Lahore, circa 2020: Hassan Sheikh and Roshaan Sherwani are contemplating a name for their music duo formed over mutual respect for each other’s artistic abilities displayed through their debut album, Chaar Dinon Ka Khwaab. They come up with a bunch of aliases before settling for Hassan & Roshaan ahead of the Lahore Music Meet in February. Albeit simple, it reflects perfectly their ability to hold their own while creating songs that offer a seamless blend of their contrasting musical tastes.
Fast forward to November 2023; the duo has churned out a second album, been featured in Ms. Marvel, amassed a listenership beyond Pakistan, and Sukoon, their hit song with Shae Gill, has crossed 11 million streams on Spotify. While trending stats don’t necessarily reflect competence, in the age of streaming, they certainly enable and encourage artists to do more. And beyond the glitz and glamour, most bedroom popstars of today rarely start off with any form of encouragement.
“In the US, where there is an established music industry, when a label signs an artist, they start with an investment of half a million dollars. In Pakistan, for the longest time, there was no label. We had to spend from our own pockets. And I feel that if streaming hadn’t made its way here, Hassan & Roshaan might not have existed,” Hassan shared in conversation with The Express Tribune.
The singer, who’s voice is likened to Atif Aslam’s but his soul is AR Rehman, details how for him and Roshaan, streaming brought “some form of financial stability.” And what that does is, “it allows artists to continue to pursue music. Because by 25, if you’re not making money from what you’re doing, your family will intervene. And the only way to do what you want is to show them that ‘THIS is what I’m earning’.”
A changing tide
While streaming may have changed the game financially for many artists, Roshaan feels that it has brought a “structure” to the Pakistani music industry – a structure that did not exist before, not even with platforms like Coke Studio that has, over the years, introduced several new artists but not every artist has been able to benefit from it.
“We are always mindful about the way we view platforms like Coke Studio because we have seen artists perceive it like it is something that can make or break them. Coke Studio is ultimately an advertisement campaign. The ideal situation is that they should need you because what will matter is what you bring to the table. I feel any independent artist should focus on building their own audience, relationship with that audience, and these advertisement campaigns, they will follow,” reflected Roshaan.
“I look at Coke Studio like a record label,” says Hassan. “When we started off, we were nominated for a Lux Style Award, worked for the government of Pakistan, ISPR, and every single time any of these things happened, we were told, ‘Oh just you see, how your life changes!’ But two years later we understood that nothing external can ever change your life. When we got an email for Ms. Marvel, we were told the same. And we observed a very slight surge in our listenership. But despite all this, it was Sukoon that really changed things for us,” he added. “Yes, Ms. Marvel did not give us the numbers, it just gave us the logistical ease to create our second album,” shared Roshaan.
“And Coke Studio has seen a lot of artists come and go,” continued the Duur Se singer, “It is a consequence. Getting Ms. Marvel, getting Coke Studio is the consequence of an act. It is not the act itself. I think the day an artist attaches himself to consequences, he dies.”
A tryst of fate
Like most young and successful artists of today, Hassan and Roshaan were only students when they started making music individually. Fate, however, had other plans. “Roshaan and I were together in school and in LUMS but we never interacted. He was doing his thing and I was doing mine. At one point, I started looking for someone I could work with because I had these songs in my head. And I asked a friend, who is now our manager, to find me someone. He said he knew this girl but when he approached her, she wasn’t available. Instead, she recommended this guy, Roshaan, who came over one day. He heard my music and I heard his, and the rest is history,” Hassan recalled.
“We didn’t instantly decide to make an album. We made a song; it was called Allah Hu. Hassan had already written and composed it. I worked on its music. And it turned out great. But we were working strictly as client and producer with an arrangement of Rs5000 per track.” Roshaan chuckled. “Then we decided to work on some more songs and developed a chemistry. One thing led to another and we were on our 18th track. Having made a whole album by now, we released it.”
