URVAH KHAN TAKES SCRAP METAL TO HER ROOTS
by ASJAD NAZIR
CANADIAN rocker Urvah Khan overcame a number of incredible challenges in her troubled life to punch a hole in the music industry with her unique brand of music, which she calls scrap.
The talented singer/songwriter used her unique look, turbo-charged live performances, explosive music, rebellious attitude and incendiary lyrics to give an industry in cruise control a rude awakening.
Instead of riding on the waves generated by her musical noise in north America, Urvah decided to embark on the biggest challenge of her career by taking her confrontational music to Pakistan.
Since then, she has taken a hammer and started smashing glass ceilings in Pakistan by promoting female talent. She is also giving a voice to aspiring rockers, the LGBTQI community and challenging stereotypes of women that exist in the country.
Next year she returns to Pakistan to hold a first-of-its-kind rock festival, which includes a battle of the bands competition offering a huge cash prize for local undiscovered talent.
Eastern Eye caught up with natural-born fighter Urvah to talk about her amazing musical journey, the path-breaking mission in Pakistan, inspirations, future plans and more…
How do you look back on your musical journey?
Wow, I am happy that you are asking me that question Asjad because it has been a few years. Looking back, I realise it’s been a real learning curve. I got into music in my early twenties without any prior training. Then something that started as a spark of passion quickly turned into a way of living.
I got addicted to the high, the stories, listening to my favourite bands, and have been a rock music junkie ever since. My experiences of performing and recording ended up being my training, and led me to Pakistan and a fifth album in the works.
What made you want to return to Pakistan?
I grew up in Canada, but I was born there. Much of my experience growing up unnaturally married eastern and western culture, and shaped who I am today. I don’t think I am the only one who has had to reconcile the two worlds, which is why I believe my music is so relevant there.
Tell us about your time in Pakistan?
(Laughs) It was quite an adventure. I was treated like a celebrity by most people on the streets who didn’t know me, just based on my physical appearance. It’s not every day you see a brown woman rocking a blonde Mohawk. The Pakistani music industry opened up to me at first. I think they thought I was rich like them and there was money to be made.
Once it was determined I was an independent artist and wasn’t made of money, they quickly became spectators. Many Pakistani musicians see me as a fad, or don’t take what I’m doing seriously. An interesting story is that while in Pakistan a publicist approached Levis Pakistan to sponsor me. The gentleman who was the ambassador of Levis Pakistan refused, and asked: ‘What if she strips on stage?’
This kind of attitude is common, but luckily not absolute. I have found good friends and supporters in Pakistan.
Tell us about your first major performance there?
A lot of hard work and heartbreak went into my debut show in Karachi. It was much harder than I expected or planned for. I suppose that is the story of anyone attempting to bring about change.
My first show attracted 100 people, out of whom six were women. So I knew that lots of work was needed to be done.
How has the overall response been to your music over there?
The reaction is passionate, both good and bad. It’s hard to know how much people are reacting to my music, verses and a woman breaking stereotypes. Some claim that I am a project funded by the Illuminati to disgrace Pakistan! I just try my best to remain focused.
What has been the biggest highlight of your Pakistan musical adventure?
Visiting the Swat Valley and different cities in Pakistan was a riot. There is poverty and rigid conservatism, but also a wild-west abandon to the culture. I rode around on a motorcycle, climbed a mountain, ate crazy street food, got sick and ate more. And I went to crazy EDM parties.
What is the rock scene like there in Pakistan?
Honestly, it’s quite a banana republic, divided between rich corporate backed acts and super-underground rock and metal acts performing in converted restaurants and cafes. No female rockers at all! My sound mixes a lot of eastern tones into the music, but most underground rock bands prefer a fully western sound.
How has the music in Pakistan influenced you as an artist?
Strangely, it’s the classical and movie music of Pakistan and India that have influenced me most. Musically and lyrically, there is both a passion and purity and such a charged, polarised emotion to all of it.
Tell us about the festival you are planning in Pakistan for next year?
It is truly one of a kind, and I am not sure how I will pull this off but I am determined. ScrapFest is a three city indie rock series in Pakistan hosting local talent as well as my own band The Scrap Army.
At the end of the festival I will be giving a large cash prize to the best local band. The response has been amazing since we announced it and we doubled the cash prize.
What are the main aims for the festival?
Rock isn’t the sole property of the rich and elite. I want to bring it down-to-earth, and include anyone who is a fan or musician regardless of their gender, background or sexuality in an entertaining and fun rock show.
How important is it for you to support women empowerment and girl power?
Very important! I have witnessed first-hand how women and girls are treated, not just in Pakistan but many countries throughout the world.
There is an entrenched and systemic sexism in Pakistan, but times are changing and I believe I am a part of a larger movement. There are also many in Pakistan doing their part to encourage that change and demand progress. So I am not alone.
You are also supporting gay rights in a conservative country. Have you had any resistance to that?
Even before supporting the gay movement openly in Pakistan, I was referred to by many as a ‘khusri’ and ‘hijri’ because of my physical appearance. What I am doing is on a small scale, but the resistance is immense.
What are your future hopes for Pakistan?
Most people haven’t had the chance to appreciate the beauty of Pakistan. For all its troubles, there are mostly friendly people and beautiful countryside. I am proud to say I was born there and hope that whatever ignorance and hate there is will slowly be transformed to love.
Musically, what can we expect next from you?
A new album in 2018 geared towards the Pakistani audience and my debut Urdu/Hindi single. There is also ScrapFest in 2018. God willing after Pakistan in 2018, I would love to expand my brand into India, Bangladesh and more south Asian countries.
Today, what is your greatest unfulfilled musical ambition?
(Laughs) To perform in front of thousands, tens of thousands in fact. To an ocean full of people!
What inspires you?
The negativity that is supposed to break me inspires me. I use it as inspiration to move forward.
What is the best advice that you ever received?
From Star Trek ! ‘Things are only impossible until they’re not’ from Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and ‘Change is the essential process of all existence’ from Spock.
What advice would you give to young girls wanting to pursue unconventional career paths?
Follow your heart and you will never be wrong. The world speaks to our ears, while God speaks to our heart.
What does the future hold for you?
(Laughs) Only time will tell. Hopefully to not get assassinated!
What music dominates your own personal playlist?
It is still dominated by Black Sabbath and a hint of Ravi Shankar. And for research purposes, some of AR Rahman, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Junoon, Junaid Jamshed and some folk sounds from the east.
Why do you love music?
Music is a framework for me to express myself. Without it, I couldn’t vent or deal with my problems. It is therapy to me.