2nd January 2020

By Asra Haque

LAHORE: It was perhaps the late 90’s to the early 2000’s when Pakistani music found shape and form by combining a distinctly South Asian tradition with modern, Western instruments. It was in that era that a generation that had just learned how to speak was singing along to iconic singles such as Junoon’s Papu Yaar, Ali Azmat’s Garaj Baras, Haroon’s Mehbooba, Vital Signs’ Dil Dil Pakistan to list a few. It was impossible that the vibrant, youthful and experimental sounds of that period fail to inspire so many of that generation. Two decades down the line and all those kids who played those tunes on repeat on their Sony Walkman or on their portable radios until the tapes would be too scratched up to play any sound would be hastening the evolution of fusion music in Pakistan.

Fawad Hassan’s story is different. He recalls that as an impressionable tween of that tumultuous era in Pakistani music, he had fallen in love with the tabla at first sight.

“It felt like something called up from inside me, I just wanted to do something [with the tabla],” he says as his body shivers as if on reflex, the ghost of that spin-tingling sensation he had felt when he saw a performer at a relative’s wedding strike the twin drums to create a mesmerizing sound. “I can’t explain it.”

It’s a difficult story to believe in the beginning – why would a mere child be so drawn to classical South Asian music when the early 2000s mainstream was already mashing together Western and Eastern influences to create sounds that would define Pakistani music from here on out? But his mother, who had come to check in on us long after the interview had concluded, recounted that there had always been a spark of genius in him.

“I’m sure he already told you how he used to beat his little palms on the refrigerator door when he was little!” she recalled, imitating a young Frodo pawing at an invisible electrical appliance to create a beat. It was out of the blue, she said, that he suddenly wanted to play the tabla and even more surprising was how quickly and easily he learned how to play it. He was a teenager when he began singing too, and his talent was innate. “He hadn’t even taken any lessons back then. Some people are just born with it, you know?”

In the face of such talent, it would have been cruel for any parent to fail to support this passion and help him hone his skills.  But Fawad, who has taken up the stage name Fawad Hassan – Frodo, was among with very few but lucky Pakistanis who had the opportunity to pursue the arts with the blessings of his parents… of course, not without some conditions. When it comes to building a future, education is top priority and Frodo had twice the burden of honing his talents as a musician while not compromising on his studies.

It was an incredibly arduous and difficult process, he recalled, especially since he had taken up engineering as his field of study. But this year, amidst the pandemic doldrums, he has finally completed his final semester and is set to don a black gown and cap.

“Now I’ll be free to focus on my music,” he expels a sigh of relief.

We take a brief gander of the studio he has set up in a room in his home. In one corner is an acoustic and an electric guitar while in the other rests the oud. On the far wall he has his recording equipment set up – a desktop littered with headphones, recording mikes and a well-worn keyboard. A pair of tabla and a harmonium complete the ensemble, centered on a comfortable rug as if it was meant to be a display in a museum. Pointing to the guitars, he explains: “I was around fifteen, maybe seventeen when I began to gravitate to guitars.”

Despite his training in classical South Asian music, especially in a percussion instrument, it was strangely easy to pick up a stringed instrument and produce an aesthetically Western sound. And when he sang, we heard a ghazal accompanied by the plucks and clicks of an acoustic guitar in complete harmony. Although this wasn’t the first time someone had tried it, in fact the modern Pakistani music seems almost saturated with this specific combination of poetic tradition and instrumental sounds, Frodo’s interpretation feels like the perfect balance.

Wrapping up the interview, he offers to let us hear part of his upcoming song slated for late January this year. He hits play on the console and the studio echoes with the dreamy, haunting notes you would hear in Western alternative progressive rock from the mid to late-70’s. The beat slows and Frodo croons a ghazal penned by his close collaborator Agha Raza, and in that brief minute or so we hear magic.