. It wasn’t just Irtiqa by EP or an Ali Azmat solo record that was respected at DFS.
Over the years, DFS has also been central to singles including ‘Sajna’ by Junoon, ‘Supreme Ishq’ Shoaib Mansoor, ‘Bulleya’ by Junoon, ‘Preacher’ (2018) by Poor Rich Boy and ‘Younhi’ by Atif Islam.
In addition to all this, DFS has hosted Mekaal Hasan’s own musical lineup, MHB releasing Live at Baroda (2015), Andholan (2014), Saptak (2010) and Sampooran (2004).
In collaboration with filmmaker Bilal Sami, Digital Fidelity Studios and Mekaal have also ventured into documentary production with their short film Dhun presented at the Alchemy Festival in the UK. DFS also applied to movie soundtracks in addition to everything else.
In short, these albums, singles, productions and getting others to learn for themselves was a process that started in Pakistan’s first music studio. There are many others, some as accomplished in terms of audio tools as DFS if not more so, but is there a studio that has had such an influence on the music scene? I do not think so. In the end, fierce flames destroyed the very studio working for the music and the importance of Eastern music for Western ideas. Can DFS be resurrected? Yes, just check out their GoFundMe page and donate. As Mekaal Hasan finds his way back to DFS with a positive approach, as listeners we must also contribute to the future of the great music the studio had been working on.