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MNfusion: Mekaal Hasan Band Stops In MN During First N. American Tour

Minneapolis music lovers know when you're seeking a new band or unfiltered sound, head to the Cedar Cultural Center.

The venue houses an eclectic line-up of jazz, blues, folk, indie and world performers.

Often artists who perform at the Cedar will blend the lines between these genres and move fluidly through them as they explore different sounds on each new album.

Wednesday night's performer is no exception.

Indo-Pak band, the Mekaal Hasan Band, gives audiences a taste of traditional Pakistan music with contemporary influences.

The band blends Eastern classical sounds, subcontinental concepts and jazz harmonies taking inspiration from Pakistani poetry and Indian heritage.

It is also the first band to blend musicians from Pakistan and India.

In their first North American Tour, the Mekaal Hasan Band is stopping in Minnesota to play at the Cedar Cultural Center. I spoke with head songwriter and lead guitarist about his inspiration and their upcoming stop.

Mekaal Hasan Band Andholan Record
(credit: Mekaal Hasan Band)

How did you first become interested in music? What drew you want to explore the world of jazz?

It's hard to say when I first became interested in music, but my parents encouraged my interest from a very early age with piano lessons and lots of support. My father was a passionate fan and advocate of jazz. He had a radio show that was extremely popular and our house was always filled with music and musicians from the U.S. and Europe. Interacting with them was inspiring, from the little tips they gave to the music they made. It pushed me to pursue a music career very seriously. These connections kept me going, even when things were challenging.

I understand that your father was Muslim and your mother was Christian. How did the dual religions of your parents influence your musical style, if at all?

I grew up knowing that mixtures, be they cultural or musical, can have wonderful, unexpected results. Having two sets of traditions to draw on only enhanced my work as an artist and enriched my life as a person.

Pursuing your career led you to attend Berklee College of Music to advance your musical knowledge. How did the experience of being the first Pakistani to attend the college influence your music?

Berklee, and especially the jazz theory and harmony classes I took, laid the groundwork for me to find a meaningful way to connect all the music I love. I was taught all sorts of rules and rules, whether you abide by them or break them, help give you ideas. I met all sorts of other people who were just as obsessed with music as I was and it was thrilling. At the same time, I got to work in great recording studios and that stuck with me. There weren't any up-to-date studios in Pakistan at the time; I came back and built one of the first, using in part what I saw, heard and learned there.

Many western bands include guitar, bass, drums and often some other string instruments or perhaps a horn. Very few include wind instruments. What was behind the decision to include a flute in your line-up?

Papu [one of the founder members] made that decision for me. He's an amazing musician from a long line of Eastern classical musicians. I worked with him on a few projects and got to hear him play, as well as got to see his real commitment to the music and his intelligent approach to collaborating. That commitment to quality, to art, it's such a rare thing. In addition, bansuri (flute) plays a leading role in many kinds of music from the Subcontinent, so it's not that unexpected.

So, how would you personally describe your band's style?

If you take rock's drive and add jazz and Eastern classical music concepts, you're getting close. I've had American fans call it Punjabi prog rock.

You've mentioned a number of influences from jazz to Eastern to subcontinental. What do you mean when you say "northern subcontinental?"

India and Pakistan share a common classical music culture and many of the same forms defy the comparatively recently established border between our two countries. I work with many Indian musicians and can't really call my music purely Pakistani. In fact, those labels don't fit what we do and what we could do as artists, if we set aside brute politics.

This is the band's first time performing in North America. How has performing here differed from preforming in Pakistan? Other continents?

Audiences in the U.S. can be wonderfully open to new things. They're coming to our music without many preconceived notions and they just get into it and rock. There aren't as many opportunities to play live in Pakistan, so every concert is a true pleasure, even when people are new to what you do. It's great to get to win them over, no matter where you are.

Why do you think music can transcend language barriers? What is it that people connect with if they cannot understand the words?

Music is a language, or perhaps a set of interlocking languages, that speaks to different parts of us than words. When you hear a certain chord or rhythm or melody it may mean different things, and often the emotions can reach through the structures and bring listeners into a new place.

What are your favorite songs to perform?

They are all my favorite songs! From Andholan, "Sayon" and "Maalkauns" are audience favorites and that makes them fun to play live. We also have some new tunes that we're working on for our next album and playing on this tour, and they are resonating a lot.

The Mekaal Hasan Band will perform at the Cedar Cultural Center on Wednesday, Aug. 26. Door open at 7 p.m. and the band will take the stage at 7:30 p.m. Tickets cost $25. For more information, visit the Cedar Cultural Center online.

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