This is the journey of how Bilal and I took on the challenge of composing and recording our first ever song, and making the best music video we could possibly make in the span of a month. Before we get to that, let me fill you in with how this all happened.
In 2014, I met a girl whose favorite book in the world was ‘Forty Rules of Love’ By Elif Shafak. Coincidentally this girl was really pretty, so when she recommended it to me, I bought the book. I still remember asking the cashier at ‘Old Book Bank’ in Rawalpindi about the book thinking ‘he would have no idea which book I’m talking about’, then having him point at the ‘best sellers’ shelf. Best 3 dollars I have ever spent. Not only did that girl turn out to be my girlfriend, but I discovered a whole new side of me – a side of me that loves Sufism, and sees the beauty in love.
Now, if you are wondering why I’m writing about this sappy emotional story of how I met my girlfriend, it’s because without that the project might never have happened. The book is based on the love story between Rumi and Shams, two Sufi mystics from the 1200’s. Before I continue, I should explain that Sufism is a name for Islamic Mysticism. Sufis are described as those who turn away from everything that isn’t God. Sufism appealed to me because of its emphasis on God’s love for everything. Shams and Rumi were very different from each other. Shams was a wandering dervish, learning from experiences and from other’s stories who did not want anything from the world, while Rumi was a rich and respected scholar. They both changed over time, helping each other learn from one another and adopt each other’s ideas and opinions.
Reading their tale kindled a fire in my heart for Sufism. I started listening to the lyrics of all the Sufi Qawalis (a genre of spiritual music from South Asia) and songs that I had been listening to for years. The poetry started making sense to me. I now knew that when Abida Parveen (one of the most famous Sufi singers in Pakistan) talked about her dost (‘friend’ in Urdu), she wasn’t talking about her girlfriend she goes to Starbucks to vent and talk about life with; instead, she is talking about her Rabb (Lord).
The newfound love for Sufi songs evolved into a love for Sufi poetry. Khusrau, a 13th-century South Asian poet wrote one of the most famous verses in Urdu poetry: “Chaap tillak sab cheen li, mo se naina milaikay’. Let me translate, but keep in mind, all poetry loses a certain something with translation: ‘You stole all trace of my identity when my eyes met yours.’ I know, it sounds cheesy, but remember the beauty of Sufi poetry is that these poets aren’t exaggerating the majesty of their lover. In the aforementioned verse, Khusrau is expressing how inferior he felt when he realized the power of Khuda (God).
After my love for poetry and Sufism had matured a little, I came to Middlebury College, where I found another poetry enthusiast, Bilal. The main difference was that what he had learned about Sufism was through poetry, and what I had learned about poetry was through Sufism. We also had another common interest: short films. We decided to make a little short film about a poem from his favorite poet, Ghalib. And that is how our first collaborative video project came into being – through collective love for poetry and film. Now it was time for a new one: this time, with our own music.
Bilal and I both play instruments. I play the drums, and he plays the guitar. And thank God for this combination. One person would keep the beat, and the other would form the melody. We couldn’t have done it with any other combination. Bilal and I did not want any outside help on this project. It was just me, him, with the Internet as our guide.
Every musician has his or her own style: some start with the melody, some with the lyrics. But we were two different musicians, with our own individual styles. We learned to make it work. I thought of the composition while he mind mapped all of his favorite poets and their works. He found a poem by a Punjabi poet, Munir Niazi, called ‘Kuch Shoq’. The poetry was a delight, and here Bilal tries to put it into words:
What I had thought about was a beautiful melodic start, which builds into this amazing loud rock and roll ending. The next day, I woke up to a voice recording from Bilal. He did it! He composed a simple and calming melody for the start. Excited, I walked to his dorm and heard it in person. As he played, we recorded on my phone, and I improvised a little beat into the song using the nearest percussive instrument: a chair. And that my friends, is the actual recording we used as our standard till the end.
These particular biscuits arrived with my delayed baggage after winter break, and were the last survivors of my 12 am snack sessions. Prince Biscuits are Like Pakistan’s Oreos: only they could make the claim of being the nation’s favorite biscuit and get away with it. That one morning, I had this crazy idea – which may or may not have been inspired by recent weight gain – to make this last packet of biscuits memorable. I gave them to Bilal, and told him that we were to only eat these biscuits when we finish the song, and its video. This would be the driving force for me when I would be too tired or annoyed to go for another drum take for the song, or when I’m too tired to walk to the set and devote hours to shooting.
Now that we knew we would be able to make the song, we took a break from that side of the project and moved to the visuals. My roommate stared at us with judgment radiating from his eyes as we jumped with joy after formulating the plot of the video. The next step was finding the set for the video. I pictured the video up high in the Himalayan mountains, but that was not happening… so we shortlisted the following three locations:
What a spectacular choice this would be. The desolate atmosphere it provides would definitely be something we could use for effect in our video.
Well… it is pretty.
A plain covered in a blanket of snow. This is as close to the isolated Himalayan atmosphere as I can get from my dorm. Ironically, for Bilal, it’s the perfect place for a date.
… we chose the pretty one.
Break’s over, and we headed over to the studio, with nothing but the determination to open that packet of biscuits for the first time. But there was a lot to do before that could happen. We spent the whole day trying to figure out how to connect all the wires properly, so we started again the next day with the same determination but also with some research done from the Internet. For the next week, we went through hell: listening to the track we recorded and realizing that either something, or everything was wrong with the recording. Editing was another problem, as we learned hands on rather than being taught. I remember listening to the first cut and instantly thinking of a dozen things wrong with it. These were the days I appreciated my decision to restrain myself from eating the last pack of Prince that one night at 2 am. Finally the week passed and we had our song, our baby who we accepted with all of its faults.
It was time to shoot the video. I had done my fair share of doing research for this day: looking up cinematography 101 videos on YouTube and watching a good amount of Sherlock. I was ready. We went out to the waterfall an insanely cold day and felt the mist turn into ice on our beards, instantly regretting our choice of location. Like the cold wasn’t enough, Bilal in a jolt of energy ran over a slippery log and fell. Fell hard. Enjoy.
Guess what we did next?
So a doctor’s appointment and some rest later, we were back on set freezing our butts, trying to finish what we started. I got to use some special shots that I wanted to use, and we finally finished filming! Here is a fun montage of the fun parts!
I was so excited I started editing a few hours after getting back to the campus. Many YouTube tutorials later, here it is!
And this is how the adventure ends.