Another year, another album
The act is currently working on its third album while also being in talks with Abdul Hannan for a collaboration. Working just as hard or even harder than before, Hassan and Roshaan don’t expect their lives to change overnight, even though it has several times in the past four years – especially with Sukoon. “Sukoon truly changed our lives. That feeling, it is exciting, I’m hesitant to use the word ‘glamourous’, so now we want to express that feeling,” Hassan notes.
Playing a snippet of a song from their upcoming album, he excitedly tells me, “This is a 1995 song that Roshaan sampled.” The sound is mustered over Zoom but I can hear a funky, disco beat layered with some treated female vocals, that instantly makes my head bob. “This was a mili naghma for kids by Sohail Rana,” Roshaan reveals. “We want our next album to be fun and nothing philosophical,” they clarify.
Aiming to release this completely new snapshot of their life in Spring, the duo reflected, “We feel that the music you make is a snapshot of your life; whatever you’re feeling in a phase. We made our first album in a transformative phase. We were turning from students to musicians and we were very philosophical, and religious. But you outgrow things in life. In our second album, we wanted to express ourselves in a lighter manner.”
Hassan holds that a lot of times, people look at an artist’s earlier discography and use it to define them. “But an artist is also human and keeps evolving. Our upcoming album, if anyone listens to it without knowing it’s us, they might not be able to tell.”
“I think they’ll be able to tell,” says Roshaan. “But they will hear a drastic shift. That’s the thing, if you express yourself authentically enough, you will be instantly recognizable while also sounding very different each time,” he adds.
There is also a pattern to the way the duo names their albums. “Our first was called Chaar Dinon Ka Khwaab (A dream of four days). We wanted to name our second album something around the realization of that khwaab (dream) so we considered Tabeer. But that was very 2002-ish so we called it Day 5, because that encapsulates the aftermath of a short-lived dream perfectly. Now we want to stick to this pattern while naming our next,” they held.
‘Sukoon’, speculations and T-Series
“We’d like to clarify that the original concept of Sukoon’s Music Video did not contain any LGBT+ nuances. But people are free to interpret it any way they like it” Hassan declared, unprovoked. While Sukoon made waves, it also drew concerns over its video showing Shae, Hassan and Roshaan swirling peacefully about in a boat on a tranquil lake. Shae, while crooning, interacts with a mermaid who is also minding her own business in this reflective and gorgeous setting.
“The idea was that the mermaid is a character apart from us. She emulates the feelings of the song where life is wonderful but it can also be very lonely. And we had to show her interact with one of us. When we were doing that, it appeared romantic. So, we decided for her to interact with Shae. It was also funny when people doubled down on that perspective and thought both the girls were romantically involved,” Roshaan chimed in rather amused.
The duo also revealed that renowned Indian label T-Series offered to buy Sukoon off them. “T-Series was paying us a lot of money for Sukoon. At first we agreed but then they said they wanted to replace our vocals just like they removed Ali Sethi from their rendition of Pasoori. That’s where we drew the line. Now it’ll happen when Pak-India relations improve.” The artists felt that there was also the risk of some Indian heavyweight championing their song. “We’d have to spend the rest of our lives explaining to people that it was actually us, who made it.”
Like Kaifi Khalil’s Kahani Suno, Hassan & Roshaan’s Sukoon is also the OST of a popular TV serial of the same name. When asked if any of their contemporaries inspire them, Roshaan assures, “I enjoy listening to them, so does Hassan. But we never listen to a song and think ‘we need to make that’. We learn from them. We see who’s doing what and how can we apply that learning to our music.”
“Inspiration can never come from contemporaries,” maintains Hassan, adding, “Every artist you’re listening to today, be it Hasan Raheem, Abdul Hannan, Taha G, Shae Gill, Maanu; they’re all extraordinary.” Roshaan reiterates, “We have immense respect for them because we know how difficult it is to make a name for yourself here.”
“And by the end of 2024, you’ll get a few surprises, after which I feel we will be truly established – ugh, I hate using that word,” quips the Bandhan crooner.
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