HE MAY have performed all over the world and delivered chart-busting hits, but music started off as a hobby for Herbie Sahara before he turned it into a career at a young age. His band Sahara released their debut album Intemptation in 1993 and have since become globally renowned, delivering a number of big bhangra anthems, including one of the past year’s biggest hits Billo Hai.
Eastern Eye caught up with Herbie in between his hectic schedule to talk about his remarkable musical journey, touring globally, a connection to Pakistan, future plans and more.
You have been going strong for over 20 years. What has kept the passion for music alive?
The amazing love and respect we get on and off stage keeps the passion alive! With God’s grace, as a band we have just been getting stronger and stronger. I love composing and writing songs. I enjoy seeing my idea getting recorded, released and then entertaining audiences. Seeing those positive reactions of people keeps me going.
How much has touring globally helped you as a musician and singer?
I love touring, meeting new people and promoting British Asian music globally. As an artist, you learn so much from reading different crowds, as ultimately they are the ones you make music for. Playing in the UK and then the next day flying out to Pakistan to perform for a huge crowd is a great learning experience. No two audiences are the same. With each performance, you become a stronger and more confident artist. Music audiences evolve over time and you get an indication of that on the live circuit.
What has been your most memorable concert?
Oh, that’s a hard one! We have performed so many all over the world and, like I said, no two concerts are the same. But if I had to pick one, it would be in Lahore, Pakistan, in 2013 at an open air International Games ceremony, with the cream of Pakistani artists, including Abida Parveen ji. We headlined the event and performed to about 50,000 people, including dignitaries from India and Pakistan. Just before we went on stage, I received a message to say something on behalf of the Indian dignitaries present.
(Laughs) It was nerve-wracking, but the best bit was hearing all the crowd singing our songs back to us. The adrenaline on stage was electric, even though we couldn’t hear ourselves singing.
You have perhaps toured Pakistan more than anyone else from UK. How come the connection is so strong there?
It’s definitely the songs and our performance on stage. It all started with our song Soniye Ni Soniyeh back in 2001, when I went out there the first time with a number of UK artists and realised how big the song was. Then came Lal Ghagra, which became an anthem in Pakistan and kept pulling us back there. That connection has just grown stronger over the years. Now Sahara is the only international band to have headlined Punjab group of colleges, where we did 28 shows in 23 days and played to over 150,000 students.
(Laughs) Also, performance-wise, Gurps Sahara’s dance moves are loved out in Pakistan, he really know how to interact with the crowd.
Do you think that Pakistan is often misunderstood internationally?
Oh yes, big time. It’s shown in a very negative way in the media, but in reality the people are amazing out there. So much love is shown to our music and us. We don’t get involved in all the politics; it’s all about making people happy from our music. Music has an amazing reach and brings people together globally. I remember performing at an open-air concert in Peshawar with guys and girls going collectively crazy and loving it; that’s something you never hear about.
Which songs do you enjoy performing live?
(Laughs) That’s an easy one. Lal Ghagra is a definite favourite, as is the new track Billo Hai, which is getting a great response globally. Also, whichever country we perform in, we try to sing a local
song and that always goes down a treat.
You do have one of the deadliest dhol players. Can you tell us about him?
Dav is an amazing artist who’s been performing with Sahara for the last 15 years. He really understands what the crowd wants and is a true showman. Him and Gurps Sahara have a lot of energy on stage, which shines through in the performances. (Laughs) I occasionally have to kick him up the backside when he does more dancing than playing on stage!
You must be pleased with the success of your smash hit song Billo Hai?
The response has been phenomenal and it is getting so much love around the world. It is growing stronger. It was always going to be hard to top our worldwide smash Lal Ghagra, but I’m pleased
with the reaction and think we did it.
Musically, what can we expect next from you?
When I finally get time, I will be in the studio laying vocals down for the next songs. We have some great surprises for our fans, including some big collaborations coming up. So in the next couple of months you are going to be hearing a lot of new songs from Sahara.
Today, what is your greatest unfulfilled musical ambition?
To be truthful. I take everyday as it comes, so when something unexpected happens or ambitions are fulfilled, it’s so much more fun. But Bollywood would be great, for which we have a few things in the pipeline, fingers crossed.
What is your opinion of the British Asian music scene?
There is a lack of creativity, with everything sounding the same. One artist does a certain song or has a sound, then 10 others jump on the bandwagon. Artists need to create their own style and sounds and keep it fresh. Also there are a lot of egos flying high. Just keep it real and humble.
What would you change about the scene?
We need to encourage new artists to make and create songs. We need to support and push them too. I have noticed a lot of media don’t do this, and only play music and promote branded artists, which benefits them. It is very off-putting for a lot of new talent out there. TV channels seem like they are all about making money from artists instead of giving them a platform. It’s sad but true.
What are your biggest passions away from the music scene?
I’m a very family-based man. I love spending time with family and friends. I like going to the gym despite not going for the past two weeks (laughs). I like swimming, eating out and watching Bollywood films when I get time.
Who from the music industry is most fun to hang out with?
There are quite a few, but Nindy Kaur and Manj Musik are such a good laugh. We have so much banter and jokes! Even though they live in Canada and are touring extensively, there’s never a day we don’t chat.
What has been the strangest encounter you have had during your travels?
We were asked to perform in Pakistan once, but never told who the event was for. When we landed, we got a lot of protocol and were put on a private plane. It was only at the event we realised that it was for the prime minister of Pakistan at the time.
If you could learn a new instrument, what would it be?
(Laughs) I’m what they call the jack of all trades and the master of none. I can play most instruments, but I would love to master the guitar as it’s such an amazing instrument. Hopefully I will do that soon.
Who would you love to sing a duet with?
I would love to collaborate with Channi from Alaap. He’s an idol of mine. What legendary bands like Alaap, Premi and Heera did for the UK music scene was amazing. They gave people like myself the motivation to keep our culture and music alive. I have always listened to UK bands and still say it was and is the best music scene in the world.
What advice would you give newcomers to the music game?
Keep it real, be original and don’t be put off by the lack of support. Follow your dreams, but don’t let anyone tell you anything else. And please leave the original Bollywood songs alone and be creative.
What inspires you?
When people tell me how a certain song of mine has helped them or relates to them in their life. I get a lot of emails saying this. Just to bring happiness to people’s lives and seeing them dance gives me a lot of pleasure. We play all over the world, including in villages. So to see little children living in poverty and who have nothing, sing billo ni tera lal ghagra makes you realise the power of music.
Why do you love music?
I love music because it’s the only power that brings all humans together regardless of race, religion, colour or age. Music breaks down barriers and also has the power to connect with every emotion. Music can make you happy when down, it can reignite a beautiful memory, take you to a certain place or time in your life or can break your heart. It can connect you to a spiritual side too and give you peace as well. Music has taken me all over the world and given me the opportunity to visit Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of our Guru Nanak Sahib several times now, which is truly a blessing.
Do you have a final message?
One love to all our fans and a big thank you to my brothers Kully Sahara, Gurps Sahara, Indy Singh and my brother Asjad Nazir for always supporting artists and keeping it real.